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Program: #19-33, Air Date: 08/05/19

Scott Metcalfe and the Blue Heron Ensemble share a live performance of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks.

NOTE: All of the music on this program is from a live concert featuring the ensemble Blue Heron directed by Scott Metcalfe. The concert was recorded by Antonio Oliart Ros for WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. For more information on this group: http://www.blueheron.org/

 
Today‘s program explores music from one of the largest and most important extant sources of sacred English polyphony from before the Reformation, the Peterhouse partbooks—so called because they are now housed at Peterhouse, the oldest and smallest of the Cambridge colleges. The partbooks, which contain a large collection of Masses, Magnificats, and votive antiphons, seem to have been copied at Magdalen College, Oxford, in the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII, by the professional singer and music scribe Thomas Bull, just before Bull left Oxford to take up a new position in the choir at Canterbury Cathedral.

Bull wrote down, within a very short time, a great quantity of music in plain, carefully checked, and highly legible copies that were evidently intended to be used for liturgical performance, rather than for study or for presentation to a noble as a gift. (Presentation manuscripts normally feature illuminations and other fancy trimmings that added value beyond the musical contents.) He appears to have been commissioned to supply Canterbury Cathedral with a complete repertoire of polyphonic music. The monastic foundation at Canterbury was dissolved by Henry VIII in April 1540, one of nearly a dozen great monastic cathedrals dissolved in the years 1539-40. Most were refounded as secular (i.e. non-monastic) institutions which were subject not to an abbot—a member of a religious order—but to a bishop and thence to the king, who had declared himself head of the Church of England. Monks sang mostly plainchant and did not generally attempt virtuosic polyphonic music, but the new foundation cathedrals aspired to more pomp and circumstance and so they needed to hire a choir of professional singers and to recruit and train choirboys. By the late summer of 1540 Canterbury Cathedral had assembled a roster of ten “queresters” (choris-ters, “quire” being the normal sixteenth- century spelling of the word), their master, and twelve vicars-choral or professional singing-men. Thomas Tallis is listed first of the “vyccars,” Bull sixth. And in addition to singers, the new choral establishment needed to acquire an entire library of polyphonic repertory. This Bull supplied, bringing nearly 70 works with him from Oxford and adding several more to the collection after arriving in Canterbury.

The music Bull copied includes works by the most famous masters of the early six- teenth century, such as Robert Fayrfax, John Taverner, and Thomas Tallis, and by less celebrated but nonetheless first-class composers such as Nicholas Ludford and Hugh Aston, as well as a number of won- derful pieces by musicians whose careers are less well documented and who have been virtually forgotten for the simple reason that so little of their work survives: Richard Pygott, John Mason, Robert Jones, Robert Hunt, and others. Several of these men, like Arthur Chamberlayne, cannot be identified with certainty: Chamber- layne’s Ave gratia plena Maria is the only known piece ascribed to him and the only known candidate for identification with the composer is a “Chamberleyn” docu- mented as a chorister at Magdalen College in 1485-6.

The new choral institution at Canterbury would not last long. Henry died in 1547 and the Protestant reformers who came to power upon the accession of his young son, Edward, took a dim view of such pop- ish decorations as professional choirs and the highly sophisticated Latin music they sang. All the elaborate polyphonic mu- sic of late medieval English Catholicism became, at best, obsolete; at worst it was viewed as a gaudy ornament to a despicable ritual. Many musical manuscripts were lost and many destroyed, and if a manuscript escaped deliberate destruction by zealots, it might yet be subjected to other indignities:

Neither had we been offended for the losse of our lybraryes, beynge so many in nombre, and in so deso- late places for the more parte, yf the chiefe monumentes and moste no- table workes of our excellent wry- ters, had been reserved.... But to destroye all without consyderacyon, is and wyll be unto Englande for ever, a moste horryble infamy amonge the grave senyours of other nacyons. A great nombre of them whych pur- chased those superstycyouse man- syons [the former monasteries], re- served of those librarye bokes, some to serve theyr jakes [privies], some to scoure theyr candelstyckes, and some to rubbe their bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and sope- sellers, & some they sent over see to the bokebynders, not in small nom- bre, but at tymes whole shyppes full, to the wonderynge of the foren na- cyons. Yea, the universytees of thys realm, are not all clere in this detest-able fact.... I knowe a merchaunt man, whych shall at thys tyme be name- lesse, that boughte the contentes of two noble lybraryes for .xl. shyllyn- ges pryce, a shame it is to be spoken. Thys stuffe hath he occupyed in the stede of graye paper [wrapping-pa- per] by the space of more than these .x. yeares, & yet he hath store ynough for as many yeares to come.

The Preface, “Johan Bale to the Read- er,” The laboryouse Journey & serche of Johan Leylande for Englandes Antiqui-tees (1549)

Very few collections of church music survived the upheaval. The main sources extant from the entire first half of the sixteenth century are a mere three choir- books, four sets of partbooks, and one organ manuscript. (Compare this paucity to, for example, the sixteen choirbooks owned in 1524 by a single establishment, Magdalen College, Oxford, not one of which survives.) We do not know what happened to Bull’s five partbooks (one each for the standard five parts of early sixteenth- century English polyphony: treble, mean, contratenor, tenor, and bass) after 1547, but by the 1630s they may have made their way to the library of Peterhouse, where they would survive yet another cataclysm of destruction, that wrought by the Puritans in the 1640s.

Or, rather, most of Bull’s five partbooks survived. By the time the books were described and catalogued for the first time in the middle of the 19th century, the tenor book had disappeared, along with several pages of the treble. Now, of the 72 pieces in the set, 39 are transmitted uniquely, while another dozen or so are incomplete in their other sources. The result is that some fifty pieces of music—a significant portion of what survives from pre-Reformation England—now lack their tenor, and some of these (including the works by Fayrfax, Aston, and Ludford on this program) are also missing all or part of their treble. We are able to sing the Peterhouse music nowadays thanks to the extraordinarily skilled recomposition of the missing parts by the English musicologist Nick Sandon. (Sandon also pieced together the story of the partbooks and their origins that I have related here.) Sandon finished his dissertation on the Peterhouse partbooks, including recompositions of most of the missing parts, in 1983. In the years since he has revised and refined his work and issued it in Antico Edition, completing the entire, monumental project in 2015.

Music for several saints

The splendid masses and antiphons copied into the Peterhouse partbooks offer dramatic support to the picture of late medi- eval English Catholicism drawn by Eamon Duffy in his 1992 book The Stripping of theAltars. Duffy shows that lay Catholicism in English parishes was deeply-felt and thriving on the very eve of being officially extinguished. The Peterhouse music proves the same for “high culture” at Oxford and Canterbury as well. These are not the artistic products of a religious culture that was decaying, losing its sense of purpose, or doubting the efficacy of its traditional rituals. Quite the contrary: bold, confident, and technically demanding, these works demonstrate that Catholic culture in England in the 1540s remained vigorous in its devotional practice and its artistic expression.

The characteristics of the style of the Peterhouse repertoire include an overall compass of three octaves from bass to treble; rich, carefully calculated sonorities in passages for the full five voices; the deployment of various groupings of voices in sections of reduced texture; the use of brief points of imitation—very freely treated and varied—as structural guide- posts at new lines of text and new entries of voice-parts; and rhythmically complicated and highly melismatic melodies.

This program presents five examples of the votive antiphon, an extra-liturgical form not part of the regular Divine Office but appended to it. Addressed most often to Mary, sometimes to Jesus, very occasionally to another saint, in England it was typically sung after Vespers and Compline in a separate evening devotion by a group of singers gathered before an altar or image. The Marian antiphon (according to Frank Llewellyn Harrison, the eminent historian of music in medieval Britain) “was the universal and characteristic expression of the devotional fervour of the later Middle Ages.” The most popular texts were made available to pious lay-people in prints such as the diglot Prymer or Book of Hours issued by Robert Redman. (Redman’s translation of the Salve regina is included in the program.)

