Roger Quintana as the golfing virgin Fidel Castro in rehearsal

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Fine Weather

The Shakespeare Concert attracts a full house to the retrochoir as the three small chapels behind the high altar at Southwark Cathedral are called. John Merbecke was tried here for heresy in 1543, condemned to death by burning, but let off because he was ‘but a musitian’ who knew no better. Arthur Smith tells the story of Dickens’ relationship with Shakespeare with more drollery than I have written into his script. The singing cellist pleases the crowd with her singing. Some women are curious to know her age. The voice is mature, but the physique is a child’s.

I attend a concert given by four West country choirs of serving and retired police officers. The compere from the Avon and Somerset Constabulary tells us the constable singing the baritone solos has been trying in vain for years to pass his sergeant’s exams. ‘You ain’t done your chances no ‘arm at all there, son,’ he says as the baritone’s long final note of The Impossible Dream disappears down the nave of Wells Cathedral. I have become very keen on the police and have had my photo taken by them on the A129 eastwards out of London. The picture costs me £60, but I reflect that I would only otherwise have spent it on a new set of lute strings.

The singing cellist’s godfather is be made mayor of Waltham Forest and he has asked us to accompany him, a former professional operatic tenor, in a lute song. My strings are old and liable to snap, but costly to replace. This is the disadvantage with unusual instruments. A set of strings for a guitar costs a tenner, for lute six times that. I have taken a job teaching German and French at a town 30 miles out of London to pay for them, or rather the police photo opportunity. We go out work to pay the police who wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t go out to work. Mrs Jones says I’d be better off staying in.

The job is where the composer William Byrd went to live with his family in 1593, an obscure place, so he thought, where he could be a recusant Roman Catholic at a time of widespread persecution and harassment from Protestant zealots. But he reckoned without the local Anglican church warden who repeatedly reported him and his wife for non-attendance at church, incurring hundreds of pounds in fines. No one was harmed in either his case or mine. Self-righteous bigotry was a cover, then as now, for robbing ordinary citizens.

The passionate music Byrd composed for the Catholic church is performed rarely even today but is given movingly by the Cardinall’s Musick at the Wigmore Hall. The choir, which won the Gramophone record of the year in 2010 for its Byrd, is currently on a nationwide tour performing all Byrd’s once banned Latin music. Conductor Andrew Carwood delivers what he identifies as Byrd’s masterpiece, Infelix Ego, with gutsy fire. I am drawn in to Byrd’s clandestine world by the crushing intensity of his long, brave statement.