www.musicacontexta.com © 2011                    



Recording May 2011 - The Great Service


Simon Ravens (Director) writes...


Well, recording the Byrd Great Service – so long a dream of mine – is now a reality. That said, the sessions went so magnificently that I’m having difficulty separating the dream and the reality. For listeners it will finally become a reality when the disc is released in early 2012. We’ll post some excerpts from the disc here in a few months, as soon as production takes place. Keep an eye on this webpage.


In the meantime, we can give you some photos from the sessions, my own diary of the sessions, and some comments from the singers and players.  



Final rehearsal. Today is the first occasion when all the elements for the recording come together. I start by pointing out that everyone present has compromised themselves financially to take part in this recording. I’m hugely grateful for this, but I’m hoping it’s the only compromise we need to make this week. I also make one musical point at the outset, which is that for all the details I think we’ve got more-or-less right – vocal scoring, pronunciation, instrumentation, temperament and so on – all this will count for nothing if we don’t embrace one underlying aesthetic: that although its subject is religious, this is humanist music, which we will only tap into if we engage with as humans.


The singers all know each other well, and we’ve performed and recorded with ECSE numerous times. The unknowns, though, have caused me a few sleepless nights, but within seconds of the start of the rehearsal all doubts have dissolved. Firstly, the venue (St. John’s Upper Norwood) has a perfect balance of clarity and warmth. Most significantly, the Goetze and Gwynn chamber organ (which lives in the church) sounds simply magnificent with the ensemble: much grander than the tiny portable organs which happenstance often forces early music groups to use, but with a lovely speaking clarity. We chose this instrument (and with it the venue) because Dominic Gwynn considers it the closest match to their Tudor Wetheringsett organ (which is currently in a less-than-ideal recording venue). Thinking of the great keyboard players associated with the Elizabethan Chapel Royal, I was keen to have an inventive player, and not someone just politely reinforcing the vocal parts: Steven Devine, who has a musical mind as virtuosic as his fingers, couldn’t be bettered.


The other new element for Musica Contexta (if not me) is Robert Easting, who is our pronunciation coach. Robert is Professor of English at Victoria University in Wellington. His specialisation was really Middle English, which means that he has approached the Elizabethan’s use of language as a development. When I lived in New Zealand Robert also sang with my group there, The Tudor Consort, and when I returned a few years ago (to perform the Byrd Great), he helped with our Elizabethan English. When I was planning this recording I knew that Robert would be invaluable, and it just so happened that he was planning a trip to Europe this spring. (When quirks of fate happen like that, you sense you’re on to a good thing.) We’ve been able to utilise technology in preparing this recording, with Robert recording the texts in Wellington, and each singer having received these as MP3 files. There’s very little time wasted on pronunciation, then, but whenever Robert does clarify something for us in this rehearsal, I can sense that the singers and players are rapt. And, although I’ve been experimenting with Elizabethan pronunciation for 25 years, the results of Robert’s expertise, (and the singers’ homework) put this on a completely different level to anything I’ve heard before: people are inside the speech – there’s no element of ‘funny voices’.


Anyway, it’s immediately obvious that everyone is singing (as they say) from the same hymn sheet. Three hours pass in a remarkably relaxed and happy way. Good sign.




Today we start by recording three Byrd motets as instrumental items with the English Cornet and Sackbut Ensemble. My idea of recording vocal works this way was to reflect the subversive Catholic element of Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal. Foreign guests of the court were amazed by the opulent way services were celebrated – despite their Protestant nature. Of course, Byrd’s stated inspiration for his motets was always the text, and performing them instrumentally – without any words – could be a disaster. However, the players of the ECSE are so completely receptive (and responsive) to the text that the effect is magnificent – and uncannily vocal. Gawain Glenton (ECSE cornettist) and I chose these motets because their scoring, tonality and festive nature perfectly matches we have for the Byrd Great Service. The motets we record will act as processionals to the three parts of the service. At the end of the day I cycle back to my campervan with the end of ‘Hodie Simon Petrus’ – Byrd’s genius at its most effervescent – pinging around my mind.




