The relaunch of Tenebrae Responsories
In 1978, Russell Bond wrote, “Maxwell Fernie as a good man of the church should not need reminding of the biblical admonition about hiding lights under bushels. His light – his thorough appreciation of polyphonic choral music and his outstanding ability to impart this to a choir should be allowed to fall on us more generously.”
More than ten years before Russell Bond wrote that, Judith White, Dorothy Freed and also, I think Tony Vercoe had the same insight. They visited Max , and with some considerable effort, persuaded him to form a choir. Max was not to be pressured; he agreed to form the Schola, but on his own terms – the understanding of the voice, the music and the meaning came first, performance for an audience maybe later. This first maybe performance was in St Johns Church in 1968 for a few friends – a churchful actually. Already we were singing the Missa Papae Marcelli, Victoria, Peter Philips and de Lasso.
The official, solely Schola, first full concert was in the Wellington Town Hall in December 1975. I still think of that concert and the subsequent concerts of 1976 when we sang the Monteverdi Vesper Psalms and 1977 when we sang the Tenebrae Responsories as the essential heart of the Schola’s work.
I quote both Owen Jenson and Russell Bond.
“The Schola Polyphonica’s first full scale concert. This was vintage singing of vintage music, an evening that challenged perfection – an impeccability that illumined everything.’
“A high point in the history of choral singing in the Capital. The choir stood in a single line semicircle across the width of the stage for the fully polyphonic items. The balance was superbly well maintained and the hall’s sensitive acoustics meant there was no lack of intimacy. The singing of Victoria, Monteverdi, de Lasso, Peter Philips and Palestrina was limpidly clear and vital. The parts moved freely but with beautifully controlled coordination.
For the double choir pieces at the end of the programme the choir was deployed in two groups against the Town Hall back wall. The effect was electrifying.”
Those three concerts and the subsequent recording of the Tenebrae were maybe the essence of the Schola’s achievement, but the range of music performed over its twenty-four years was much more extensive. Max’s understanding was universal, it applied to all music; there was only one way to sing – the right way.
Many times the choir combined with the NZSO
1970 Bach – Cantata No.21
1971 Britten – Cantata Misericordium
1972 Berlioz – Romeo and Juliet
1975 Haydn – Heiligmesse
1976 Beethoven Ninth (combined choirs)
1977 Mozart – Requiem
1978 Janacek – Glagolitic Mass
1981 Haydn – Little Organ Mass
1984 Holtz – Neptune in The Planets (women)
1985 Bach – B Minor Mass
Other combinations were
with Ashley Heenan’s Schola Musica in the Vivaldi Gloria and Monteverdi Beatus Vir,
and with the Dolce Consort in Britten’s Hymn to St Cecelia and the Monteverdi Vesper Psalms – Dixit Dominus and Ave Maris Stella with the instrumental ritonelli.
The last major achievement of the choir was in 1985 with the singing of Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil – Vespers and Matins – a towering work which truly embodied all Max’s vocal and religious convictions.
It’s a great good fortune in all our lives to have sung this music, especially the polyphony. Without the Schola I could never have been fully aware of Palestrina or Victoria. As choir members, we all knew and believed in what made the Schola not “just another choir” – the freedom and shaping of polyphonic line, the give and take, the ease and openness, the edge and the drama and the passion. We were and are total believers and disciples but Max had a genius insight beyond any of us. He had a direct line to Victoria and we eavesdropped.
We might find our own insights too but we cannot inherit his genius. There is no direct line. The Schola was Max and he is still alive in all of us. But Max or the choir cannot be recreated, the Schola is a memory. It is certain people in a certain time.
So let’s be thankful, you will be surprised to hear me say, for technology -the technology in the hands of people like Geoff Eyles, Tony Vercoe and Julius Fernie and others that has brought this recording of the Tenebrae back to us. As Lyn Saunders said in The New Zealand Herald, January 1983, “Here is the Schola Polyphonica of Wellington, directed by Maxwell Fernie, singing the complex and moving Responsories at international standards of choral excellence. The beautiful singing of this specialist group takes us back to the glories of 16th Century music.”
Here is the dramatic, Maundy Thursday Second Nocturn, the story of Judas’s betrayal.
Judas, perfidious bargainer, asked a kiss from the Lord:
He like an innocent lamb, did not refuse the Judas’s Kiss
For a cash payment, Judas betrayed Christ.
Verse It were better for that one, had he not been born.
For a cash payment… Denarium numero Christum Judaeis tradidit.
Music of the angels. But music of very human passions and suffering..
Nancy Martin described us as peasants coming in from the fields, still in our shirt sleeves, ordinary people who sang Palestrina in their lunchbreak. Well we all were rather human.
Max was a great friend to us all and he, perhaps unwittingly, (although he usually knew what was going on) brought about many other friendships and relationships – several of us here can bear witness to that.
It is such a pleasure to see his beautiful family – Grete and Andrew (in Auckland) and Gabrielle and their children, and Julius and John, and to see Max’s liveliness reflected in them.
Laughton Patrick 12th Dec. 2007
Laughton Pattrick is a Wellington music director and singing tutor who sang with the Schola Polyphonica during its entire existence. He attributes much of his understanding of the voice and of music generally to Max’s influence