If Coldplay were booked to gig at Exeter Cathedral (almost, but not quite impossible), you’d expect it to be a sell-out. You could say the same about a Christmas carol concert, and definitely for another performance of Handel’s Messiah. But how many would go to see and entire programme that consisted solely of 16th Century English polyphony? Let’s face it – this is niche, and not any old niche, but one with a gi-normous n. Niche, in fact. And nobody likes niche stuff. Only a few weird people.
Isn't it amazing when you hear someone make a complicated subject seem simple? Brian Cox explaining the Universe, for example. Or to reverse that, listening to a sports commentator can reveal there’s much more to the sport than initially meets the eye. Isn’t tennis just whacking a ball over a net? Why does Andy Murray need a whole team to make him a winner?
My point is that effort is usually rewarded. Ask a gardener. Ask a musician. Sometimes a huge effort has a small return (ask any writer) but when a small effort brings large reward it’s wonderful. So:
16th Century English – Tudor. Polyphony – poly (many) + phony (sounds).
In other words, more than one sound at a time. Think of a duet, trio, choir, rock band, orchestra – our modern ears are used to a great many sounds at one time. It is the purity of sound and being lured along the interweaving threads of melody that I love so much about this early music. There's never any shuffling or coughing in these concerts, and I'm sure it isn't because everyone is terrified of making a noise. You are compelled to listen so attentively that I can only describe it as an out of the body experience. A brief and beautiful holiday from oneself.
How about a concert advertised as Songs from the Tudors? Perhaps that would have more appeal? Of course it would help if Gareth Malone conducted it, but hey…that concert I went to in Exeter Cathedral the other night was packed to the gills. The Tallis Scholars tour the world packing audotoriums wherever they sing. It’s the same with I Fagiolini, The Sixteen, Stile Antico and all over the world there are little groups of amateur singers such as my own Nota Bene, who are endeavouring to capture some of that Renaissance magic. Not so niche after all?
My enchantment with that world stretched to writing a mystery about the musicians both past and present. The Secret for the Song is coming soon.