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Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: A Tenor’s Journey

As Monteverdi’s Vespers slips into the recent HCS past, Tenor Ben Drury has spent some time reflecting on his journey with the piece:

My five-year anniversary as a member of the Huddersfield Choral Society was celebrated by singing Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. The whirlwind of excitement and rehearsal leading up to this had the effect of driving any thought of our next ‘home’ concert out of many of our thoughts,  and certainly mine. It was then, four days later, that I arrived at Moldgreen URC Church to start rehearsals for “THE MONTEVERDI” as it was already being called. (Poor Monteverdi. Despite having lost much of his output there are still quite a few of his compositions remaining. I wonder which he considered to be THE ONE?).

The first shock was receiving a score that was immense. I made sure to nab a soft-back copy, already thinking of holding it in my folder for the concert! I have heard it described as one of the worst set out scores ever seen by another member of HCS and it certainly was not always easy to follow! As a second tenor, I was sometimes singing Tenor and sometimes singing Quintus, occasionally switching during a movement. This did lead to a couple of enjoyably hysterical rehearsals early on with three tenors regularly jumping to the wrong line from time to time. Much giggling ensued.

Given the size of the score, the initial impression was that the work was enormous. On further inspection, it transpired that it included a great many transposed movements and rewrites that would be ignored. If only there had been a simple, no option, score! Logistics and weight-lifting aside, I did not take easily to the music. It often seemed disjointed and frenetic, especially following the sublime Bach we had last sung in Huddersfield. I am not a fan of listening to unfamiliar pieces before rehearsing as I prefer to avoid any preconceptions that might bring, so it took a while to adjust to this work, especially the constantly shifting tempi. I must admit to finding another reason to thank God for making me a tenor; listening to the two choirs rehearsing the Lauda Jerusalem, while we got to plough our own furrow, was astonishing. This movement in particular demonstrated to me just how complex and demanding the piece is. Hearing brilliant singers start a beat apart and, in a matter of four or five bars, find themselves singing in unison was a real indication of how tricky this work is. Of course, that is why we rehearse as we do – to get those moments out of the way as soon as possible!

As so often happens, my dislike of the Vespers gradually became a grudging acceptance and, eventually, I fell in love with it. The final few rehearsals were exhilarating and always filled me with a sense of the wonder and joy of choral singing and my immense fortune to be singing in this particular choir.

That fortune continued on to concert day. For a long time, I have been fascinated with period instruments and the opportunity to sing with His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts was very exciting. It was also exciting to have the HCS Voices and the HCS Youth Choir on the platform with us. Both sang their ‘solos’ with great aplomb, joy and accuracy. It cannot be easy to sing in a concert knowing that the entire HCS are following you in their scores!

The concert was incredible. We were blessed by our musicians and the stunningly brilliant soloists. Despite having been offered the chance to applaud throughout, the audience decided not to and saved their appreciation until the end. I had found it hard to gauge their feelings through the concert but the standing ovation and later comments on social media were remarkable. It is sobering and gratifying to realise that the performance had been so visceral and emotional for so many.

Once again, I left the Town Hall elated yet saddened that I will probably never have the chance to sing this work again and that no record exists of our efforts. Hey ho! Christmas and Messiah await!

Image credit: Liz Baker

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