Program Notes for A Tale of Two Cities

The following text will be published in the program for A Tale of Two Cities, presented on February 24 and 25, 2018.

Returning to Winnipeg after a 20-year absence has been, in many ways, a gratifying experience. I’ve been offered wonderful artistic opportunities that have given me fresh perspective and challenged me to continue growing and expanding. Along the way I noticed certain similarities between another well-travelled family – the Gabrielis, whose travels to study with Orlande de Lassus are well documented. I began thinking about a concert that was focused on their music, and the passage of time… and this program was born. What we have here is a slightly different Tale of Two Cities – not French written by an Englishman, but Italian conceived in Winnipeg!

St. Mark’s Basilica, in Venice, Italy.

This concert explores several composers and the musical moment they helped define, given form by the rise and the fall of the cori spezzati. This is another term for music performed by multiple choirs, often in alternation, which later became Venetian polychoral style. This musical trend was an important one, but the lessons surrounding it are of equal interest to me. In Venice, and especially at St. Mark’s Basilica, this style of music was developed in a sort of institutional way, dependant on certain architecture, the availability of certain instruments and certain musicians, and especially the presence of certain composers. When I say “institutional way,” I mean this: that the leadership there showed great foresight to hire composers at the forefront of the profession – Adriano Willaert, Cipriano da Rore, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, and later Claudio Monteverdi. That’s some exceptional decision-making, choosing la crème de la crème. And it was those creative voices who, each in their own turn, put an exceptionally beautiful building – St. Mark’s Basilica – at the head of a musical movement.

It goes without saying that institutions get ahead by choosing personalities that can be at the front of a trend, or even better, can define a trend. That creative personality puts a new vision into practice, and that vision ultimately defines the success of an institution and its continued relevance. Venice – and St. Mark’s in particular – were at the forefront of musical trends for nearly a century, but they risked falling behind the next major movement if they held on to the previous one for too long.

And it may also be effectively argued that there is value in being on the wrong side of a trend. Much wonderful music for cori spezzati was written after this story line ends in 1615, as the style influenced Roman, German and French compositional techniques, though seconda prattica changed the flavour of the writing significantly, offering a different perspective on the style.

And so, Venice circa 1580 and Venice circa 1615 are really two different cities at the fundamental, creative level. One is at the height of the Renaissance – the productive flowering of a massive renaissance compositional style. The other, at the height of its musical power just before the fall, with a new compositional style already emerged and waiting in the wings for the end of this story.

The story of early Venice is focused on the senior Gabrieli – Andrea, uncle to Giovanni and the creative mind responsible for the early development of the cori spezzati style of composition. He was a great organ virtuoso, expected to compose while his counterpart took care of the day-to-day administration of a 40-member group of singers and instrumentalists. Andrea had a unique creative and analytical mind. In his later years, having studied with Willaert and Lassus, he conceived a style that would allow many choirs to participate without ruining musical clarity with too much counterpoint. Music on this large scale, for up to 16 voices, was difficult to create on the spur of the moment. Special music for special occasions were created well in advance and then unveiled at an appropriate time. We are not sure, for example, when the Gloria on tonight’s program was written. We only know that its première was given during an important visit by Japanese diplomats.

Andrea Gabrieli, c. 1533–1585.

Andrea’s compositions show us how impressive a wall of sound can be. The approach is often subtle, as with the beginning of the Gloria or the Kyrie, entering quietly but building to an impressive and dominating sound involving chords that can vibrate the whole body. These pieces, much like English polyphony from around 1490 to 1540, were built to impress, overwhelm and even intimidate. They affirmed Venice’s place in the world. Andrea was an adept composer who had great emotional range, as the concluding Maria stabat ad monumentum (and his many madrigals) proves.

Andrea was among the students of the legendary Adriano Willaert. Adriano and his friend Jachet de Mantua create a prologue to our tale. Willaert, the Flemish master of composition, a pedagogue, theoretician and independent thinker, remained largely under private employ during his career in Venice. He held a position at St. Mark’s, teaching the who’s who of the next generation of composers to inhabit St. Mark’s – especially Cipriano da Rore (a great influence on Monteverdi) and Andrea. His early attempts with cori spezzati may seem somewhat half-hearted, but his is a completely different style of composition which uses more intricate polyphonic writing in sparse 8-part moments than Andrea uses later on.

Giovanni Gabrieli and Giovanni Antonio Rigatti end the tale. Rigatti, who studied at St. Mark’s as a boy, was witness to the arrival of the seconda prattica which Monteverdi championed. His solo piece, O dulcissima virgo, is intensely instrumental in style, showing how far vocal practice had come in just one generation. You can detect these changes in Giovanni’s works too – the ending of Salvator noster, the rhythmic intensity in Omnes gentes, and the virtuosic cantata In ecclesiis all point in their own way to the arrival of a new style of rhythmic vitality, but with large forces still being the fashion, it is a bit easier to disguise just how much rhythm and embellishment informed music at that time.

Giovanni Gabrieli, c. 1554–1612.

Giovanni took what his uncle had created and developed it, adding more and more elements and, in the case of In ecclesiis, starting a new trend that favored solo voices. His is a more complex style of counterpoint and heightened, intensive rhythmic structures. It is much like a master painter’s studio from that time. Someone provided the frame of the painting, the broad strokes if you will, and everyone in the studio was responsible for filling in one section or another as their specialities suited. Andrea, the framer, and Giovanni, the specialist.

Not to be overlooked, Andrea and Giovanni wrote at different moments in history and for different styles, but equally importantly, for different personnel. Appointments to the choir of St. Mark’s, or to a leadership position, were for life as long as posts were not neglected. Andrea was writing for a much older choir than Giovanni was. Not only was the style of music changing to a more rhythmic presentation during Giovanni’s day, but he had the energy of personnel renewal on his side. He could confidently write for his choir in a way that Andrea perhaps felt uncomfortable doing. I’ve wondered aloud from time to time whether Andrea gave more license to his performers to add embellishment to the music whereas Giovanni made those embellishments clear, though this hypothesis may or may not bear fruit. Hopefully a musicologist will one day consider this.

A concert, especially one using historical music, is often a window into a way of thinking, of weighing circumstances, or celebrating that which is exceptional enough to last hundreds of years. It offers us a chance for reflection. As I settled back into Winnipeg, noting changes and similarities, my thoughts were dragged to the question of what change is, and what drives development. History teaches us again and again that it is the truly creative among us who define our moment in history, no matter when that moment comes.

John Wiens, February 2018

Snow Angel: the beauty and strength of children

The following text will be published in the program for Snow Angel, presented on November 25 and 26, 2017.

You never know what you’re going to get…

In 22 years, Camerata Nova has never done a concert celebrating, and designed for, youth. Plus, although Snow Angel certainly has a Camerata Nova Christmas flavour, we have never designed a concert with a fair quotient of lighter, “pop-style” music. In Snow Angel, Vic Pankratz has dared to do both things. We are proud to have 15-year-old, award-winning cellist Juliana Moroz and the Sistema Winnipeg Choirs from Elwick and King Edward Schools joining us. We are also happy to occasionally veer off our normal path to offer accessible, quality contemporary music that kids can relate to and all of us can relax and enjoy.

