Tuesday 8 August 2023

Thomas Tallis If ye love me

These reflections on repertoire appear as I start my second season as Musical Director of Madrid International Choir in September 2023

                                                                Thomas Tallis  

This short, exquisitely beautiful piece has become a favourite during our first season and we will keep it in our repertoire for our second season and surely beyond.

Tallis is a fascinating character whose long life 1505-1585 spanned the reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I, a period of profound change in England.

Tallis was brought up in the Catholic faith and when the country officially adopted the Protestant faith his work in the Chapel Royal required him to follow the rules of the new faith in his professional role. It is widely accepted that he stayed true to his beliefs in the “old” religion, as did his colleague William Byrd, but the fact that they both remained in favour and in employment with the royal court shows that they were discreet in practising their faith.

The leaders of the Protestant church imposed new restrictions which directly affected Tallis. Latin was dropped and music was to be set to English texts. This is no small matter because Latin makes greater use of vowel sounds while English uses more consonants, so the former tends to make a more lyrical setting of words to music.

Another imposition was the setting of one syllable to a single note, rather than setting a syllable over several notes. The limitations of expression are easy to imagine and easy to hear when we listen to contemporary composers from, say, Italy. 

Finally, Tallis was confined to certain themes and forbidden from others, such as any references to the Virgin Mary.

There was a period of respite for Tallis when Mary I reintroduced the Catholic faith, only for Protestant practices to be restored by Elizabeth I.

Tallis left a considerable number of compositions for us to admire and enjoy. In contrast to the simplicity of If ye love me, look up Spem in Alium, a hugely complex piece for forty individual singing lines.

You can hear a fragment of If ye love me on our Facebook post on 30/6/23

If you would like to join us to sing this and other music, see our Facebook page and get in touch: Season Two rehearsals start on Thursday 7 September 2023

Engraving by Niccolò Haym after a portrait by Gerard van der Gucht - The Musical Times (1913) H.W. Gray, New York; Novello, London (https://doi-org.wikipedialibrary.idm.oclc.org/10.2307/907708), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=101138568

Sunday 6 August 2023

Come what may

Looking forward to my second season as Musical Director of Madrid International Choir, starting rehearsals on 7 September 2023 

Moulin Rouge was a revolutionary film: a show that used some well known songs without being a jukebox musical and treated a serious plot with a perfect mixture of comedy and tragedy. I saw it first in a small cinema in Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, I think I was the only Monday evening spectator.

That was twenty years ago and I have watched it several times since, but I remember that several things bowled me over. One was the use of tiny fragments of songs like Climb every mountain, from The Sound of Music, another was the superb choreography and settings for the company numbers like Voulez-vous and Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Even so, the three standout, shiver down the spine moments were: a world class tenor as man in the moon singing a line from Elton’s Your Song; the best realisation ever of Police/Sting’s Roxanne, the most menacing, this-is-real-life-and-death-stuff-not-your-stupid-teenage-infatuation ever set to tango dance steps, anyway you need to watch it….and the great and wonderful duet for the Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor characters Come what may.

I understand this is one of the original songs written for the film by David Baerwald and Kevin Gilbert. There is a fascinating article about the writing process of Baz Luhrmann and his team here

It starts with a pretty standard the universe is perfect since we met lyric and grows to the moving near repeat, starting as I will love you until the end of time: of course we all know we will never see the end of time, even the most pessimistic climate change forecasts give all of us currently alive that much margin, so it’s a fantasy, a love will never end fairy tale. The lyric changes to I will love you until my dying day, which is very poignant in the film because we, the audience, know that the Nicole Kidman character is terminally ill with little time left, but the innocent Ewan McGregor character is ignorant of this, as he is of almost all of life’s essentials. Her understanding of my dying day is very different from his understanding. As usual, the boy is the last to know.

