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Choral Music and the Public Sphere in Medieval Coventry: A New Project at the History Centre

Medieval Coventry, like other comparable cities in the Midlands, was a powerful and prosperous but also an artistically rich place. 

It was influential not just in the religious, political and mercantile domain, but also in the arts and in its sense of the value of public ceremonial and display.

One important aspect of Coventry's sense of artistic display and performance, hitherto neglected, lies in the rich and elaborate choral music which could then be heard in the city churches. We already know a good deal about the City Waites (just as famous in their own day as those of York) and about the minstrels who played in various contexts throughout the medieval city. We know something, too, about the kinds of music that would have been part of the famous cycle of mystery plays, including the still familiar Coventry Carol.

But until now, very little has been uncovered concerning the liturgical and ceremonial choirs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A new research project has recently started which will bring this material back into the light, and revive this music in modern performances. A research group from the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham is working, in collaboration with the History Centre in the Herbert to reconstruct the kind of musical provision that would have been heard in the city churches on important religious festivals and on great ceremonial occasions. These will include such events as the royal visits of Henry VI in the 1450s and similar occasions of civic importance, as well as the religious festivals celebrated in great style by the city's most important --- and wealthy -- Guilds.

This year, the international Medieval and Renaissance International Conference, which is being held in Birmingham in the first week of July, will be spending a whole day in Coventry, based in St Mary's Guildhall. The conference delegates will be formed of scholars and musicians and advanced students from all over the world. They will be assembling in Coventry (Friday 4 July) to hear and discuss research papers, and to listen to a concert designed to show off the kind of choral music which would have been commissioned and paid for by the great Holy Trinity Guild, in the heyday of the pre-Reformation era. This kind of music would have been regularly heard in Coventry in the churches of St Michael's, Holy Trinity, and St John's (Bablake), performed to the highest professional standards of the day. The July concert will be given by the famed Binchois Consort, an award-winning international ensemble who record on the Hyperion label.

In addition, one or two of the city's archival treasures, including a rare and very important physical fragment of Latin choral music from the late fifteenth century, will be shown to visiting delegates in the History Centre (see image above). In due course, a display based on this fragment and its role within the wider Coventry musical tradition will be made publicly available.

The research and performance project is spearheaded by Andrew Kirkman (University of Birmingham) and Philip Weller (University of Nottingham). Their larger aim is to continue to develop the project until as complete a picture as possible of the singers who sang in medieval Coventry, their duties and repertoire and performances (alongside those of the Waites, the ceremonial trumpeters, and the church organists), has been built up. Much of this material, we hope, will give rise to exciting live and recorded performances. It is anticipated that concerts may in future be staged in such historic venues as Bablake and Holy Trinity. And, in the longer term, a virtual-digital reconstruction of the interior of St Michael's, together with an appropriately researched and recorded soundscape provided from the project, may prove to be technically possible.

In the meantime, all eyes and ears will be on St Mary's Guildhall on Friday 4 July.

Article written by Phillip Weller.