Notes from Around the Sundial: In the Midst of Life

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Gnomon's column image, showing a sundial surrounded with the words Notes From Around the Sundial'

And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!

In the Midst of Life

I sing in two choirs. The smaller choir, the Gaudete Singers, can't afford to put on expensive concerts. To keep costs to a minimum, we tend to sing without accompaniment. Because most of our members are involved in other choirs as well, everybody is very busy in the month of December, so the Gaudete Singers don't put on a Christmas Concert. Instead, we stage a concert of non-Christmas music every year towards the end of November.

This year, we chose a theme of 'Life and Death'. The two main pieces in the concert were Tomás Victoria's Officium Defunctorum, also known as Victoria's Requiem, and John Sheppard's Media Vita. Both of these are from the 16th Century and both are about death, so we needed something about life to go with them. We found two settings of 'I am the Bread of Life', also from the 16th Century, which nicely filled the programme.

The venue was the Lady Chapel of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, a small chapel behind the altar of the cathedral. Because it is connected to the main space, the acoustics are great – it is a nice, small place to sing with a good sound. There's room for an audience of 80, but we only managed to persuade 45 people along – perhaps we can improve on our publicity in future. All four pieces we were singing are in Latin, but one was by an English composer, two by a Spaniard and one by an Italian. We have among our members a Professor of Italian and a Doctor of Mediaeval Spanish, so they were insistent that we use the correct Latin pronunciation of the time for each piece, as it would have been spoken by an English, Spanish or Italian person. There's not a huge difference between the three methods – the main detail is how to pronounce the letter c, which can be s, ts or ch. The English Latin pronunciation also treats the letter 'u' slightly differently; for example, 'salutare' is 'sal-yoo-tah-reh' rather than'sal-oo-tah-reh'.

Victoria's Requiem is a beautiful funeral mass, lasting about 30 minutes. It's written in six parts, which means that the choir divides into six separate voices: high soprano, low soprano, alto, high tenor, low tenor and bass. With twenty of us in the choir, that's 3 or 4 per part. The whole work is lovely and the motet 'Versum in Luctum' from the middle of it was particularly striking. Then we had a well deserved 10-minute break. After the interval, we had the two settings of 'Ego Sum Panis Vivus' (I am the Bread of Life), by Palestrina and Victoria. These are short and I hardly noticed them. Our conductor, David Leigh, is a superb organist; he played a few 16th Century pieces on the small Lady Chapel organ.

Then we started on the final work of the evening, John Sheppard's Media Vita (In the Midst of Life). This is probably only the second time that this work has been performed in Ireland. The composer was one of the major English composers in the Tudor Era, but most of his work has been lost in subsequent centuries. This piece is one of the few remaining examples of his work, and it is a masterpiece. It's about 25 minutes long and is divided into three main sections. The first is about one quarter of the total. It's written in seven parts (for two sopranos, two altos, two tenors and bass). The low tenor sings a simple tune with long notes (a 'cantus firmus'), and the other six parts weave a glorious tapestry of music around this in the style known as 'polyphony'. One distinctive feature of Sheppard's work is the huge range of pitch from the lowest to the highest voices. We don't know what pitch was used in those days but singing it as published meant that the top sopranos were soaring way up in the stratosphere. Bringing it down a tone, the basses were just able to reach the low notes, so we sang it at that pitch.

The middle part, another quarter of the total work, is sung by the tenors and basses only and is in plain chant. It is the prayer 'Nunc dimittis', and is chanted more or less on the one note with variations at the end of each line. Imagine monks chanting late at night in a darkened church. The rest of the work, about a half of the total, is back to the seven-part polyphony. There is some new material introduced plus frequent repetition of portions of the first section, in a complicated system of repeats which is hypnotic as the audience recognises music already heard among the new music.

Eventually the music came to an end and after appreciative applause, we all headed to a room across the Cathedral Close, where there was a glass of wine for everybody, singers and audience alike. Our singing season is now over for the year, and we'll take a breather before launching into our spring programme in January 2011.

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