Conductor's Blog: June 2019

Interesting Instruments

Over the past few seasons we have been accompanied by a harp, a group of sackbuts, a baroque string ensemble and baroque flutes, and this term we add to our collection of non-standard accompaniments with a consort of viols!


We used sackbuts in a programme of sumptuous music written by some of the best composers of the late Renaissance/early Baroque - Schütz, Palestrina, Victoria, Praetorius and Gabrieli.  Much of the programme was for ‘double choir’ with the one choir the usual four part singers accompanied by organ and the other choir consisting of sopranos on the top line and three sackbuts. The sackbut is an ancestor of the modern trombone and comes in various sizes – alto, tenor and bass (or small, medium and large!). The mellow but clear sound they make worked very well, not surprising in music that was written for them.


In December 2017 we sang music for Christmas from 17th century Italy, marking the 450th anniversary of the birth of Monteverdi. The works by Monteverdi were pieces which would be found in the evening service of Vespers during the Christmas season and included his well known Beatus Vir as well as less familiar music. We were accompanied by experienced baroque string players, Judy Tarling, May Robertson and Louise Jameson with David Hansell playing the chamber organ. Again, using the instruments appropriate for the time and players who have studied and are famous for their knowledge of performance practice in the 17th century brought the music to life and encouraged the choir to sing in a stylish way too. 


Judy and her team returned to Horsham for more Christmas music, this time from 18th century France and Germany.  The choir were accompanied by baroque strings, flutes and organ in Charpentier’s delightful Mass for Christmas Eve and beautiful Litany of the Virgin Mary along with uplifting choruses from some of Bach’s large-scale works. The clarity of the period string instruments helps the counterpoint of the music to come across clearly and the gentle sound of the baroque flutes adds effective colour, particularly in the French music. 


So to June 2019! Baroque violins, violas and cellos differ from their modern counterparts – slightly different shapes, strings made of gut and tensioned differently, bows which are balanced differently to name a few points, but are still recognisable in comparison to today’s instruments. Viols, although members of the string family, are quite different to the violin family. Their shape is noticeably different particularly with the slope of the top of the body. The bows are a different shape and are held from underneath which effects the sound obtained when bowing. Like the sackbut, they come in several sizes – treble, tenor and bass – but all are played held between the legs of the player. The fingerboard also has frets, like a guitar. An ensemble of viols is called a consort and you will also hear a set of the instruments referred to as a chest of viols. If you would like to know more and hear what they sound like then come to our concert on June 22nd. As well as accompanying the choir in anthems from the Tudor period they will perform a couple of consort songs with me and two instrumental pieces so you can really hear them!

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The Choir in rehearsal
The Choir in rehearsal
The chaps
The chaps