Many Happy Returns of the Day! (or How in the heck has this nonsense been going on for 5 years?)

5 years ago today, almost to this very minute, I was sitting very much alone in the large, empty room upstairs at the Horse & Stables pub when I posted this tweet to our Twitter account:

Even today, I recall the nervous anticipation/ genuine sense of dread as I tweeted. Would anyone actually turn up? And even if they did, would we be able to sing the 20* or so chorales, motets and madrigals that I had selected?

But let’s spool back a bit. In the summer of 2014, I’d been to a brilliant pub in King’s Cross called The Harrison,** to listen to an open jam session of klezmer music. As I sat and watched the instrumentalists (fiddlers, cellists, clarinettists etc) arrive, pull up a chair and just start playing, I was blown away at how a bunch of like-minded musicians could just rock up and make such brilliant music over a pint – especially such niche music.

Heading home after the session, an idea started to form in my mind… but was it the best idea ever or the most terrible idea in the history of poor ideas? I needed advice from a trusted friend; over to Hugh B:

This is a true story. I was in a pub near the Albert Hall talking to one of my former students whom I had run into after a prom. Perhaps because of his Irish background, he had come up with an idea which he wanted to share with me: why not run a music night in a pub, but instead of singing folk songs badly, people could sing renaissance polyphony badly. He reckoned that it might attract up to a dozen singers on any one evening. ‘Kevin,’ I said, ‘you do that, and you will find no pub big enough to hold the hordes of singers you will attract. They will sing Brumel loud enough to set off an earthquake, and you will have to hustle them out before the Hassler causes an incident. Just keep away from Bach.’ ( Possibly what I actually said was, ‘That sounds fun, I’ll be there, with my wife, so at least we could make a go of the Byrd Mass for Three Voices.’)

(So there you have it – if you want to blame anyone for Polyphony Down the Pub’s existence, it’s Hugh.)

Next up: find a venue that would have us. The pub-singing gods were on my side, as one of my neighbourhood pubs had a function room that was available on Monday nights. An event based on singing 16th century a cappella sacred music might have seemed a hard sell but the intrepid H&S team threw caution to the wind and gave us the go ahead for a trial session***.

But how to tell people about it? There was Facebook of course but my hunch was that this Twitter malarkey I’d been hearing about was going to be the key to getting instant buy-in from the singing community in London – and one tweet in particular really got things moving:

Sara was kind enough to mention us on that evening’s edition of The Choir & Organ, which helped us reach a whole new set of singers. (A year or so later she would go on to join us at session, which was above and beyond the call of choral duty!) Here’s Celia K:

I heard about PDtP from an illustrious Radio 3 presenter: if she thought it was good, then I was definitely up for giving it a go. Although I’ve missed a few, I’ve been to a lot and had good times, both at the Horse & Stables and at Counterpint in the Cafe. 

(Clemency Burton-Hill had also given us a shout-out on her Radio 3 morning show – so Sara and Clemency join Hugh on the list of culprits for inflicting PDtP on the world.)

And so, after much tweeting and FB posting and general fretting, the big day arrived. I didn’t have a registration system at the start, so I had no idea as to how many people would come. In the event, the trepidation turned out to be completely unwarranted as we had just over 70 punters through the door, singing and drinking and generally making mayhem, which I am pleased to say has carried on ever since.

Here are some thoughts from Jill G:

I think I first heard about PDTP from a friend in the BBC Symphony Chorus. As someone who had sung with BBCSC for 29 years, but had recently stopped, I was delighted with the idea to sing occasionally, and being a Lambeth resident, the venue was easy for me to get to. The warmth of the welcome and the first evening’s music and standard of singing made me a regular. I was familiar with a lot of the composers whose work we sang but it was always a delight to be introduced to new work. Through the years, I have enjoyed the company of several singing friends who have come along occasionally and regularly and enjoyed meeting some new people.

Speaking of meeting people, here are Frank N‘s thoughts:

A couple of my friends went to the very first PDtP events and I thought it sounded a great idea. I went along at the end of 2014 and enjoyed it. At my first PDtP I spotted someone I had sung with at Bristol University back in the mid 1970s, and not seen in the intervening years until then. I’ve bumped into other singing friends too at PDtPs.
There’s always a good mix of music – occasionally something familiar but always something new to me, and usually some excellent music by composers I’m quite unfamiliar with.
My favourite discovery was an In Dulci Jubilo by Hieronymus Praetorius. It was the familiar old tune but in a fabulous double choir version.

(Frank, you have excellent taste.) The Praetorius featured in one of our Christmas Specials, which are a favourite of Justina L‘s:

When my friend told me about it I thought it was such a great niche idea and wondered if it was possible (having that enough of a certain level of singer etc etc). I finally made it to a session years later when I moved to London and discovered a raging amateur choral scene and so this made complete sense. I love Christmas carols so the Christmas outings are my absolute favourite and I have had a wonderful time each and every time I have come to one. 

Our first Christmas Special kicked off a trend for themed sessions that I would try to include form time to time, including celebrations of English, Iberian Italian and Franco-Flemish composers as well as spotlights on individual masters such as Victoria and Palestrina. And of course there’s our now legendary Madrigal Specials in May, for which I gallantly hold my nose and programme lots of terrible-poetry-set-to-amazing-music.

