Sunday, 24 February 2013

Bristol Motet

There are few things that would  cause me to drive to Bristol and back in a single evening just for fun, but the opportunity to hear the 40-part motet Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis performed live is certainly one of them.

Bristol is a fine city.  We used to live there, in the second half of the 1970s and the first half of the 80s, during what I think of as the Punk, Reggae & Riots years.  It was a good time in a place congenially disposed to good times. Everyone should have a "lost decade" in their life, and that was mine.  When other, more sensible folk were putting their student years behind them and busily establishing careers, I ... well ... was not.  I had a job, cataloguing Russian and German books in the university library, but it was the sort of routine-but-absorbing work that goes well with a hangover or the after-effects of a shining white night without sleep.

My partner's sister still lives in Bristol and, as it happens, has a member of the Exultate Singers lodging in her attic.  Which was how we came to be at the Tallis performance at St. George's last night; the offer of a meal followed by an evening of Renaissance polyphony was a sisterly birthday offering, and well worth a four hour round trip.

If you don't know Spem in alium, or could not care less about choral music, it's hard to describe its impact.  Composed by Thomas Tallis around 1570, it is thought to have been performed for Henry VIII Elizabeth I in the octagonal banqueting room of the royal Nonsuch Palace, with a choir of five placed in each of eight balconies -- the ultimate in surround sound.  The effect of the dynamic swelling of the volume and harmonies is overwhelming and spellbinding, and many people find themselves weeping spontaneously.  Forty-strong choirs are hard to maintain and rehearse (the piece has sixteen bass parts alone), so it's not something you get to hear often.

But, as it turned out, for me the highlights of the evening were the setting of the Miserere by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, and two pieces by Carlo Gesualdo.  If you don't know about Gesualdo, he's best summarised as "that Renaissance nobleman who slaughtered his wife and her lover having discovered them in bed and hung their mutilated bodies on the front of his palace, was allegedly a practitioner of Dark Arts, and wrote angst-ridden music with strange discordant harmonies that now sound incredibly modern".  Oh, that Gesualdo!  His story and legacy are sufficiently strange for Werner Herzog to have made a film about him (Tod für fünf Stimmen / Death for Five Voices, 1995).

Most amazing of all, however, was the transformation that has been wrought upon Bristol itself.  By daylight, I had just about recognised the hilly, higgledy-piggledy Georgian warren of enormous, multi-story buildings stacked onto a multi-level, terraced site above the river Avon.  Driving back through the centre at night, however, it seemed that every other former shop, bank or institution was now revealed as a fast-food outlet, restaurant or club.  On a freezing February night, long, lively queues of young people were stretched along the streets outside the most popular venues, and the place was ablaze with colour and lights.  It was as if a switch had been thrown, and an alternative city to the one I though I knew by daylight had been unveiled, like some trick of stage lighting.

It's a common enough story, of course, but the extent of it still took us by surprise. Most symbolic of this transformation is that the venerable George's bookshop -- situated on its strategic central corner opposite the University just before the nose-dive descent of Park Street, and once the home of one of the best second-hand book sections outside London -- is now a Jamie Oliver restaurant.  Very popular it appears to be, too.

It was a strange but not unpleasant feeling, to emerge from the emotional and musical intensity of St. George's, where we had been surrounded by hundreds of grey-headed academics, artists and culturati -- people just like us -- into the neon streets of a party town, watching the equally intense hedonistic antics of thousands of youngsters -- people just like we once had been.

Amor, io sento l'alma
Tornar nel foco av'io
Fui lieto et più che mai d'arder desio.

[Oh love, I feel my soul
Return to the fire where I
Rejoiced and more than ever desire to burn.]

Jhan Gero (fl. 1540-55)


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Thanks for "Spem in Alium".

Interesting how the scenes of our youth seem to move on in spite of our absence, or even a "by you leave".



Anonymous said...

Bah - I'm deeply jealous. But while nothing - nothing - beats live music, it's still wonderful that today a good facsimile of something that once only Henry VIII could afford to enjoy is available to anybody with a broadband connection and the url of YouTube. So I'm sitting here listening to the Tallis Scholars version, since my CD of same is 6,000 miles away right now.


Poetry24 said...

I'll bet it sounded great, Mike. The last time I heard Spem in alium, was courtesy of a Janet Cardiff installation at the Winchester Great Hall. That was, well, a bit different.

Mike C. said...


It was indeed wonderful. St. George's used to be a big old-style church, with a balcony on three sides, and a powerful acoustic. For the Tallis, the 40-strong choir distributed itself around the balcony. Overwhelming ... You don't feel the "beats" in your chest, at home with a stereo... There comes a point where you have no more hairs on the back of your neck to be raised.

If I were to be hyper-critical, the only thing Exultate lacked was a really top-class set of trebles / sopranos to give that ringing angelic top layer that truly world class performers (like the Tallis Scholars) bring to the piece.

I do recommend the MacMillan "Miserere" though -- it's good to know we have contemporaries who can still really hack it, musically!


lukemills said...

The city of Bristol is a famous place when it comes to musical groups. I am a music lover and I have learned music from the most efficient group of choir Bristol based. It is perhaps the best place in the world if you want to learn group singing.