To give fans of Camerata Nova’s more traditional music a segue into this new world, the concert starts in a more characteristic way with the first of three settings of O Magnum Mysterium (O Great Mystery) being performed, beginning with Tomas Luis de Victoria. O Magnum Mysterium is one of the most beautiful and well-known of ancient Catholic prayers, reserved for Mass on Christmas morning. Over the centuries, it has been set to music by dozens of composers. The exquisite Victoria setting is perhaps the gold standard of them all. A late Renaissance Spanish composer, singer, organist and priest, Victoria was known for the mysticism and emotion in his writing. It shines forth in this delicate, elegant work.

Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea) is another popular prayer or plainsong hymn to Mary, sung at evening Mass as far back as the eighth century. While the words are age-old, the composer, Don Macdonald, is an eclectic jazz musician and film composer from British Columbia. The harmonies in his Ave Maris Stella are modern but evocative of the Renaissance with snippets of polyphonic texture throughout.

To tip our hat to Canada’s 150th birthday, Vic Pankratz has found music from a range of Canadian composers and arrangers. In fact, of the ten composers on the program, eight are Canadian. Québec organist, folklorist, teacher, historian, writer and administrator Ernest Gagnon is a towering figure in the history of Québec music. He was a virtuoso organist at the Notre-Dame Basilica-Cathedral (Québec City), author of several books describing the musical history of early Québec (including Indigenous music) and compiler/editor of Chansons populaires du Canada – the bible of early Québec folksongs. Camerata Nova is performing three of his arrangements from his Cantiques populaires pour la fête de Noël (Popular Carols for the Christmas Season) published in 1909. They should evoke lots of holiday memories for our Francophone audience members!

It’s a tradition at Camerata Nova holiday concerts to hear new, made-in-Manitoba arrangements of Christmas music. This year, we approached it slightly differently, inviting Mel Braun and Andrew Balfour to write their own music to O Magnum Mysterium. No surprise, they each approached it entirely differently. In Mel’s inimitable, quirky style, he looks at the birth of Jesus from the point of view of the animals. Listen for the sounds of cows, goats, sheep, birds and even cats. Braun has pulled off an amazing mélange of the funny and the respectful and serious – who are we to say that humans were the only ones to be awed by the birth of Christ?

Our third O Magnum Mysterium is by Andrew Balfour. “I have always wanted to set this text”, says Balfour. “I love the idea of the ‘great mystery’ and the contrast of power and fragility in the babe.” Andrew’s motet pays homage to the glorious Renaissance choral versions of the prayer. There is a subtle drive to the whole piece, with an underlying drone and fragmented text. “You could say that the sopranos are the angels and the other three parts are the shepherds and those saying the prayer. Rather than ending with loud praises and glory, I chose to finish with soft whispers dissolving in the ether – it’s the mystery, the tenderness – don’t wake the baby….”

Originally American, Miles Ramsay spent years, in his own words, “criss-crossing the United States as the lead singer and drummer in a lounge band – you know, the kind we make fun of today. At the time, it all seemed pretty cool, singing in the same Vegas lounges that were home to the likes of Mel Torme and Don Rickles.” Ultimately it got stale and he settled in Vancouver.  In addition to many creative choral arrangements, Miles’ claims to fame are that he is a serious, professional Vancouver choral singer and the composer of the Great Root Bear theme for A&W (which has been played by every high school tuba player since 1973 – check it out on You Tube)!  Ramsay writes one carol arrangement each year. His versions of What Child is This? and Deck the Halls are unusual, out of the traditional context with jazz chords and meter changes – challenging but fresh and fun to sing.

Many people in our city who are interested in music know about Sistema Winnipeg, a partnership between the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Seven Oaks and Winnipeg One School Divisions. It delivers musical training to children after school for three hours a day, five days a week, at no cost to their families. In their own words, “Sistema Winnipeg encourages children to reach their full potential and inspires greater social change within the community.”

Started in 2011, there are now 160 kids in grades 1-8 at two centres: Elwick and King Edward Schools. Approximately 49% of Sistema students are newcomers to Canada, and 36% come from an Indigenous background. While all students play an orchestral instrument, each school also has a choir. The Spaces in Between Us is a work about making connections and building bridges. Vic and our singers are looking forward to joining the Sistema kids during their rehearsals to workshop the piece. As he says, “It’s both fun and an honour for Camerata Nova and for Sistema to make music together.”

Camerata Nova, November 2017 – photo: Karine Beaudette

Snow Angel by Canadian Sarah Quartel is the central work of this concert. Scored for choir, solo cello, djembe and piano, it is in five movements. In the composer’s words, “Snow Angel asks you to see the tremendous potential present in our children. It celebrates love, beauty and the strength that a child’s voice can bring to our troubled world.” Most of the piece has an ethereal, mystical feel – fitting for a work peopled with a choir of angels. Movement 4, Sweet Child, however, morphs into an emphatic rap/anthem with a distinctly African feel and vibrant part for the djembe. Throughout, the musical language is emotive and pictorial, allowing performers to play an active role in the storytelling. Particularly popular with young people, Snow Angel has caught on in the choral world and is now being performed around the world.

Quartel also weaves a haunting, poignant cello line throughout the piece. We are very pleased to have Juliana Moroz performing today. At 15, she has already established her talent and credentials, winning the Aikins Memorial Trophy for top instrumentalist at the Winnipeg Music Festival last March – an outstanding feat for someone of her age. Youth from all over the city are producing marvelous music!

Shifting gears, Andrew has had fun putting together his Polar Suite. Tongue in cheek, it expresses his bemusement at the thought of Santa’s Village at the North Pole side by side with our Inuit communities. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Up on the Rooftop (Igloo?) and Santa Claus is Coming to Town are choral grist for the mill as Balfour creates a polar “medley,” replete with northern vocal soundscapes, while Inuit narrator Fred Ford recites the words to these popular songs in Inuktitut. We would like to thank Mary Nirlungayuk, Vice-President of the Manitoba Inuit Association, for her translations.

Throughout this concert, Vic Pankratz has woven in themes of connection, caring and coming together – In diversity and despite adversity. These seem fitting sentiments in this disjointed time. To reinforce our sense of community, the concert ends with Camerata Nova and Sistema singing Hope for Resolution by Sean Ivory and Paul Caldwell. This well-known piece juxtaposes a European chant melody, Of Our Father’s Love Begotten, with a Zulu anti-apartheid song called Thula sizwe (Nation, Do Not Cry). The arrangement reflects respect for divergent styles and points us towards our innate potential for peaceful co-existence.

Thanks, Vic, for encouraging us to sit back, celebrate our young people andenter into the holiday season in a spirit of love and community!

