APRIL 19, 1975
PETER HALLOCK, Countertenor
ROGER SHERMAN, Harpsichord
The harpsichord used for this concert was Keith Hill’s Opus 18, built in early 1975 for use in local performance of a Mozart opera. It was unusual in many ways, first for coming from a city with virtually no early music culture -- Grand Rapids, MI. At a time when most harpsichord makers cranked out one, or at the most two, harpsichords per year, Hill built this instrument in just 9 days. He used the wood from a packing crate for the soundboard. The design featured an unusually shallow case (less than 6 inches high without a stand). Built in the Italian manner, with two 8’ sets of strings, it was very light-weight, and could be carried by one person. Opus 18 had a strong vocal character, particularly in the treble, and was an ideal instrument for the music of this program.
Roger Sherman and I offer this memento of things past: an event which took place on an ordinary date, in an ordinary place and attended by ordinary people.
As a performance of early music, the concert was an historic event, in part because of it¸ very ordinariness. For me, it was a watermark that measured a shift from when such performances would more likely have taken place on a select date, in a select place (perhaps the salons of Paris, London or Manhattan), and before an audience of the haute monde, devoted primary to being seen. In contrast, Roger and myself were performing as two Seattle natives in “historic” Beer Town.
Seattle, November 2011
I arrived in Canterbury midday on a Friday in the spring of 1949 to begin graduate work at the College of St. Nicolas (Royal School of Church Music), located in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral. After receiving a cordial reception at Roper House, the student’s hostel, I was asked to report to Dr. Gerald Knight, warden of the College and organist/choirmaster of the Cathedral. After a warm but brief pro forma conversation, Dr. Knight suggested that I might attend a concert in the Chapter House on the afternoon following as one of the few “entertainments the city of Canterbury would be able to offer over the weekend other than a movie at one of the two cinemas. While the decision to attend the concert was a matter of default rather than one of genuine interest, it proved to be providential.
The chapter house—about the length and width of a tennis court, with a thirty-foot high, beautifully painted wood ceiling—is an architectural exemplar of form follows function: its stone bench around the perimeter and a single stone throne of austere dimension, front and center, clearly reflected the use for which it was originally constructed and used for centuries. On this occasion, filled with folding wood chairs, its glorious acoustical ambiance was the sort of thing musicians dream of but seldom enjoy.
Finding my place amongst the audience of about 100, I studied the program to note that except for Purcell, the names of the rest of the composers were little more than fleeting remnants of a long forgotten music history exam.
The program opened with lute songs by Dowland and Campian sung by Alfred Deller with Desmond Dupré accompanying on guitar. (There were no skilled lutenists in England at the time.) The sound of Deller’s voice in the space, combined with the beauty of Elizabethan language and the almost metaphysical nature of the poetry was psychedelic: “the mind liberated from its ordinary fetters.”
A quick look at the program revealed that I had not given due attention to the word countertenor, undoubtedly because I had no idea what it meant. That the word would soon be attached to a new adventure in my life—and very soon—was beyond my imagination.
On Monday, two days later, I found myself seated in the choir rehearsal room of the college. As a student of the college it was my duty to join the men and boys in singing the liturgies in the college chapel.
The rehearsal room was not much bigger than a good sized dining room, which may well have been what it was when the building was built, 100 years earlier. In the center was a low table, 4’ x 16’, around which the boys were seated. The choirmaster sat at one end of the table, looking over a small, spinet piano. The men were seated around the perimeter of the room on benches in a U-shaped configuration.
As the rehearsal was about to begin, Edred Wright, choirmaster, glanced about the room and made note of the fact that two of the students had departed at the end of the previous term. “Gentlemen, we are short two altos,” spoken in such a manner as to convey an order, not a mere observation.
As the student next to me stood and moved to the opposite side of the room, I experienced number two of life changing revelations—that men, not older boys, sang alto. By the end of the rehearsal I realized that singing in the alto range was something I was also able to do; that using my “head voice” to sing pitches above my natural baritone range was something I had been doing since my voice changed at age fourteen. Eager to use every opportunity to learn all that my stay in England might offer, I asked the choirmaster if I might move to the alto section as well. Permission granted, my future as a countertenor was under way.
