The church mouse was tempted out of hibernation at the thought of hearing Academia Musica singing last Saturday and so crept out from her snug fastness where she had hidden from the recent icy blasts and towering snowdrifts. She was not to be disappointed. Academia Musica is an accomplished choir, as one might expect from singers with an international recording contract with Priory Records, who have broadcast on the BBC and perform with professional ensembles such as the ESO. The setting of the Grade 1 Listed St. Mary’s Church was, therefore, very suitable for this programme of Passiontide Music, which also included some organ pieces played by Tim Pratt and Jon Weller, the choir’s Director.
The singing was mainly a cappella, focusing slightly more on the C16th to C18th, although there were later pieces, including an interesting variation of Psalm 51 written very recently by Sarah MacDonald from Selwyn College, Cambridge, and the Director of Ely Cathedral Choir. Using only the girls of the choir, the core of the piece was a note repeated throughout, through swelling discordances which resolved themselves into harmonies, finally finishing on the same note sung in unison. It deserves to be sung more often although the much better-known Miserere by Allegri was also performed tonight. This beautiful piece was jealously guarded by the Papacy which forbade its performance outside the Vatican so the music has filtered down to us through the fourteen-year old ears of Mozart, who was so taken by it that he wrote it down after he heard it inside the Vatican. The soaring top C it contains was well- sustained by Academia Musica’s soloist – a top C about which there is an interesting story.
Mendelssohn also transcribed the Miserere in 1831, but the version he heard was sung higher than originally intended. When the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians was being collated some years later, part of the score of the Miserere was used to illustrate an article and accidentally included part of Mendelssohn’s higher transcription. The error was replicated over the next hundred years until it became the norm to sing the piece at the higher pitch. So the beautiful top C which we all love so much today, only seems to have appeared by accident!
Strong, confident singing defined the evening with a good blend of voices in items such as Byrd’s Ave Verum and Haydn’s Agnus Dei (from Missa in tempore belli). Stainer’s God So loved the World provided a fitting conclusion to the evening.
It was a very enjoyable experience to be able to listen to some excellent music in St. Mary’s, originally built around 1200 and extended and rebuilt in the C13th.The octagonal shingled spire, probably added in the C18th to an earlier tower, is just one of many fascinating features of the church. More information can be found here.
Thanks must go to Academia Musica and Jon Weller for the entertaining concert and also to Tom Hawksley, Church Warden, who took such trouble to ensure that arrangements ran smoothly and that the heating was turned on!