A Tudor Christmas offers delightful festive treat in Brighton

Piva at BREMF
Piva at BREMF

REVIEW By Richard Amey

‘Yuletide! A Tudor Christmas’ – Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) pre-Christmas event at St Martin’s Church, Brighton, Sunday 8 December (6pm), performed by Piva – The Renaissance Collective.

Eric Moulder director/arranger; Mary Mohan singing voice, viol, bass viol; David Jarratt-Knock cornett, mute cornett, renaissance guitar; Jane Moulder narrator; Tony Millyard hurdy-gurdy. All variously in ensembles of rauschpfeife, shawm, curtal (bassoon), crumhorn, recorder, bagpipe (winf instruments), plus percussion plus some ensemble singing. Non-costumed.

Music arranged from Holborne, Weelkes, Morley, Michael Praetorius, Susato, Coperario, Byrd, Mainerio, Piae Cantones, Anon, Trad.

Early music pioneering ‘archaeologist’, David Munrow, has everything to answer for. Since forming his 1970s Renaissance Dance Band to record Susato, then his shock death, his inspiration reverberates on. His enthusiasm took hold, disciples begat disciples, and reproduction instruments and ensembles proliferate and procreate unchecked.

Piva’s invading infection shows serious symptoms. They came and placed on two long black-clothed tables 30 different musical instruments, many built by three of the band, the woodwinds played by four of the five performers. On stage, it looked a cross between an oversubscribed museum display and an artisan’s or surgeon’s extravagantly comprehensive set of tools and implements, laid out for clinical selection and application.

But this was no academic symposium or instrumental workshop but an historical entertainment introduced by Jane Moulder with the fruits of her Tudor research. King Henry XIII is also significantly culpable. He brought the Bassano family of players and composer from Venice to be his permanent court musicians and instrument makers. Their family name was Piva – a Italian word also of many musical meanings.

Jane, who devises Piva’s programmes of her husband Eric’s musical arrangements, put everything performed into bubbling historical context. This merely increased the anticipation of what the music would sound like, according to which instruments the players then picked up.

Frequently it was a thrilling and contagious noise. No amplifiers in those days for inside or outside events, so with all the commotion and raucous, shameless drunk dancing going on, the Tudors needed some loud musical instruments. Here’s a volume control dial guide: for recorders, mute cornett and viols read 1-4; curtals, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, cornett, crumhorn, renaissance guitar and tambourine 3-7; shawms 7-10, drum 1-10 and rauschpfeifen 9-11.

We learned from Jane that there was no Christmas tree in Tudor time: much later, Martin Luther came up with that, St Nicholas and gift giving. But yes, Christmas cribs (from Italy) and silver tinsel (Germany), and bay, laurel, holly and ivy greenery. No Father Christmas, but by then Sir Christemas, who now crops up in a few carols.

Christmas celebration looked back to the Romans, ‘Yule’ signified the winter solstice, starting 1 November and The Twelve Days of Christmas ended on 2 January. New Year was the time for gifts but of monetary patronage. December’s Advent was a food fast, and a financial austerity period before serious Christmas spending – on food.

Plum porridge lined the stomach for spiced mutton and beef, plum, fig, grain and other fruit. Yes, Brussels sprouts (from the Dutch), and the first turkeys, named after their source, Turkey, via the Levant. The rich? They cooked goose, swan, heron, porpoise, sturgeon and the game birds. Henry XIII spent £13½ million on a Christmas feast for 1,000 guests.

Whist, cribbage, backgammon, dice and gambling were brought out for The Twelve Days of Christmas. There were theatre performances and travelling players. Bible-based mystery plays came as guild pageants in regional cities, Coventry’s birthing its own carol. And elaborate masques, in which musicians, who took home £15 a year, performed in £60 costumes – and handed them back afterwards.

The interval at this Piva concert was elongated not only for gobbled pies and quaffed wine on a dank night, but for the musicians to reply to all the questioners among an inquisitive audience. The authentic instruments are made chiefly of fruit tree woods, the denser the more resonant, bagpipes are of leather and boxwood, and cornetts are carved and bored out from branches, then leather covered. The bass shawm is taller than its player.

The hurdy-gurdy is an eccentric contrivance of gut, levers and machinery, its distinctive imploring sound synonymous with our past and still universally infusing some modern musical soundmaking. The mute cornett has a sensual and plaintive sound evoking something half-earth, half-heaven which we have heard the soprano saxophone imitate in spacious acoustics. And likewise a chorus of mellow bagpipes is a tingling sensation that Piva wickedly held back until their full-force closing item, Gaudete – with audience voices carolling.

Piva, a Midlands-based, internationally performing band had us all fascinated around the feast table and fire with their stories and mental pictures, factual message and ever-changing sound. In St Martin’s expansive acoustic, they swept the audience and away from its general election and pre-Christmas commercial fretting.

BREMF newly enact a further ancient winter tradition mentioned by Jane Moulder – the rampant and rampaging Feast of Fools. Repeating their 2019 Festival closer last month on the authentic New Year dates below, it’s a reversal of role and power, of the ridicule and merry holding to account of the gentry, clergy and general adulthood by the young . It’s a party of Medieval and Renaissance music, dance, action and verbals at their most unbuttoned and outrageous.

Richard Amey

The Feast of Fools –

4 January (7pm) at St Mary de Haura, Shoreham-by-Sea.

5 January (7pm) at St Margaret of Antioch, Rottingdean.

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