It was during the middle of my second year when my G. I. Bill benefits were due to run out that Gerald Knight encouraged me to audition for the Cathedral Choir, a vacancy yet unfilled since Alfred Deller’s departure for London and the choir of St. Paul’s in 1947.
Following a mid-week Evensong, I sang a solo from a Boyce verse anthem with Hewlett Johnson—the infamous Red Dean of Canterbury —as my adjudicator. And so it was I became a lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral, to my knowledge, a first for an American citizen.
A few weeks later, at the urging of Dr. Knight, I took the exam for the Associate Diploma from the Royal College of Music. To my surprise, countertenor was not included amongst the categories for voice types: contralto, yes; countertenor no. (Was I not in the home of Henry Purcell? What about the hundreds of altos without which English Cathedral Choirs would not exist?) With a stiff upper lip, and despite the incongruity, I sang a lieder by Hugo Wolf in order to fulfill the requirement for 19th century repertoire that a contralto would have embraced with justifiable affection. Herbert Howells was one of the two adjudicators. On my departure I encountered, for the first time, a liability to singing countertenor known to Deller before me, and to many countertenors to follow for the next two or three decades: Howells asked if I was planning a career as a female impersonator. (See the New York Times article, “Who Can Resist A Man Who Sings Like A Woman, December 3, 2010.)
Coming from a composer whose entire repertoire was tied to the Cathedral tradition I was left speechless. Deller’s reputation was already well established through BBC broadcasts as well as HMV recordings. Could it be that Howells was that uninformed about the musical life of London? Or was the question directed to myself as an American, Howells entertaining (perhaps) an opinion that in America only “entertainment could provide a place for a countertenor? That such a perception was (is?) held by some of the British regarding the state of American culture was vividly documented by an experience related to me a few years later by my dear friend Eva Heinitz, renowned both in Europe and America as a virtuoso cellist and viola da gambist.
At a reception following a viola da gamba recital at Wigmore Hall, London—with Boris Ord as harpsichordist—a pearl-bedecked matron in her late seventies, having noted from the program notes that Seattle was Eva’s home, approached Eva with, “tell me Miss Heinitz, is it true that people in Seattle actually attend your recitals on the viola da gamba? Eva—with her lightning-quick ability to recognize snobbery and effeteness when she heard it—responded, “oh yes, they ride into the auditorium on their horses, but they remain well behaved for the entire program.”
In returning to Howells’ question, I remind myself of the time and place: the end of The Battle of Britain having occurred only six years earlier, and as place, the City of London which suffered such devastation. Today, we, as beneficiaries, enjoy the rewards of the energy and creativity that followed: for one, the amazing momentum of the early music movement. Lest we take too much for granted, we stand on the shoulders of such radical pioneers as Schweitzer, Landowska, Heinitz, Flentrop, Hubbard, et al. And for myself, on this occasion, Alfred Deller.
And as a timely example, let us rejoice for informed performances of Messiah that have, as yet, barely escaped the echoes of the 1859 performances in the Crystal Palace, London: 2000 singers, an orchestra of 500, and an organ worthy of Paul Bunyan. What a stunning contrast from the court of Elizabeth I, when poet/lutenist singers performed in small, private rooms; spaces where nuance and subtlety of expression were a natural response to the intimacy of the setting.
As I reflect on that second day in Canterbury, hearing Alfred Deller sing, I realize that at the time it was as a matter of intuition, that I understood that the countertenor voice, with its shamanesque, gender-neutral sound, was the ideal “instrument for the near metaphysical, “inner-life poetry of Dowland, Campian and others. This awareness of the mystical nature of our existence, reinforced by the sound of plainsong as I “discovered it a few weeks later in the 11th century crypt of the Cathedral, were the two treasured gifts I brought home to Seattle when I returned in late 1951.
Like a pebble dropped in the pond by Alfred Deller, the story has continued with the Compline Choir for the past 56 years, the choir now producing its own ripples as similar choirs emerge “from shore to shore.” (The Compline Choir of the Lutheran church of Honolulu is now celebrating its 27th year.)
According to author Gevin Giorbran (Everything Forever), the ripples dropped in a pond are at one with those dropped in the sea. They continue to move out unceasingly until and beyond when time will shape a new theology and when mysticism will trump the old.
“The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms -- this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
-- Albert Einstein