…I had no idea where it would lead. But I was much taken by their encore song, Innsbruck, Ich Muss Dich Lassen. I found a simple chord version of the song and started strumming it out on my baroq-ulele.
Once I learnt that the piece probably had a strong temporal connection with Sir Richard Gresham’s birth year and the start of the Tudor period, I resolved to prepare that song for the next Gresham Society soirée by learning how to play it “properly”.
Ironically, I found my source of serious early music learning through a comedic spoof shared on the Early Music Facebook Group on the 1st of April:
I tracked down Early Music Muse, who is a delightful musician, music teacher and expert on early music named Ian Pittaway, based in Stourbridge in the West Midlands.
I have now had several fascinating Skype-based lessons with Ian, a couple of face-to-face lessons and lots of practice in-between. Ian also transcribed the Innsbruck song for me into Renaissance-style tablature.
Roll the clock forward some months to the day of the soirée. Despite several explanatory exchanges of e-mails, Professor Tim Connell remained convinced that I am dead-panning a joke rather than REALLY preparing to play something serious. Fortunately he was at our offices that afternoon, so, on the way to Gresham College from Z/Yen, I had the opportunity to persevere with him and get him to amend his introduction.
In fact I bundled out of the cab before Gresham, to pop in and see John White, to drop off some gifts from Thailand and from the Chelsea Physic Garden in the summer, all of which I keep forgetting to take with me when I see John. He and his work team were finishing their Christmas lunch in Vivat Bacchus. The team, who are a very jolly and friendly bunch, asked me to play my Renaissance song for them. I attempted to play it, but frankly the place was far too loud for anyone to hear me…
…which was just as well, as I soon realised, once I got to Gresham to warm up, that my baroq-ulele was monstrously out of tune. Something to do with tube train vibrations that doesn’t seem to happen in the car. I spent most of my warming up time desperately trying to tune my instrument. In desperation, I even got the screwdriver out at one stage – really.
Meanwhile Michael Mainelli was also in the green room warming up his bagpipes and trying to “sooth my nerves” by challenging my pronunciation of every German word. As Elisabeth (Michael’s wife, who hails from Germany) put it, rather sharply, when I asked her, after the performance, about this pronunciation point, “what would Michael know about German pronunciation?”
The soirée was scheduled differently this year, with the buffet served before the show, then the first half of the soirée was professional musicians showing us how it should be done.
David I/we knew well from previous soirées – he was my “partner in crime” at the event a few years ago in my rap version of Any Old Iron (to be Ogblogged in the fulness of time).
But don’t be deceived by the limitations of David’s bit-part roles in my slapstick comedy performances; David is actually a fine pianist and has an excellent baritone voice in his own right. His rendition of Tom Lehrer’s The Elements is always a bit of a highlight of soirées, but this year he did also sing some charming songs, such as Copeland’s Long Time Ago and Novello’s My Dearest Dear.
Sian Millett charmed us with arias spanning the centuries, from Ombre Mai Fu (Handel) to Secret Love (from Calamity Jane) via the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen.
After a short break, the amateurs took over the programme, including my rendition of Innsbruck, which I billed as the Sir Richard Gresham Nativity Song.
I don’t have a recording of the performance but I do have a rather rudimentary vlog of my dress rehearsal at home on the day of the performance:
After my little performance, the highlight for me was Anthony Hodson’s bassoon performance (with David on “harpsichord”), Telemann’s F minor sonata. Those two also performed The Teddy Bears Picnic (which looked equally challenging for bassoon) – I could have joined in and even sung my Coppers Are Dressed As Hippies version of the tune had I known in advance…probably for the best that I didn’t.
There was also a comedic poetic tribute to Dawn who was sitting in front of me, looking amused and embarrassed in equal measure. Finally, of course, the traditional Professors’ Song as the closing number, captured this year on vid by Georgina – shared through this link, with thanks to Georgina.
