Program: #22-04 Air Date: Jan 24, 2022
Gabriel Crouch, the director of the early music ensemble Gallicantus, guides us through some of their releases. This week, Robert White, The Word Unspoken, and Dialogues of Sorrow.
I. The Word Unspoken: William Byrd & Philippe de Monte. Signum CD SIGCD295.
Byrd was by no means the only major Catholic composer working in England during these years. Furthermore, there were English composers whose faith drove them to work abroad, as well as foreign composers who offered sympathy and encouragement to English catholics. Included in this latter category was the Flemish composer Phillipe De Monte who entered into a fascinating compositional correspondence with Byrd. Verses of Psalm 136 ‘Super Flumina Babylonis’ (containing many allegorical references to the plight of catholics unable to practice their faith openly) were set to music and exchanged, in what is now seen as an encoded message of mutual support and friendship between brothers in faith.
Tribulationes civitatum (tr. 3) is striking for its imploring trust, ‘Domine, ad te sunt oculi nostri’, ‘Lord, our eyes are fixed on thee’ (1:21) combined with fear, ‘ne pereamus’, ‘don’t let us perish’ (1:35). And there’s variety of style from a madrigalian picture of flight to the simple plea, ‘Domine, miserere’, ‘Lord, have mercy’ (5:49). The piece closes with an appeal for pity which grows more urgent, climaxing in the top line’s almost brutal statement of affliction (8:59). This close has the same text as the next motet, Vide, Domine, afflictionem nostrum (tr. 4), now cast in a more contemplative and bleak mould. The pain now is in the harmonies, especially the colouring of ‘desolata’ (1:41), desolate Jerusalem. Its sustained sorrow dwells on bitterness, change of circumstances and pleading for restoration with touching intimacy, ‘da nobis, Domine’ (4:39), and a quiet and humble ‘et miserere’ (5:33).
Ne irascaris (tr. 5), the best known piece on this CD, here has a warmth of fervent witness, heartfelt confession yet also the beaming appeal of ‘Ecce’, ‘Behold’ (1:41) and humility of reminder, ‘populus tuus’, ‘your people’ (from 2:35). At 5:13 on ‘deserta’ Gallicantus sing the fruity chord as originally printed, which I like, though it’s out of favour with scholars nowadays. Unforgettable is the poise Gallicantus give ‘Sion deserta’, ‘Zion the wilderness’ (5:49) whose rare absence of counterpoint brings a sense of vast space. I compared the 2001 recording by The Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood (ASV Gaudeamus CDGAU 309). Carwood’s greater rhythmic emphasis creates a more protesting, dramatic account, with ‘populus tuus’ more urgent yet ‘Sion deserta’ no more than a stark statement. This CD now changes composer and de Monte is different. The text of Domine, quid multiplicati sunt (tr. 6), a protest against persecution, is uncompromising yet the music is quite luminous in Gallicantus’s performance, serenely distilled smoothly flowing descents even when friends are ‘de longe’, standing far away (4:43). There’s moving sadness, however, at the recollection of those friends, ‘Amici mei’ (2:52) and force to the activity, ‘quaerebant’, of enemies (5:23). De Monte’s Miserere mei setting (tr. 7) is closer to Byrd, in more wan colours and more plaintive but the fundamental melodic line remains smooth and pure, clarifying the text and there’s a telling sense of gratitude at ‘qui benefecit mihi’, the recognition of having been blessed (from 2:32). Voce mea (tr. 8) has more active melismata on ‘clamavi’, ‘I cried’ (from 0:11) and a sustained pointing across the parts identifying tribulation (from 1:37). But there’s something abstract about this: there isn’t the immediacy of suffering of the Byrd settings. O suavitas et dulcedo (tr. 9) begins with de Monte’s preference for consonant adoration depicting Christ’s birth. Yet this piece in 8 vocal parts has more contrapuntal embellishment and involvement akin to that Byrd favoured. The texture is thinned for the personal recognition of ‘qui pro nostra’ (1:11), it was for us Christ was ‘in cruce extensus’, stretched out on the cross (1:45), then thickened for the earnest prayer ‘rogo te’, ‘I beg you’ (2:47).
In 1583 de Monte sent Byrd his motet for 8 voices, Super flumen Babylonis. You’ll notice in Gallicantus’s performance the early emphasis 'illic', ‘there’, emphasising the problem is one of place before the sudden, magical release of rising crotchets, a quicker rhythm, for 'cantionum' (2:20), the reference to song, what the composer really is about. And it’s the text ‘Quomodo cantabimus’, ‘How shall we sing?’ (2:35) which de Monte makes especially sad before the close from 3:56 is haunted by the slight fall of ‘suspendimus’, ‘we hung up’ and then cascading descent of ‘organa’, ‘instruments’. I compared the 1997 recording by The Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood (ASV Gaudeamus CDGAU 179). They sing the piece a third higher and use sopranos in the top lines to more piercing effect. Their interweaving of de Monte’s two 4-part choruses is more dramatic, the rhythms more urgent, so the piece becomes more painfully direct yet has less of Gallicantus’s quality of soulful lament.
