When Watson Farley & Williams partner Celia Gardiner first started singing at church, she did not expect to found a chamber choir. In fact, when she started out she was the only amateur singer in a group of professional musicians.
“My own determination not to be the weakest link in the group led me to work extremely hard at my performance and, over time, I began not just to like it, but to be passionate about it. I was hooked,” she says.
A decade or so later, Gardiner now runs the Schola Assumptionis, a group of amateur singers who sing polyphony – Renaissance sacred music – at services across London.
Gardiner, a Catholic convert, was one of a small group of lesbian, gay and bisexual Catholics who came together once a month at mass in a small convent chapel in London. Over time the LGBT masses started to grow and they are now celebrated twice a month in the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory in Warwick Street, and have the support of the Archdiocese of Westminster.
“I chose to concentrate on polyphonic music because by that time I was passionate about it and it can be performed with extremely limited resources, sometimes just three or four singers,” explains Gardiner. “We didn’t even need organ accompaniment.”
The Schola has since recruited non-LGBT members and performs principally in the church of St Anselm and St Caecilia near Holborn and at certain Anglican churches in London.
Polyphonic music is a minority interest, but one that has passionate adherents.
“It’s sometimes seen as a little forbidding,” Gardiner acknowledges. “Most sacred music of this period was written for unaccompanied voices, requiring good tuning and confidence on the part of the singers.”
However, she insists that its appeal lies in the intensity of expression.
“Not only did composers write for the entire cycle of the church’s year, covering joyful festivals such as Easter and Pentecost as well as profoundly dark moments in the liturgical cycle, primarily during Lent and Holy Week, but the political context in which some of these composers was writing lent its own colour to the music,” she points out. “The best known example of this is William Byrd, who was a recusant Catholic writing at the time of Elizabeth I. Some of Byrd’s penitential music is a thinly disguised expression of his feelings at what was happening politically and in the church at that time. These motets have a haunting beauty that represents one of the finest achievements of English music.”
Most polyphonic music can be heard regularly in the concert hall, performed by top choirs such as the Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars. However, Gardiner argues that singing the music in its liturgical context, whether Roman Catholic or Anglican, deepens the spiritual and aesthetic experience.
“The liturgical tradition that polyphonic music represents regarded music as a form of prayer,” she explains. “It is not incidental to the liturgy, but is its essence. The liturgy of the Divine Office as it is known – matins, vespers and so on – traditionally consisted of continuous music, essentially plainchant, sometimes interspersed with polyphonic passages.
“In my case, spirituality is very closely bound to music, and I do feel drawn to keeping this ancient tradition alive so that modern church congregations can still feel the power that this music has to evoke a sense of the presence of the divine.”
Gardiner is organising a regular programme over the next year and is planning performances not just at churches but also concerts for charity.
“I certainly don’t propose to stop here,” she vows. “I’d like to build up the group so that we can make a regular feature of performing liturgical music, which is normally only the preserve of professional singers. Some of the more complex motets, with six, seven or eight parts, for example, aren’t yet our regular fare, although we have performed them on occasion.”
One of the most satisfying things about organising a group such as the Schola, according to Gardiner, is that she is occasionally approached after a service by a person who has had no experience at all of Byrd or Palestrina, but has simply been overwhelmed by the power of the music as performed in that liturgical context.
“Clearly polyphony is a specialist area of church music and not everyone responds to it, but it’s exciting to be a small part of that movement in the Anglican, and to a lesser extent the Roman Catholic, church to maintain the performance of top quality choral music in the liturgical context for which it was originally written. I hope we’ll continue to do that.”