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The Secret Polyphonic Society


Last night, as most of London was on its way home from work, I cycled along the Thames to Chelsea, to take part in what has become a regular - and in my overactive imagination, top secret - gathering of renaissance polyphony enthusiasts.

At about 7pm the invited crowd - an assortment of professional singers, organists, conductors, skilled amateurs and academics (including, crucially, some talented and prolific editors of manuscript sources) - assemble in the gallery of a gloomy church with the requisite resonant acoustic. Copies are handed out, a note is given, someone sets a tempo (there is almost no conducting beyond this), and the music flows out into the darkened nave. This is not a rehearsal; there will be no audience and no performance. Neither is it an act of worship, even if some might find a spiritual dimension to the evening's proceedings. On these occasions, the forgotten works of long-dead composers are brought to life simply for their own sake.

On the menu for last night's meeting was a mass setting by Cristobal de Morales, Lamentations by Antoine Brumel, and motets by Clemens non Papa, Alonso Lobo, William Byrd, Andrea Rota and Jheronimus Vinders. We sang each piece just once through - participants need to be comfortable enough with singing at sight to enjoy this brisk approach. In several cases the editor of the motet gave us a little insight into the composer's biography, or the model on which it was based. For me, the most exciting element is having the chance to sing music from this period that rarely enjoys a 21st century outing. It's a refuge for giant motets with unusual scoring which don't fit easily into to concert programmes or modern liturgies.

At the end of the evening the group disappear off into the night - or more likely the pub - and the spell of the secret polyphonic society is broken.


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© 2015 by Patrick Allies