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The Renaissance Group 50th Anniversary
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Apr 19, 2005, 12:22 PM

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Unbelievably for those directly involved, it is now 50 years since a group of staff, students and friends in St Andrews University – The Renaissance Group - started making choral music of a strange and (at first) unfamiliar style. Since that small beginning, it has gone from strength to strength.

Back in 1955, Douglas Gifford, a keen Spanish medievalist in the university, found some like-minded enthusiasts and all became excited by the choral music of the Renaissance that was only then being rediscovered. They were especially interested in the English and Spanish composers of the period (Victoria, Tallis and others). They became obsessed by the glorious sound of the music, and wherever they could find anyone prepared to listen, they sang!

The choir was always based very much within the Giffords’ home. With two young children, this meant that Douglas’ wife Hazel could join in. But they had recently lost an infant son by cot death, and the formation of the choir was part of their consoling and healing process. Although they went on to have two more sons, the choir has always been their "fifth child" and for generations of students this feeling of family has been an irreplaceable treasure they have carried into their subsequent lives.

"There was always soup and home-made bread", said Hazel Gifford recently, "and whether in cathedrals or small churches or chapels, for weddings, special events or festivals, Douglas somehow brought the group together." Douglas only had to offer "More soup, more soup!" and new recruits flocked along.

As past member Mary Moffett aptly put it, "On leaving St Andrews, great bands of former students have gone forth into the big, wide world like skeins of wild geese (Douglas actually nicknamed them corncrakes!) honking Renaissance polyphony with uncontrolled enthusiasm!". With its international composition, the "Ren Group" family now stretches across the world.

Douglas Gifford retired in 1989 and died very suddenly in 1991. David and Christine Gascoigne took the choir on and it has continued in similar style ever since. They have especially maintained Douglas’ burning desire to tour with the choir and there are very few European countries that have not been visited over the years.

In addition, numerous residencies have taken place at the great English minsters of Lincoln and York. But perhaps the most memorable occasions were the series of Saltire Society concerts at the Edinburgh Festival in the late 80s at which the music of the greatest of Scottish composers, Robert Carver, was performed. The Renaissance Group had been in the forefront of the "renaissance" of this composer’s music which had lain unsung for over 400 years. Commercial recordings also resulted.

If there was ever to be any sort of memorial to him, Douglas Gifford always made it clear that the formation of similar off-shoot choirs would make him happiest. Consequently, Renaissance Group clones exist in numerous places.

One such is the Mayfield Singers in Orkney directed by Neil Price who sang with the choir in the 70s. Like Douglas, he has no qualifications in music other than experience and enthusiasm.

Neil and his wife Andrea are one of countless couples who met in the choir. "Apart from Andrea," said Neil, "there are no other past Ren Group singers in the choir. But I do my best to run the choir as he would have done so. We sing some pretty weird music. We travel to far off places. We give some great and some awful performances! We have tremendous fun. And the presiding genius of Douglas is never far away."

Now over 120 present and past members are returning to St Andrews to celebrate the choir’s 50th anniversary, culminating in a celebratory concert in Holy Trinity Church on Sunday 1 May at 8pm. The programme will feature highlights of the choir’s repertoire over the last 50 years including some Carver. With so many present, it will also be a chance to perform Tallis’ extraordinary 40-part motet "Spem in alium". The choir’s present director David Gascoigne will conduct the massed forces.


Contact: Neil Price Tel: 01856 872804 (daytime)

01856 771798 (evenings and weekends)


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