(Spoiler alert: skip the next paragraph if music theory is not your thing)

This song’s emotional impact works because it starts in a conversational mood where the melody follows the rhythm and shape of the lyric and it builds to an anthem like melody ending on Dying day using notes 3,2,1 of the major scale: think Three blind mice, the most satisfyingly conclusive phrase in the classical European musical language. 

The three note phrase for Come what may includes first defiance, in the rising figure from 7th note to high octave in the major scale, starting half way through the bar (measure), and then despair. If the melody had repeated the high octave note on May the effect would have been triumphant, powerful and conclusive. Instead, the fall of a minor 3rd from What to May is the interval of the baby’s cry, the lost soul, hope abandoned. So in just three notes the words Come what may are set so that they catch us up in the most extreme emotions: defiance/exhilaration turns to weeping in an instant. 

The arrangement we are using is from the same OUP book as  Pages  which we have really enjoyed singing in Season One.

The arrangement, by Charles Beale, works beautifully. It starts with unison singing and then mixes two parts, in octaves, three parts, and finally, in the most emotionally charged moments, four part harmony. We will perform the song with the instrumental ensemble with strings, flutes and clarinets. I can’t wait to hear it!

The concept of contemporary music is an interesting one. A certain number of our singers and instrumentalists were not born when I was sitting in the cinema watching Moulin Rouge for the first time. Someone wrote that “technology” is something that was invented after you were born. Applied to music, does this mean that “contemporary” music is what was written after you were born?

Be that as it may, Come what may is a great song for us to perform. 

Why not contact us via Facebook!

Saturday 5 August 2023

Season 2 coming soon!


This post is the first for my second season as Musical Director of Madrid International Choir.


Six public performances in three venues collaborating with two groups from Madrid and Valencia with a total audience of about seven hundred. 

The composer of our earliest piece of music was born in 1505 and of our most recent in the 1970’s.

Our attendance at rehearsals settled at around forty between February and June and our instrumental ensemble has grown to eleven players. 

Facts and figures!

There are those who say that music is all about numbers and then there are those of us who say that music is about sound and emotions. 

For me, choir is above all about persons. 

Every person in the choir has seen their life move on while joining weekly rehearsals: for some this has meant the joy of finding a job or celebrating a family member’s success, while others have suffered loss or a major health setback. Who would expect to go on holiday and fly home with a broken leg? Yes, all this and more has been going on, in the background as a choir, but very much in the foreground for the individual concerned.

It’s in the nature of an international choir that members will leave: some are here as students and return home to complete their courses while some experienced professionals are given postings in other countries by their employers. We will miss our departing singers and instrumentalists very much and we wish them well in their new/old destinations.

At the same time, expressions of interest are constantly arriving and we’re open to welcome new singers and classically trained instrumental players.

Change, flux, uncertainty and transience are part of life and singing in a choir can be an anchor and a point of reference to keep ourselves emotionally safe. One singer made this clear: after traveling half way across the world to start a new phase of life in a country with an unfamiliar language and customs, she found her way to our rehearsal and as soon as she said soprano and sat in with the other singers and opened the music we gave her, she felt totally comfortable and secure. In a choir we sit in a certain way and use music scores in a certain way and we follow a routine of welcome, vocal warm-up and repertoire. 

Whatever else is going on in our lives, minds and hearts, our choir rehearsal can help us feel at home and at peace.

Madrid International Choir Season 2 starts on Thursday 7 September 2023. You can check out last season’s concerts on the Facebook page, hear us on SoundCloud and contact to arrange to join us!

Tuesday 27 September 2022

First rehearsal: From A-Z and around the globe


This is part of a series of reflections as I take on the role of Musical Director for the Madrid International Choir, a non-religious English speaking choir in the heart of Madrid.

From A-Z and around the globe

After months of planning we finally had the answer to the questions which have been so much on our minds as the choir re-formed after a 2 year pause:

Where will we rehearse?

What music will we sing?

And, most importantly: who will join the choir?

