Orlando Gibbons, et al.

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): Anthems and Verse Anthems Choir of Winchester Cathedral (David Hill). Robin Blaze (countertenor), Stephen Varcoe (baritone) Hyperion CDA67166 (1999)

The language of Shakespear and the King James Bible is held by many to be high points of English literature. But rarely do we hear the music admired by contemporaries. The foremost musitian was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and organist of Westminster Abbey. “The organ was touch’d by the best Finger of the Age.” The anthem was the Anglican equivalent of the Roman motet. Gibbons’ full-choir anthems sound surprisingly modern even today. And the organ accompaniments are often independent fantasies or In Nomines, with the voice parts overlaid on top — a feat of counterpoint that would gladden admirers of The Art of Fugue.

Credit Antony Howell and Julian Millard for recording the Winchestrians in the cathedral with the longest nave in Europe (and St Swithun’s tomb) without the voices being lost in a gabble of echoes. They manage the same feat in S Paul’s. Another interesting feature of this release is that it finally incorporates musicological research of the past 20 years into the pitch employed in the Elizabethan/Jacobean era: A=392, a fourth lower than our present A=440. This produces a welcome solidity and gravitas in the bass. It also removes the strain on the boy trebles. So the music has an effortless, floating quality in the cathedral resonance.

If only we had recordings or Renaissance music, or Herr Stadtkantor Bach’s organ playing! Actually the technology of Mr Edison’s phonograph existed in Leonardo da Vinci’s time. Somehow the motivation was lacking to release cylinders of the Globe Theatre performances. But we can get circumstantial evidence from surviving Renaissance instruments. Michael Praetorius stated in 1619 that English organs were based on a 10-foot pitch, as opposed to the 8-foot prevalent in Germany. Hence the lower pitch. Organ pipes were mostly of hammered lead, with a floating wind supply which imparts a singing, vocal quality to a rather mechanical box of whistles.

Frets on the viols allow the entire string to vibrate as a whole. This imparts a resonant vocal quality as well, but without the carrying power of a violin. The muselear [horizontal. --Ed.] virginal also plucks the string in the center for a fuller more resonant sound. Above all, the gold standard for musical performance was predominantly vocal.

And this brings us to pronunciation. In the Gibbons recording, English she is sounded in the contemporary Oxbridge/BBC manner. In King James’ time it sounded more like present day Irish. That figures, because that was precisely the time that England conquered Ireland. Pronunciation subsequently changed in England, but less so in Ireland. A Naxos CD by Red Byrd (8.550603) used the period pronunciation, effectively rendering English as a Second Language. Every third word is comprehensible. But the singing has a lusty, brazen quality more suited to the tavern and back alley than the refined chapels and cathedrals of the Royals. The singing boys in the full choir balance quite well with the men. But as soloists the boys are decidedly on the wispy side. The answer is clear from a picture of the choir: these are really little boys, aged 8 to 13. In Gibbons’ time choir boys were strapping grown men of l8 when their voices broke. And had some 10 years of musical training and singing experience. As late as the 1840s the average of puberty in England was 18!

When you look at Britain on the globe it’s in line with southern Alaska and Hudson’s Bay, pretty far north. And gets very little daylight half the year. No one has offered any explanation for the decrease in the age of puberty except for better nutrition. Better food will definitely make folks bigger, but not necessarily pubescent earlier. My hunch is that Mr Edison is the culprit. An unintended consequence of electric light is that it fools the gonads into thinking that it is daytime. Sure works in the henhouse. Farmers keep the lights on 24-7 to increase egg production. Hens don’t read much. It ain’t easy being Authentik!

Before it melts: try to snatch up Virgin Veritas VC 7 90849-2, Cries and Fancies. Fretwork plays Gibbons’ viol consort music. With AOL/Time-Warner devouring EMI (which had in turn engulfed Virgin), this unusual CD may just evaporate from the availability list. Who knows what beans lurk in the mind of the counter? Besides Fantasies for the “Great Dooble Base,’ the cries are just that. Street cries of vendors, hawkers and beggars are sung by Red Byrd over a four-part instrumental “In Nomine,” constructed on the cantus firmus from Taverner’s Gloria tibi Trinitas mass.

