Guy James: Thoughts on returning home

Countertenor Guy James writes about returning to Dursley with The Gesualdo Six this summer:

One of my earliest musical memories is of standing next to my mum, Lynn James, singing with the Parish choir of St. James the Great in the parish centre in Dursley. I was effectively on probation with the choir and despite this I was applying myself with some gusto when a sudden drop in dynamics left me performing my very first (totally unintentional) solo. Thankfully this oversight didn’t prevent me from joining the choir properly when I was 7 and I then enjoyed the best part of 10 years with the choir before a change of schools prevented any more weekly contributions. I continue to be humbled that my 10 years singing at St. James constitute barely a fraction of the service of the more venerable members of the choir. During my time I was extremely lucky to benefit from the enthusiasm and talents of everyone in the choir and especially it’s director and organist Nigel Davies. Not only did I receive much of the most formative years of my musical education for free but also access to innumerable opportunities for performance and the concerts and tours that the choir provides, not to mention a little pocket-money. Undoubtedly however, the most valuable gift I received over my time with the choir is a love for the music and heritage of the English choral tradition.

Since leaving the Dursley Parish Choir in 2007 this passion has taken me around the world and provided me with the beginnings of a career, I received music and academic scholarships to attend Cheltenham College in 2007 for my sixth form studies and in 2009 was awarded a place at St. John’s College, Cambridge with a choral scholarship at the neighbouring Trinity College. During my time with the choir of Trinity college it was voted the ‘5th Best Choir in the World’ by Gramophone magazine, won a Gramophone award and was nominated for an American ‘Grammy’ award. In addition to webcasting three evensong services a week, the choir has toured Australia, Europe and America and recorded discs with some of the finest musicians in the world. None of this would be possible without the music in, and people of Dursley – a debt which I feel I shall be paying off for many years, well after even my student loan is settled! Music is an incredible gift and it immediately brings one together with like-minded, thoughtful and giving people. It also teaches young musicians about teamwork, practicality and the importance of both preparation and spontaneity. Such lessons I hope to never stop learning.

When I graduated from Cambridge in 2013 I continued for a while to split my time equally between science and music but for a year now I have primarily focussed on music, a process which began with a concert in Trinity College of Carlo Gesualdo’s ‘Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday’. I knew a little of Gesualdo from previous performances of probably his most famous motet ‘O Vos Omnes’ but while listening to the King’s Singers’ recording of the Tenebrae Responsories I was overcome with a desire to perform them. Carlo Gesualdo was one of the most colourful figures of the renaissance: as a prince of Venice he was free of the monetary concerns of most other renaissance musicians and could therefore study and compose music without writing to suit the tastes and prescriptions of rich patrons. As a result his music sounds shockingly modern. Many of his contemporaries were convinced that his dramatic harmonic writing, which at the time must have sounded positively alien, was simply incompetent. He remains most famous for the murder of his wife and her lover when they were caught in flagrante delicto. Being a nobleman he was immune from prosecution but he was not protected from reprisals. He lived out his days in fear and seemingly ridden with guilt and his sacred music can be seen through the lens of a desperate search for redemption as it overflows with emotion from every line.

I spoke about the Tenebrae Responsories with my good friend Owain Park, who is an Organ Scholar at Trinity College, and he agreed to direct them as part of Trinity College Music Society’s lent season in 2014. Owain put together a fantastic team of six of the finest male singers taken from across Cambridge University, including the famous choirs of King’s, John’s and Trinity Colleges. Looking back, The Gesualdo Six’s first performance was a seminal moment for me. It was an amazing experience to perform with musicians of such innate skill and achieve such effecting results in a comparatively small amount of time. In the 18 months since the group founded for that concert has gone from strength to strength and has now performed over 10 concerts of music ranging from 13th Century polyphony through madrigals and folk songs to music by contemporary composers. Our video recording for advent of ‘Veni, Veni Emmanuel’ arranged by Philip Lawson for the King’s Singers has at the the time of writing over 28,000 views on Youtube and the group recently won a place on the prestigious Young Artist’s Programme at St. John’s Smith Square in London. For our first anniversary in 2015 the group performed the Gesualdo’s Responsories in the breathtaking Chapel of King’s College in Cambridge, and received a five-star review:

“…what Owain Park and the singers have managed to achieve is an ensemble with extraordinary potential, who stand head and shoulders above any other vocal group in Cambridge, and who surely have a promising future ahead.” – Varsity

This summer the group will record it’s first disk in our spiritual home of Trinity College, Cambridge and will then tour the South and West of England between the 20th and 28th August, for which full tour-dates are available below. Our website also hosts full tour details including recordings and other useful links. A key objective of The Gesualdo Six is to share our passion with a national and global audience and I am very pleased that as a part of this we will be performing in so many of our home-towns. Our director Owain Park himself hails from Bristol. One of our tenors, Joseph Wicks lives in Salisbury and we are also performing in my alma mater of Cheltenham College. It has always been a dream of mine to return to Gloucestershire and specifically Dursley to share the music I perform with my friends and I could not be happier than to do this with The Gesualdo Six.

We shall be performing in St. James the Great at 3pm on Sunday the 23rd August and our programme will include sacred music by English renaissance masters, madrigals from renaissance Europe, works by modern composers and also arrangements of British folksongs. There will be a tea afterwards over which there will be a chance to meet and chat to the group. We’d be especially interested to hear from anyone who would like to support the group and/or our tours, either through sponsorship or through other means. Please feel free to approach us in August or contact us via our website whenever. The concert will last an hour and tickets are £5, with free entry for under-16s, and are available from the Parish Office.

Guy James

Tickets are available from the Parish Office: Tel. 01453 549280 or Email:

Guy James Alto GJ

Guy James is a Cambridge-based countertenor who graduated from St. John’s College Cambridge in 2013 with an MSci in Natural Sciences (Physical). As an undergraduate, he was a choral scholar with the Choir of Trinity College under Stephen Layton, giving performances in Europe, North America and Australia. As well as appearing on regular web broadcasts, Guy performed with the choir on Radio 3, including performances of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio from memory. During his tenure, the choir won a Gramophone award, was nominated for an American Grammy award and was voted the 5th Best Choir in the World by Gramophone magazine. Guy has now featured on 15 CDs of choral music and has sung with a variety of ensembles including Florilegium, The Pinnacle Ensemble, Over The Bridge and King Henry’s VIII. He enjoys performing a wide range of repertoire, especially renaissance polyphony but also contemporary works and close harmony arrangements.

Recent solo repertoire has included Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions, the Christmas Oratorio and Cantata 170 ‘Vergnügte Rüh’ as well as Mozart’s Requiem. Guy is taught by Ashley Stafford. Since graduating he has enjoyed a varied lifestyle splitting his time equally between Chemistry, writing and music. Guy has written for The Observer, in The Cambridge Globalist as a Science Policy writer and also by The Tab student newspaper as a music reviewer. In his spare time Guy also enjoys Cricket and Badminton.


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