I got very kind and pleasant feedback on my piece from lots of people over drinks after the show. But the icing on that particular post show cake was feedback from Frieda, one of the Gresham Society regulars, who explained to me that her mother is from Innsbruck and used to sing that song to Frieda when she was a little girl. Frieda seemed almost overcome with emotion telling me about it.
I asked Frieda if the song had sounded alright to her in my attempted German voice and in the early music style; she said it had. I told her that she had really made my evening with her feedback, but she insisted that hearing the song at Gresham had made her evening.
As always with Gresham Society, there were lots of interesting people to chat with before and after the show. I suggested to several people that I would revert to silly stuff next time, but detected a groundswell of enthusiasm for a more serious piece. We’ll see.
Did anyone by any chance come to this soiree primarily to hear me sing a silly song? Good, because on this occasion I’m going to perform a serious piece, for the first time since I was at school.
Heinrich Isaac was a Netherlandish (Flemish) Renaissance composer who died 500 years ago this year;
Prolific composer of beautiful sacred music, but by far his best-known work is a secular song, Innsbruck Ich Muss Dich Lassen – Innsbruck I must leave you.
If there had been Euro pop charts back in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Innsbruck would probably have been number one in the charts for decades. Greensleeves probably originated more than 50 years later, but in mainland Europe, Innsbruck was probably still number one for decades even after Greensleeves turned up. Many hymns, cantatas and songs are based on the Innsbruck tune, not least several Bach works;
the first document mentioning Isaac’s name dates back to September 1484, placing him in Innsbruck as a singer for Duke Sigismund of Austria;
documents show that by July 1485 Isaac had relocated to Florence, employed as a singer at the church Santa Maria del Fiore…
so it is likely that Isaac wrote his Innsbruck song c1485;
c1485 is an interesting year. Not least, c1485 is the exact circa year of Sir Richard Gresham’s birth;
1485 is also the year when Richard III failed to trade his kingdom for a horse, ending up interred in a Leicester car park, marking the start of Tudor England;
so it seems right to perform Innsbruck for The Gresham Society in this lovely Tudor Hall;
To try and give the song an authentic early Tudor sound, I found a delightful expert on early music Ian Pittaway, who wrote the tablature arrangement I’m going to play you and has coached me to play my instrument better, not least the Tudor-stylee I shall try today;
The difference between messing about with comedy music (my usual thing) and having a genuine go at performing in a Renaissance style, in German, is enormous. I have learnt a lot about early music and also about myself by attempting this;
You’ll hear three verses. The first laments having to leave Innsbruck. The second laments having to leave a true love behind. The third verse professes faithfulness and virtue ahead of an intended return to Innsbruck;
It is a beautiful song and I hope I can do it justice for you tonight.
Much of his working life in Florence; a close associate of Lorenzo de’ Medici. A contemporary of Josquin des Prez – agent’s letter to the court of Este comparing Josquin with Isaac – “[Isaac] is of a better disposition among his companions, and he will compose new works more often. It is true that Josquin composes better, but he composes when he wants to and not when one wants him to.” Isaac got the job;
Lutheran chorale, “O Welt, ich muß dich lassen”, the 17th century hymn “In allen meinen Taten” by Paul Fleming and later still Bach’s chorale cantata In allen meinen Taten, BWV 97 and also elements of the St Matthew’s Passion.
I am mostly having the lessons via Skype, as Ian lives in Stourbridge. The first was on 3 May. I had a second lesson via Skype on 23 May and a third on 13 June.
The irony of using such a modern medium to learn how to play in such an ancient style is not wasted on us, but the Skype lessons really work.
Of course, the techniques that Ian is showing me don’t only work for early music. Several of the hands-on techniques that musicians started to use from the Renaissance onwards (before that, such stringed instruments were routinely plucked with plectra only) are perfectly useful and relevant for modern music too. The simple thumb strumming and finger arpeggiation I was using “self-taught” would only ever have got me so far.
