To whom it may concern the most
or least (it hardly matters) here
I introduce my worthy friend, and boast
our intimacy dear. He flatters
you with smiling eyes that seem to say
“I know your soul”, though words betray
no condescension, premonition,
any sense of vain ambition.
“My name” he says “is Free Lance, though
by many names I come and go
much as I please.” Perhaps to know
this tale, be it one of woe
or one of sweet adventure is
what brings you here? Well then
let’s hear the story of my worthy friend,
Mr Free Lance, and his happy end.

When Free was born, he came out screaming – 
in every way a normal child
they took him home, his parents beaming,
hoping desperately no wild
thoughts would ever claim the head
of little Free. But in his bed
his dreams would stray to things of colour,
things of music, things that other
older people say are nothing,
just imagination,
adulthood will cure him of the notion
ought else matters but the Golden
Calf we cast, which all our motion
governs. We must be beholden
to that sullen idol – why not he?
What right has he to thinking free?

Much to their intense frustration,
little Free’s imagination
could not be easily contained.
From youth and upward he remained
so unconcerned with things of money
that when he worked the sort of task
that surely only greed for cash
could warrant donning such a mask,
he never lasted, ne’er excelled,
but rather when at home beheld
the things that touched the soul –
things of wisdom, beauty, things which hold
the mind enthralled. So he, appalled
with things of little substance 
– for centuries the mind’s incumbrance –
turned away, and gave his eyes
to the vision of the wise.

In time he trained himself to see
the glorious luminosity of ancient Greece,
and leaning on philosophy, found peace
of sorts, and tasting Sabine wine
read Horace – “Carpe Diem” – time
only is his great resource.
Gilded though your cage may be,
Art makes him infinitely free
to love, think, feel, enter the world
through beauty, not to count the cost
of money earnt, or money lost.
Life is to him the means of seeing
that which surely is our being,
for why else are we here, he asks,
if not with fervent hands to grasp
at truth? To relish godly tasks?

“My name” he says “is Free Lance, though
by many names I come and go
much as I please.” So now you know
the tale of my worthy friend.
“But wait,” you ask, “the happy end
of which you spoke remains untied.”
I asked him once, and he replied
“My name is Free, and Free I died.”

2 October 2020

For DH, who taught me about fine poetry as well as fine wine

Six months ago I wrote that The Fitzhardinge Consort was cancelling all events. The collapse of the performing arts seemed imminent at the very time when we needed them most. I ended, if I recall, on a note of hope, however. I said that music has always survived times of trial, and always will.

I’m now delighted to say that The Fitzhardinge Consort is resuming its performing schedule. We couldn’t be more excited to be singing together again, but this excitement is tempered with anxiety: suspended by a thread, the Damoclean sword of lock-down hangs threateningly above the heads of all musicians. We daren’t look up. For now, however, the question is no longer when can we sing again, but rather how are we to use music to take account of and deal with the extraordinary shifts of the last six months? Music is, after all, a therapeutic, even cathartic means of dealing with difficult truths.

I wish I had these answers – answers are reassuring things – but I fear nobody does. All I can say is how I have endeavoured to explore these questions in my choice of programme for our first concert back (click here for the event page). The repertoire is a mix of the solemn and the celebratory, and, while we will be ‘making up for lost music’, I have chosen deliberately not to perform any of the music that we should have sung during the season-that-wasn’t – we mustn’t simply pretend that the last six months never happened.

The most intriguing piece we will sing is Ben Byram-Wigfield’s “Evolutions” edition of the Miserere Mei by Allegri. The editor has stripped this familiar favourite back to its bare bones, returning to the earliest known manuscript of the work from 1661 (which includes no high C). As the piece continues, however, he incorporates snippets from later manuscripts – 1731 and 1840 – until he reaches the entirely inauthentic but very beautiful and justly famous top C. Rather than ignoring 400 years of change in pursuit of an ‘authentic’ expression, he has imaginatively explored and integrated each stage of the piece’s evolution, to create a work of art that reflects what is to him the ‘truth’ of the piece.

Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Mr Byram-Wigfield’s book. If we’re to understand what’s happening around us, we must look back, look forward, and be honest in our art.

Peter Wagstaff, September 2020

Sometimes I wonder why we do this. Why sing? Why go to the effort of running or singing in a choir? Millennials like me have spent our lives being told to become lawyers or software engineers. Whoever thought that this century was doomed to some hellish Groundhog Day of software engineers suing one another may be proved right in the end, but I hope not. Because I decided to sing instead. So I return to the question, why? And then, inevitably, not just why do we sing, but why do we do music at all? In short, why art?

