Taverner Symposium - 'A Pursuit of Music' - Oxford

Exactly a week after playing in Oxford with the Oxford Bach Soloists, I was back in the 'City of Dreaming Spires' for the Taverner Consort's Symposium, entitled 'A Pursuit of Music'. The talk took place at Oxford University's Faculty of Music and Bate Collection on Sunday 23rd of April 2017.

I had given a talk at the previous event (Taverner at 40 - April 2013) and it was remembered that I had shown a certain level of technological prowess in my offering. Andrew Parrott asked me if I would be willing to assist the lecturers with their digital presentations and audio examples for the 2017 symposium. I was also asked to play some natural trumpet fanfares throughout the day, to encourage everybody back into the lecture theatre after each of the breaks.

The day began with an opportunity to view the instruments in the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments - many thanks to Andrew Lamb for opening this for us. I always learn something new every time I visit this remarkable collection.

After a brief introduction and welcome from Andrew Parrott, the first lecture began. Simon Ravens gave a thought-provoking lecture entitled: 'Can we turn back the clock?'. He quoted Joshua Rifkin:

"...historical performance is not concerned, primarily, with performance conditions – we’re not trying to get back into the unheated Thomaskirche on early winter mornings, although that, too, could probably give us some useful insights! Our main interest is in matters of sound and style."

Simon Ravens talked about many interesting aspects of Bach's work flow - the fact that he had no editor and there are often inconsistencies. He discussed whether these ought to be made consistent and offered "no singular solutions", mentioning the modern obsession with uniformity. He additionally pointed out that "We probably have more rehearsal time than the original players. Rehearsal practice would make for an interesting book." He went on to point out that there is not much historical evidence about the rehearsal process, so he suggested perhaps "it would be a pamphlet", as opposed to a book. Ravens' talk sparked an interesting debate, with all sorts of elements brought into play. I was fascinated by one comment regarding historical tempi. I had no idea that William Boyce, in 1762, had stipulated timings (and therefore implied speeds) for Handel's Coronation Anthems. Thomas Linley had also given a timing of 66 minutes for the Shakespeare Ode. Going back to the recurring theme of 'the unheated Thomaskirche', it was also mentioned that shorter cantatas may have been written for the winter performances. It was a fascinating lecture to begin with, really firing up the intellectual minds gathered in the room.

The second lecture was given by a very animated and passionate keyboard (and violin) player, Roy Goodman - 'On the presence of Keyboard in Haydn Symphonies'. He spoke about making recordings with Christopher Hogwood. He deduced that Haydn would have most likely been the keyboard player for his own symphonies as: he did not write figures in his scores, there are often no keyboard parts with other surviving parts, there are no records of another keyboard player being employed when Haydn was in London, and he offered the possibility that Haydn would have played both the keyboard and violin in the Farewell Symphony. Roy Goodman played several audio examples to illustrate his experiences, his past performances and his reasoning. He had also colluded with his contemporaries, other renowned keyboard players, to collect their thoughts on the subject.

Brian Robins gave the next presentation on 'Baroque opera – compromise rules: Are there answers?'. He spoke of the issues in convincingly recreating gesture and the fact that many modern opera productions begin with the engagement of an operatic director - one who goes on to make all the important decisions about the production. He pointed out that this was not the situation in the 17th and 18th centuries and went on to talk about the implications of this.

Before lunch, Martin Renshaw and Vicki Harding presented their research on 'Organs and the Abridgement of Western Music: A history of the parallel development of sung and played church music from 1300 to 1590'. Their presentation included the display of several images, which Martin talked us through. He showed a fascinating 'Modal Ladder' showing tuning ideals and he went on to discuss the various features and aspects of church architecture and talked about the subsequent modifications of older churches. Longer chancels brought larger windows and more light - meaning there would be less reliance on memory and more complicated music could be sung. The talk was very interesting and I recommend visiting their website, soundsmedieval.org

After the lunch break, the symposium continued with a talk from the lute and theorbo maker Michael Lowe, entitled 'Plucked continuo instruments: Why history matters.' He spoke of the issues of the number of courses to provide on modern replica instruments and spoke of the reasons why he would not be comfortable to provide more courses (of frets) than were originally in evidence. He spoke of the unfortunate expectation, from some musical directors, that lutenists ought to be able to play everything [with the keyboard]. He mentioned that altering the number of courses on instruments was "deceiving audiences" and he hoped that players, teachers, musical directors and fixers would steer away from this expectation. I could think of many parallels between the compromises he mentioned and the compromises that have been made on my own instrument. 

Peter Holman took to the podium next for his talk "Behold, I tell you a mystery" which explored the period around 1750, or any of Handel's performances of 'Messiah'. He spoke of the bandstand at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, built in 1735. He referenced a payment for £500 for a chamber organ with a "long movement to connect to the organ at the back"... perhaps so that composers such as Handel would be able to "dispense with inferior continuo players". He also mentioned evidence that Handel had shipped his own organ (perhaps a composite harpsichord and organ) for the first performance in Dublin, even though there was an organ there that he could have used. Peter Holman read an excerpt of Handel's letter to Jennens, saying that the orchestra he had in Dublin was "really excellent". He noted that Handel's good friend (the Director of Music in Dublin) had found Handel a very good orchestra. The lecture was well-presented and very interesting indeed.

Jamie Savan gave a lecture on 'Revoicing a “choice eunuch": The cornetto and historical models of vocality'. He spoke of making 3D printed copies of historical cornetti to establish whether certain original instruments would be worth building from wood after trying it in a 3D printed version. He played a straight instrument that had the same bore profile and finger-hole scheme (made in three, 3D printed parts) as one of Oxford's 'Christchurch Cornetts' (which are both curved). He demonstrated the difference between two differing 3D printed bottom sections. The talk was interesting and included many interesting contemporary references (Zarlino, North, Galilei, Walthero, Virgilano, Zenobi et al.) and he displayed an amazing diagram, one that I had not seen before; a fingering chart for the cornetto by Mr. Shore. His talk sparked an interesting debate. Jamie's former teacher, Bruce Dickey, was present and there were two other cornetto players in the room (myself included).

After a tea break, the final two talks came from Derek McCulloch and Magnus Williamson. Derek McCulloch's talk was entitled 'Im Anfang war das Wort' (in the beginning was the word). He spoke of his techniques for making translations of various songs and he had a small ensemble, featuring tenor Rogers Covey-Crump and soprano Emily Atkinson. I enjoyed the music and neglected to take any notes; it was an enjoyable lecture. Finally, Magnus Williamson gave his lecture 'Picking up the pieces: Some thoughts on fragments and their reconstruction'. This was fascinating, especially as I have recently carried out similar work (see Marcin Mielczewski). He talked of the process of re-editing the Eton songbook and similar works, and gave specific examples on the process of 'picking up the pieces'.

Before retiring to Pizza Express, members of the audience demanded to hear what Andrew Parrott is currently working on - and an interesting impromptu talk took place. Andrew spoke of his intention to write another book, and he began a discussion about the two 'Lituus' parts in BWV 118 'O Jesu Christ mein Lebens Licht'.

Russell Gilmour
Russell Gilmour Blog
writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.