Hidden in the Harmonies

Vocal ensemble Sestina will transport audiences back to the Renaissance with performances uncovering centuries-old musical secrets

The balm of music, in these troubled times, has never been sweeter. For lovers of soothing, uplifting music, two concerts by Sestina, Northern Ireland’s only dedicated Early Music Ensemble, are unmissable events.

Enticingly titled The Gem Within: Music of Hidden Secrets, the programme by the eight-piece, all-male vocal group at Clonard Monastery, Belfast (August 13) and in the Church of the Assumption, Newry (September 1) offers some of the most iconic music from the Renaissance period, revealing its hidden secrets in the process.

Delightful pieces by Josquin des Prez, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Robert White will frame the programme’s centre-piece, the epic 'Missa Praeter rerum seriem' by Cipriano de Rore, the celebrated Franco-Flemish composer of madrigals.

‘It’s going to be an evening of beautiful music,’ says Sestina’s founder and musical director Mark Chambers – an internationally renowned countertenor. ‘It’s music that you can sit there and listen to and be transported by.’

The music, which will demand technical perfection from the award-winning Sestina, holds secrets, the unveiling of which, Chambers promises, will shed new light on the composers and their era. ‘Underneath all of this music these composers had an extraordinary skill at using mathematics and all sorts of hidden messages in this music.’

Mathematical formulae and hidden symbols might sound more like a Dan Brown plot than a recipe for meditative music, but music, regardless of its structural sophistication, appeals directly to the emotions.

Who needs to have a handle on Dorian, Lydian or Phrygian modes to appreciate Gregorian chants? Likewise, a lack of knowledge of Urdu or gitano dialect is no barrier to experiencing the power of Qawwali or flamenco.

Similarly, Chambers stresses, those attending Sestina’s concerts in Belfast and Newry needn’t feel intimidated by the music’s complex internal structures or hidden meanings. ‘You don’t need to know any of this, for the music to affect you.’

What exactly then are the secrets within, the 'hidden gems' of the programme’s title?

‘In Cipriano de Rore’s mass he hid this hymn of praise to his patron,’ explains Chambers. ‘You probably won’t hear it because the notes are so long ​and the ​middle voice is never really heard, but it’s a lovely, hidden bit of knowledge that I think should enhance the music for the listeners.’

Then there is the political metaphor in the motets of William Byrd, considered by many to be England’s greatest composer.

‘Byrd was a Catholic composer in Elizabeth I’s Protestant England, and the texts that he chooses – ‘how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? or ‘Jerusalem’, with the symbol of Jerusalem falling, I think, shows his passionate faith. Whilst he couldn’t express it out loud in public he expressed it through his music,’ says Chambers. ‘That’s another layer of hidden secrets.’

On a purely technically level, sixteenth century English composer Thomas Tallis wove a complicated musical tapestry within the framework of ‘Misere​re Nostri’.

‘Tallis’ ‘Misere​re Nostri’ is a stunning piece,’ enthuses Chambers, ‘but inside it are these three different canons. A canon,’ Chambers explains, ‘is a musical phrase repeated by another voice at various intervals, and these particular canons are extraordinarily complicated.’

Complex but by no means difficult to appreciate on visceral and emotional levels.

‘My idea is to give people a way to listen to this music a little differently, to appreciate how much craft, how much genius goes into it,’ says Chambers. ‘People can sit there and not even be thinking about the canons, but I think understanding that the composers were doing things on two or three levels at the same time as writing beautiful music just adds to the appreciation.

‘It’s something that isn’t often talked about and I just hope to lift the lid a little bit on that world.’

Even the term Early Music is a bit of head scratcher, as music is probably as old as humankind. So just how early is Early?

Definitions of the historical parameters of Early Music vary and Sestina draws its own boundaries. ‘Early Music broadly ranges from Medieval through to late Baroque and for this programme we did look at Medieval music,’ admits Chambers, ‘but I decided to draw the line and keep it within a hundred year time span, from 1490-­1590, give or take a few decades.’

The composers that Sestina embraces for the The Gem Within: Music of Hidden Secrets, particularly Josquin des Prez and Cipriano De Rore, were epoch definers.

‘Josquin des Prez is probably considered as the father of Renaissance music,’ explains Chambers. ‘He was the master that most people wanted to go and study with, or copy his motets.’

De Rore, Chambers explains, was heavily influenced by des Prez. ‘The de Rore mass is what is called a parody mass, which means basically he used most of Josquin’s music but then enhanced it with an extra two parts. He was considered the master of this mathematic and harmonic perfection.’

Today, acknowledges Chambers, anybody studying to be a composer would probably go back to Bach’s chorales. ‘They would learn harmony from the master, the person who had done it the best in the past. It was the same in the Renaissance. They would have studied Josquin’s music and they would have aspired to write in his style and with his level of perfection.’

