Trendy titles and taglines are more or less a given at classical concerts nowadays, but that doesn’t prevent me feeling a twinge of resentment each time pieces are pigeon-holed into a concert ‘narrative’. Thus it was with a certain trepidation that I headed to Southwark Cathedral for ‘The Knight and the Lady’, a concert of sacred vocal music performed by the New Renaissance Voices.

Southwark Cathedral, © Rob Summers
Southwark Cathedral,
© Rob Summers

Fortunately, this trepidation was far outweighed by a healthy dose of excitement at hearing beautiful music in such a visually, acoustically and spiritually beautiful setting. New Renaissance Voices is a small, high-quality amateur choir founded and directed by Bruce Saunders, singer and early music enthusiast. This enthusiasm was communicated immediately by an amicable explanation of the identity of both the Knight and the Lady of our concert’s title. The Knight in question was l’homme armé (the armed man), fearsome subject of the popular song that provided the cantus firmus for a plethora of Renaissance Masses. Evidently, the blunt and direct nature of the song’s words, which warn of the deadliness of l’homme armé, and its strong, simple melody captured the imagination of many a musician.

The first half of the concert consisted of different movements from four Renaissance masses based on the l’homme armé tune, brought together to illustrate the way different composers used the theme as the basis for their polyphony. The problem is that juxtaposing single movements from masses by Dufay, Ockeghem, Palestrina and Josquin Desprez deprives us of the continuity of the whole mass cycle as conceived by each composer, and leaves us with a somewhat unsatisfactory collection of liturgical fragments. An interesting idea for a musically-illustrated lecture, perhaps, but here it was musically stunted and even, at times, frustrating. As we sat listening to Saunders’ pre-performance examination of each movement – in which he dissected the music phrase by phrase whilst imploring us to listen out for snapshots of the famous tune in the polyphony – it was hard to avoid the impression that perhaps the point of the 'Knight music' section of the concert was educational rather than aesthetic. Tragically though, this experiment was detrimental to the listener’s experience; for no sooner had Dufay’s hauntingly beautiful Kyrie finished, than we were greeted by an onslaught of meticulous detail explaining how and where the Knight appeared in Ockeghem’s Gloria; Palestrina’s Sanctus was under siege from an overzealous analyst armed with baton; and the genius of Josquin’s Agnus Dei was overwhelmed by the conductor’s request that the audience members ‘score themselves out of ten’ for the number of times we noticed that dastardly theme. Needless to say that by the interval, we all were well acquainted with the Knight’s tune; I doubt however that anyone could remember much of the polyphonic mass movements they had paid to hear.

If the Knight disappointed, the Lady triumphed. Of course, she turned out to be none other than the Virgin Mary, inspiration for so much Catholic adoration since the birth of the Church of Rome. The choir seemed to engage far more deeply with this music written in praise of and supplication to the Virgin. Indeed, they performed this intensely spiritual music with the purity, beauty and dedication that it deserved; doubtless this was because the music was left to speak for itself without interruption. Orlando di Lassus’s Litanie Beatae Mariae Virginis is a fascinating work in which the ritualistic nature of the text is treated with subtle, ever-changing antiphonal passages for double choir. Although the choir’s intensity dipped in the middle of this lengthy work, the performance really communicated the spiritual meaning of the music. This spirituality, which was enhanced by the surroundings and acoustics of the performance space, was even more obvious in Mouton’s Nesciens Mater, a sublime hymn to the Mother of God written in an impeccable quadruple canon. Such technical polyphony is hugely difficult to sing, but the choir were equal to it. Indeed, the biggest challenge produced the most moving and perfect result: Fayrfax’s Magnificat Regale. This work, from the Eton Choirbook – one of Britain’s most fascinating and important musical artefacts – is a five-part choral tour de force, and was breathtakingly performed. Fayrfax’s long, florid phrases wound upwards and outwards from the choir like entwining threads of gold, embracing an enraptured audience in a tapestry of sound, beautiful sound. It may sound dramatic, but such music demands such drama.

It was thus an enraptured audience that left Southwark Cathedral, having witnessed a remarkable transformation. Despite the best efforts of a cavalier conductor to educate his audience, it was the Lady who won the day: slaying the dragon of prescriptive listening, and, along with the New Renaissance Voices, winning the hand of many a musically-contented audience member.