It is all a real test of my resolve and patience; I am naturally a magpie with music, wanting to play lots of different songs, tunes and styles without really mastering anything.
Ian seems to be a natural “go with the flow” tutor who is willing and able to impart his skills and knowledge on me in whichever ways I choose and enjoy, giving me gentle but very helpful steers on how to improve and things to try.
The key for me is to use less effort and get more effect; usually by anchoring with my pinkie finger or my thumb and making less extreme movements with the moving parts. Easier said than done, especially if you are me.
Anyway, we went through some of the songs I have been working on. I have gone back to some easier ones (three or four chords, mostly open ones) that enable me to concentrate on the fingering. For example, I have been using Horse With No Name (or rather, my “Song With No Tune” version) to learn thumb inside technique. Randy Newman songs, such as Simon Smith and Political Science, work well with the thumb outside and quasi-rasgueado. Country and dance songs seem to work well with that style too.
It helps that Ian seems to like a lot of the songs I choose. I have also recently returned to We Sell Everything by Leon Rosselson, for example, which works great with these techniques. Ian really likes that song and liked the way I mixed the techniques before he had the chance to suggest similar. On several others, though, Ian suggested some technique mixing which hadn’t occurred to me.
Parenthetically, here is a lovely vid of Leon Rosselson singing We Sell Everything, although he is using far more sophisticated chords and modern style arpeggiation. My version sounds very different but I think still works…
Ian suggested that I try Rosselson’s (much harder) Let Your Hair Hang Down for next time and seemed very pleased to see that I already had the chords/words for it and that Janie really likes that song. So I’ll have another Skype lesson before my next face-to-face lesson, probably with Janie joining me, when we are both up for the Edgbaston test match.
Here is Roy Bailey singing Let Your Hair Hang Down. Unlike Leon Rosselson, Roy Bailey has a much better voice than mine, but like all of this stuff, I’ll try a few ideas out and give it my best shot.
Yes, I know that the Wigmore Hall stub (and programme) suggests that Thomas Dunford was playing a lute, but believe me, it was a theorbo.
Indeed, having had my very first baroq-ulele lesson with Ian Pittaway on Wednesday, I was studying Dunford’s work like a connoisseur. A mixture of thumb-inside and thumb-outside playing, with some trill and rasgueado-looking stuff thrown in. Not sure he quite anchors his hand comprehensively, but then that would make playing the whole range of strings on a theorbo a lit of a challenge.
I also found myself fascinated by Dunford’s instrument straps; one for the shoulder (as recommended and now work in progress for my baroq-ulele), but also an additional one upon which he sits for extra support.
Mercifully, I didn’t let all of that geeky stuff detract from my enjoyment of the wonderful music.
The leader, Jonathan Cohen, introduced and discussed the pieces/composers masterfully. He isn’t a charismatic showman, but he comes across as very knowledgeable, very pleasant and inclusive of the other performers, which Janie and I liked. At one point, for example, he invited Sophie Gent to explain the techniques she was using to embellish the relatively simple parts that composers wrote down in that earlier baroque period. She explained herself very well.
Ahead of the Kühnel sonata, Jonathan Manson showed us the detailed craftsmanship of his viola da gamba. He explained that August Kühnel spent some time in England to study music around the time that Manson’s viola da gamba was being made, so Kühnel might have actually seen that beautiful instrument being crafted.
After the concert, the Wigmore Hall had arranged for some jazz in the bar, as they have done in the past but they had (or have not yet) not promoted that idea yet this season. Unsurprisingly, very few people stuck around, but we did, enjoying some 1950’s style jazz piano over a glass.
Janie and I were pleased to see the Arcangelo performers all supporting that jazz initiative after their gig. It also gave us a chance to congratulate Jonathan Cohen in person.
Arcangelo is a relatively new, young early music group; they are very talented and they deserve to do well. For sure, we’ll be looking out for them again.