The aim of the quire pitch evensong project is to encourage choirs with the necessary capability to create a choral evensong that comes as close as possible to what would have been heard in an English cathedral in the latter part of the sixteenth century. In simple terms, this means pitching the music lower and employing the choir’s resources differently for a day.
Evensong is an act of worship, not a concert. Attendees at a cathedral style choral evensong may come from many walks of life and vary in their religious commitment. Almost all, however, will experience some degree of spiritual engagement through the singing of the choir. Music from the sixteenth century, whether it be plainsong or polyphony, undoubtedly has an ethereal spiritual quality, unique in the musical canon. The huge output of sixteenth century composers represents an inestimably important dimension of the repertoire. But is this music, as conventionally performed, being misrepresented? Could there be a spiritual dimension that today’s evensong goers have not experienced? Whether one is a scholar, worshipper or both, there are compelling reasons to facilitate exploration of the question.
After many generations of obscurity and misunderstanding, Quire pitch—the historic standard at which English Reformation church polyphony was meant to be sung—is once again a known quantity. There are now available to the performing community three Tudor-style organs reconstructed by Goetze and Gwynn under the auspices of John Harper’s Early English Organ Project (the Wingfield and Wetheringsett organs of 2002) and Experience of Worship Project (the St Teilo’s organ of 2010). The first two of these instruments are pitched at A4 = 475 Hz (allowing that they are transposing organs and sound a 4th higher than played); this pitch, roughly two-thirds of a whole tone above concert pitch, replicates three pipes from the organ built by Robert Dallam for Magdalen College Oxford around 1630 that are preserved in unaltered state at the Northamptonshire church of St Nicholas, Stanford on Avon. As a concession to those who are understandably reluctant to perform out of alignment with the concert-pitch grid, the third Tudor-style instrument is pitched at A4 = 466.2 Hz (allowing that it too sounds a 4th higher than played), precisely a semitone above concert pitch.
Whether at the Magdalen College pitch or, of necessity, its nearest practical equivalent on a modern organ, performing church polyphony with these instruments has decisive effects on vocal timbres. Most noticeably, the contratenor parts, long accommodated to falsetto singing by the twentieth-century fallacy that Quire pitch lay a minor third above concert pitch, prove instead to have been intended for the high modal register (typically E3-flat to A4-flat at concert pitch). The tenor parts prove equivalent to a high baritone range (D3-flat to F4) while the bassus parts call for the resonance of full bass voices (G2-flat to B3-flat). All these ranges lie well within the capabilities of the right classes of present-day singers, although cathedral and collegiate choirs for whom the Reformation period repertory is staple may need to adjust their normal disposition. But what of the medius parts, which at Quire pitch (B3-flat to E4-flat) fall within the seldom used lower range of boys’ voices? Is it possible to rediscover the quality of boy’s voice for which those parts were indubitably intended?
First, we are editing some repertoire specifically for the project. The editions are based on primary manuscript and printed sources and are transposed to Quire pitch. We hope and plan to add to this repertoire as the project progresses. However, to begin with:
• Byrd’s Third Preces and Responses
• Byrd’s Second and Third services.
• [an anthem with verses for the meane voice]
Second, the men’s parts will have to be reconfigured for the day
• Counter-tenors might be given a free day or invited to sing a baritone-range tenor part. Falsetto production is not required.
• The lighter tenor voices need to be reallocated to the contratenor part(s), and will go no higher than concert-pitch A4-flat
• The tenor part needs to be taken by baritones (or low tenors)
• The bass part will go no lower than concert-pitch F2
Third, the boys will need to sing as meanes, not trebles.
• A pilot study has produced some interesting insights into what happens when modern boys sing as meanes. It is possible for them to do so – but more questions have been identified as a result than answered!
• The quire pitch evensong project will help us to progress this fascinating work further – as well as perhaps creating interesting new singing opportunities for boys and exploring how meane parts might be taken by females.
The answer to that is somewhere between “as soon as possible” and “when convenient for the choir”! We recognize that choice of music in relation to the church’s seasons may be an issue. All things are negotiable!
It might sound something like this:
From Romsey Abbey’s recent CD in the Convivium Tudor Music series. Please support the choir by buying it if you like it – they are supporters of research into quire pitch!
Warm-Ups for Means
One of the issues discussed in the essay English Choirboys Ancient and Modern is the habitual weakness of English choristers wherever the lower register is under-utilised. These warm-up exercises for middle register provided by Terry Barham are recommended and should result in a richer and more robust sound in the mean range. However, it is essential they are used with boys who have first gained ready access to their upper “head” register. It is essential that “head tone” is brought downwards, otherwise the singing will not be “sweet”. Descending scales at pitches that eventually bring the voices down to Ab below middle C should work wonders – any feed-back on whether they do is welcome!