Part of our Summer Schools programme, this week will be the perfect opportunity to spend time with like-minded musicians, and to develop your skills under the guidance of a world-class team of tutors: Clare Wilkinson (voices and course director), Nicholas Todd and Giles Underwood (voices), Alison Crum and Susanna Pell (viols). Clare offers a warm and personal approach, aiming at an experience as close to tailor-made as possible for participants.

Daisies, pearls, musical mysteries: Margaret of Austria and her famous Flemish scriptorium

Music by Pierre de la Rue, Josquin, Verdelot and others.

From toddlerhood on, Margaret ‘of Austria’ was moved about the chessboard of Europe in a series of gambits planned by others; such was the fate of royal daughters at that time.

Born in Brussels, she was raised in France, married and widowed in Spain, then married and widowed again in Savoy, all by the age of 24. At this point, however, she refused to play the marriage game any further, preferring politics, at which she was very adept. As Regent of the Netherlands, her court in Mechelen attracted everyone who was anyone in Europe, from Henry VIII to Albrecht Dürer. Anne Boleyn spent part of her childhood at Margaret’s court, in a coveted position as lady-in-waiting. Here she learned much about female political power.

Groomed to be Queen of France, Margaret was highly educated and cultured, writing her own poetry (perhaps music too) and creating one of the most extensive libraries of her age. She was a very active patron; Pierre de la Rue was her court composer, and the great Josquin wrote for her. She also presided over the famous scriptorium of Petrus Alamire, source of many sumptuous music manuscripts.

Here Margaret’s personal songbook was created: a collection of 55 chansons and motets richly embellished with her marguerite emblems. Having suffered many losses early in life – her mother, three husbands, only child, only brother – Margaret was known as the dame de deuil (‘lady of sorrow’), and we find many songs of regret here. Who, though, is the mysterious ‘green lover’ who mourns his mistress’s absence?

Margaret’s friend and sister-in-law Katherine of Aragon, also no stranger to loss, was the recipient of a beautiful yet perplexing choirbook from the Alamire scriptorium. The inclusion of no fewer than five consecutive settings of a queen’s suicide speech, that of Dido, seem incongruous here, to say the least. What is Margaret trying to say to her friend?

Come and immerse yourself in the darkly rich sound-world of early sixteenth-century Flanders, taking these fascinating manuscripts, and the remarkable women associated with them, as the starting point. Work at a high level, and develop your skills together with our expert (but very friendly) team of tutors.

We will perform for each other informally over the course of the week, rather than preparing for a concert.

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A typical day’s schedule might be:

  • 09.00 Optional warm-up
  • 09.30 Session 1: Consort groups various sizes
  • 11.00 Coffee
  • 11.30 Session 2: Consort groups various sizes
  • 13.00 Lunch, followed by free time (informal music if you wish; or Giles’s ‘voice clinic’)
  • 15.00 Session 3: a talk, workshop or larger-scale piece
  • 16.15 Tea
  • 16.45 Session 4: Consort groups various sizes
  • 18.30 Dinner
  • 20.00 Short ‘musical gathering’
  • Afterwards: Informal music as you wish; Benslow Music’s bar is open!

This example timetable is subject to change.

Music will largely be provided one month before the course in pdf form for participants to print out and bring, or read from their iPads. Repertoire may be supplemented during the course week. Do bring your own music for free time if you wish.

Pitch will be A = 440

Arrival and departure times: Participants should arrive in time for tea at 4pm on Sunday 28 July; the first session will start at 5pm. The course ends with breakfast on Sunday 4 August.

Is the Renaissance course for me?

The course is open to experienced singers and viol players who are confidently able to hold a line alone. Good sight-reading is expected. We do not, however, require perfection, and tutors will create a comfortable environment where you are relaxed enough to be at your best! Music will largely be provided one month before the course in pdf form, so in fact you can get familiar with almost everything in advance.

Singers: this is a consort singing course. We welcome singers who have sung one-to-a-part before, and also confident choral singers who want to take the step to one-to-a-part in a friendly environment.

Viols: this is a fantastic opportunity to learn about an earlier style of viol-playing from two leading experts, and to explore the very rich repertoire composed with this sound in mind. This course is for confident, rhythmically secure players, ideally with gut-strung Renaissance viols after 16th-century Italian models. A small number of instruments may be available to borrow.

Pre-formed consorts of voices or viols are particularly welcome, and Clare is happy to help facilitate the creation of these.

Consorts will be encouraged to work autonomously, as well as under the direction of our tutors. There will be a focus on being a good chamber musician and colleague, as well as singing and playing to the best of our ability.

The course is open to over-18s, or over-16s if accompanied by an adult. Bursaries are available. This would be an ideal course for music students and those at the beginning of a professional career, as well as dedicated amateurs.

After applications have closed, the line-up will be finalised with a view to ensuring the right balance of voices and instruments.

Non-singing/playing observers are also welcome, by arrangement; contact us for details.


Benslow Music, Hitchin

Our 2024 course will be held at Benslow Music, Hitchin, just a 30-minute train ride from Cambridge or London. An ideal base for exploring some of England’s most beautiful countryside, the historic town of Hitchin with its fine parish church is a destination in itself. There is also plenty of free parking.

Benslow Music has ten designated rehearsal and practice rooms, including two halls suitable for larger ensembles and public events. They possess a fine Goble harpsichord modelled on a 1727 Christian Zell original as well as virginals, a spinet and a restored Broadwood square piano dating from the 1820s.

Benslow Music provides a wide range of comfortable bedrooms with ensuite or shared bathroom facilities, enviable catering and all sorts of rehearsal and practice rooms. The beautiful gardens provide an inviting space in which to relax and regather energies between sessions. Additionally, all summer school participants will be able to make use of Benslow Music’s extensive music library during their course. Find out more about accommodation on Benslow Music’s website.

Fees & Bursaries

Find all information about fees and on how to pay the deposit.

The Selene Webb (née Mills) Memorial Bursary Fund supports those whose financial situation would prevent them from attending our courses without assistance, particularly music students and those setting out on a career in music. Find out more on how to apply for a bursary.