Serious Beauty: The Experience of Isolation


IsolationThe experience of listening to Renaissance polyphonal choral music is like being carried gracefully, perhaps effortlessly, along multiple vocal paths, following the choir’s persistent search for even more beauty. In your own living room, or listening to a recording while walking or driving, the music feels peaceful, comforting, revelatory. But hearing a choir as fine as Camerata Nova actually perform live a work like Missa Miserere Mihi Domine by Manuel Cardoso, and to be up close, watching them craft the complicated textures – that is an astonishing thing. Attending a rehearsal recently for Camerata’s Isolation concert, I was awed by the intricacy and challenge of this a cappella material. For the audience there will be joy, a glorious dance of vocal personalities; for the choir, an intense amount of work, building the splendidly profound architecture of the pieces.

Just one aspect that might not occur to the average listener is how essential rhythm is to Renaissance music; what we notice is wonderful melody, but precision of pace is vital. And then there is the sombre, even bleak quality of much of this religious music. Robert White’s “Lamentations of Jeremiah,” for instance, presents the allegorical figure of the city of Jerusalem in deep grief, because the city represents human sin and the responsibility weighs on her heavily: “Look and see / if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” This is a completely appropriate text for the approaching Easter season – if one is Christian – but to other folks are these words merely distressing or baffling? So the task of the choir is to make this music not merely about sin but also about courage. The need to express and sanctify grief, to give voice to the lost – and to give not just voice, but powerful voice – these are the elements that need to come across to an audience. This has to be living lyricism, even when it is about dying.

Another challenge is that the members of Camerata Nova are singing, of course, Latin texts, and most of us have now lost the ability to fathom this ancient language. Yet: “Sing to the word,” conductor John Wiens nevertheless told the singers. Stopping for a moment and looking at his score, he condensed the overarching message of Cardoso’s remarkable and complex mass: “God: these are all the things you are. And these are all the things you do. You take away the sin of the world.” Wiens paused. “It’s a big thing.” And while the average listeners at Isolation cannot translate the words on their own, the joyous reverence and healing sweetness will be unmistakable.

Being close to an excellent choir in the lovely acoustic space of a church – and the upcoming concerts are at St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church, 315 Munroe, which is known for its exceptional sound – you notice that Renaissance music uses every single aspect of the human voice, and all the exquisite strands are presented – astonishingly – as separate and together. And all voices are valued. This is the splendour of polyphony: voices in constantly changing relation which nevertheless create a gorgeous unity.

You will have, on Saturday April 8 (7:30 pm) and Sunday April 9 (3:00 pm), the privilege of watching and hearing Camerata Nova’s singers weave the glowing and intricate lines of Renaissance composers – and in addition, experience artistic director Andrew Balfour’s stunning composition Trapped in Stone. Like John Wiens, Andrew Balfour somehow completely inhabits this ancient yet living choral language. His composition sits comfortably and confidently beside the Renaissance masters he clearly understands so well: this new work is a thing of serious beauty.

– Sue Sorensen

Impressions of Taken


While listening to Camerata Nova and friends craft the innovative choral music of Taken on March 4 and 5 in Winnipeg, I tried to find new words for the kind of optimistic but painful healing ritual, the harmonic gift we were all experiencing, both listeners and musicians. “Spirit of generous collaboration” was the phrase I kept coming back to, but I wanted it to sound newer and bolder than that: collaborosity? That Indigenous composers could be so fearlessly giving in their relationship with a choir made up of white singers was humbling and inspirational. The concert program, conducted by Mel Braun and conceived by Andrew Balfour to be part of Camerata Nova’s contribution to the Truth and Reconciliation process, is a naming of the fact that, as Balfour says, “this country has been built on crushed languages and cultures” but also we can now begin to imagine an alternative version of “this country called Canada.”

Jeremy Dutcher – photo credit: Leif Norman

“This is a turning point,” said Balfour in a composers’ pre-concert talk. “Change is slowly, slowly happening. And we can’t always talk about this, so that’s why we also have music.” Maliseet singer Jeremy Dutcher, whose Maceptasu (“It is taken away”) is his compositional debut, noted that his piece asks the question “How do we move forward together?” and that we don’t yet know how to answer that. Composer and singer Lindsay Knight, from Muskoday First Nation in Saskatchewan (who raps under the name Eekwol), said this: “To be taken from a homeland is a lot of strain on the human spirit.” But she also displayed astonishing hopefulness when she said (not once, but twice), “We are all compassionate people.”

I hope this is true, and there was certainly an enormous amount of compassion and wisdom in the room during the two performances of Taken I experienced. In the midst of the longest work on the program, Balfour’s Qaumaniq, I strongly felt the truth of this fact: that if even one person is taken away from a community, everyone feels the loss. Balfour’s work, which might be called a short dramatic oratorio or, he said, a “quasi-opera,” presents the encounter in 1576 of Martin Frobisher (sung by Jason Klippenstein, in devastatingly powerful voice) with Ana, a woman of what is now called Baffin Island. When Fred Ford as narrator gravely stated, at the work’s conclusion, the words “She was taken,” one striking effect was that Ana’s song (offered by the awe-inspiring Resolute Bay singer Madeleine Allakariallak) was still hovering in the air around us. And it was important that Allakariallak was still there for us to see, even if we had been told of the loss of Ana. For, as the narration of Qaumaniq says, “the songs of sorrow will stay with us forever.”

Leanne Zacharias, Jeremy Dutcher – photo credit: Leif Norman

Aside from Qaumaniq, there were two other new compositions at this concert, plus other offerings by Eekwol and Jeremy Dutcher. The entire aesthetic of the program was cross-hatched with multiple textures: the sounds were unexpected, personal, mournful, gutsy, full-hearted, even funny. If there was any sense of discord in the music — as in Eekwol’s Taken, where her own powerful and striking rap was offered against the choir’s backbeat of sampled fragments of Canadian “white” pop classics — the dissonance made sense. The contrasts were necessary and good. After all, as Eekwol sang: “Nobody can say when it’ll all come together / Maybe tomorrow, possibly never.”

We’ll need to hear each other’s songs over and over to understand their complexity and full meaning. The questions we’ll continue to encounter are many: how, for example, can one remain firm in non-violent intention when faced with tremendous harm and injustice? What can reconciliation really mean when we are only beginning to know the residential school story and the consequences of the destruction of so many Indigenous languages? “Can you imagine,” said Madeleine Allakariallak in the pre-concert talk, “a community with no kids because they’ve all been taken away to school? Can you imagine it?” No, most of us cannot. So it is appropriate that Eekwol’s lyrics for Taken include the dark lines “Once we are stolen there’s no coming back / Spirits too far, too far from their land.” And when she asks what it means to give back “what was taken when it’s no longer there,” I feel the hollowness of some of our good intentions.

