I’ve been back from my whirlwind visit to Europe for more than six weeks now. “When are you going to write about Dartington?” several people have asked me eagerly. “Soon,” I reply, mentally adding it to my ever-growing to do list and wondering what I can realistically cut out of my life to make more time for writing. (Sleep and exercise are the most likely contenders, but I suspect that less of either of these would not be a great idea.) But as you can see, I’m finally getting around to it. And although my readership is no doubt small, I’m glad for my sake to document some of the wonderful music I got to experience at the summer school in July.
I should say from the outset that I didn’t really intend for my blog to become a music-themed travelogue, and that I still want to continue finding and sharing stories about music more generally. It does seem that music discovered while travelling often cements the most vivid memories and is accompanied by the most interesting stories, because it’s when we’re taken out of our comfort zones and even the smallest details are remembered and counted as more significant than those in our everyday lives. But I would be disappointed if I let this site become only about that. So after this post (and since I wrote about Prague not long ago), I’ll find something else to write about for a bit – lest you all become bored and just think I’m bragging about my travels!
The other thing I should add is that I’ve included quite a few music clips in this post – more than usual, at least. Well, what would you expect when I’m writing about a week in which I spent at least 30 hours in rehearsals and masterclasses, and went to about a dozen performances! And I wasn’t even able to get to everything – there was just so much happening! So what I’ve included here is music that brings back a particular memory or special moment for me. Alas, none are actually recordings from the week itself, but I’ve tracked down some fairly decent performances on YouTube. Some pieces I discovered for the first time while I was there, and some I already knew but heard with new ears that week. Some I sang myself, some were performed by others. So if you’d like to watch all of it then by all means please do, but I’d suggest fetching yourself a glass of wine and putting your feet up for an hour or so of delicious listening! Or bookmark it and come back later…
A feast of French Baroque trilling
I’d never heard of Jean-Joseph de Mondonville before I enrolled in my week at Dartington. It turned out that lots of other people hadn’t heard of him either, even though he was well-known during his own lifetime. A contemporary of Rameau from 18th century France, he wrote quite a few operas, and some sacred music, mostly in the form of grand motets, which were the dominant musical form of the Chapelle Royale prior to the French Revolution. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
The main choir at Dartington, which was open to everyone at the summer school, rehearsed after breakfast each morning to prepare a program to be performed at the end of the week. This year was all French Baroque, and so our repertoire consisted of Charpentier, de Lalande and Mondonville.* With plenty of scope for adding decorative trills in as many bars as humanly possible. “Sopranos, let’s add a trill in bars 44, 46, 52 and 60,” conductor Andrew Griffiths would announce. “Oh, and 72, 74 and 76.** But I suppose I’ll let you leave out the one in bar 80.” The result, especially once we combined with the orchestra for the dress rehearsal, was a wonderfully joyous and frequently majestic rich and full sound. And I did absolutely fall in love with Dominus Regnavit (the Mondonville) that week. The first movement is full of swagger, the fourth is a fast and furious flood, the fifth is a sublime soprano solo that I can only aspire to one day sing as delightfully as Amy Haworth did in the performance. I highly recommend the whole thing if you have twenty minutes or so. Movements 1-3 are below, 4-5 are here, and 6 is here.***
*For the pedants: yes, you’d probably call Mondonville a Classical rather than a Baroque composer, but Charpentier and de Lalande were both a good fifty years or so earlier.
**I’m completely making up the bar numbers. I wouldn’t have a clue which bars we added trills to. Lots. In addition to the ones which were already notated on the score.
***Ignore the creepy skeleton that looks like it’s holding a remote control.
A masterclass miscellany
After the morning choir rehearsal, the second session of the day – for me, at least – was spent in masterclasses with Emma Kirkby, and thirteen other inspiring students. All of us from different backgrounds and from all over the world (Sweden, Japan, Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the US, the UK). This was a wonderful opportunity not only to work on aspects of my own performance, but to see and hear what other people are working on, the things they do well, the things they’re still trying to perfect. No one comes fully-formed but it was just such an enriching and supportive atmosphere to be part of. For someone like myself who has spent far more time performing with ensembles than as a soloist, it’s still one of the scariest things to be the only person in the limelight. But the classes at Dartington were invaluable for confronting some of those things, and helped me more clearly identify strengths and weaknesses.
I watched some breathtaking performances that week in the classes. In some ways more so than during the concerts. As musicians we naturally want to be in absolutely top form and giving 100% once we’re on the stage; sometimes it happens and it’s magical when it does. But I think it’s also true that in solo practice, lessons and rehearsals there can be moments of exquisite beauty when we’re completely at one with the music without the pressure of an audience. I witnessed several moments like this that week, as singers repeated phrases over and over to discover exactly what worked for them in order to find the sweet spot, the jewel contained within. I found it transfixing, the kind of experience you just don’t get from attending a concert. Plus there is the added bonus of seeing someone develop musically right in front of you in less than half an hour, and the confidence that builds. So the next three pieces will always remind me of the people who worked on them in their masterclass session. The first two were from Emma Kirkby’s class (so, primarily early or Baroque music), and the last one from countertenor Andrew Watts’ class.
First, a beautiful tenor from Brazil sang some Bach from the Easter Oratorio. I didn’t know this aria before that day:
A soprano from Washington D.C. brought tears to my eyes with Purcell. Especially when singing “wond’ring how your pains were eas’d”. Just divine:
And then a tenor whom I didn’t even properly get to meet sang this Vaughan Williams which is probably now one of my favourite early 20th century songs. Beautiful writing for the piano as well, and I just love the chord at 0:15 (and 0:24 and 0:31…). You should read the poetry for this one too, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, –
The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
‘Neath billowing clouds that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn hedge.
‘Tis visible silence, still as the hour glass.
Deep in the sunsearched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky: –
So this winged hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.
So what did I sing?
Well, I had a few songs with me that I’d prepared, but I ended up working on two in the masterclasses. For Emma, a piece by Alessandro Scarlatti (father of Domenico) – Se tu della mia morte – the translation of which is, loosely: “If you, by your strong right hand, do not wish to give the glory of my death, you give it with your eyes, for it is the dart of your gaze which kills and consumes me.” Cheerful. I do like Scarlatti though. I’m not too fussed over this particular recording, but it was the best I could find.
And in Andrew’s masterclass I sang Samuel Barber’s Sure on this Shining Night, which I have loved for years. Yet another piece where the poetry is absolutely central to the song:
Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
I’m finding more and more as I get older that I’m quite the Romantic when it comes to text and music. (That’s capital ‘R’ Romantic as opposed to little ‘r’, although I might be that as well!) It’s the first of the two items Cheryl Studer sings here:
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It would appear that I have enough music to warrant dividing this into a couple of posts. So stay tuned for Part 2 and I’ll share just a couple more musical discoveries from my week at Dartington. Coming as soon as sleep and work schedules and singing commitments will allow…