Saturday 14 November 2015

Musicology, performance and manuscripts - my encounter with David Skinner

Alamire and David Skinner at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Alamire and David Skinner at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
David Skinner is the director of vocal consort Alamire, as well as being Fellow, Praelector, and Osborn Director of Music at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge. With Alamire he has recently recorded Anne Boleyn's Songbook, a disc of music taken from a manuscript associated with Anne Boleyn, a project which proves a fascinating combination of music, musicology and history, a mix which also applied to the group's previous recording The Spy's Choirbook (a recording of music from an early sixteenth century manuscript from the workshop of Petrus Alamire (c. 1470-1536)). I recently met up with David to chat about these, and about his new project involving the music of Thomas Tallis, and Henry VIII's final queen, Catherine Parr.

David Skinner
We start off by talking about the manuscript of Anne Boleyn's Songbook, as I wondered how interesting it would be if it did not have Anne Boleyn's name attached to it. David's response is 'very interesting', this manuscript and that of the Spy's Choirbook are two of the most important manuscript sources for early 16th century music in England. And whilst most of the music in them was already published on the continent, manuscript was the only way of disseminating music in England. In fact for some of the anonymous pieces, such as Popule Meus, the manuscripts are the only sources we have for them.

Since hearing David and Alamire perform Anne Boleyn's Songbook (see my review), David had been to a conference in Toronto, which has led him to think more about the manuscript itself rather than the music in it. It is clear that the manuscript was begun in France, but part of the way through is Anne Boleyn's name and it is becoming clear that this is a stylised signature, which contains some musical notation. So we know that at least some of the manuscript is in her hand. We don't know how long she kept the manuscript for, but there are some English hands in the manuscript too.

The contents of the manuscript can give some hints of its origins (and the music in it is all of high quality). Despite having Anne having spent a year at the court of Margaret of Austria, the manuscript does not contain a single piece by Margaret's court composer Petrus de la Rue, which suggests that the manuscript was begun in France. This first section is very elaborate and formal, beautifully laid out with illuminations. Later sections are less elaborate, more ordinary and the quality is that of an amateur rather than the finest manuscripts produced by a scriptorium like that of Alamire. In fact it has all the signs of being a musical commonplace book. And the various different hands may well include someone trying out different styles, something which those trained in calligraphy did.

Thematically much of the music is linked to Anne's situation at court, with marriage texts and texts about the Virgin giving birth to a son, but we have no really way of accurately dating the manuscript so these links are tempting. Anne's signature is in English and includes her father's motto and it is on a page with a piece about the Virgin conceiving a son, something that Anne was trying to do from 1527.

David Skinner and Alamire
David Skinner and Alamire
David is currently trying to sort out the foliation of the manuscript, which can help with putting the contents in the correct sequence. But the manuscript was re-bound in the 19th century which makes it difficult. Though David did examine the manuscript some time ago, his visit to the Toronto conference has made him want to look at it again in more detail, to see what can be learned.

I was curious how the book was intended to be used. It is big enough to get four singers round it, and most pieces are in four parts so it could be used to sing from. The ordering of the works is something of a mess, and some are incomplete, which means that it does look very much like a commonplace book. These were books that people used to assemble things which appealed to them, anecdotes, poetry, recipes, songs only in this case it is all music. And the manuscript is on paper not on vellum so it was certainly not a presentation copy (these were always done on vellum).

And one curiosity is that some of the music is half written, at the end of the more formal section at the beginning there are pieces which have the space for illumination traced out but not completed. And later on, there are half written pieces. These give an illustration into the methods of writing music out as it was clear that the lines were written first, then the heads of the notes, then all the tails, then the text, and then any illumination.

David combines careers as a performer and a scholar, which means that when talking to him he brings the insight of both. And, as anyone who knows Alamire's concerts, David is a very informative and engaging speaker and the same was true of the interview. He had a scan of the manuscript with him on his laptop, so that we were able to scroll through the pages and I was able to see the details to which he referred.

Performer/scholars are nothing new, but there are not many who combine performing with an academic job at such a high level (David is Fellow, Praelector, and Osborn Director of Music at Sidney Sussex College,). David began as a choral scholar, and his move into the academic world came quite late. He discovered that he had a knack for archival research and received a British Academy research fellowship, and in the 1990's was the academic adviser to a number of performing groups including The Tallis Scholars.

He co-founded the Cardinall's Musick with Andrew Carwood, but when their path's diverged (Andrew to St Paul's Cathedral, David to Cambridge) they separated their interests and David created Alamire. He does everything for Alamire, and they run their own record label Obisian Records, and each project tends to take a year.

David's next project with the group relates to Thomas Tallis, with historical links to Catherine Parr. This arises out of David's editing of Tallis's early Latin Church music for a new completed edition of Tallis's works. It is the first time that a complete Tallis edition has been done (with proper scholarly apparatus) since the 1920's which seems to be amazing.

He has made some interesting discoveries about Tallis's motet Gaude Gloriosa, and will be presenting these at a one-day conference in Cambridge on 16 November. We discussed this at some length, but as I am attending the study day I will delay writing about it until I have heard the presentations and the performances from Alamire.

David seemed genuinely excited, not only about resenting his new discoveries but about being able to hear the music in performance. In fact, he agreed that the main reason he does the research was so that he can hear the music being performed. He has a clear view of how the polyphony should sound, and he wants to hear the music performed the way he hears them.

Scoring is something which concerns David, he is keen that every voice should be in the middle of its comfort zone. There was no concept of fixed pitch at the period so provided you have good basses you can put the pieces in the key which suits them. As an example David's mentions Josquin's Preter rerum seriem from Anne Boleyn's Songbook.  Alamire's performance is one of the lowest on record, but otherwise tenors either have to sing lots of top A's or you have to use a scoring which Josquin would not recognise. The problem is that we now want everything to be sung by an SATB choir when it was originally written for STTB. When music is long and tiring it is important that the voices are in their comfort zone. This also requires you to understand the sort of voices for which the music was written. The Reformation in England changed the make up of choirs, so that Byrd's music no-longer has the high treble part which was a feature of early Tudor polyphony.

The choice of singers in Alamire is very particular and David's own selection. He likes combining two voices with different characters but similar timbres on one line.

But there is an academic element to Alamire's programmes too, their projects are always tied to particular sources whether Anne Boleyn's Songbook or Tallis and Byrd's Cantiones Sacrae of 1575 rather than being anthologies. The Spy's Choirbook they recorded from beginning to end, whereas Anne Boleyn's Songbook was too messy to do this with so they selected 19 of the best pieces.

The group is in its 10th anniversary year, something which David finds exciting. Projects for next year are centred on the Tallis edition and the associated recording from Alamire, and there are plans for a documentary too. Tallis is a somewhat elusive figure, he wasn't in the law courts like Byrd so we now far less about him. David is currently doing a lot of archival research, so watch this space!
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