English Choirbooks

It is nothing short of astonishing just how unfamiliar is some of the very greatest music ever to be composed in the British Isles. Yet during the reigns of Henry 7th and 8th British music, and, of course, British choirs had a renown that spread throughout Europe. What is more, the choirs had a sound, and the music a quality that set it apart from the rest of Europe.

So what were the reasons? For a start, the English choral foundations based around the cathedrals and abbeys had something very special that survives to this day: choirschools in which boy choristers were highly trained to a professional standard. It is not common knowledge that much Continental music was not necessarily sung by choirs of men and boys. This does mean that we often have a difficult job in modern times knowing just how to score that repertoire for modern mixed choirs. Regular fans of Brighton Consort may have noticed how we frequently get around the problem by mixing our alto and tenor voices together over many of the middle parts – our recent Cipriano de Rore concert was a good example. This is because there is frequently little difference in the range between the two. In the music of the high renaissance, Palestrina for example, the vocal parts are so close together that often the music can be transposed down a 4th and sung entirely by adult male choirs – as it doubtless originally frequently was. What is less known is that the opposite was also true, and music could be transposed up and sung by choirs of nuns …. but don’t get me started on that one!!

In England this was not the case; at least from the late 15th century onwards. Rather than the usually close scoring of the Continental choirs, the English sound was based on a wide vocal compass from deep bass voices through to high boy trebles. A delightful quote from a Venetian ambassador in 1515 tells us:

“High mass was sung by the King’s choristers whose voices are more divine than human, and as to the bass voices, they probably have not their equal in the world.”

What is important to remember is that the boys did not sing only the top treble part, but the lower mean part too. This meant that the English choir was divided into not four, but five distinct voice types, and with the overall compass from top to bottom often covering 22 or even 23 notes, there would not be a lot of room for transposition without pushing an outer voice beyond a sensible range. The resulting sound is full, rich and dazzling… like nothing else you will ever hear.

The harmonic style of English “Henriciun” music too, is quite distinct. The more technically minded among you may notice frequent 6-5 suspensions (try it on a piano at home and play a normal root chord but substituting a 6th for the usual 5th, and then resolve down on to the 5th) It is not that such suspensions are unknown elsewhere, but they are a real hallmark of this florid, rich polyphony.

Another feature of this music is the way it was copied into such beautifully illuminated vellum manuscripts known as choirbooks: the most famous surviving being the Eton, Lambeth and Caius choirbooks. The Caius, and possibly the Lambeth manuscript too have a particular interest for us as they were originally produced in Sussex, at Arundel College, and subsequently presented to St Stephen’s College, Westminster. A delightful detail is the way in which the treble and mean parts are copied into the lower portions of each page (don’t forget that music at this time was not written out in score, but in separate parts!). This would allow the smaller boys to stand in front and see the music, with the men reading over their heads!

The main work in tonight’s concert, Nicholas Ludford’s Missa Benedicta was actually copied into both the Lambeth and Caius choirbooks, but there are few differences between the two sources. I made the transcription as part of my Masters degree some years back, based on a microfilm of the Lambeth choirbook, and then had the pleasure of spending a day working with the real Caius choirbook in Cambridge University library comparing the two. I was struck by his original choice of scoring, using two bass parts throughout, and often including sections for treble and two basses; as though delighting in the contrast of sonority. In fact a feature of all of this repertoire is the contrast between passages for few voices with resounding tutti sections – a sort of proto concerto grosso!

Not a great deal is known about the life of Ludford. He was probably born in or around 1485, and seems to have been a shy and retiring sort of person. He never sought or achieved the sort of fame accorded his contemporary Robert Fayrfax, was never a gentleman of the Chapel Royal (a post held by most Tudor musicians) and didn’t even have a music degree. But he wrote more masses (11 complete and 3 incomplete) than any other renaissance English composer, and his music unquestionably ranks alongside his better known contemporary. For most of his working life he was associated with St Stephens chapel, which originally adjoined the old palace at Westminster – now the site of the Houses of Parliament. With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1547 he was awarded a pension, but he never wrote anything for the new Anglican church.

The music of Fayrfax is preserved in many of the same sources as that of Ludford, and thus may also have been performed originally in the chapel of Arundel College – now a part of the castle. Unlike Ludford he achieved great fame in his life. As a chorister he sang both at the funeral of Henry 7th and the coronation of Henry 8th, and remained a gentleman of the Chapel Royal until his death in 1521. His setting of Maria plena virtute is remarkable for the subtle and expressive treatment of the words. The style is quite austere and the music spare and poignant.

In many ways Fayrfax was taking music in a new direction; one deeply influenced by renaissance humanism, and moving away from the elaborate and intricate more medieval spirit of the earlier composers whose music filled the famous Eton Choirbook. Only two of his compositions were copied into the manuscript. Among the earliest music that did appear was the very medieval sounding Magnificat of John Nesbett, a delightful and lively piece full of syncopated rhythms with triplets sounding against tuplets. This was the style of writing in English music that led Continental writers to say that the English enjoyed “jubilating”. Similar rhythmic complexity was the hallmark of the music of William Cornysh, a composer well represented in the Eton Choirbook. Recent scholarship is suggesting that there may well have been two composers of the same name, father and son, and that it was the earlier Cornysh, who died in 1502, who was the composer of the Eton Choirbook pieces, as well as of the secular songs that appear in the Henry 8th manuscript.

Henry 8th himself was a very keen musician: a singer, player and composer of masses, motets and partsongs. Pastime with good company must be his best known work, but some of the part writing is more than a little clumsy !

With the music of John Taverner (c.1495-1545) we see how the florid style of the earlier 16th century became clearer and simpler without any loss of sonority or splendour. He begins to use imitative counterpoint and paired writing more in the style of the older Fayrfax than the Eton composers with their elaborate dotted rhythms. He was also one of the first composers of his generation to become interested in Lutherism, and has been accused of assisting in the dissolution of the monasteries. He may also have stopped composing after the Reformation and certainly held no musical position after 1530. O Splendor Gloriae has to be one of the most exciting and brilliant works of the entire period, and represents the final flowering of this glorious time in English music.

© Deborah Roberts January 2004