This CD’s title, ‘The word unspoken’, if you like subtext posed by de Monte, is 'How can you be creative as a Roman Catholic in an alien and dangerous environment?', the advice given, 'Stop trying to compose there and emigrate'. Byrd replied in 1584 titling his piece with that phrase Quomodo cantabimus, but from a smoother base and using 8 vocal parts all the time so the emphasis, particularly in the Gallicantus account, is on flowing rhythm and activity. The contrast is startling, partly because of Byrd’s higher tessitura and Gallicantus’s addition for this piece alone on the CD of sopranos on the top line. Mainly because Byrd’s descents here are serene and the emphasis is on rising progressions so the effect is of ever moving towards heaven. Most memorable in the later part is the madrigalian lightness of ‘in principio laetitiae’, ‘at the beginning of my joy’ (tr. 11 3:48). The Cardinall’s Musick perform this piece a tone higher and in a much more measured fashion, timing 8:54 against Gallicantus 6:28. The effect is more ethereal and the parts’ frequent repetition of the text is etched more clearly but there’s not Gallicantus’s sense of spontaneity of grateful acceptance of heritage. Byrd says ‘I stay true to my faith and roots’.
Tristitia et anxietas [9:17]
Tribulationes civitatum [9:24]
Vide, Domine, afflictionem [7:57]
Ne irascaris [8:46]
Domine, quid multiplicati sunt [5:47]
Miserere mei, Deus [3:33]
O suavitas et dulcedo [5:04]
Super flumina Babylonis [5:19]
Quomodo cantabimus [6:28]
II. Hymns, Psalms & Lamentations: Sacred Music by Robert White. Signum CD SIGCD134.
By 1562 White was at Ely where he married Christopher Tye's daughter and succeeded Tye as master of the choristers. He then moved on to Chester before arriving at Westminster Abbey. Remarkably, only a single piece of White's seems to survive with an English text. This may be due to loss of White's manuscripts or may give us some indication of where the composer's sympathies lay.
On this new disc the vocal ensemble Gallicantus present eight of White's Latin pieces. The ensemble was founded in 2008 from members of the choir Tenebrae. On this disc they number eight men, two counter-tenors (David Allsopp and Mark Chambers), two tenors (Richard Butler and Christopher Watson), two baritones (Gabriel Crouch and Nigel Short) and two basses (William Gaunt and Jimmy Holliday). The names of some of the singers are familiar to me from other London choral groups. Counter-tenor David Allsopp recently appeared as Daniel in the London Handel Festival's 2010 performance of Handel's Belshazzar.
The disc opens with White's first setting (of four) of the Lenten compline Hymn, Christe qui lux es et dies. In this first version he alternates polyphony and plainchant in pretty much traditional manner. Later on the disc they perform White's fourth version, where the composer displays a greater degree of sophistication. The disc concludes with White's settings of verses from Lamentations. Here White made his own particular selection of verses, which don't seem to correspond to liturgical usage even if there had been someone to perform Lamentations liturgically in Elizabethan England - Protestant England had no equivalent service to the Holy Week services at which Lamentations were sung. Between these two, the remaining items are settings of Psalm texts, covering five of White's twelve surviving Psalm text settings. These Psalm settings are inevitably freer than the plainchant-based hymns.
White likes to mix textures and different numbers of voices. There is something of a slightly old-fashioned feel to the music.
I found these performances enchanting and they introduced me to a composer whose work I knew only superficially. They sing White's lines with beautiful suppleness. Though only a small group they give a strong performance which mixes control with lovely textures. The counter-tenors float the top line nicely, with scarcely a hint of strain, counterbalanced by the lower voices. In fact it is civilised balance which I take away from this disc and a fine projection.
The disc includes full texts and translations along with notes on the music and the historical background.
The CD world is hardly full of CDs of White's music especially sung as sensitively as this. I could imagine them being performed by a larger group, in a more robust manner. But here Gallicantus make a strong case for performance by a vocal ensemble, with nice balance and well modulated tone. This is highly desirable and we can only hope that the group decide to record more of White's music.
Christe qui lux es et dies (I) [3.58]
Ad te levavi oculos meos [6.36]
Exaudiat te, Dominus [9.23]
Miserere mei, Dei [15.37]
Christe qui lux es et dies (IV) [6.01]
Domine quis habitabit (III) [6.49]
Manus tuae fecerunt me [7.39]
Lamentations a 6 [17.14]
William BYRD (1539/40 - 1623), Philippe de MONTE (1521 - 1603), Robert WHITE (d. 1574)
Signum CD SIGCD295, Signum CD SIGCD134