Cipriano de Rore, in turn, left his own mark. His piece that Sestina will perform in Belfast and Newry would certainly have been in the library of St. Mark's, Venice. ‘There’s no doubt Monteverdi would have known it and performed it with a choir,’ says Chambers.

‘It’s the same all the way along the line, isn’t it? he states rhetorically. ‘Every composer is influenced by what came before. You’ve got the story of Bach walking through the night to Lubeck to hear Buxtehude, this master, play the organ. It’s part of the pattern of music. It’s handed down, you get given the tools and you go away and do something of your own with it.’

Sestina has been doing something of its own with Early Music since 2011. With both students and professionals in its ranks Sestina’s approach is fairly unique. The concept, Chambers explains, was born out of a vacuum that existed.

‘It struck me that young musicians and singers had to leave Ireland to go and learn their trade,’ recalls Chambers, ‘but there’s nothing really for them to come back and do.’

One obvious exception for singers is Northern Ireland Opera. ‘N.I. Opera is fantastic,’ Chambers recognizes, ‘but unless they become established soloists the most they can expect from that is chorus, which of course is a wonderful experience and many of them have done that. So, the idea about Sestina is to seek out and use the young talent out there studying or about to go and study.’

To that end, Sestina has incorporated talent as young as fifteen years old, as was the case with Joseph Zubier. Young professionals such as Sestina’s Brian McAlea, Aaron O’Hare, Fiona Flynn and Sinead O’Kelly, act as mentors. ‘I look to them to teach the younger generation,’ says Chambers.

The final strand in Sestina’s makeup is the employment of specialists for particular projects, such as the Royal Opera House’s Artistic Stage Director Thomas Guthrie, or bass vocalist William Gaunt of Tenebrae, The Gabrieli Consort and Gallicantus fame, who will be joining them for this project


Authenticity is also of paramount importance to Sestina. Whilst there are choirs throughout Ireland that perform Early Music, few go to the lengths of Sestina to ensure the music sounds as the original composers intended. Through academic research and experience, the group tries to bring scholarship to the music to enhance and bring it to life, as in their performance of the Monteverdi Vespers where the instruments were as they would have been in Monteverdi’s time.

‘Most of the music that we sing, like Byrd’s composition, should be sung at a lower pitch than usually heard,’ Chambers reveals. ‘When sung with sopranos it’s probably been transposed up a fourth or in a different pitch to where Byrd intended it. So, we’re putting all of this music back into its original keys.’

For these two performances Sestina will be using an eight piece, all-male choir for the very first time two basses, a baritone, three tenors and two countertenors. ‘It makes for a rich, sonorous texture,’ says Chambers. ‘I think it will be quite different to what people are used to.’

Surprisingly, perhaps, the singers will have only two days of rehearsals before the Belfast and Newry performances. ‘They’re expected to do their own preparation. It’s fairly tough but that’s the way it is. There’s no point spoonfeeding them with a weekly rehearsal because when they get into the professions that is not the reality,’ says Chambers.

‘In professional ensembles you would be expected to turn up on the day and sight read it. It’s a bit scary to say, but if you can’t do it, and if you can’t do it fast, you’re not employable and if my singers aren’t employable then I haven’t done my job right.’

The months to come hold the promise of much more from Sestina. Highlights include a performance of the ‘Victoria Requiem’ and Monteverdi’s ‘Sestina’ at Queens for The Belfast Music Society in October and a Remembrance Day recital at Christ Church, Derry the following month.

Next April, Sestina will tackle Handel’s ‘Dixit Dominus’, Domenico Scarlatti’s ‘Stabat Mater’ for ten voices and Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, featuring Johannes Leertouwer, who previously collaborated with Sestina on its Bach project a year ago. ‘Johannes is a sensational violinist,’ says Chambers, so that will be really exciting.’

Prior to all that, of course, are Sestina’s concerts in Belfast and Newry, where music penned four centuries ago will resonate as it was originally intended to.

‘I think with the music we’re doing there’s a spirituality, a timeless quality. The music seems to give the brain space to think and to reflect on whatever might be in your mind at the time,’ says Chambers.

‘When you hear this music you could be back in St Mark's, Venice or in the Chapel Royal in London or perhaps around the table at a secret recusant Catholic mass. It seems to have those collective memories buried within the music somehow and I think that’s what people connect with, whether they realize it or not. That’s why they keep coming back time and time again.’

Sestina will present The Gem Within: Music of Hidden Beauty at Clonard Monastery, Belfast on August 31 and the Church of the Assumption, Newry on September 1. Click here to book tickets for Belfast, or here for Newry.