52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 24: Singing the Collections
This week’s blog is about the fun we have had singing together, learning songs chosen from the undiscovered riches of the Library’s music holdings. We have explored the hidden depths of many of our staff during this blog series and, during the trawl for talent at the beginning, a few of us confessed to musical abilities of various sorts. We could concoct only a very strange ensemble of instruments, but we did see potential in trying to get a singing group together. So Briony and I put out a call to the wider library to see whether there were other singers who might join a blog choir. Since the end of January we have been meeting in a lunchbreak once a week in the inspiring surroundings and beautiful acoustic of St Leonards Chapel to rehearse. Our blog choir was made up of sopranos: Janet Aucock, Aileen Cook, Vicki Cormie, Elizabeth Cuthill; altos: Briony Aitchison, Catriona Foote, Rachel Hart, Kirsty Lee; and baritones: Eddie Martin, Norman Reid, Jeremy Upton. Dr Jane Pettegree, Director of Teaching in the Department of Music, generously gave of her time to arrange music, teach and accompany us and to craft a coherent group from our rather random selection of voices.
Jane says: “St Andrews University has hosted many fine high quality choirs and ensembles, including the flagship chapel choir, capable of delivering public performances of professional standard and of leading worship in chapel. Alongside of this, however, music has also traditionally functioned in St Andrews as a social activity; for many students, their experience of community in St Andrews is shaped by song. The music chosen for this blog illustrates different aspects of amateur, recreational singing: the singers aren’t students, but work together, and we have enjoyed each others’ company as we’ve worked on this material during lunch breaks.
In selecting the material, my starting point was, in common with many amateur music making projects, to find music that fitted our idiosyncratic group of singers. We had three good baritones to work with, but no tenors; we had women with lovely voices but different levels of music reading ability. To help us gel as a group, I chose some 19th century vocal exercises based on developing tone and interval recognition; we practised these a lot in the initial stages of the program and they helped us work out what sort of noises we all made together. Blending vowels is a good starting place for all choirs.
We practised in the beautiful reconstructed medieval St Leonards chapel, which has a lovely warm acoustic that is very satisfying for small choirs. The oldest piece in the program was partly chosen to suite this space. The ‘Motet against the Plague’ is a three part motet, probably written for all-female voices. The lowest part was presented in the tenor clef, but was singable by altos and (down an octave) by our baritones. What we’ve recorded is an adaptation of what we found in the Finzi collection copy, but we all really enjoyed how its clear, open sonorities worked in the space.
The Finzi collection includes some very interesting early collections of Scots songs, a legacy from the period when Scottish antiquarians and musicians (including Robert Burns) rescued a fast-vanishing oral tradition. Songs like ‘Farewell to Lochaber’ and ‘The De’ils awa’ wi’ th’Exciseman’ combine late 18th century / early 19th century ideas about setting and accompaniment with melodic idioms that are much older. This is a resource that can either be used unmediated (we just took what was supplied for ‘The De’ils awa’’) or as the basis for a fresh arrangement (‘Farewell to Lochaber’ was reset for 3 parts using the piano accompaniment as a starting point). These songs reflect what would have been heard in parlours around Scotland in the 19th and earlier part of the 20th centuries, [and pretty mournful they are on occasion]; resources like these were key to the compositions of many Scottish composers, including Cedric Thorpe Davie, whose papers are held by Special Collections.
Jane continues: “In student circles all around Scotland, the Scottish Student Song Book was the starting point for many noisy evenings of music making. In this referendum year I chose one for each side of the debate: ‘The British Grenadiers’ vs ‘Scot’s Wha Hae Wi’ Wallace Bled’. Both are part of our musical inheritance. Whatever the outcome of the vote this year, the sentiments expressed in ‘The Examiner’s Song’ (from the same book) proved still to be topical. However, after singing this through a few times, we decided not to record it – the words were very dated and the music wasn’t very inspiring!
Finally, we dipped into an Edwardian collection of songs based on the Rudyard Kipling ‘Just So’ stories, for ‘The Camel’s Hump’. This was probably a solo vehicle rather than written for choirs (the tempo changes, for example, are much easily managed by a lone singer). The song does, however, reach back to a repertoire of ‘good clean fun’; we started singing it with our tongues firmly in our cheeks (if that’s physically possible), and ended by being rather charmed by its simplicity.”
Some of the singers remain very enthusiastic, over two months after we started practising:
I am really enjoying singing with the choir at lunchtimes, it is such a wonderful way of switching off work for an hour. I’ve only ever sung with one small informal choir before and I was completely lacking confidence, but the relaxed and fun atmosphere we’ve been sharing has made me forget about fears and just let me enjoy singing. The range of music has been really interesting, and I’ve been fascinated by the Motet against the plague, particularly the fact that it was written for women to sing as a protection for other women. I think the Library or even the University should have a fun lunchtime choir on a permanent basis, I am sure it would improve productivity in the afternoons! (Vicki)
I was interested in taking part because I enjoy singing, something which I haven’t done for a very long time. I also thought that this was a great way to interact with Special Collections’ material, and that it offered the opportunity to experience music not only from different time periods, but also from different genres. Where else would you get to sing a motet to the plague alongside a Kipling poem set to music? At first it felt quite challenging to be singing in such a small group (being somewhat out of practice), but I think that as the weeks have progressed we’ve all become more confident. I was hoping that more library staff would have volunteered for the choir, having envisaged something sizable for this project, but I believe we’re working really well as a small group; as the weeks go by, the more practicing we’re doing is certainly paying off. I’d love it if this choir could continue after the blog, exploring more of the music which Special Collections has to offer! (Briony)
I’ve very much enjoyed the Library choristers. I can’t say that I ever expected to be singing the British Grenadiers (which is a challenge to my world view in so many ways!), or a song about the Camel’s Hump. The motet against the plague was more in my sights, and was undoubtedly my favourite piece – but the variety was stimulating, I have to admit. Yet again, we are reminded of just how eclectic our collections are. The collegiality of joining with colleagues from different parts of the Library was great too – maybe it should become a permanent feature of Library life. (Norman)
This has been an exhilarating experience for me. As a person who’ll try anything once (almost) I was keen to have a go! However, having never sung before (other than in the shower or when vacuuming), or had a choral background at school I found it most challenging when faced with a sheet of music that I couldn’t actually read! Fortunately, my fellow 2nd Soprano, Rachel, was my audible guide and once the tune was in my head I was set. I’ve had such a lot of fun and am particularly proud that I’ve participated in something that others can hopefully enjoy and appreciate. (Kirsty)
And Aileen’s reasons she enjoys the blog choir really sum up the experience for all of us:
• To sing something different, specifically about camels, examiners and the plague.
• To not think about work – impossible to do so when singing.
• To see – and hear – a different side to colleagues – I found out my boss has a lovely singing voice (pay rise please).
• And it has been great fun!
We’ve got a few more sessions lined up and then the ‘blog choir’ will take a break for the summer. But we hope to perform some of the items featured here, alongside other works from Special Collections, at an informal concert sometime in the Autumn – we’ll be sure to cover it on the blog!
PS Thanks to Marc Boulay for coming to one of our practices and taking great photos!