programme notes
Home

 

These are the notes we distributed at our English Catholics concert

Tonight’s programme presents a selection of music by English Catholic composers during the turbulent years of the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Never was there such a period of religious upheaval as that which shook the country at that time with wave upon wave of fluctuation. In many ways it is quite surprising that music for the Latin rite survived at all….

 We begin with music from the pre Reformation; a time when England, along with the rest of Western Europe, still had little idea of the turmoil which followed the beginning of the protestant movement in Germany and the eventual split which the reigning king, HenryVIII, would bring about with Rome – albeit not for strictly religious reasons! Both Fairfax’s Maria Plena Virtute and the Salve Regina of William Cornysh are composed in the English florid style – so different from the less ornate contemporary music on the Continent. A dense web of counterpoint with great rhythmic complexity, and a rich sonority characterises this wonderful repertoire. There are also striking contrasts between sections for fewer voices and rich, dense passages for the whole choir. English choirs at the time were probably the finest in Europe, and the system of choir schools (which exists to this day) ensured an even quality from the highest trebles to the deepest basses.  In fact, the boys were always responsible for 2 rather than 1 vocal line, as the early English choir was always divided into 5 rather than 4 voice parts: Trebles  (very high voices singing up to A or even Bb), Means (more like the normal modern boy treble singing up to F) Counter tenors (singing as low as tenors but singing a bit higher - possibly into falsetto range at the top) and then tenors and basses. In fact this 5-part division of the choir was to remain in place even after the Reformation, although the treble parts would become more of a rarity as the mean voice took over as the highest part.

 There are always problems in scoring music written such a long time ago and for choirs that were clearly so different those today. Few boys can now manage the high tessatura of the treble parts, and the modern, falsetto, counter tenor generally finds the counter tenor parts too low! We therefore make no apology for using women’s voices on the treble, mean, counter tenor or even tenor parts, and mixing men and women on the same parts.

 The second group of pieces looks at music composed after the Reformation and the death of Henry VIII, but during the reign of Queen Mary, when the country was briefly re united with Rome. Composers such as Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard and William Byrd remained Catholics all of their lives even though they lived through various alternations in the official religion of the country, and also wrote music in English for the Protestant rite.  In fact it is possible that Tallis’s great 40-part motet, Spem in Alium was composed for Queen Mary’s 40th birthday.  By this time, the high treble voice was already becoming less common, and in all of the pieces in tonight’s programme the means form the top voices. 

 Much of William Byrd’s output was destined for performance in secret.  For with the return to the protestant Church of England under Queen Elizabeth, the Catholic mass was again outlawed.  The fact that both Tallis and Byrd avoided imprisonment, or worse,  for their open support for the Catholic faith can be attributed to the fact that they were, in Queen Elizabeth’s own words, “mere musicians”! Yet Byrd wrote, and published, collections of motets and Propers for the Catholic mass, and these would have been performed in secret services in Catholic households using the servants as singers! One can only assume that the “servants” were hired for their musical rather than their domestic skills….Many texts chosen by Byrd – psalms about exile – are obvious metaphors for his own anguish at the exiled faith within his own country.  In his larger scale motets such as Tribue Domine, Byrd again returns to the old 5 part scoring using both trebles and means, and alternating sections for fewer voices with tutti sections for all.

 We come finally to those English Catholic composers who themselves went into exile in order to avoid persecution in their own land. Both Deering and Phillips were part of a colony of  British composers who not only lived abroad, but also clearly espoused the Italian dominated continental style of writing. Those in the audience who were present at our Mostly Monteverdi programme will spot the similarity in style.  Deering even favoured texts from the Song of Songs (in both Ardens est cor meum and Vulnerasti cor meum), which were hugely popular with Italian composers of the time.  Our closing piece, Ecce vicit Leo also uses the continental style of double choir writing almost in the form of a dialogue, along with Italian style ornamentation and rapid alternations between duple and triple time.

 By following this trail through roughly one hundred years of English Catholic music, what becomes clear is that the violent political and religious fluctuations did have the effect of broadening what had been a very insular style. After the commonwealth, with its destruction of the English choral tradition, and eventual Restoration with the coronation of Charles II, this “Europeanisation” went even further when composers were sent abroad to study and the court was flooded with foreign musicians. One glorious result of this melding of styles was to be Henry Purcell who seemed to have been able to blend French, Italian and English styles into some of the finest music this country has ever produced.

Yet there remains a sense of loss that the glorious music of the pre reformation went out of circulation until very recently.  It is an utterly unique repertoire – not immediately accessible perhaps, and extremely demanding to sing, but we hope you will find it every bit as worth while the effort as we have!

c. Deborah Roberts