Art is a tricky thing. Is it representational? Is it functional? What should it look like, and what should it sound like? In the 20th and 21st centuries, this has led to some pretty challenging art which not only lacks beauty, but deliberately shirks it. This is a perilous path to tread. I have no more problem with atonal modernist music than I have with Tracey Emin’s unmade bed or Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal. The purpose of them all, to some degree, is to show us that art does not need to ‘pander’ to beauty; that beauty and art are not the same thing. While this depends on one’s definition of art, the point is well made. The question I pose is, what does art of this kind give to humanity, besides an experiment (some may say a failed experiment)? To glibly remove beauty from art – content from form – is to rob humanity of the most precious thing it has: that transporting moment when nothing else matters but the absorption you feel in something beautiful. Be it in a piece of music, a landscape, a smiling baby, or an arresting sense of the vastness of the sea, it is what C. S. Lewis calls being ‘surprised by joy’, when nothing worldly matters – only the transcendence of that moment. We never know when it’s coming, but when it does, it changes us for ever. Why? Because, for a fleeting moment, we’ve glimpsed God. And in this moment, we become a better person. In a flash, we see the world for what it really is: not a market economy or a scientific equation, but a moment in time, possessed of infinite beauty and goodness. It is the artist’s job to capture this moment. And in a world enslaved to money, crippled by acrimony and deafened by conflict, what could be more important than this? By opening our eyes and ears to the real world around us, we open our hearts to beauty and truth, and so to a better society and a happier life.

Next time I’m asked ‘why would you be a musician?’ I’ll answer – ‘what else would I want to be?’

Peter Wagstaff, January 2020

When a new singing pupil stands before me for the first time, the first question I ask, almost invariably, is ‘so what voice part are you?’ And every time I kick myself. After all, how much do I really learn from knowing which part this person sings in a choir – soprano, alto, tenor or bass? In truth, the only thing I’ve learned from asking this question of so many pupils is that an awful lot of people are singing the wrong part. The age-old case of the ‘lazy tenor’ springs to mind – the man possessed of a natural tenor voice but not the inclination to put in the work required to sing tenor properly. You’ll find him comfortably ensconced in the bass line. The number of self-proclaimed altos, who, when they don’t know what notes they’re singing, can stray well into soprano register with no discomfort whatsoever, is surprising. And let’s not forget that it can work both ways: is there anything more unpleasant than listening to the ‘soprano’ who should be sat with the altos, or the ‘tenor’ who, lazy or not, should embrace his baritone?

one of many nonsense vocal charts available online

The problem, however, is with the process of labelling voices, and this is why I kick myself every time I ask a new student ‘so what voice part are you?’ The answer, for the purposes of proper singing technique, is – or should be – irrelevant. Take Dame Emma Kirkby. She is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished sopranos of her generation, yet this hardly qualifies her to sing the role of Wagner’s Brunhilde. Her voice is her own. She is not a soprano, she is Emma Kirkby.

This is a straight-forward enough policy to adopt as a one-to-one singing teacher, but rather harder as a choral conductor. Soprano, alto, tenor and bass labels are useful for choral composers and directors – indeed, that is (or should be) their sole purpose. The unfortunate fact, however, is that we are too wedded to this system. What kind of anarchy do we fear might ensue as a result of individual voices stepping beyond the confines of the doctrinal SATB? It takes a brave conductor, when the range allows and balance requires, to bump a baritone to the tenor line or a tenor to the alto, yet how many tenor lines remain comfortably within baritone range, and how many alto lines growl away well below middle-C? The question is of course not only one of range but of tonal colour: a baritone singing the tenor line will naturally produce a different sound to his tenor comrades; one that is likely to be broader (and possibly louder), while a tenor singing the alto line may have a similar effect. But let’s not forget how much repertoire – especially early music – was not written with SATB voices in mind at all. Those gravelly alto lines were written for men, remember. The issue is a complex one, but must eventually boil down to intelligent and creative leadership from the director’s podium.

Perhaps choral conductors – myself included – should spend less time looking at their scores and more time listening to their choirs. It might just open up a whole new world of sound; one in which every voice is allowed to shine.

Peter Wagstaff, 6 May 2019

The following notes were provided at the performance of Membra Jesu Nostri (Buxtehude), on 16th April 2019, the day after the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral

Last night a cathedral burned, and the heart of a nation broke. Tonight, The Fitzhardinge Consort comes together in grief and stands with the people of France. During this time of Passiontide especially, one cannot help but call to mind the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem 1,400 years ago. The distance at which we stand from this catastrophic event makes it difficult to comprehend its enormous significance to those who had come to invest so much of their faith and national identity in the foundations of that building. The events of last night provide us with a modicum of understanding.

The reason, however, that we are so sad is not that irreplaceable objects have been lost, tragic though this is. We are sad because we thought Notre Dame would always be there. In the face of our own frailty we build our faith and our identity into great monuments of stone, to stand for ever. Small wonder that when these temples to our own immortality come crashing down, our world shakes. Everything becomes more fragile than we ever thought it could be.

Consider, then, how the followers of Christ might have felt when, in a series of terrifyingly swift events, the man in whom they had put all their faith, whom they had followed through destitution and travail, and who had promised them immortality, was ignominiously mocked, beaten, and brutally murdered.

the moving trio Ad Cor, sung before a silence held for Notre Dame Cathedral

Dieterich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri is the story of this pain. In a journey across the body of Christ – that seemingly imperishable temple in which the disciples had invested everything – we hear odes to his feet, knees, hands, side, chest, heart and face. The remarkable text – a mixture of scripture and poetry – has been printed and translated for you, to enhance your experience. But the experience is more than the words on the page. Look up; watch the musicians; take in this beautiful chapel; close your eyes. Do whatever you can to allow this extraordinary music to reach beyond your head and touch your heart. After Cantata VI: Ad Cor, we will keep a moment of silence as we remember those people whose world came crashing down last night.

Peter Wagstaff, 16 April 2019