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. 

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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!