There’s nothing new about the idea of using organ, cornets and sackbuts in Byrd’s Great Service. Musicologists were suggesting this approach forty years ago, and Musica Contexta first presented the Service like this ten years ago. Instruments aren’t specified in the sources, but then, neither does Monteverdi for most of the 1610 Vespers. Yet, whilst the Vespers has been recorded countless times by voices and instruments, Byrd’s acknowledged Anglican masterpiece has not. Why? The obvious reason is that the Great Service has never quite been lost to the Anglican tradition, where it is inevitably sung unaccompanied, or with just organ accompaniment. The Anglican tradition also largely accounts for the high pitch at which the work is sung, the use of falsetto voices on inner parts, equal temperament and modern English pronunciation – for none of which there is any historical evidence. So, although most of us know this work well, there is a tangible feeling that we’re treading new ground.


The last part of the equation in our recording is the producer, Gary Cole. Gary has worked with us before, and has always given us the best, most faithful recorded sound I can imagine. I know Gary has been excited by the prospect of this recording, but it’s a huge relief to hear his immediate enthusiasm at what he’s hearing. I know he’s been concerned by the sheer amount of material we have to record today, and yesterday there were mutterings on Gary’s part of contingency sessions. I bet Gary that we’ll actually finish early. In fact we finish with 25 minutes of the day’s final session to spare – always a good sign. Steven Devine even has time to record his solo organ contributions – which will be little gems on the cd – before we call it a day. So far, so wonderful.




Today’s first session is to cover the larger verse (solo) sections, which we are doing with only organ accompaniment. This is a potentially tricky session for the singers, who have to walk up and start very exposed solos pretty-much ‘cold’. And again, there is a lot of material for us to cover in one session. Actually, it’s a pleasure from start to finish. It’s as relaxed when the red light is off as it is intense when it’s on. We finish the final take within a minute of the scheduled close.


After an hour’s break, the final session of the recording is for the choir only. And for once, with only three unaccompanied works to record, we begin without any pressures from the clock. However we might feel tomorrow, there is no hint of tiredness in the singing. The final work, ‘O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth’, floats along with very little paddling necessary on my part. And that’s it. I thank the singers by saying that, without doubt, this last three days has been the greatest moment of my musical life. Whatever listeners and critics make of it when it comes out, I can’t say any more than that.



Comments from the performers


Adrian Horsewood (Tenor)
It was a thrilling experience, and I feel very privileged.

Leonora Dawson-Bowling (Soprano)
Well the little grey matter has certainly been well exercised the last couple of days. Thanks to Simon Ravens and all the lovely Musica Contexta people for a thoroughly worthwhile, hard-working and wonderful musical experience.



Andrew Hope (Tenor)

It has been an honour to take part in this groundbreaking recording. I can imagine Byrd's pointy beard wagging as he nods in approval.


Goetze and Gwynn organ

Adrian France (Bass Sackbut)
Many many thanks to you and to everyone at MC for having ECSE to join you in this wonderful project. We all thoroughly enjoyed working with you and it was a true privilege for us all to be included in what was a fantastic recording, so thank you very much!


Mark Williams (Counter-tenor)
Indeed it was a great pleasure to be part of it. The music is still swimming in my head, so much so that I didn't sleep well last night or concentrate at work much this morning.


Simon Lillystone (Counter-tenor)
It's hard not to be effusive about the past few days - whether it's the stunningly deft playing of ECSE, the use of the most hypnotic metronome ever, Gary's attention to detail, the pepper humous, Steven's playing, the intense commitment of every singer in every take, and then there's the music...if this disc doesn't help raise the status of Byrd's Great Service still further (thinking of it as a Beatification or a designation as a World Heritage site) then nothing can - it's quite simply a remarkable work.


Chris Hunter (Bass)
There seems to be a certain amount of mutual preening going on about this. Damned well deserved too, in my humble opinion…

And finally...

William Byrd (composer)

o: cɣm let ɣs sing ɣnto the Lord let ɣs ha:rtilәɪ rejәɪce in the strength of әʊr salvɛ:siәn