Lindsay Knight – photo credit: Leif Norman

Yet the impact of Taken helps us forward in the essential imaginative work that Canadians of all sorts must nevertheless attempt. To be able to hear each other’s songs — and not only to hear them, but to be gifted with them — is a tremendous first step. Andrew Balfour was even generous enough to offer the opinion that “we are all Anishinabe — we are all The People” and, with my Danish and Scottish and Finnish blood I wondered if I could or should accept that offering. But today, a few days after the concert, I realized I was singing to myself the Mi’kmaq Honour Song so gorgeously performed by Jeremy Dutcher. As Dutcher sang it, the Honour Song was already translated: into Dutcher’s endangered language, Maliseet, and into his handsomely hybrid musical tongue, a graceful movement between the heritage of European classical, traditional Indigenous, and even pop and jazz musical languages. And so perhaps it can be translated again, into a range of musical registers, into the hearts and minds of a variety of peoples. Because what does the Honour Song celebrate? Respect for the earth, the creator, for self and other, for the roots of our communities.

Dr. Liz Przybylski, who teaches Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Riverside, is a former Camerata Nova singer researching the way compositions like Andrew Balfour’s Qaumaniq “bring forward aspects of a Western Art Music tradition, drawing on a long legacy of choral music” at the same time as he works within the “living traditions” of Indigenous music. The notion of “living Indigenous tradition” is important; Przybylski told me that “often, the way people talk about Indigenous cultural practices is to associate these with the past – and here is the key difference – at the expense of hearing these practices as part of contemporary culture and the culture of a Canadian future.”

Lindsay Knight, Madeleine Allakariallak, Jeremy Dutcher – photo credit: Leif Norman

I have some particularly resonant memories of the Winnipeg Taken concerts. Highlights include the sage musical advice of the cello line offered by Leanne Zacharias throughout: in my opinion, a cello never lies, and the sombre loveliness of the atmosphere Zacharias created was so valuable. Jeremy Dutcher’s singing, in his own pieces and in the role of Shaman in Balfour’s Qaumaniq, was a keening of great beauty and an eerily splendid expression of hope. I loved seeing Jason Klippsenstein, who sang the difficult role of the explorer Frobisher, join with the entire ensemble in the encore presentation of Eekwol’s expansive and moving song Ghosts. Everyone was singing — everyone — and this was vital. I recall with fondness Fred Ford’s narration for Qaumaniq, and especially these lines: “The seals were troubled” about the “wolf men of the east.” Ford’s silapaaq and the amauti-inspired outfit worn by Madeleine Allakariallak were attractive traditional garments that instantly identify them as people of certain places: Baker Lake, in Ford’s case, and Baffin Island for Allakariallak’s character Ana. That sense of place is critical. The entire Taken program is not about abstract issues or concepts, but about real people in real places.

Because so much of what we heard during Taken was about the impact of residential schools and other repressive cultural practices on the Indigenous family, I loved seeing Lindsay Knight at the Sunday concert sitting in the audience with her children and partner, right up to the time she went on stage to perform, coming back immediately to see her family as soon as she was done. I shook her small son’s hand and thanked him for sharing his mother with us, and then the family went about its own business. As it should.

I find that I have said relatively little about Camerata Nova as a choral ensemble. They sang beautifully, as they always do. Theirs is a soaring and haunting musicality which also responded to the challenges of the material by offering breezes, clicking, and rustling sounds as needed. In Andrew Balfour’s Qaumaniq there was a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “the isle is full of noises … that give delight and hurt not.” An apt description of the music of Taken: many of these issues do hurt, but the music heals.


Sue Sorensen is a Winnipeg English professor, novelist, and poet; she is also a member of the Camerata Nova board of directors.

Program Notes for Taken


This concert is a landmark in the history of Camerata Nova. First, it is our formal contribution to Canada’s process of truth and reconciliation. Second, it is truly national in scope: we have commissioned three Indigenous artist/composers from across the country to write new works for us and, in addition to our March 4/5 performances in Winnipeg, we have also been invited to perform this concert as part of the National Arts Council’s Canada Scene festival in June in Ottawa – a real honour!

Andrew Balfour proposed the theme and purpose of Taken, arising out of his performance piece commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra called Take the Indian. He did the research to find and invite Jeremy Dutcher and Lindsay Knight to be his co-conspirators. Mel Braun has also played a major role in curating this show, creating the singers’ live beat under Lindsay’s hip-hop text and pulling together the very diverse elements of people, music and performance in the last week before the show.

Honour Song
This was originally sung in Mi’kmaq by George Paul. He gifted it to the Wabanaki people and it was subsequently translated into the Maliseet language, Wolastoqey, by Maggie Paul. It is a call for unity and solidarity among all Indigenous peoples and an anthem to the land. “This song has become one of the most recognizable piece of Indigenous music on the east coast and is sung when our nations gather,” explains Jeremy Dutcher.

A bit more about Jeremy… Several years ago, Jeremy was at the National Archives in Ottawa researching the history of his people. He came across a wax roll recording from the early 1900s of his people singing traditional Maliseet songs. From this very special material, Jeremy is working on his debut album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseet Songs) slated for release in fall 2017. “I believe song is a critical method of language and value learning and, by extension, a specifically Wolastoqiyik worldview. Traditional Wolastoq songs are no longer sung here and it is my greatest desire to change that.”

Masceptasu (It is taken away)
“We have to keep our language. It tells us who we are and without it we are just ‘Ikolisomonok.’” – Iris Nicholas

Jeremy Dutcher writes: “The main theme of this work is the tension between loss and reclamation. When we think about what has been taken, we cannot separate the culture from the land. The culture is the land. The language is the land. We are the land.

Our Wolastoqey language is at a critical point today; there are currently less than 500 speakers left and unless the young people take linguistic reclamation seriously, we may lose it completely. This piece explores what has been lost by detailing a sound journey from my home community of Tobique First Nation to Shubenacadie Indian Residential School. This piece is dedicated to three people from my community who made that journey as young people in the 1950s and have since shared their stories: Vaughan Nicholas Jr, Iris Nicholas and Wendall Perley.

Each member of the choir is imagined as being on the journey from home to school – safety to unfamiliarity. For that reason, much of the choral parts are not actually dictated and it is up to each individual singer to carve their path forward. In the beginning, it is this improvisatory spirit that I want to guide the piece. This all comes to an end once we arrive at the school. Lines are strict and enforced and texts are religious in nature. Sound textures become dense. As themes from ‘home’ return, we find that they are discordant with where the singers find themselves. How will they find their way back? The cello represents the rootedness of community and introduces many important themes throughout the piece.

For me, the research for this piece was quite difficult. To listen to survivors recount how they were taken away from their homes and the subsequent confusion that that caused – how they were isolated from siblings once at school and told that everything they had known in life until that point was no good and of the devil. Hearing how this trauma has impacted the next generation places many of our issues as a community into a context of dispossession and colonial violence. Hearing their stories was a sobering reminder of the truths that some of our people carry with them.

In the end, Maceptasu begs the question what our path forward is. I reject that our languages are ‘dying’ as some have asserted. It is my belief they have been put to sleep for their own safety – it is our job to determine how we wake them up.”

