What could a clean-cut, upstanding choir like Cantemus possibly have to do with E.L. James’ raunchy novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, you might ask?
Putting aside the usual choir clichés for a moment, the common factor is actually a certain sixteenth-century composer, Thomas Tallis, and his famous 40-part motet, Spem in Alium.
Of course, those of us who write this blog have never read Fifty Shades of Grey, so we can’t possibly be sure what the exact link is. But we understand that it might – just perhaps– have something to do with this exchange between the hero and heroine…
“another voice, and then more voices—holy cow, a celestial choir— singing a cappella in my head…”
“It’s called Spem in Alium ,a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis.”
Those few lines sent Spem in Alium rocketing to the top of the classical music charts. And with the film of Fifty Shades of Grey just about to be released, and with Cantemus having recently performed Spem in Llandaff Cathedral to a rapturous reception, and with BBC Wales looking for a top-notch choir to perform it on The One Show, the stage was set for Cantemus’ first appearance on primetime TV…
The BBC’s chosen venue for filming was the lovely Tredegar House near Newport, an impressive red-brick mansion built in the late seventeenth century and a highly popular tourist attraction in the summer months. Yes, that’s in the summer months. In the middle of dark and gloomy January, it’s a different matter.
We arrived at 8am as arranged, and waited outside, teeth chattering, while the BBC put the finishing touches to their arrangements. Never mind, we said to each other, as we slugged at our flasks of lukewarm coffee – at least it’ll be warmer in there than out here, right?
“We’re not cold. Not in any way”
With Tredegar House closed to visitors and the heating turned off, temperatures inside were low enough, some might say, to rival the famous ice palace in Disney’s Frozen. And like the Snow Queen, we tried to keep that (icily) stiff upper lip whilst muttering, “The cold never bothered me anyway”.
The eight choirs of five voices had been allocated separate rehearsal rooms, so we had a laughably ineffective ‘warm up’ followed by a quick run through with the dozen or so guest singers who were joining us for this ‘baptism of ice’. A few enterprising choristers resorted to a handy dressing-up box for some extra layers. Wildly varying notes rang out through the building as multiple sets of gloved fingers fumbled with pitch pipes. Eventually a kindly BBC producer offered his electric guitar to help us find the right starting note.
Then we were ushered into the gorgeous Gilt Room, where filming was due to take place with the One Show presenter, Gyles Brandreth, and the leading early music expert, Lucie Skeaping.
The first thing you notice about the Gilt Room – apart from the, er, gilt everywhere- is that there’s a very large, four poster bed right in the middle of it, complete with a decadent red bedspread.
And very comfortable it looks too.
“Gyles and Lucie will be sitting on the bed as you sing to them,” we were told.
Lucky them, we thought to ourselves, each fighting the urge to snatch the bedspread off the bed and wrap it around our shivering shoulders.
Soon, however, there wasn’t much time to feel the cold. Huw sounded the pitches for the haunting “Respice” chord in the final section of the piece, and the well-oiled BBC production team swung into action.
The producers left no stone unturned in their quest for the perfect camera angle
Take after take was done, angle after angle was filmed as the producers covered every base to ensure perfect TV viewing. They even managed to find a suitably low table for Huw to place his enormous score on, after a traditional music stand failed to stop it falling on the floor.
Gyles Brandreth makes his entrance – and a resourceful producer finds a table for the massive Spem score
Then it was enter Gyles and Lucie, sensibly dressed in warm coats and scarves, radiating bonhomie and enthusiasm.
“Bravo!” they applauded as they came in.
“This is sixteenth-century surround sound, isn’t it?” Gyles later declared from his perch on the bed, as we mimed the Latin words at him with as much expressiveness as we could muster. (Our actual singing, we were assured, would be restored as part of the editing process.)
“It’s so expressive….it’s considered Tallis’s masterpiece,” said Lucie. (At least our miming skills were up to the mark, then.)
Shameless soprano selfies
Shortly afterwards the BBC put the final finishing touches to the morning’s filming, and, after snatching a shameless selfie or two with the amenable (and patient) Gyles, we were ushered out of Tredegar House into a crisp winter morning. Never had we been gladder of a cup of coffee in the centrally-heated nearby pub; a welcome chance to reflec t on a fascinating – and unique – few hours. However unorthodox Spem in Alium’s rise to its new-found fame has been, we can only hope it lasts; that the fiendishly complex brilliance of Tallis’s writing continues to touch and captivate new audiences. Hopefully, we’ll have played our part in that.
And Gyles’ verdict on Spem?
“They say you have to be a masochist to sing it – and a sadist to want to conduct it.”
We couldn’t have put it better ourselves!
(Pictures: Andy Quick)