Musical Expression and Aliveness through the centuries: ORA and Many are the Wonders

On a wintery evening in early February last year I braved the cold rain to make a pilgrimage to the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. No, it wasn’t to pay homage to the burial place of Lady Jane Grey or Anne Boleyn, though that would have been appropriate on that dreary night. The event I was headed to was the first concert of the ORA consort, a new ensemble dedicated to bridging the gap between the choral masters of the 16th century, and the those of the current choral renaissance.

ORA is directed by Suzi Digby, a conductor, and founder of about 16 million different ensembles and musical charities. She’s been a coach and judge on Last Choir Standing, and teaches choral conducting at USC. That’s where I met her for the first time in 2011, thanks to the wonders of twitter.

In 2014 she started an ensemble in California called The Golden Bridge with a similar aim as ORA – namely, to connect the modern choral scene with the Golden Age of the late 16th century.

This struck a chord with me (no pun intended) because choral music was my gateway to history. It was while singing Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus as a moody 16 year old believing herself to be out of place in Farmtown USA that I fell deeply in love with the music of a recusant Catholic composing for the liturgy of a Protestant Elizabethan court. It spoke to the side of me that loved the drama, and I was fascinated by the religious turmoil of the period, and how it became expressed in music.

Fitting then, to find myself twenty years later in the Chapel where some of the most famous religious reformers and martyrs are buried. Anne Boleyn, who arguably ushered in the Protestant Reformation with her logically sound argument that Henry VIII didn’t have to get permission from the Pope to marry her, since he was the head of the Church in England. She also passed him illegal reformist tracts to back up her thesis. Thomas Cromwell, who took it further by dissolving the monasteries to refill Henry’s bank account. Lady Jane Grey, who became the victim of a failed succession rebellion in which the Protestant Edward VI did not want the throne falling into the hands of his older, Catholic sister, Mary I. Lady Jane found herself beheaded soon after.

The atmosphere in the chapel was intimate, just as the new Protestant faith promised an intimate relationship with the Divine rather than a rigid and structural one through the Pope. ORA performed modern reflections of Tudor and Elizabethan music, even highlighting my beloved Ave Verum Corpus.

 

I love choral music because it is a way of experiencing intimately the soul not just of the composer, but of everyone who has sung, or even listened, to the music in the years since. When you listen to Byrd in a place with the original acoustics, it’s as if you’re experiencing it with him. When you sing or listen with the same view – literally – that the choir or congregation would have had, it’s as if you are right there with them.

Recently I’ve also become interested in historic cooking, since it’s another pathway to authentically experiencing the past, but I find it to be less intimate than music. Perhaps because people put pieces of their soul into their music, both while composing, and singing. For this time period, there’s so much emotion in this liturgical music. It was a time of great excitement for the new ways that one could experience God, but it was also a period of religious turmoil as religions changed.

Added to that the inner struggle of possibly not being able to not express your deeply held religious beliefs for fear of being, you know, burned at the stake.

Whatever the reasons, choral music, for me, is a pure expression, and a pathway to connecting not just with our own humanity, but with that of the people who have been singing it since it was first composed.

ORA is a project that is tapping into that by taking music from Tudor and Elizabethan masters, and commissioning modern interpretations of the originals. The reimagining of Ave Verum Corpus from Roderick Williams on the first album was just as atmospheric, and pulled on the dissonance that Byrd must have felt.

The new album Many are the Wonders, released in June, also looks at the religious changes in the Elizabethan period by reimagining the tunes for the Parker Psalter. The historic context is that in 1560 Archbishop Matthew Parker, England’s first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, published the psalms in English, and Thomas Tallis wrote a series of “tunes” to go along with them.

Having the Bible in your own native language seems to make perfect sense to most of us, in the vein of having a personal relationship with the Divine. But before the Reformation this would have been heretical talk, and likely would have had you burned. The common rabble couldn’t be entrusted with the Word of God. What if they interpreted it wrong, and suddenly went down a path of Satan? No, common people needed a bishop to interpret it for them from Latin.

People died trying to get the Bible in English. William Tyndale was one of the first. Even towards the end of Henry’s reign martyrs like Anne Askew were killed for suggesting that every person deserved to read the Word of God.

During the reign of Henry’s son Edward, this all changed. Suddenly music had to be composed in English. You see pieces like Tallis’ If Ye Love Me written simply, easily understood, in English.

By the time we get to Matthew Parker, and his English Psalter, England had gone back to Catholicism under Mary, and following her death was in the midst of attempting to find a middle ground. The compromise seemed to be that people would have a common service rooted in Protestantism, but it would still retain some of the vestiges of Catholicism. This was too much for the Puritans, and a generation after Elizabeth’s death we see the culmination of the religious tension in the English Civil War, and the flirtation with a Protectorate.

So, right in the middle of this journey we have Parker and his English Psalter. The tunes of the Psalter themselves had been lost for years after Tallis died. They became popular again after Vaughan Williams’ 1910 Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. And they are experiencing a resurgence in popularity for their simple beauty.

The mixture of modern with ancient might not work for everyone. I have to admit that I’m not actually super crazy about a lot of modern choral music. It doesn’t “work” the way I want it to. I find the harmonies confusing, and it requires a lot of mental energy to try to understand.

With that said, I love the way the ORA album merges the two together, because it is an expression of how music lives on and inspires.  Listening to modern interpretations of these famous pieces I’ve been listening to for decades is both startling, and thought provoking. For me it’s not easy music to listen to. I need to concentrate on it to really take it all in. But listening with good headphones and my eyes closed, the experience is transcendent. It’s as if I’m swimming around in this musical batter mixing together the old and the new into this marvelous new concoction.

That’s what it felt like on that night in the Chapel in the Tower of London. Walking through the Tower after the concert, alone and moving slowly in the dark, I could almost feel the spirits of Anne, Thomas, and Jane walking with me. Leaving the Tower and walking back into modern London, it seemed a perfect metaphor for what ORA is trying to do. It’s my hope that it will go on for a long, long time.

Buy the album on Amazon here. (standard disclaimer – that’s an affiliate link – you pay the same price, but the podcast gets part of the profits – hooray!)

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