Here Red Byrd sings with the period Irish/Cockney pronunciation and the bellowing voice quality suitable for the streets. Think of Australian drunks singing under your window and you get the picture. Who says even Gibbons didn’t have a sense of humor? The Fretwork and Winchester CDs give us a superb sampling of Gibbons’ music for the court of King James. Gibbons’ leading contemporaries were Giovanni Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Schutz, Praetorius, Scheidt, Sweelinck, Vittoria, Lobo and Correa de Arauxo- hardly shabby company. Alas the polyphonic vocal and keyboard style was to succumb to the beheading of Charles I and Germany’s 30-Year War. The operatic vocal ideal was to follow, leaving only poor Thomas Tomkins to write a Pavane for These Distracted Times. But, thanks to the magic of CDs and high-end audio, we can put the dot.com present on hold for a while and immerse our souls in some of our musical patrimony.

Before it melts #2: If Prof. Dr. Maurice Richter’s review of the Bach Well-Tempered Klavier tempted you, you might enjoy searching out ARION ARN 468306: the 48 very friskily played on a small, chirpy organ. Arion was in the LP era the label for ORTF, the French government broadcasting authority, and may still be. The 4 CDs date from l978 and feature Louis Thiry — anything but your dismal, plodding church organist! Thiry points out that some of the 48 are unplayable as written, unless you borrow a 3rd hand. Very likely some were Herr Bach’s teaching materials for his organ students to sweat through on the pedal harpsichord. No need to engage a Kalkant (pumper victim) just for practice.

With 2 separate manuals, plus pedal as the 3rd hand, Thiry highlights the different contrapuntal lines. The overall effect is much more like the Bach organ Trio Sonatas which Wilhelm Friedemann had to struggle with. And the small Jean-Georges Koenig organ in the Reformed Church at Auteuil is a marvel of clarity and color. Won’t pop your subwoofer, though. According to Werckmeister in 1691, ’Klavier’ simply referred to any keyboard instrument: organ, harpsichord, spinet, etc.

Biographical Note:

W. A. Grieve-Smith teaches film sound at NYU. Prior to some 35 years recording feature films, documentaries and commercials he taught Latin briefly at an alcohol-free Southern Religious University. He is survivor of the classic Classical Education, having read Homer, Plato, Aristotle, S Matthew, Virgil, Horace, Beowulf and Cervantes in the original tongues. This is a decided disadvantage when listening to the singing of doggerel liturgical Latin: it’s obviously trash.

Audiophilia set in with the discovery of my grandparents’ windup acoustic Victrola — a blessed relief from hillbilly music and sermons available on AM radio. In l943 I splurged for a diamond-tipped stylus to play 78 rpm platters. In l944 I bought the only available domestic disc of music by Giovanni Gabrieli: l0 minutes of E. Power Biggs, Harvard Glee Club, Radcliff Choral Society and Boston Symphony brass for about $2. At that price a 70-minute CD, adjusted for inflation, would go for $l40! So you think today’s CDs are over-priced? The Gabrieli disc was an RCA which never showed up in an LP transfer.

In the LP era I built all the Dynakit electronics up to the l20-watt egg-fryer and then traded up to the Marantz tubed gear except the 10B tuner. I remained quite happy with my McIntosh MR-77. Speakers went from the KLH Ones to the KLH 9 electrostatics (2 pairs, of course) . Tape decks ran from a mono tube Revox, Tandberg, Magnecord, to Nagra and Stellavox sync machines. A Nakamichi 1000 cassette deck and Sennheiser, Sony and Schoeps mics round out the picture.

I disposed of some 2500 LPs after I discovered that I hadn’t put up an LP in 3 years. Many of my favorites have been transferred to CD with one degree of quality or other — minus ticks and pops, thank you. More importantly the recording style of classical music has changed substantially with the coming of digital and the CD format. And in the Authentik Musique field performance practices have evolved, too.

Luckily my musical interests lie chiefly in the time between 1500 and l750. There the smaller labels are doing a vigorous job of releasing previously unheard folks like Matthias Weckmann and Nicholas Ludford. The only limits seem to be the lack of survival of the music manuscripts themselves. Besides giving you my considered reactions to new releases, I hope future technology will allow us to play some samples of the recordings with live, human-being voice comments. Oh, yes: since we’re on an interactive site, I’ll be happy to comment on any queries you may have about recording techniques or obsolete playback gear.