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On the face of it, a book whose subject is conducting renaissance music is as useful as a treatise on how to pluck the viol or how to accompany Gregorian chant at the harpsichord. Renaissance music wasn’t conducted in the modern sense. But it is now, and there are ways of doing it well, and other ways. Robert Summer is clearly one of those who does it well, and his musical heart is always in the right place throughout this book. Summer was director of choral activities at the University of South Florida for a quarter of a century and is a distinguished chorus master and teacher – he knows his choral onions.

There are useful explanations of issues of modality, musica ficta, tempo, proportion, and ornamentation. But the book is most useful and engaging when it focuses passionately and astutely on the matter of word stress. Put simply, if appropriate word stress is not regarded as the most essential aspect of the modern performance practice of renaissance vocal music, then we might as well all go home. I’m not sure I would go as far as directing people to sway from side to side within their section in accordance with the micro-rhythms of the polyphony, but Summer makes a strong case. Most endearingly, there are nine pieces in the Appendix to the book where scores have been marked up in accordance with how Summer thinks the conductor should approach them: that is to say by highlighting such features as important contrapuntal entries, groupings of voices, stresses at variance with the barring, and so on. There is nothing controversial in Summer’s marked-up scores, but neither is there anything to disagree with. Summer is clear and provides models of good choral practice.

Overall, this is a worthy book, albeit with a slightly dated bibliography, a one-sided discography (favouring pure-tone singing) and a tantalizingly pithy glossary. I didn’t get much out of the sections dealing with music to accompany dancing and presenting a madrigal dinner, and I found the six mini-lectures on master composers at variance with the otherwise exploratory and forward-thinking tone of the book. I also have reservations about how long the pages will remain attached to the spine if the book is well used – which certain sections of it deserve to be. At best, this book is direct, helpful, and pragmatic, but it does come apart at the seams in places.

JEREMY SUMMERLY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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