500th ANNIVERSARY CONCERTS TO CELEBRATE THE
HERALDIC CEILING OF St MACHAR’S CATHEDRAL
FIRST CONCERT: PRE AND POST REFORMATION MUSIC FROM SCOTLAND
St. MACHAR’S CATHEDRAL CHOIR
Dr ROGER B. WILLIAMS: Choral Director and Organist
RONALD LEITH: Organist
Rev. Dr ALAN FALCONER: Narrator
Both the Rev. Dr Alan Falconer in his opening remarks and Dr Roger Williams in his extensive and detailed programme note stressed that ‘It is very difficult to be at all certain of the musical traditions of St. Machar Cathedral before the Reformation’. People at that time lived very much in the present, not that much concerned with details of the past, and probably not at all with leaving comprehensive information for the use of future generations. It is only fairly recently that musicologists have been working hard at resurrecting details regarding the musical life of 500 years ago and more. Dr Roger Williams, as well as being a performer, a conductor, a composer and concert promoter is one of those experts who has been hard at work trying to bring the musical history of our region back to life. He, and other such scholars are limited by such documents and other items that have survived till our time. They are not helped by the fact that certain historical upsets, like the Reformation, entailed the deliberate destruction of the past. Maybe not quite so ferocious, but one is reminded of the sorts of things that Islamist extremists get up to today; think of ISIS and Palmyra for instance.
There is the question of whether St. Machar’s Cathedral had an organ before the Reformation. It is likely, as Dr Williams suggests that they did, but not absolutely certain. There is mention of duo libri organici. Those two books have not survived, or to date not been found. Could these be two books of organ pieces? Later experts suggest that organici could translate as workers or employees and could therefore be music for singers or Vicars Choral (paid lay singers in the choir).
Well, it is still worthwhile to make use of the information that we do have and to deliver a selection of music for today’s audience (congregation) to give us at least a hint of the sounds that our predecessors might well have heard hundreds of years ago in St. Machar’s Cathedral.
Roger Williams had chosen a fine selection of pieces for the choir and the organ and presented them in such a way as to be entertaining and enjoyable. The idea of Alternatim played an important part in today’s concert, helping to add variety and interest to the performance.
To begin with, the St. Machar’s choir looked good, filling the choir stalls to near capacity. There was the usual Aberdeen choir numbers of voices, on the right, as we looked at them, a generous contingent of sopranos. On the left, a smaller yet still generous number of altos and at the rear a much smaller number of tenors and basses. However, many of these male singers were relatively young, full of verve and enthusiasm and as a result the balance of sound was excellent.
The first piece for unaccompanied choir was the Plainchant hymn, ‘Plasmator hominis, Deus’ possibly composed by Gregory the Great (540 – 604). He was Pope Gregory I from whose name comes the expression ‘Gregorian Chant’ although that expression first appeared only some three hundred years after the death of Gregory. Roger had arranged the work in such a way that all the singers took part in the first and last verses, but in the others male and female voices alternated. Did such voices sing together in the past, if they did, it would certainly have been men and boys but in nunneries, the female voices probably would have sung plainchant. In any case, whether it was men or women or all together, the result was beautifully smooth and serene.
There followed three settings of the ‘Christe eleison’ in alternatim. The choir all together sang the first, from the tenth century, Roger Williams played the second from the fourteenth century on the organ while the choir completed the third, all together.
There followed two compositions from the early fifteenth century to honour Mary, the mother of God. The first ‘Sancta Maria, non est Tibi similis’ (arranged for organ) was by John Dunstable and was played by Roger Williams.
The second, ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ for solo voice and organ by Guillaume Dufay was played on the organ by Roger Williams and sung by a young baritone, William Brown, a first year choral scholar, quite movingly performed by both, I thought.
We moved on to ‘Deus misereator’ by the Scottish composer Robert Johnson, not to be confused with the later Tudor English composer and lutenist of the same name and certainly not with the black American blues guitarist also with the same name!
I really enjoyed this piece. The choir brought out the fine rich choral counterpoints of the music. There were fine solo groups and the soprano soloist was absolutely delightful. When the full chorus came in after the smaller ensemble, the result was really inspiring.
We moved on to music of the Reformation in Scotland. The extensive setting of ‘Our Father’ by John Angus was made far more attractive by the alternation of the strong soprano section in unison against the lower voices, men and women in rich harmonies. The final section was sung in unison by the whole choir.
There followed the first of two organ pieces, ‘Music Fyne’, by the Aberdeen born composer John Black, played on the organ by Ronald Leith. These two pieces were reconstructed by Dr Charles Foster. He arranged them for his instrumental players in the Kincorth Waits and when I told him that these had been performed as organ pieces, he said that they would have worked very well like that – and he was absolutely right. The two psalm settings of Psalm 124 ‘Now Israel may say, and that truly’ were alternated using music by the composers David Peebles and Andro Kemp.
The second simpler and shorter but still attractive organ piece by John Black, ‘Little Black’ was followed by the final piece in the concert ‘The Articles of the Christian Faith – (All my Belief) effectively the Credo, composed by John Angus. It was set in harmony, sung splendidly by the choir. The Rev. Dr. Alan Falconer and Dr Roger Williams cordially invited the congregation to join in the second half of the piece. Actually the rhythmic word setting was not that easy but I did my best to try to follow the sopranos. Frankly, these days I’m getting past it – but I did try my best!
The second concert in the series is on Sunday 15th March when D. James Ross and his Early Music Choir Musick Fyne will present a programme of music by the Renaissance Scottish composer Robert Carver. This performance in St. Machar’s Cathedral will also begin at 4 pm.