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Britain’s long history survives in story, song, and the land itself. The rugged crags of the Scottish Highlands and Islands transport us to ancient times. England’s most famous prehistoric monument, Stonehenge, was begun approximately five thousand years ago. The epic poem Beowulf dates from more than a millennium ago, having been written down as early as 975. Windsor Castle and Canterbury Cathedral were built around 1070. The earliest British manuscripts containing a form of musical notation date from around the same time period and were preserved in monasteries and cathedrals. The Irish Annals list harpists as early as 1168. The Welsh National Eisteddfod that showcases music and other arts traces its origins to 1176. Musical manuscripts from the 1500s demonstrate that the English and Scottish royal courts had increased their musical establishments as they grew in power and prestige, and the earliest printed music in Britain also dates from this century.
Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–85) and William Byrd (1543–1623) both served in the Chapel Royal of the Tudor court as singers, organists, and composers. Tallis joined the Chapel Royal in 1543. He adapted his compositional style as the court moved from Catholicism to Anglicanism under Henry VIII, then back to Catholicism under Mary I before returning to Anglicanism in the reign of Elizabeth I. His surviving vocal music is primarily religious but includes four secular partsongs. Byrd joined the Chapel Royal in 1572 during Elizabeth’s reign and became the queen’s chapel master. He also became active in music printing, publishing anthologies of his works between 1588 and 1591. Upon his death he was eulogized as “a Father of Musick.”
The music of the church and court survived because they had the resources to preserve it. Music outside of these institutions was, until the advent of printing, passed along primarily through oral tradition. Folk-song collecting became popular in the eighteenth century and reached its pinnacle in the five-volume collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, edited by Francis James Childs and published between 1882 and 1898. These ballads and other traditional songs, including “My Luve is Like a Red, Red, Rose” collected in 1794 by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, have continued to evolve thanks to consecutive generations of singers.
Opera migrated from Italy and France to England in the late 1600s, with Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (1692) becoming a popular hit. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) pioneered the quintessentially British genre known as the ballad opera. Irish composer Michael Balfe created an international sensation with his opera The Bohemian Girl (1843). Composer Arthur Sullivan teamed up with W. S. Gilbert in 1871 to write operettas that are still regularly performed.
Michael Kennedy has termed the years 1880 to 1914 as a “British musical renaissance.” Many well-known composers were active during this period, including Edward Elgar (1857–1934). Although his best-known pieces may be the Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”) and Pomp and Circumstance, he also composed a great deal of choral and solo vocal music. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) and Gustav Holst (1874–1934) were leading composers of the next generation, while Benjamin Britten (1913–76) was a towering figure of the twentieth century. Yet they are just a few of the many talented British composers whose music can be heard today. Twenty-first century popular culture brings us full circle as films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and television shows including Game of Thrones evoke a misty Britain in their fictional settings, reinforced by the music. Britain becomes an island of enchantment, casting a musical spell lasting for all time.
© 2020 Karen M. Woodworth, Ph.D.
Andrea Haines, soprano
Eleonore Cockerham, soprano
Katie Jeffries-Harris, alto
Barnaby Smith, alto and artistic director
Blake Morgan, tenor
Euan Williamson, tenor
Christopher Moore, baritone
Jonathan Pacey, bass
The British vocal ensemble VOCES8 is proud to inspire people through music and share the joy of singing. Touring globally, the group performs an extensive repertory both in its a cappella concerts and in collaborations with leading orchestras, conductors and soloists. Versatility and a celebration of diverse musical expression are central to the ensemble’s performance and education ethos.
VOCES8 has performed at many notable venues including Wigmore Hall, Bridgewater Hall, Elbphilharmonie, Cité de la Musique, Vienna Konzerthaus, Tokyo Opera City, NCPA Beijing, Sydney Opera House, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, Victoria Concert Hall Singapore, Palacio de Bellas Artes Mexico City and many others. As the group celebrates its 15th season they will perform in fourteen countries in the UK and across Europe, in Russia, in the USA and Japan, as well as make its debut visit to New Zealand. Keen musical collaborators, this season will see concerts with the Academy of Ancient Music, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and with baroque violinist Rachel Podger, with whom the critically acclaimed ‘Guardian Angel’ project will continue.
With an on-going program of recordings, videos and live broadcasts, VOCES8 is heard regularly on albums, international television and radio, as well as maintaining a vibrant web performance presence. The ensemble is a Decca Classics artist and has released acclaimed recordings that have all reached the top of the classical charts. Their latest release is ‘Enchanted Isle’, released in January 2019. This season sees planned releases with Decca Classics as well as the group’s own label.
VOCES8 is passionate about music education and is the flagship ensemble of the music charity the VOCES8 Foundation. Engaging in a broad range of outreach work that reaches up to 40,000 people a year, the group runs an annual program of workshops and masterclasses at the Foundation’s home in London, the VOCES8 Centre at St Anne & St Agnes Church. Dedicated to supporting promising young singers, the group awards eight annual choral scholarships through the VOCES8 Scholars initiative. These scholarships are linked to the annual Milton Abbey Summer School at which amateur singers of all ages are invited to work and perform with VOCES8. Through the separate VOCES8 USA Foundation there is another set of 8 talented Scholars. The ensemble is proud to be the Associate Ensemble for Cambridge University and delivers a Masters program in choral studies.
VOCES8 has premiered commissions from Jonathan Dove, Roxanna Panufnik, Alexander Levine, Alec Roth, Ben Parry, Ola Gjeilo, Philip Stopford, Graham Lack, Thomas Hewitt Jones and Owain Park. 2019 will see Roxanna Panufnik as the group’s Composer-in-Residence, and Jim Clements as Arranger-in-Residence. As ambassadors for Edition Peters the ensemble publishes educational material including the ‘VOCES8 Method’. Developed by Paul Smith, co-founder of VOCES8, this renowned and unique teaching tool is available in four languages and adopts music to enhance development in numeracy, literacy and linguistics. Also available are two anthologies of its arrangements, and an ever-expanding ‘VOCES8 Singles’ range.