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Heavenly Harmonies and Choral Laments: A Selene Scholars Review

On a Friday evening, in Magdalen college chapel, the Selene Scholars enter the hall to the  sounds of a cheering audience. In this intimate arena, a small but mighty audience meets an even mightier choir. Instead of a spoken introduction, the choir opted for a sung one, immediately springing into the first part of the Requiem suite entitled “in memoriam Josquin Desprez: Introitus”.

The theme of grief, evident in the title of their concert “Songs of Mourning”,  is present from the very start of their performance. Some of the first lyrics sung are “Requiem aeternam dona eis domine” which translates to the plea “Grant them eternal rest O Lord.” However, a good choir does not need translation to communicate a theme to an audience. The Selene Scholars, led by Daniel Gilchrist, are a group that specialises in sixteenth century polyphony. When asked, Gilchrist described this movement as “music which has multiple independent musical lines weaving in and out of each other rather than moving in blocks”. In the instance of our opening Requiem, the delayed harmony does not just exist here to exaggerate the desperation of this plea, but also turns the performance from one unified voice to multiple voices speaking to one unified audience.

The idea of conversation rather than theatre is foundational to what makes The Selene Scholars’ “Lay a Garland” concert so special. This is clear in the slight deviation that the Scholars make to the usual arrangement of Introitus, with the new addition of another call and response section (sung by two singers who are directly opposite to each other). This furthers this sense of conversation as we are not just being sung to, but witnessing a dialogue between two performers on stage. Furthermore, the very notion of addition puts the Scholars in conversation with the piece itself. 

Although a small choir (with most of the pieces at this concert only being performed by six people) they use the beautiful space to its full potential. This becomes most literal with the smart choice of having different members of the choir move from the front of the hall to sing elsewhere (seen in songs such as “Requiem: Offertorium”), whether behind the audience or on the upper floor of the chapel, in effect adding another dimension to this performance. We are now involved in this conversation. Even aspects that are normally tertiary have an ability to reveal some significance through this framing . The usual all-black formal attire that musicians wear suddenly transforms in this context, making the performer funeral attendees, begging the question, whose death is being mourned?

In accordance with their theme of “Songs of Mourning”, the programme explores the spectrum as fully as possible in a 90-minute runtime. Take the arrangement of the song “Glaches de wert”, a song about Rachel, eventual mother of Benjamin and Joseph in the Bible, mourning her infertility, which starts with a sole baritone voice. Then, it turns and becomes an ebb and flow of dynamics as different voices come in and out, a soprano voice rising above the wall of sound like the most desperate cry before the sound collapses into itself, lowering to a whisper before ending. The choir again and again proves its ability to use their mode of singing to transcend any interpretation.

As the Scholars’ song selection courses from the nineteenth century to the present day, the choir successfully brings the modern audience not just in contact with this beautiful movement, but into active conversation in it. Check out the The Selene Scholars to take part in the dialogue and to listen to music with the power to transform “the silly to the divine”.