Music from Peterhouse, Volume 5

Program: #17-26   Air Date: Jun 19, 2017

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We are joined this week by Scott Metcalfe, who with the ensemble Blue Heron has produced now five excellent recordings looking at rare and unknown music from the peterhouse Partbook.

This is the fifth in the series of recordings dedicated to music from the Peterhouse Partbooks featuring Blue Heron and their conductor Scott Metcalfe, our guest on this weeks program. For more information, you may consult their web site:

We have featured all five discs on the program, but here is the list in its entirety:

Vol. 1 (2010)
Hugh Aston: Ave Maria ancilla trinitatis, Ave Maria dive matris Anne, Gaude virgo matris Christi
Robert Jones: Magnificat
John Mason: Quales sumus O miseri

Vol. 2 (2012)
Nicholas Ludford: Missa Regnum mundi
Richard Pygott: Salve regina

Vol. 3. (2013)
Nicholas Ludford: Missa Inclina cor meum
John Mason: Ave fuit prima salus

Vol. 4 (2015)
Robert Jones: Missa Spes nostra
Robert Hunt: Stabat mater
Nicholas Ludford: Ave cujus conceptio

Volume 5 of the acclaimed series Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks contains the world premiere recording of a Mass by an anonymous English composer from the first half of the 16th century. Since the source of the cantus firmus has not been identified, the Mass remains without a name (“sine nomine”). The disc also includes an antiphon addressed to St. Augustine of Canterbury which is the only surviving work of Hugh Sturmy, a short and dramatic Ave Maria mater dei by Robert Hunt, whose Stabat mater is a highlight of vol. 3 of the series, and the sonorous and captivating Ve nobis miseris by John Mason, for men’s voices in five parts. This recording is part of a 5-CD project which began in 2010.Vol. 5 (2017)
1 Exultet in hac die – Hugh Sturmy (3:31)

2 Ave Maria mater dei – Robert Hunt (4:40)

3 Ve nobis miseris – John Mason (12:46)

4 Kyrie Orbis factor – Sarum plainchant (2:10)

Missa sine nomine – Anonymous

5 Gloria (7:42)

6 Credo (7:34)

7 Sanctus (9:05)

8 Agnus Dei (8:02)

The Peterhouse partbooks were copied around 1540. Sandon shows that they were most likely prepared by a scribe at Magdalen College, Oxford, for use at Canterbury Cathedral, which was refounded in 1541 as a secular cathedral following its dissolution in 1540 as a monastic institution. The repertoire of the partbooks has long posed a challenge to those writing the musical history of England in the years just prior to the Reformation, for Peterhouse’s lengthy Marian antiphons and festal masses are written in a florid, highly melismatic style that scholars have claimed was obsolete in these later years of Henry VIII’s reign. Sandon argues in his dissertation that the content of the Peterhouse partbooks, which constitute the single most important source of polyphony from the decades before Reformation, must force scholars to reconsider their view of what sort of music and texts were then in use.

Because so much of the Peterhouse repertoire is incomplete, however, scholars have largely avoided serious study of the music; performers have likewise been unable to engage with it. Sandon’s reconstructions make performances of this repertoire possible for the first time since the tenor partbook disappeared centuries ago. Professor Sandon has commented about Blue Heron’s project, “The idea of a highly skilled choir recording a lot or all of the [Peterhouse] music is extremely attractive; it would make possible a quite radical re-interpretation of the achievement of English composers during the period 1500-40.” Indeed, hearing this gorgeous music sung is certain to catalyse interest among both scholars and performers in a way that no dissertation or edition can ever do.

Blue Heron’s involvement with the Peterhouse repertoire dates back to our debut concert in 1999, a program featuring several works from the partbooks, including the votive antiphon Ave Maria dive matris Anne by Hugh Aston. This astonishingly beautiful piece particularly caught our fancy and we subsequently devoted a good part of our inital activity to Aston’s sacred music. Aston’s music was a wonderful place to start: his is a highly distinctive, skilled, and expressive voice which has scarcely been heard since the sixteenth century. Professor Sandon describes him as “an outstandingly gifted composer” on a level with better-known figures like Taverner and Ludford.

Even more obscure than Aston is the composer Robert Jones, for his two major works, one Mass and one Magnificat, survive nowhere but in Peterhouse. History may have entirely neglected Jones, who was a singer in the Royal Household chapel in the 1510s and 1520s, but his music proves him to have been a composer entirely worthy of comparison with contemporaries such as Tallis and Taverner and one possessed of an inexhaustible melodic gift.

In the company of Aston and Jones we find famous composers such as Robert Fayrfax, John Taverner, and Thomas Tallis; composers, like Nicholas Ludford and Richard Pygott, who were highly successful and well-known in at the time but are mostly unknown nowadays; and virtually unknown but highly accomplished musicians such as John Mason, Robert Hunt, and more. There are also two anonymous works among the 72 in the partbooks. One of these, a mass without name, is a very compelling piece that, like so much of the Peterhouse repertoire, richly rewards its 21st-century singers and hearers.

Composer Info

Hugh Aston, Robert Jones, John Mason, Nicholas Ludford, Richard Pygott, Robert Hunt, Hugh Sturmy,