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Making Music in Venice

By Richard Parker

As subject specialist until recently for history of art and history at Warwick Library, I’ve long had contacts with our teaching programme in Venice. So when plans for the fortieth anniversary alumni reunion were announced I immediately offered the services of the choir I sing with, ensemble 1685. Our first intention was to provide music for the honorary degree congregation which would take place during the reunion, but we were also ready and willing to offer musical accompaniment to the planned church visits. ensemble 1685, directed by Richard Jeffcoat, and named for the birth-year of both Bach and Handel, performs a wide range of music from early Renaissance to late Romantic, so Richard was sure to find something appropriate we could perform from our repertoire.

Richard had never visited Venice before, so he flew out for a preparatory visit. His flight was so badly delayed there was no public transport running, so he decided to walk from Marco Polo Airport into the city (it was a fine night). His compensation was his first ever view of the Piazza San Marco as the sun rose; he reckoned he’d walked every street in the city before it was decently late enough to call on us in our shared flat.

High point of ensemble 1685’s visit for me was an evening visit to San Marco. We began in a side chapel with a movement from the four-part unaccompanied mass by Monteverdi, then filed into the darkened Basilica to sing the eight-part motet Jubilate Deo by Giovanni Gabrieli – both composers were once maestro di cappella there. One audience member later told me it was a most moving experience; one singer had never been in San Marco before, and was overwhelmed by the vista of golden domes receding into the gloom.

Another high point was a visit to the Frari, where we accompanied talks by Joanne Allen and Donal Cooper. First we sang the rich, sensuous Ave virgo sanctissima by Francisco Guerrero (1525-99). This was recognised in its day as one of the finest Marian motets, and we sang it facing Titian’s extraordinary Assumption of the Virgin – as if singing to her. (One Warwick art history lecturer was apparently so moved on first sight of this huge altarpiece that he only regained the power of speech when sitting in the cafe opposite the Frari.) The talks were about liturgical space within the church, and we were able to illustrate this by singing from different points, each of which gave a different acoustic sense of the building: Monteverdi’s six-part Cantate Domino between the choir stalls, then – a rare privilege – allowed into the sanctuary for Palestrina’s beautiful Sicut cervus – the vocal lines flowing like the waterbrooks the hart longs for.

On the Saturday Warwick’s degree ceremony took place in the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava, when honorary degrees were awarded to Professor Michael Mallett and Lady Frances Clarke. There is no instrument of any kind in the Palazzo – so all the music would have to be unaccompanied. Before the ceremony we sang some (English) madrigals – not echt Venetian, but quite well-known and easily controllable as regards timings. Then Jubilate Deo again for the ceremony – its textures are sufficiently sonorous and imposing to work well as processional music. As the procession wound its stately way up the stairs and along the piano nobile, Richard was keeping a close eye on its progress over his shoulder – it would never do to leave the Vice-Chancellor to walk the last ten paces in silence... Thanks to an extravagant (and completely inauthentic) rallentando over the last two pages we (and the VC) just made it.

On the Sunday evening we’d arranged to sing mass in Santo Stefano. Often these “arrangements” are a bit ad hoc: we have a pretty free hand what to perform, and we often don’t meet the priest until just before the service. “What are you singing?” he asked Richard. “We’ve got a Laudate Dominum by Monteverdi, for bass and organ, and with the full choir we’ll give you some Gabrieli, if that’s all right...” “Excellent,” said the priest, “and very appropriate – he’s buried just over there.”

During the alumni programme we also found time to sing in Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the miraculous little marble church not far from San Zanipolo, built on such a small site that the canal had to be rerouted to make room for it; and in the Scuole of San Marco and San Rocco, and in San Francesco della Vigna in Castello; and for eucharist in St George’s Anglican church, where we sang a graceful flowery mass by Haydn. Comments we received at the time and subsequently made clear just how much we had added to the enjoyment of everyone who attended the reunion. And what a great experience it was for us...

Comment

‘On the Sunday evening we’d arranged to sing Mass in Santo Stefano. Often these “arrangements” are a bit ad hoc: we have a pretty free hand what to perform, and we often don’t meet the priest until just before the service. “What are you singing?” he asked Richard. “We’ve got a Laudate Dominum by Monteverdi, for bass and organ, and with the full choir we’ll give you some Gabrieli, if that’s all right...” “Excellent,” said the priest, “and very appropriate – he’s buried just over there.” ’

Richard Parker came to work as a librarian in Warwick in 1980 and was Head of the Arts Faculty liaison team and subject support specialist for the Departments of German, History and History of Art. He sings with ensemble 1685 – a group of about 20 singers based in Coventry who perform across the Midlands. Richard retired from Warwick in 2011.

Richard Parker

Richard Parker

Former Librarian and Member of Ensemble 1685

www.ensemble1685.org.uk