Saskatchewan Indigenous hip-hop artist Lindsay Knight, a.k.a. Eekwol, wrote this song in 2015. It is featured on her new album called Good Kill, which is available for sale today. Lindsay grew up with little awareness of residential schools. Her father had gone to a day school and she had no idea that her father’s grandparents had both attended residential institutions – it was just never talked about. As a parent with a young family, Lindsay began to imagine what it would be like to have some strange white person of authority come and take her own children. She would suffer huge grief from separation. She would worry, not knowing how they were doing. Months later, when they returned for summer holidays, she would find out that this faraway place was cold, that her children were malnourished and, yet, they had to go back.

Ghosts was hard to imagine, hard to write, yet it ends on a hopeful note – Eekwol and her people are alive, Canadian Indigenous people have a future. It is possible to be strong and to climb out of the darkness.

Andrew first met Lindsay Knight through the National Arts Centre’s Music Alive program where both are educators in music outreach activities for the northern Prairies. He was impressed with her artistry and her passion and commitment to the social issues of her people. He told her about Camerata Nova, the Taken concert idea and his idea of writing about Martin Frobisher taking Inuit back to England.

“This song felt natural for me to write,” said Lindsay about her own interpretation of the theme. “The theme is one close to my heart. It was not fun, but it felt strong and productive to do. It’s also an adventure. I’ve never performed with a choir providing the live beat. I can’t wait to hear what Mel has done. I just told him that it had to work at 80-90 BPM (beats per minute) – I know I can perform it at that speed.” Mel Braun replies: “Lindsay, we can assure you that this is an adventure for Camerata Nova, too! I wove the drum songs you sent me into the texture, along with 13 Canadian pop music quotes, one for each region of Canada, that connect with your text.”

To be “taken” means to be removed far away, without permission. The corollary is how does one come back? In composing this hip-hop text, Lindsay started to think about Indigenous people across the country. Taken applies to many histories, to people, culture, language, songs. Today, it applies to incarceration – the many Indigenous people in our jails are not in their homeland, even if their prison is on treaty land. Her lyrics ring true to the dilemma Indigenous people are facing and the issues/feelings non-Indigenous Canadians must understand and respond to in order to achieve reconciliation: “Giving back what was taken when it’s no longer there, Taking back what was given when it’s all that is there.”

Quamaniq (Bright Aura)
In the summer of 2009, Andrew had the chance to go to Iqaluit and spend some time with Madeleine Allakariallak, experiencing the North to prepare to write his work, Medieval Inuit. “I remember looking out over Frobisher Bay as Madeleine told me about explorer Martin Frobisher and how he took Inuit back to England to show as ‘curiosities,’” says Andrew. “None ever came back, of course – white man’s diseases killed them within months. I was very touched. At the time, I decided that, someday, I would write a work about this story. Seven years later, I am realizing that dream. It’s magic to come under the spell of Madeleine and the Arctic once again.”

Quamaniq is centred on a story created by Andrew, but derived from the historical facts about Frobisher and the Baffin Island Inuit. It is an abstract work, shifting almost antiphonally between the life and perspective of the Inuit and that of Frobisher and his sailors. “I have a lot of passion for this piece,” writes Andrew, “but it has also been a struggle. I wanted to create a music with contemporary power, sorrow and mystery, but I also wanted it to be grounded in the sound of true Inuit tradition. This is the third time that I have collaborated with Madeleine. Her personal aura, love of her land/people and commitment to the traditional Inuit voice have been a great gift to me.”

Quamaniq starts by taking us into the mysterious feel of the North and the land – it is bright, cold, endless and otherworldly – a Shaman protects it. The scene and mood then shift to England: Frobisher and his sailors are setting out on their first voyage in 1576, leaving England full of patriotism and hope that they will find the Northwest Passage to the Orient. In contrast, we return to Baffin Island and are introduced to Ana, a special Inuit woman, surrounded by a “bright aura.” Suddenly, Frobisher’s ship can be seen in the distance – “Oona Soona? (What is it?)” sing the Inuit.

Entering the large bay, Frobisher dreams that he has found the famed passage to the east. He and his sailors are caught up in a frenzy of excitement and greed. They arrive at Baffin Island and Frobisher sings an aria: “Bring me my compass. Is this the Orient? We’ve found it!” In the background, sirens and the Shaman sing. This changes into a shamanic trance at the height of which Ana is captured and taken aboard ship. The trance is broken by the sailors’ Latin chorus of Convert Ye Back to God. The cello then plays a plaintive melody as the Inuit community watches the ship sail away. To keep her spirits up, Ana sings a personal song: The sun is about to shine (Madeleine’s mother and grandmother used to sing this when they lived in Resolute where the sun went down for four months of the year). Ana then sings about her struggle to survive. The work ends with the Shaman chant Quamaniq – Bright Aura – in honour of the lost Ana.

This concert has been a labour of sad recollections but also great caring and creativity.  Camerata Nova wishes to thank our amazing Indigenous composer/performers – Jeremy and Lindsay. This has been a fascinating and important journey. We were also honoured to have Madeleine, Jason, Leanne and Fred who have added so much to our goal of telling these Indigenous stories. Finally, we wish to thank Carolyn Rickey, our Executive Director, and all the production, marketing, development and front-of-house people, many of whom have donated long hours, to bringing this to fruition. Together, we can imagine a new quamaniq – bright aura – for this country.

Hooty, yappy, warm, bright: Camerata Nova in rehearsal for the WNMF


Earlier today (January 7th) we had our second rehearsal of Meredith Monk’s music for our upcoming Winnipeg New Music Festival performance on January 30. What a delightful exploration the rehearsal was. Every page of music called for new vocal colours. How wonderful to have the freedom to venture outside the normal realm of choral tone, text setting, and articulation. Rounded, balanced tones were replaced with tones by turns nasal, hooty, yappy, warm, bright, somber, or silly. Made-up syllables replaced words. Smoothly sung sensual phrases gave way to angular yips or vocal shouts. Playfulness became the order of the day. The music unfolded in layers, the emotion in each voice counterpointing the colours and articulations of the other. How did we know when the right sound had been achieved? I doubt that there is a definitive answer, but when it all worked, it sounded as if the complete menagerie of human and animal sounds had been loosed in the room.

Meredith Monk

For decades now Meredith Monk has led the way in playing with vocal possibilities and the sounds her music calls for are an endless source of delight. Instead of setting poetic or narrative text, she tells her stories by using sounds from all parts of the aural world that surrounds us. Oddly enough, these familiar sounds are considered to use “extended vocal techniques” when sung, even though they reflect the world we know so well. It’s sometimes a challenge for the singers to use these sounds. They have all been so well trained to strive for vocal “perfection.” Opening up the vocal paradigm to new possibilities can feel risky. The key is to ground all these sounds in the breath, to let the sounds be an honest expression of our world. When that happens, the result is vibrant, stunning, fully human. What might be considered ugly in another context takes on an extreme beauty here.