One special in particular made a lasting impression on Carolyn H:

The most memorable evening was the one post-Brexit referendum when we sang music from Portugal to Poland and realised that the musical world of the 16th C was truly international. I’ll always remember the first moment when sopranos across the room started together on a perfect note – it was amazing! 

Ah, that PDtP sound – there’s nothing quite like it! We’re so used to hearing this music performed by exquisitely small and refined vocal consorts in acoustically beautiful venues – so a large group more suited to Bruckner motets belting it out in the backroom of pub is really quite an experience! It’s not to everyone’s taste of course but it certainly is to Alison M‘s:

Nothing beats being part of the amazing wall of early music sound which is PDtP (except perhaps Counterpint in the Cafe of fond memory).
I enjoy the company of fellow early music lovers and re-encountering old singing companions from the past. Have made a good friend through PDtP, and also improved my sight-singing. It’s been a great life-enhancer. Long may it continue in some shape or form.

Opening up opportunities to sing new stuff, plus the sense of camaraderie (in the face of adversity!), seem to appeal to many of you, and to John N in particular:

My memories are not of particular pieces as such but of the whole set up. First meeting ever for me October 2017 at Counterpint. An exhilarating evening. 
8/10 meetings followed (mostly Counterpint) with about eight new pieces every time, all 16th century polyphony with occasional sprinkling of Bach, always exhilarating, and at which I learnt a great deal about polyphony and the singing of it. Without that I would not have qualified for week’s singing holiday of Flanders polyphony this summer in Ghent. This whole thing has opened up new fields for me having returned to singing again after a 40 year gap. 

One particular very important memory: Last December on my way to Counterpint I tripped, fell, dislocated my shoulder (though I did not know that immediately). Got to the bookshop but then a very kind member took me to St.Thomas’s where I spent the evening instead of singing, as she did too. You then sent me a video recording of the Bach you had just been singing, as a sort of get well card from you all, saying you were thinking of me What friendliness and fellowship. Shall never forget.

(John’s attendance at our events remains a constant joy and inspiration to me.)

Friendship and the relaxed atmosphere have also been important to Laura B, who also enjoys the public performances that we give at Christmas in aid of local charities:

It’s great how friendly people are there and we all enjoy the pervading sense of humour!  I’ve made some good new friends there, bumped into existing ones and also introduced other friends who enjoy coming.

I also enjoy our Christmas gigs – amusing memories last year of competing with trains rumbling over the bridge as we sang our hearts out in Borough Market. An earlier year I remember encouraging some festive passers by to join in our carols and they also wanted to stay and join in the motets – despite not having a clue. That was tricky! The first one in Trafalgar Square was fun too – I remember the instructions – get through the carols at a fast pace so we could enjoy the motets!

But the one thing that you all seem to come back for is the glory of Renaissance polyphony itself. Whether the works are familiar or completely unknown to you, it’s the nature of this music that touches you in some way, as one anonymous singer says:

Before PdtP I could have told you that I liked polyphony, and then mumbled something vague about Tallis and Byrd. Now I can talk about Janequin and Wilbye and de Rore and even more obscure composers, if not with any real degree of knowledge or intelligence, then at least with the sense that I love it.

And for experienced singers such as Lucy G, it’s been the opportunity to reconnect with this music that has been most appealing:

I’ve loved being part of PDTP so much. It’s brought Renaissance music back into my life at a time when a single evening with no preparation is perfect for shoe-horning into working motherhood. My favourite “didn’t know before” is Zielinski’s Vox in Rama, and I can’t wait do the Tallis on Weds 30th. The babysitting’s booked, and I’ve got all available limbs crossed that we’ll be able to get places!

(We’re looking forward to seeing you, Lucy – though the Tallis we’ll be singing requires slightly fewer voices than the one you’ve been anticipating, I’m afraid! More on this later this week…)

So thanks again to all of you who shared your thoughts and memories and of course thanks to everyone who has come along to our sessions over the past 5 years. I’m looking forward to celebrating with many of you on Wednesday (it’s going to be a great night) but for the moment, I’ll leave the last word to Patricia F, who in one short sentence manages to be both very kind and absolutely on the button as to why PDtP works:

I’ve been twice now and enjoyed the evenings more than any other evenings in my life at present…and singing is so good for us!




*In the early days we programmed A LOT OF MUSIC.

**The Harrison has a great line-up of both paid and free gigs – you should definitely check it out.

***It’s no wonder the Horse & Stables gang welcomes us – they put on loads of great arts events throughout the year. 





Published by

K O'Neill

I am a classical music enthusiast and a lover of choral music in particular. I run the Polyphony Down the Pub social/singing night, probably the most thrilling singing-Renaissance-motets-in-the-backroom-of-a-pub experience you could ever hope to have.

4 thoughts on “Many Happy Returns of the Day! (or How in the heck has this nonsense been going on for 5 years?)”

  1. Kevin you’re a hero, I can’t begin to imagine the amount of work involved in running PDtP. I can’t get to many but those I’ve been too have been amazing and very hard to leave! I hope it’s not too long before Laura and I (and maybe others, who knows?) can get to another session.


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