Report on Cambridge Early Music Summer School – “The Triumphs of Maximilian”:   03 August 2008

held at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

This must have been my lucky year. I signed up for the Cambridge Early Music Summer School after seeing a poster for their end of week concert and really knowing nothing about it. I put my self down as playing shawms first and viella second and was a little worried when I got the response “do you also play recorders?”. Well yes I do, when I’ve nothing better to do, so I went with it and was overjoyed to find on arriving that I was not alone.

This year was the first time Keith McGowan has tutored the winds on the course and his name attracted three other intrepid double reed players to sign up, including Simon Pickard of the Gloucester Waits. Unfortunately Keith had other commitments that only allowed him to be in Cambridge for three days so we packed in as much playing and technique as we could.

First we had to settle on a line-up and try to get a balanced and tuned sound out of a quartet who had never played together before. We had a peculiar selection of instruments in F, C, G and D between us and, having had the ancient and modern history of which of these were authentically reproduced, which were not, and why, we then ended up using the least authentic instruments for most of the rest of the week!

To summarise for those who haven’t heard all this before (if you have, jump a paragraph): Shawm bands in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries were in a world of their own when it came to reading and writing down music, a bit like modern brass bands. Like brass bands their system was designed to allow players to change between instruments and use the same fingerings for the same notes on the staff for any of them. The tenor shawm in C was used to play the bass line and was played as if it were in F so the F in the space below the bass clef staff was played by closing all the holes to get a bottom C. The alto shawm was built in G but the player read the music as if it was a tenor instrument in C. If this part is written in C4 clef (what we now call tenor clef), then the bottom note on the instrument is also written just below the stave. The D soprano player read from C2 clef (with middle C being on the second line up) and thought they were playing a G instrument, so that yet again the bottom note on the instrument is written just under the staff. The net result of all this is that the music came out a whole 5th higher than it was written, and that no bass in F instrument was needed.

It seems to me that this is very useful information that I’d never come across before. How many of our waits bands already knew all this? Is it just that everyone assumed I already knew?…. Apart from the fact that it relieves the pressure for me to find a proper bass instrument for the Colchester Waits, it will give a brighter sound to some apparently very low pitched pieces. Take our old friends Tant Qui Vivrai and Bruder Conrad for example.

Slightly less easy to come to terms with was the constant talk of such foreign concepts as shaping, phrasing off, dynamics and reed control. This all came as a bit of a shock to us as most of us had been doing our best to produce a loud and dramatic wall of sound effect but once we’d got over the initial shock it led to some interesting possibilities.

Even greater was the challenge, as the week progressed, of fitting our shawm sound to the needs of the choir. There seemed to be a new piece (and often a new instrument) in every session for a while as the tutors tried out various ways of making this work. At first the choir themselves were a bit shocked, having only sung with viols and recorders before as far as I could make out. Even the course’s administrator Selene Mills admitted to never having heard four shawms playing together before. However, day by day, people began to sidle up to us and say that actually, they quite liked our sound, and by the end of the week we were a definite hit. If anyone is thinking of combining a shawm band with a choir in future and would like the benefit of our experience I would suggest the following: Always use a big room with a big acoustic, even in rehearsal; have at least 4 strong singers to each instrument; and make sure you have an instrument on every line of the music.

The focus of the week’s activities was the composer Senfl. Not widely known for much other than some of his sillier songs, Senfl was court composer to Maximilian and wrote a vast range of music from massive choral works to intimate chamber music and intricate tenor lieder, all of which were well represented in the final concert. If you’re interested in finding out more about Senfl I strongly suggest you mention his name to Kathleen Berg [of the Lincoln Waits] next time you see her, or get her book about him when it’s published later this year. [For information on this exciting project, visit]

The end of week concert was a great success, beginning and ending with the full choir and instruments including 6-part loud winds and including, as well as examples of the styles mentioned above, a medley of folk tunes set in the tenor lieder played on bagpipes, viella, shawms and drum and a few smaller shawm ensemble pieces, including one of Senfl’s sillier songs – Das Glaut zu Speyer – a sound picture of church bells that sounds strangely reminiscent of Steve Reich and the performance of which definitely included dynamics!

Chatting with the organisers over breakfast the next morning I asked if the loud winds were something they would like to make a regular part of the course from now on. They were very enthusiastic, especially if more players of these instruments and their brassy friends were to come along. Next year’s course is provisionally booked to take place from the 2nd to the 9th August – see you there?

Lizzie Gutteridge, Colchester & King’s Lynn Waits.