Our rehearsal venue, St George’s church in the city centre, is not only a beautiful building with an attractive garden, we found it has a perfect acoustic for choral singing, and there were some moments of magic as we discovered what a beautiful sound we made.

Our opening repertoire features peace and hope, with Dona Nobis Pacem as a round and Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready. We have plenty of music for the rest of the season, and a short discussion among the singers showed that variety will be the key to our future programming.

We ended up being short of space on our “stage” area as singers kept arriving, both new members and those who were in the choir before the long pause. We are truly an international choir, with singers from Spain, Venezuela, Australia, Austria, USA, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Netherlands, Wales, Scotland and England. The age range was equally interesting, from university students to those enjoying retirement, and all ages in between.

Some singers were not able to attend our first rehearsal, due to work, holiday travels or family commitments. We look forward to welcome more new members at future rehearsals.

I hope you will join us.

Tuesday 20 September 2022

By the waters of Babylon, a timeless round


This is part of a series of reflections as I take on the role of Musical Director for the Madrid International Choir, a non-religious English speaking choir in the heart of Madrid.

What is this music?

By the waters of Babylon takes its text from Psalm 137, which connects it to Va, pensiero and, more distantly, to People get Ready, and I have written about both of these on recent posts.

You will find different accounts for the song’s origin: some editions describe is Traditional, others as a Jewish melody, while others credit Philip Hayes 1738-1797. 

By the waters of Babylon is a 3 part round. The minor key reflects the melancholy thoughts of the Hebrew slaves who were in captivity in Babylon:

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept for thee Zion. We remember thee, Zion.”

Bars 1 to 3 are set to a weeping falling musical figure with a strong emotional pull, and the sense of sadness is reinforced because the same figure is repeated in each bar starting a tone lower each time, a sequence. Bars 5 to 8 continue the falling phrase shape. The last phrase, bars 9 to 12 is another sequence, the melody in bar 9 repeated one note higher in the following two bars. The rising four-note figure seems at first hearing to be optimistic, but each repeat falls and falls in imitation of weeping and the final bar is a fall of a 5th, a very final sound, almost a death knell.

Why are we singing it?

It’s a beautiful melody line. Sung as a round the beauty of the line and the emotional power is amplified. As I have explained in an earlier post on Dona nobis pacem, a round is a simple but effective musical form, and there is a strong connection between the singers.  

This round is timeless: it can be harmonised in different ways, and the most simple way makes it sound modern rather than classical. 

You might recognise it from a version called Babylon on the 1971 American Pie album by Don Maclean, where it sound very much like contemporary folk songs by Pete Seeger. 

Is it relevant to us today?

The comments I made regarding the text of Va, pensiero apply very much also to By the waters of Babylon.

Connecting is a crucial part of singing in a choir: after all, if we simply want to sing we can just stay at home and sing in the shower/wardrobe/loft. The very act of joining a choir says that we want to connect with other human beings through singing.

As a round we connect with our fellow singers, but there is another dimension of connecting: this piece brings to mind far away friends and places. We are connecting with our memories.

Wednesday 31 August 2022

St George’s Anglican Church: our perfect rehearsal space

This is part of a series of reflections as I take on the role of Musical Director for the Madrid International Choir, the English speaking choir in Madrid.

The committee of the Madrid International Choir chose St George’s Anglican Church as our rehearsal space.

I think it is a perfect choice and it is a great decision. It’s important to point out that the Madrid International Choir has no affiliation with any church or religion: we are completely secular and welcome persons of any faith or none.

We are very grateful to the authorities of St George’s Anglican Church for allowing us to use this exquisite space for our rehearsals. Find out about the church here.*

Why is it such a perfect rehearsal space?

First, the location. St George’s Anglican Church is on the corner of Calle Nuñez de Balboa and Calle Hermosilla in the Barrio de Salamanca, in the heart of this wonderful and vibrant city.

Check here for the transport links, which are numerous.** The nearest Metro stop, Velázquez, is moments away.

This is important because we want our rehearsal space to be accessible and approachable for everyone.

