The Queen’s College was founded in 1341. It is one of the oldest of the 39 self-governing colleges and seven private “Halls” that make up Oxford University, itself the oldest university in the English-speaking world. The Queen’s College Choir is considered to be the finest mixed voice choir in all of Oxford.
Four years ago, the choir made its first trip to the United States, and Norfolk and Virginia Beach were stops on the tour. They’re back in America this week and, after performances in Boston and New York, they’ll be in our area for three concerts. It’s a rare treat and a high honor, made possible by the hard work of Queen’s College alumnus John Dixon, the executive director of Norfolk’s Academy of Music.
Owen Rees, the choir’s director since 1997, is a gifted performer and music scholar in his own right. In fact, he’s become one of the most highly respected authorities on Spanish and Portuguese music from the mid 15th century through the mid 17th century. I called him recently and asked how he became interested in that particular subject.
“I discovered it when I was an undergraduate student,” he told me. “At the time there were performing editions coming out of the early Spanish and Portuguese repertory, so I got to perform it from about the age of eighteen or nineteen. I found the style very expressive, and became more and more interested in the historical context for it all. When I was deciding on the topic for my doctoral thesis, I wanted to work in an area where there was still a lot to do in terms of looking at the manuscripts themselves, and discovering repertory that wasn’t well known.
“It’s very exciting and fulfilling to take a piece from transcribing it from the manuscript right through to performance and recording. Certainly, the moment of first looking through a piece that one has scored up and seeing how good it is and how well it works, that’s exciting. In some cases you may be the first person to be looking at it in that way for several hundreds of years.”
Discovering music that hasn’t been heard since the middle of the last millennium can be thrilling, but such an undertaking is full of challenges unique to the task.
“An enormous amount of choral music survives,” he said, “particularly from Spain. Some of it was printed, but quite a lot of it survives only in manuscripts local to the place where it was originally written.
“Some of them are in very poor condition. The great shame is that the type of ink that was used by a lot of 16th century scribes is acidic, and it essentially eats through the paper. Which means that, for example, if a scribe is drawing neatly the round notehead of the music notation, eventually that notehead will literally fall out from the manuscript. So there are some times when one is transcribing not from the notes that are still there, but from the little indentations or impressions left in the writing paper.
“Sometimes you can get three voice parts for certain, and then you may have no idea what the fourth voice part did. You have to use your knowledge of that style to reconstruct that fourth voice.”
Though the Queen’s College Choir draws some of its repertoire from the Renaissance era works that Rees has found in his studies, the 29-voice ensemble covers a broad spectrum of material:
“We’re trying to bring music that shows the wide range of repertory that we learn in a given academic year. We’re doing music going from the late 16th century right through the 20th; we’ve got music from England, Germany, Portugal. It’s mainly sacred music, but also some lighter items and some secular items. The second half of our concert in Virginia Beach is all secular music, including some close harmonies to finish. Some people might be surprised at how gripping some of the early repertory is.”
When school is in session, choirmembers spend about eight hours a week singing together—five hours of rehearsal and three chapel services. Though many are studying music as their academic major, others come from a variety of academic disciplines.
I asked their director how he felt music had evolved through the centuries.
“I think it partly reflects changes in the general culture,” he said, “and the aesthetic ideals within which composers were working. That’s one thing that’s common to all of the music that we’re performing—the desire to express its text in a powerful way. The means of doing that have shifted as fashion shifted.”
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