BIRMINGHAM SCHOOLCHILDREN TAKE UP WILLIAM BYRD’S “REASONS TO SING”
By Christopher Morley
Four hundred years after the death of William Byrd, the great Elizabethan and Jacobean composer’s spirit lives on in the young voices of well over 100 Birmingham schoolchildren singing in the premiere of Kerry Andrew’s new Byrd-inspired commission at the Barber Institute on November 8. They will join the early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico and Horizon Voice as the culmination of a project instigated by Dr Katie Bank of the University of Birmingham.
In his own preface to his ‘Psalmes, Sonets and songs of sadness and pietie’ of 1588, Byrd listed eight reasons why singing is so beneficial to all, including curing stammering, and concluded with the injunction “Sing singing is so good a thing I wish all men would learn to sing”.
Kerry Andrew has followed in the footsteps of her great predecessor, whose description as England’s Nightingale gives its name to Stile Antico’s current tour celebrating his music, and named her new commission ‘Oh, Sing’.
“Stile Antico gave me Byrd’s treatise on singing as a starting point and I completely used it as inspiration for the original lyrics I wrote, which celebrate singing, and singing together,” she tells me.
“I'm really grateful to Stile Antico and the Byrd Project for this commission, which I feel is important in encouraging young people to sing at an age when singing drops off a little!
“All my experience in previous work with young people was invaluable in thinking about what sort of material they might like to perform - a funky, catchy chorus in the right range for 12/13-year-olds, with body percussion!”
Katie Bank explains the educational impetus behind the project.
“While I certainly love Byrd’s music and it features regularly in my research, my primary interest was to use Byrd’s anniversary to connect his unique story and music with what students learn in Year 8 about the Tudor era and the English reformation. Music and history are particularly intertwined in this period, and music is often overlooked for this age group as an important window into the past.
“Byrd lived in a time rife with plague and violent religious conflict, both at home and abroad. But he still saw tremendous value in the arts and believed deeply in how music and poetry bring people together, strengthening and healing body and spirit.”
How did the dissemination of his music into the consciousness of youngsters happen?
“We teamed up with Horizon Voices, a young professional vocal ensemble specialising in educational outreach. Their participation has helped us work with younger children than we might otherwise have been able to successfully reach.
“Horizon are running four virtual lessons with each class of Year 8s, culminating in an in-school workshop with Horizon Voices. These sessions are currently underway at St John Wall Catholic School and Jewellery Quarter Academy. They are exploring Byrd’s history and music, practicing and recognising music fundamentals such as ‘canon and ‘tempo’, and reflecting upon the role music plays in their own sense of health and wellbeing.
“Thanks to University of Birmingham. Stile Antico Foundation and Arts Council England should probably be noted. We will also be running ‘Reasons to Sing’ education events in Leeds and Newcastle in early 2024.”
Rebecca Hickey, a soprano with Stile Antico, tells me about the group’s work with amateur singers.
“Stile Antico was set up with several aims: to experience the joy of singing Renaissance music together; to share our passion for it with audiences; and to introduce people to singing it themselves, even from a young age.
“The Stile Antico Foundation was set up in 2014 to support these aims, in particular the latter and the Foundation has enabled us to run various school projects, Come & Sing events for amateurs and an annual Youth Consort course for 16-22 year old singers, amongst other things.
“We are all conscious of how lucky we were as children that music was a central part of our lives, and without our musical education in cathedral choirs, church choirs, school music departments and local council funded music lessons, we would not be doing what we now do. The place of music in schools and elsewhere seems to be devalued each year and this project was one way of filling the gap, which is why we were delighted to be asked by Katie to be part of it. Our work in schools has often focussed on the 15-18 age group, so it is wonderful that this project focuses on 12-13 year-old students.”
Rebecca explains how the planning and logistics work.
“As a group, we are self-run (with no director in charge!) so we divide the various administrative duties amongst ourselves. My remit is to co-ordinate all our outreach activities which, I think, is one of the most fulfilling jobs to have. Although we adore performing and taking our music to audiences all over the world, it is the contact with amateur singers who derive such pleasure from singing the music we also love and young singers-in-the-wings which is the most rewarding thing.
“We are really looking forward to singing to the students as well as with them, in the Family Concert in Birmingham. Alongside students who have taken part in the schools project, this free concert is open to anyone in any age group and all will be able to participate
“Then in the evening we will sing our concert programme ‘England’s Nightingale’ focusing on different parts of William Byrd’s life, as well as his legacy, which to our delight is still being realised today.”
*Stile Antico’s free family concert is at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham on November 8 (4pm). Their Byrd tribute “England’s Nightingale”, follows at 7.30pm.