Second, health and safety. The church is a large open space with numerous doors and windows which provide ventilation. In these times I think we are all aware of the need for space between us and for ventilation, and the church meets these needs perfectly.

Finally, it’s a beautiful space, with a tremendous history of quality musical experiences, a tiny number of which I am really happy to have been part of, and the architecture gives a wonderful acoustic for the kind of quality singing we aspire to. Get ready to hear your voice soar into the high roof and rebound between the arches.

So, thanks again to the church authorities for your welcome. 

To the reader, please come and join us at our rehearsals, 19.30 - 21.00 starting on 22 September 2022.

** https://www.stgeorgesmadrid.org/about-us/how-to-find-us/

Monday 29 August 2022

There is silence in my heart tonight by Ali Burns

This is part of a series of reflections on current or future repertoire as I take on the role of Musical Director for the Madrid International Choir, the English speaking choir in Madrid.

What is this music?

There is silence in my heart tonight is a recent composition by Edinburgh based songwriter Ali Burns, and this is how she describes her work”:

“I’m still completely in love with the creative process of song-writing. The careful binding of text, melody and harmony constantly fascinates me and I’m drawn to elegantly sparse lyrics that leave the work with the listener. But I also write because I have to – it’s how I stay sane in this bonkers world and how I process the inner landscape of my life. “ *

This is a partner-style song: when we sing a round we all sing the same melody and text at different times, whereas in a partner song we sing different melodies and texts at the same time. The composer’s skill is in making the different independent parts fit together. There is scope for us to arrange the song as we wish, and space is given for improvising.

Why are we singing it?

It’s a beautiful piece of music. 

Ali Burns is constantly leading singing workshops with serious amateur singers like ourselves, and as we sing her song we are connecting with those singers, albeit anonymously and out of sight. As I said regarding Pages, it’s right that we should recognise the quality of living writers and composers and celebrate their achievements in the best possible way, which is to perform their work.

From a musical point of view the sense of peace is carefully crafted by having a descending bass line which moves in steps for almost a whole octave. There is a total absence of the tension and release which usually gives music its interest, and in this case the sound of our voices float seamlessly and peacefully, letting the repeat of “silence” assure us that “all is well tonight”. 

Is it relevant to us today?

We can see this song as a secular mirror image of Dona nobis pacem. The language is different, as is the formal structure, but the longing for peace and calm is present in both pieces.

Even in our privileged situation here in Madrid, we have experienced turmoil and loss in a way none of us would have predicted at the start of 2020. It’s a pleasure to take some time to get back to rehearsals, to re-connect with each other and to sing music which is simple, calm, peaceful and reassuring: 

“Silence will be cradled in my heart”.


Pages by Steve Milloy & John Moysen

This is part of a series of reflections on current or future repertoire as I take on the role of Musical Director for the Madrid International Choir, the English speaking choir in Madrid.

Photo of Steve Milloy: OCGMC

What is this music?

Pages is a contemporary song written for secular choirs, words by John Moysen and music by Steve Milloy* b1965. 

When you look at the music score you might be surprised by the 6/4 time signature. You might think this is a bit complicated, and why not just use 3/4 with twice as many bars? One bar of 6/4 is not the same as two bars of 3/4, and it’s all to do with the accents. Since the first beat of the bar is given the strong accent, a 6/4 time signature means we wait a longer time from one strong beat to the next, and the musical impact of this is to make the music flow more which gives a more lyrical feel.

Why are we singing it?

It’s a beautiful song. 

The lyrics are open enough to make this not necessarily a love song, they also serve as a thank you to a special friend, partner or family member: 

“You’re the one who keeps turning the pages/You’re the one that I keep turning to”

That's a charming couplet, as is:

“Every word is a whisper/ each sentence a sigh”.

If you take a moment to read about the composer Steve Milloy you will not be surprised at the quality of the songwriting, given his vast experience as a musical director and choir trainer and composer for choirs. 

