Morris Grenfell Davies, writing in 2015
My earliest musical experiences were learning the piano, later organ, and hearing, singing, playing traditional hymn tunes, (especially Welsh ones which my father particularly liked). The compressed form of hymn tunes makes them an excellent introduction to classical harmony, so I was fortunate in this respect. I first sang in a choir when at Leeds University (Physics, 1946-49) where performances included Haydn’s Creation, Bach’s Mass in B minor and I took part in many smaller events. During my two years at Harwell I sang in the Oxford Bach Choir – many exciting experiences - and increased my madrigal repertoire in a local group, led first by Brian (later Lord) Flowers and then by myself. A job move brought me north and I joined The Chester Choral Society under Roland Middleton and added Bach’s St John Passion in the Cathedral to the list of memorable works. Then in 1955 I came to Liverpool for a further period of study at the University and took part in the Music Society’s choir and the University Singers. Both were directed by the botanist, Donald Coult, (at that time Liverpool had a Music Department but only one member of staff, part-time1) and when Donald left, Bill Jenkins took over the main choir and I the University Singers. I had in the meantime taken over the University Staff Madrigal Group and was a member of a loose-knitted group aptly named ‘Singers Anonymous’. This eventually fizzled out and a few of its members together with the staff group continued to sing regularly under my direction, giving the occasional public performance.
The Wallasey Singers had been active for many years on Merseyside, directed by the excellent conductor, organist and author, Stainton Taylor, but this disbanded in the early 60’s because of Stainton’s failing eyesight. At the same time, the University had appointed Basil Smallman2 as a full time professor, with the intention of building up an active department. He took over the Music Society Choir (in which I sang for a number of years) and I continued to conduct the University Singers, giving some recitals jointly with Basil – he was a very agreeable and supportive colleague - but in about year’s time Trevor Hold was appointed to the staff and I felt that he should eventually take over the Singers. We ran it jointly for a year: I rehearsed music of the early period and he chose mainly 20th century pieces (he was himself a composer). At the invitation of Cardinal Heenan we once sang mass liturgically in the Lutyens Crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
I gained an LRAM in Choral Conducting in 1963 but music has always been a hobby: my University employment has been in (equally enjoyable) technical areas.
With the demise of the Wallasey Singers and Singers Anonymous, both of which had contributed a little to the Early Music Scene, the time was right for ‘my’ group to formalise itself and we had Basil’s active blessing and support. We became administratively part of the Department of Extension Studies, director Professor Tom Kelly and called ourselves the Renaissance Music Group allowing us to include instruments in the ensemble. This was in late 1965 and in March 1966 we gave our first recital in Extension Studies’ town centre and our place of rehearsal, the Royal Institution, Collquitt Street. Stainton Taylor assembled material for a book published posthumously “Two Centuries of Music in Liverpool”, which included a section on the Renaissance Music Group as it was up to 1974, and is copied on the RMG website. (In 1983 we moved rehearsals to the School of Music which now handles administration.) Our first secretary was Joan Wess (a major contributor to local musical life) and she was one of the figures that helped form RMG’s policy of covering music of the whole Renaissance era and venturing into the Baroque, with a special interest of the 15th century composer Josquin des Pres, then little known outside academic circles. That has been our policy ever since. The music of the period falls into some eight stretches:
- English 15th century music
- English 16 century pre-reformation
- English post reformation up to Purcell
- Spanish 16th century
- Italian 16th century, Roman and Venetian
- Franco-Flemish up to Josquin †1521
- Franco-Flemish later 16th-17th centuries
- German early Baroque
Over a period of years we aim to perform representative works from all these categories. We also include plainchant, the age-old music of the Church. Liverpool University is fortunate to have a library well stocked with complete editions of composers of the Renaissance (and later) periods and this has provided me with an invaluable source of material from which I have been able, by photocopying and free of copyright restrictions, to prepare editions of works from some chosen period, following some theme (Christmas, Holy Week, . . .) and suited to the membership of the Group. Most of them remain handwritten but colleagues have typeset a few of these editions electronically and appear on our website. More recently the freely available Choral Public Domain Library has provided an additional source. Over the years the Group has amassed a sizeable library of scores which are housed in the School of Music.
From University Singers’ times I had had links with the Anglican Cathedral and virtually from its beginning the RMG has given its Christmas-based recital in the Lady Chapel in December and one on some Lenten theme in March, always with an organist or other co-performer; the Chester Viols have often joined with us in recent years. Details of our last six programmes may be seen on this website. For these events I have always tried to construct programmes that have internal integrity. Thus individual texts relating to Jesus’ coming, from biblical prophecies, through Gabriel’s appearance, Jesus’ birth and being held in the arms of Simeon in the Temple, have been set individually many times to music, but RMG programmes assemble them in order, with a gospel tone or plainchant to complete gaps in the narrative, (much as recitative was later use in opera!) to relate a coherent story. This plan can be realised in many different ways. The December and March Lady Chapel programmes are always presented a week earlier at some other venue on Merseyside or in Cheshire. Summer programmes are more loosely constructed. More recent connections are with St Asaph Cathedral and St Andrews Church West Kirby. We have given liturgical and secular performances in churches over Merseyside and some further away. Programmes are mainly made up of Latin church music but may include religious works in English, French or German together with some madrigals in summer performances.
The Group has been fortunate to have a stable core membership – ten of those listed in programmes of 20 years and seventeen 10 years ago were still there in March 2012. This leads a to certain ‘house style’ and some long memories are helpful to the choir as whole in (re)-learning difficult works, notably those of the rhythmically complicated works of the English 15th century. A throughput of other voices however contributes to the well-being of the Group as a whole and we are always happy to welcome singers who may only be with us for a short while. Finally, I should like to record with gratitude the strong support I have always had from members of my own family.
1 This was in fact the eminent musicologist, Gerard Abraham, expert among other things on Russian music, but only here for six months periods. For some years he introduced a recital sung by the University Singers at the last of the University series of Monday Lunchtime Lectures, a duty I took over for a while after he left.
2 Basil was an expert on the music of Heinrich Schütz (books 1971 and 2000) and in 1985, exactly 400 after the year of Schütz’s birth and around the time of his retirement, he introduced a series of works by Schütz which the RMG performed in the University Senate House foyer, (now part of the Sydney Jones Library.)