How should the audience respond to Meredith Monk’s music? Camerata Nova audiences have come to expect colourful, bold performances and these performances should be no exception if we do the music justice. Our wonderful singers are used to pushing the envelope and we hope the audience feels free to laugh, cry, or ponder as the music washes over them. We are so happy to share several of the Monk performances with Polycoro.

Andrew Balfour’s Bawajigaywin and Francisco Feliciano’s Pamagun will round out the performance for Camerata on January 30. Both pieces reflect Indigeneous traditions, Andrew’s piece using Ojibway text to honour the

Mel Braun, conductor.

preparation for a vision quest, Feliciano’s piece using a Maguindanao (Indigeneous Philippine) text to relate the story of a sparrow and a hunter. Andrew’s score is full of vocables (Hey-ya’s) while the Pamagun score is filled with bird calls. Like the Monk scores, both of these composers use syllables, layers, and repetition to build their stories. Feliciano’s score brings us back to the menagerie, the sounds of the birds rendered in brilliant technicolour. Andrew’s piece moves us deep inside the vision quest preparation ritual, at times hypnotic, at times pulsingly rhythmic.

Over the years, Camerata Nova has premiered numerous pieces, and it is a task that we relish. Giving voice to new work is essential for us. Is it risky? Always. Will we do the piece justice? Will we understand and communicate the essence of the composer’s intent to the audience? Will the audience respond? Innovative collaboration is the key to Camerata Nova’s music making and again and again, we have found composers to be generous, willing collaborators. Whether it’s new work by Andrew Balfour, Meredith Monk, Barbara Monk Feldman, David Lang, or Caroline Shaw, all composers whose works we’ve premiered at the New Music Festival in the last few years, the collaboration has always been a joy. As a choral community, we thrive when we combine our gifts with the vision and talents of others. This keeps our music making and community building ever new. Can you imagine a world where everyone had to sing and explore together each day as part of their daily routine? How much more sharing and peace might there be in the world? When we share our stories and work together, even if it’s just using syllables ala Monk, Balfour, and Feliciano, we change the world for the better.

Program for Songs of Ascension (WNMF3, Sunday, January 30, 7:30 p.m.):

Other Worlds Revealed – Meredith Monk (Camerata Nova and Polycoro)
Pamagun – Francisco Feliciano (Camerata Nova)
Bawajigaywin (Vision Quest) – Andrew Balfour (Camerata Nova)
Jewish Storyteller Dance/Dream – Meredith Monk (Camerata Nova)
Plague – Meredith Monk (Polycoro)
Traveller’s 4/Churchyard Entertainment – Meredith Monk (Camerata Nova)
Earth Seen from Above – Meredith Monk (Polycoro)
Fields and Clouds – Meredith Monk (Polycoro)
Dring Dring – Ana Sokolovic (Polycoro)
Mass from Lilies – Mychael Danna (Polycoro)
Qu’avon-nous oublie – Nicolas Gilbert (Polycoro)
Panda Chant 2 – Meredith Monk (Polycoro and Camerata Nova)

– Mel Braun


A Euro Nova Christmas


Vic Pankratz

Vic Pankratz

This year, the Camerata Nova Christmas concert is EuroNova and will be held at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church on November 26 and 27. Our 2016 holiday performance features lovely and unusual twentieth-century European Christmas carols, as well as a merging of old and new sounds from special guests, The Uncalled Four. I asked conductor Vic Pankratz and local composers Kenley Kristofferson and Michael Schellenberg to walk me through some of the soundscapes the audience will encounter at EuroNova.

While the program includes music from Sweden, France, and England, Vic Pankratz will highlight in particular five carols by early twentieth-century German composer Hugo Distler. I asked what he admires about Distler’s work.

“I find his music remarkable, his way of writing truly innovative. The choir will be singing five of his Christmas motets, the most well-known probably Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging (“Maria went through a spiny forest”). His music is quirky yet beautiful, tonal yet chromatic.”

Hugo Distler

Hugo Distler

Distler was a church musician during the Nazi regime, trying to devote himself to sacred choral music. But he eventually felt unable to find a way to serve God in the difficult war years in Germany, and took his own life in 1942. Vic continues: “My own introduction to Hugo Distler was singing his setting of Lobe Den Herr’n (“Praise the Lord”) when I was in college. I loved the way the melody danced around in the different parts, and also the rhythmic complexity. His music is very popular amongst church musicians in Germany, and I’m so pleased to present some of his Christmas music to our

At EuroNova we will hear work by accomplished composers who are surprisingly young. Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds (born 1977) is the writer of the ethereal Stars, during which the choir will play crystal glasses. Slovenian Gašper Jereb (born 1985) provides the hauntingly beautiful Magnum Mysterium, a Christmas cantata, which will also feature harpist Samantha Ballard.

Camerata singer Michael Schellenberg (born 1987) is the arranger of the brand new Presence of Christmas Mourning, a stirring amalgam of no less than nine European carols. The work was inspired by the complexity of emotions faced by those who experience grief and loss during the Christmas season. Michael says, “My arrangement is meant to lift people’s spirits through its progression and rich harmonies, not to dwell on the pain of loss.”

Another young composer is Kenley Kristofferson (born 1983), who teaches music at Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School. Born in Gimli, and proud of his Icelandic heritage, Kenley has written a new version of Jólakötturinn for EuroNova. Icelanders will know this story of a gigantic and scary Yule Cat, but the folk tale will be new to others. It is a weird but welcome addition to the usual stock of Christmas tales.

Although the Jólakötturinn on the Icelandic Yule stamp pictured here looks benign, the Yule Cat is formidable. One verse of the poem by Icelandic author Jóhannes úr Kötlum describes the cat this way:

He walked about, hungry and mean
in hurtfully cold Christmas snow
and kindled hearts with fear
in every town

Asked what drew him to the story of Jólakötturinn, Kenley says, “The cat is the pet of Grýla, the Icelandic Christmas witch, and lurks to find children who haven’t received any new Christmas clothes. I know the tune is kind of eerie, but there’s a message here about making sure that those around you have enough.  If you have a sweater, make sure to give it away as a gift so the Jólakötturinn doesn’t claim another victim!”

The choir has many languages to master for the concert, and will rise to the considerable challenge of the Icelandic words (consulting, perhaps, a version of the piece by Icelandic pop star Bjork). Kenley says we should notice the “dynamic level of the piece, which nicely exemplifies the coming of the Jólakötturinn, first in shadows, and then drawing nearer and nearer.” He continues: “This music took almost every tool I had in my compositional toolbox.”

Camerata Nova is thrilled to have The Uncalled Four as guests for Euronova. The Uncalled Four are an electro-acoustic music ensemble exploring the fusion of live vocal expression in the choral tradition, with computer-generated atmospheric sound and light. The Four are electronic sound producer Jakob Weirathmueller and vocalists Claire Fast, James Magnus-Johnston, and Al Schroeder. Claire and Al are both singing in this concert with Camerata, while James has been a member in the past.

The Uncalled Four will be opening the second half of the concert and Camerata Nova will join on two songs. A unique twist to this set is that the Four are going to record the audience singing a well-known Christmas Carol earlier in the evening and then incorporate this into their set of music. “I am very excited about all the different elements of this collaboration,” says Vic Pankratz.