The vocal lines match the lyrics perfectly, bringing out every nuance in the text. The piano part is so well written, I find myself playing it through regularly, not only to keep up with the more intricate moments, also just to enjoy playing it. There is a constant 2 against 3 interplay which gives the music at first movement, then energy, then at the approach to the chorus, absolute dynamism. 

Is it relevant to us today?

It’s never not the time to say thank you and there is always someone who deserves our appreciation, so just on this level it is appropriate for us to sing this lovely song.

It’s also right that we should recognise the quality of living writers and composers and celebrate their achievements in the best possible way, which is to perform their work. Maybe the question is not so much, is this classical or pop music, as is this high quality music? 

Undoubtedly, this is music of the highest quality and we will enjoy singing it and our performance will give enjoyment to our audience. 


Dona nobis pacem: Grant us peace

This is part of a series of reflections on current or future repertoire as I take on the role of Musical Director for the Madrid International Choir, the English speaking choir in Madrid.

What is this music?

Dona nobis pacem is a Latin text, in this version is it sung as a round. The words, which mean "Grant us peace", come from a portion of the Agnus Dei which is part of the mass or Eucharist:

“It is the invocation to the Lamb of God to have mercy and grant peace to the worshipers. 

It is said to have been introduced into the Mass by Pope Sergius I in 687, and is the last phrase of the Latin form:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.”*

Here’s a translation, courtesy of St George’s Anglican Church, no, not in Madrid, in Ontario, Canada:

“O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us your peace.”**

The origins of this round are unclear. In most hymn books it is listed as Traditional, code for unknown composer. 

Trinity College of Music in London have some interesting notes on the round, which are worth looking at, and they credit two possible composers:

It is often attributed to the composer Palestrina, but some argue that it was written by Mozart.” ***

The first two bars have a down-up shape: in bar one down a 4th and up a 6th, in bar two even more exaggerated, down a 5th and up a flattened 7th. The rest of the first phrase, all of the second phrase and the beginning of the third phrase are made up of repeated notes or gently falling scale passages. 

Finally, in bars three and four and seven and eight of the third phrase there is a rising pattern followed by an octave dive downwards, only at the end returning inwards up a 4th. 

A fanciful analysis might see the early and final bars as active and the rest as passive: perhaps the active bars are aspirational, hoping for, claiming a right to peace, before subduing in the gently falling passages into a passive acceptance, perhaps waiting for peace to be passed down, or accepting that peace is elusive.

Why are we singing it?

It’s a beautiful piece of music. Even though the authorship is unclear, we know this piece has been sung for hundreds of years, so as we sing it we are connecting with innumerable human beings around the world in so many different circumstances. 

Since it is a round we are connecting with the rest of the choir in a special way: in strict four part harmony each voice line, typically SATB, is independent and keeps out of the way of the others. On the other hand, in a round we all sing all three lines, perhaps starting individually and then together, so we are connecting closely with our fellow singers. 

Connecting is a crucial part of singing in a choir: after all, if we simply want to sing we can just stay at home and sing in the shower/wardrobe/loft. The very act of joining a choir says that we want to connect with other human beings through singing: Dona nobis pacem gives us the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Is it relevant to us today?

We can approach this text in a number of ways. We can sing it, as intended, as a prayer to the Lamb of God to grant us peace, as in the peace that comes from having sins forgiven. 

We can sing this as a call to those in power, calling on them to be peacemakers, not bringers of war: the number of armed conflicts active around the world is numbing and those of us fortunate enough to be at a safe distance can often lose track of the dreadful suffering these conflicts cause as they drag on year after year, slipping further and further down in our news feed, whatever media we follow. 

We can sing this phrase as a personal reflection, using it to help find peace and calm with ourselves, within ourselves: some would say that if we want peace in our hearts, we as individuals hold the key to our own inner peace. For some, to want it is to sing it is to find it. 



*** https://resources.trinitycollege.com/learners/music/rounds-canons-dona