The structure of antiphons derives from the Angelic Salutation or “Hail Mary,” one of the items that constituted the core of all Catholics’ knowledge of their faith. Opening with a salutation (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee”), it then praises the saint invoked (“blessed art thou among women”), makes refer- ence to the savior Christ (“and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus”), and closes with a prayer for intercession (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death”). The rather elegant, humanistic text of Chamber- layne’s Ave gratia plena Maria embeds the text of the Salutation in its first few lines, subsequently quoting phrases from other texts that would have been immediately recognizable to the singers (“Spes nos- tra, salve” and “ad te clamamus” from the Salve regina, for example). As Sandon comments, “It may seem strange that virtually all knowledge can be lost of a composer capable of creating such a characterful and well-crafted piece as Ave gratia plena Maria, but it is a reminder of the catastrophe that English music suffered in the late 1540s and early 1550s, when a very highly developed, confident and ambitious mu- sical culture and the infrastructure that sustained it were brought to an end virtu- ally overnight, and most of its works and much other evidence of its activity were deliberately destroyed.”

Fayrfax’s O Albane deo grate addresses St. Alban, who was traditionally believed to have been beheaded in the Roman city of Verulamium (modern St. Albans in Hertfordshire, some 20 miles northwest of London) sometime during the third or fourth century and was venerated as the first recorded British Christian martyr. The antiphon was very likely composed for the Benedictine abbey of St. Alban, with which Fayrfax maintained a connection for many years in later life and where he chose to be buried. The text was later adapted as O Maria deo grata, presumably in order to make the piece more generally useful, and it appears in that form in the Peterhouse partbooks.

O Willelme pastor bone combines an antiphon for St. William, Archbishop of York (d. 1154), with a matching stanza written as a prayer for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York in the early 16th century and the founder of Cardinal College, Oxford, where Taverner served as informa- tor choristarum (instructor of the choir- boys) between 1526 and 1530. Taverner presumably composed the setting during

his tenure at Cardinal College to be sung as part of the daily devotion to St. William which was prescribed in the founding statutes of the college. After Wolsey’s fall from grace with Henry VIII in 1529, followed by his arrest and death in 1530, the antiphon’s text was revised and redirected to Christ and Henry; it appears in the Peterhouse partbooks as O Christe Jesu. Quite unlike the other four works on the program, it is “succinct, syllabic, and plain in style, lacking any known English precedent,” according to Dr. Sandon.

Hugh Aston has been a favorite of ours ever since we sang his Ave Maria dive matris Anne on our first concerts in the fall of 1999, and his three Marian antiphons in Peterhouse feature on the first disc in our CD series. This is the first time we have sung O baptista vates Christi, an antiphon to St. John, and we are delighted to be using Sandon’s just-published revised reconstruction. The text is otherwise unknown and may well have been written for Aston’s use—or by Aston himself? Like some other texts set uniquely by Aston, it refers directly to the singers who raise their voices to a heavenly intercessor.

We conclude with Ludford’s magnificent Salve regina, which, typically for an English setting, includes three rhymed stanzas inserted between phrases at the end of the antiphon.

—Scott Metcalfe 

 
Robert Fayrfax (1464–1521)

O Albane deo grate

John Taverner (c. 1490–1545)

O Willelme pastor bone

Arthur Chamberlayne (b. 1470s?)

Ave gratia plena Maria

 Hugh Aston (c. 1485–1558)

O baptista vates Christi

Nicholas Ludford (c. 1490-1557)

Salve regina 

Composer Info

Robert Fayrfax (1464–1521), John Taverner (c. 1490–1545), Arthur Chamberlayne (b. 1470s?),  Hugh Aston (c. 1485–1558), Nicholas Ludford (c. 1490-1557))