Months of preparation go into a holiday concert this original, with so many new arrangements and special combinations of instruments and voices. As curator of this concert, Vic is full of eager anticipation, and especially happy to bring local compositional talent to the fore. “I know,” says Vic, “that the audience will love what they hear.”

– Sue Sorensen


Out of Bounds: Camerata Nova’s 2016-2017 Season

Still glowing from its 20th anniversary, Camerata Nova starts a new decade with a season that goes out of bounds and delves into the deep heritage of choral music while taking daring strides with new material. As usual, Andrew Balfour and the Camerata Nova team colour vibrantly outside the lines. Highlights include three very different and exciting concerts:

Euro Nova (November 26 and 27, 2016 at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church): This concert runs the gamut: interesting, beautiful 20th-century European Christmas music (including works with harp and glass choir), arrangements of well-known European carols by five different Manitoba composers and European electro-acoustic carols featuring Camerata Nova with the local Winnipeg group The Uncalled Four, led by James Magnus Johnson with synthesizer whiz Jakob Weirathmueller. Not exactly the Christmas we know, but a Christmas that stirs the imagination, evokes the familiar and renews our spirit. Note: While we simply cannot afford to make this a free concert, we wish to continue the tradition of making our holiday concerts highly accessible. The compromise is a nominal charge of $10 per person; children under 12 free.

Taken (March 4 and 5, 2017 at the Ukrainian Labour Temple): Meet Jeremy Dutcher, a Maliseet originally from New Brunswick, one of 500 people left who speak his language. Dutcher is a composer and performance artist who has a Masters in Voice (Lieder) and Piano from Dalhousie University. Camerata Nova has commissioned Jeremy and other Indigenous artists to compose works on the theme of “taken.” For Jeremy, the subject is his language while for Lindsay Knight (performance name Eekwol), the theme evolved to the other ways we can be taken, by addiction and suicide. Lindsay is a passionate, brilliant hip-hop artist from Saskatoon. Conductor Mel Braun is writing a beat-box choir part for us – hang on to your seats! Last but not least, our own Andrew Balfour is writing a fascinating work on the explorer Frobisher taking Inuit back to England as “curiosities.” The fabulous Madeleine Allakariallak from Iqaluit will perform the part of a shaman while Jeremy Dutcher sings the role of a young kidnapped Inuk. Not to be missed!

Isolation (April 8 and 9, 2017 at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church): John Wiens has selected an exceptional array of a cappella early music on this theme – the Portuguese composer Manuel Cardoso isolated by writing music 50 years behind his times; Robert Carver, a Scotsman geographically isolated from his Renaissance colleagues, or Stabat Mater Dolorosa by John Browne whose music expresses deep feelings of isolation. A beautiful, contemplative start to Easter week.

Other gigs
We will be performing our usual free Christmas concert in the atrium of Manitoba Hydro Place (360 Portage Avenue) ahead of the Santa Claus Parade. Get in the festive spirit with this light holiday concert that features Christmas classics and a sing-along, on Saturday, November 12, 2016 at 2:30 pm.

Also, thanks to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO), we will be returning to the New Music Festival on Choral Night on January 30, 2017, at 7:30 pm, at Westminster United Church (745 Westminster Avenue). This time, Camerata Nova conductor Mel Braun has collaborated with Polycoro director John Wiens and the WSO curators to guarantee spice, surprise and serious fun in true New Music Festival fashion!

Year Two of our Northern Manitoba Outreach Program
Following last year’s success of the Four Directions pilot project, Camerata Nova is delighted to continue its partnership with Frontier School Division – Canada’s largest – and offer musical outreach to northern Manitoba communities for the 2016-17 school year. Camerata Nova music specialist team, Andrew Balfour and Michael Thompson, will once again work with K-12 students using voice, didgeridoos, percussion and other innovative techniques to encourage the children to express themselves through soundscapes that culminate in end-of-day group performances.


About Andrew, my brother


Andrew (on the left) with his sisters Shelagh (centre) and Alison.

Andrew (on the left) with his sisters Shelagh (centre) and Alison.

What does it mean in the political climate of 2016 that Andrew Balfour is my brother? Andrew is a First Nations man of Cree descent. I, along with the rest of our family, am white, of Scottish descent. That is not insignificant, as Andrew’s work Take the Indian so poignantly highlights. I know that openly acknowledging our relationship, and how deeply I love my brother, may cause pain to some who were harmed by the unjust and cruel policies of our country, anger to others. It was those policies that brought him to us, after all. But Andrew is my brother; no qualifications, no going back. And I would not have it any other way.

Nineteen sixty-seven, the year I turned eleven, our parents decided adopting a child would be a suitable centennial project. It wasn’t a random thing – they had wanted more children for a long time – but, by adopting, they thought they could fulfill their wish in a way that made a bigger difference. It was not a matter of adopting just any child, they would welcome and love a child who was considered “unadoptable.”

Yes, in 1967, at least according to the adoption agency, Aboriginal children were labelled “unadoptable”. Bizarre, really, when looked back at from this point in the life of our country. Whatever the specific circumstances of my brother’s birth and adoption, the “Sixties Scoop” was in full swing. Aboriginal children were being adopted out by the thousands into white families all over North America. I knew of two other families in our neighbourhood alone where one of the children came from a First Nations background. But these children weren’t the lily-white newborns that parents unable to conceive dreamed of. They were somehow second best.

Not to us, however. Our parents felt they were doing something important in bringing Andrew into the family; something important, but not something noble or sacrificial. Andrew was simply Andrew, the newest child in the family, our baby brother. Which is not to say they denied his heritage. From the first, it was important that Andrew know where he came from, who his people were. Of course, in those days, with adoption records closed, they could have only a general understanding of Andrew’s background. I know it pleased them when, as an adult, Andrew was able to learn more and his Cree identity became part of his life and his music.

I wonder now if the adoption agency promoted the children they put forward in a way that would appeal to prospective parents. It isn’t just that “unadoptable” label which would appeal to the altruistic. Our parents were courted as the ideal parents for this child whose birth parents were university students and musicians. We would give him the background he needed to develop his gifts. (I recall even some mention of Scottish blood in the ancestry as well.) Of course, it was apparent almost from the first that Andrew was, indeed, musically gifted, and our family was a good place to foster those gifts, so perhaps I’m being unnecessarily cynical.

I am not unmindful of the deep systemic changes needed in our society to bring justice and equity to First Nations. Over the years, I have read and listened, perhaps not as widely as I could, but enough to grasp some sense of the horrible cost of the mess we have made and the complexity of correcting it. Most recently, in reading the summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and attending the play Reservations (for which Andrew did the music and sound design), I have once again been presented with the history of the “Sixties Scoop” and the damage caused by adopting First Nations children out of their communities. And I have to be honest; my first reaction is “but, he’s my brother.”

I want to understand as best as I can, given the limitations of my location. I know I come from the position of privilege. It is not possible for me to grasp in any deep sense what it means to live the systemic racism of our country. It is not possible for me to gain more than a limited, speculative sense of what it means to lose your culture, your children. But, even though I can view it only dimly, I do know it is a deep and a profoundly important thing. And yet, Andrew is my brother – no qualifications, no going back – and I cannot carry that with shame or guilt. He is my brother and I cannot honestly say that I would have it any other way.

– Shelagh Balfour

Music and Mysteries of the English Renaissance

John_Wiens_colBy John Wiens

Musicians hold a special place in history because they are often revealing about life and thought in a fairly audible way. England’s rulers were consistently kind to their musicians. Taverner, Tallis, and Byrd all had their run-ins with the law, but none were found guilty. Back when not being the right religion led to severe penalties and even death, Taverner was tried for Lutheran leanings, Byrd was accused of not attending his local church enough (that was a crime back then) and Tallis was openly Catholic. And it’s a good thing the monarchs spared them – we have an extraordinary wealth of music as a result.

England was well ahead of its musical time from 1350 to 1470. Music by composers whose names we don’t recognize now wrote stunningly beautiful melodies that made continental musicians take note. Visitors remarked on the “sweet sound” they heard, of overwhelming textures and music on a massive scale that they had never heard before. Although music for more than 7 voices was very rare in England (there were really only a handful of compositions for more before 1500), their music was considered the most impressive.

What is so strange about 1470 to 1540 is that English music seemingly made so little headway, and that we know so little about it. There are just a few treatises that survive, and not enough for us to speak in a definitive manner on why they seemingly slowed. There was hardly a bold new direction to be found during that time; instead there was a steady refinement of existing style. Amongst the treasures that remain from that time (Henry the 8th had agents who burned the bulk of the scores and treatises), we view a vibrant style meant to overwhelm. The English had a wide view of the cadential model, used intensive rhetorical symbolism, and proportions of surprising scope. The consistency of English composers embracing these elements makes one suspect they were living up to some sort of challenge. There are tantalizing hints about the nature of that challenge, but nothing we can say with certainty. We can only speculate.

John Taverner, 1490-1545

John Taverner, 1490-1545

From that era, John Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas stands out as one of the most popular choral works in history. It was published quite often in its day and a fairly recent Canadian survey pointed to it as one of the 10 most popular choral works among Canadians. That’s quite a feat for music written nearly 500 years ago, and speaks to our uncommonly good taste in music.

Symbolism was a central part of the composing challenge for Taverner’s generation. It was common for numbers to be applied as symbols and to musical proportions. The perfect time signature was, for instance, triple time. In Taverner’s mass the number 3 is everywhere – from the number of voices in each section to the proportions of the time signatures, the cantus firmus, and the symbolic gestures within the music. Exactly why these proportions were used so pointedly is the question we have no satisfying answer to and therein lies part of the mystery. The other is this: how can a piece that we know so little about practically be so satisfying to listen to?

In 1534 Henry the 8th changed everything with The Act of Supremacy. The Act dissolved the Catholic infrastructure in England. That infrastructure had developed a great many of England’s composers and singers. Some, like Taverner, left music behind entirely. Despite this, the influence of John Taverner can’t be overstated. Both Byrd and Tallis used his compositions as models. And a new genre of composition – the In Nomine – was born of this mass. This four-part section was viewed as so perfect by other composers that they began writing their own In Nomine, a practice that lasted so long that even Purcell tried a time or two more than a century later.

Thomas Tallis, c.1505-1585

The Act was actually killing two birds with one stone – Henry rid himself of Catholic rules, and he increased the annual crown budget of roughly 15% from resulting rents and sundry on the lands he confiscated. He employed some worthy additional musicians at court as a result, like Thomas Tallis. The Chapel Royal the best post available to Tallis and gave him access to many of England’s best singers. We could even speculate he knew he was getting the post – when his monastery was dissolved he purchased a treatise by Leonel Power (a manuscript a century old at the time) which would have cost a small fortune. It is not believable to think he would make such a purchase if he didn’t feel good about his chances. This purchase is also an important signal. Tallis intended to look back to find his new path, rather than forward. And he did just that with his compositions for Mary Tudor like Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater.

Despite Henry’s Act, England was still essentially Catholic in 1534, and 20 years changed little amongst an affluent and determined Catholic community. In the Mary Tudor years, Catholic themes were renewed, especially the Votive anthem, which has a song in praise of Mary the Virgin Mother. The freedom to write in an old style for Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater must have come as a real opportunity to Tallis – who did some of his best and most inventive composing, leaving behind the simpler style he employed for Henry.

The intention to praise Mary Tudor simultaneously can hardly be more obvious. Many Catholics thought her their saviour from persecution. The music takes on a joyfully beguiling tone, at some points nearly flirtatious. Tallis, by removing the cantus firmus, created a heavier, denser texture he uses to highlight crowns, ascending to the throne, the Tudor Rose, angels, the rod of justice, and other symbols associated to both Mary’s. There are also a few moments when he references Taverner.

William Byrd, c.1543-1623

William Byrd, c.1543-1623

We know far more about William Byrd than the other two combined. Byrd was a recognized genius very early – but he was much more than a musician. He was also a businessman who read law voraciously. He died a very wealthy man, having paid careful attention to many aspects of his business and acting as his own lawyer in many disputes with neighbours and ne’er-do-well family members.

Byrd had skill and ambitions. Byrd studied with Ferrebosco, an Italian composer and spy, and inspected the works of Lassus, Cipriano da Rore, and Clemens non Papa. He knew the current continental trends. When he published his first volume of music with Tallis in 1575, you can hear him sorting out those new problems within the English framework. If that volume had been more popular on the continent, it may be that he would have left England like many of his compatriot composers, but it sold only a few copies and Byrd stayed put.

The Mass for Five Voices was published using little identification on it, and nothing to point to William Byrd except the music itself. Printing a Latin mass 60 years after the Act, even for England’s greatest living composer, was still a risk. It was printed for private use in Catholic homes, in three volumes for three different arrangements of voices. Each was small and easily concealable. The mass for five voices was the last of the set to be written, after he had sorted out certain technical issues that he wasn’t certain about when composing his four- and three-voice masses. You will hear Taverner’s influence in the In Nomine section, and while the sections might be much shorter, they still adhere to the conventions of the time preceding Taverner.

When we consider William Byrd, there is a parallel with Bach – he let others update their compositional styles while he did not. How he wrote his music in the 1590s was very similar to how he wrote in 1610 – he had found his solutions and he was going to use them regardless of the style of the day.

And when he left court to live in Stondon Massey in 1594, one asks why. He still had access to fine musicians there through his networks, but fewer of them. He was clearly capable of writing glorious music for six or more voices. Someday I anticipate certain suspicions will be confirmed, but until then it remains a mystery…

John Wiens is guest conductor for Camerata Nova’s British Mysteries concert. He is also Director of Music at St. Matthias Anglican Church, in Montréal, and an early music specialist.