Stephen Darlington, Part 2

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Program: #19-36   Air Date: Aug 26, 2019

The longtime director of the Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford Choir joins us once again with some of his remarkable history with English Choral music from the Eton Choirbook.

NOTE: All of the music on this program is from release The Door to Paradise on the Avie label, featuring the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and their conductor (and our guest), Stephen Darlington.
The CD number is AV 2395. It is a five volume set; each CD is delineated below.

For more information:

From Stephen Darlington:  There are those who might wonder about the appeal of this liturgical music dating from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. I hope that this article will give you some small insight into the reasons for my enthusiasm and its suitability for a choir such as ours.

The Eton Choirbook is a remarkable music manuscript and represents a compilation of about ninety sacred works, all on texts in honour of the Virgin Mary. Of these, forty-three are complete, and twenty-one remain as fragments, in some cases susceptible to reconstruction. The copying began around 1500 and had been completed four years later, a remarkable achievement. The object of the collection was to provide a repertory of liturgical works to be sung in Eton College Chapel, primarily during the afternoon office of Vespers and the evening Salve ceremony. From its foundation in the early 1440s, there were clerks (skilful at singing to various degrees) and boy choristers. In fact, by the middle of the century, there were sixteen boy choristers in the foundation, exactly the same number as we have here at Christ Church. The complexity of the works preserved in the Eton Choirbook clearly demonstrates that these singers were virtuoso performers, particularly so during the fifteen-year tenure of Robert Wylkynson, who was the instructor of choristers from 1500 to 1515.

Three composers are represented in this latest volume of Eton Choirbook recordings. Of these, by far the most significant was John Browne, who was clearly one of the most respected composers of his own time. Little is known about him except that he was originally from Coventry, and was elected King’s Scholar at Eton College in July 1467 at the age of thirteen. I have chosen to include three of the fifteen works of his which appear in the Eton Choirbook. The first Salve regina setting on the CD is scored in five parts: treble, alto, two tenors, and bass. In common with many Eton Choirbook pieces, the full choir texture alternates with passages for smaller solo groups and juxtaposes two lengthy sections, one in triple time (known as ‘perfect time’) and the other in duple time (known as ‘imperfect time’). In the case of this piece, each of these sections involves a complete statement of a cantus firmus, the duration of each being exactly the same. This cantus firmus (the plainsong melody which underpins the whole piece) is Maria, ergo unxit pedes which was an antiphon used on Maundy Thursday during the ceremony of foot-washing. The second setting of the same text employs a scoring of five parts but this time three tenor parts and two bass parts. The principle of the structure is the same as the SATTB setting, but based on a different cantus firmus, Veni dilectus mei. The text comes from a Psalm antiphon set for Matins on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is used elsewhere by Browne, in his O Maria salvatoris mater. It is interesting to compare these two settings of the same text, the former richly scored and in places remarkably modern in terms of its harmony, the latter more austere and restrained, but brilliant in its manipulation of the more restricted vocal ranges.

A superficial glance at the structure and musical language of the Eton Choirbook compositions might lead one to suppose that they are all written in a generic style with little room for individual approaches. However, the reality is very different. Each of these composers has a distinctive voice. After all, when considering eighteenth-century symphonies and their exploitation of sonata form structure it is readily recognised that the style of Mozart is very different from that of Haydn. So, William Horwood’s setting of the text Gaude flore virginali reveals a composer with different priorities from John Browne. For example, there are passages of considerable rhythmical complexity, particularly in the final section where the text is ‘that these joys seven shall neither minish, nor also cease, but still continue and ever increase while the Father is in Heaven’. At other points, he is less harmonically adventurous than Browne with a weaker instinct for sonority. William Horwood had a rather different background from John Browne, having been Informator Choristarum at Lincoln Cathedral following a period as Master of the London Guild of Parish Clerks. His style certainly represents an earlier generation than that of John Browne. Horwood was one of many composers whose settings of the Magnificat are included in the manuscript. Amongst these is a setting for four voices by William Stratford, scored for two tenors and two basses. As was standard practice, polyphonic verses alternate with plainsong and the composer is skilful in varying texture, sometimes in two parts, sometimes in three, as well as the full four voices. Some of this music is rhythmically intricate and there is a delightful energy in the close imitation between all of the parts. This is a freely composed setting and is this composer’s only contribution to the Eton Choirbook. His real title was ‘William, monk of Stratford’. It is thought that he was from the Cistercian Abbey of Stratforde Langthorne, and he certainly represents the significant minority of composers who were associated with monastic communities, such as Canterbury College, Oxford.

 The Gate of Glory: Music from the Eton Choirbook, Volume 5 (Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford/ Stephen Darlington). 
The Gate of Glory: Music from the Eton Choirbook, Vol. 5
 The men and boys of The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and director Stephen Darlington continue their exploration of the Eton Choirbook, the extraordinarily vast and diverse collection of English sacred music from the early Renaissance, with a fifth volume in their critically acclaimed series. As with previous volumes, The Gate of Glory includes a world premiere recording – Walter Lambe’s Gaude flore virginali – alongside works by Hugo Kellyk, Robert Fayrfax, Robert Hacomplaynt and John Browne, the preëminent composer of the Eton Choirbook. The diversity of styles on this album is particularly striking, ranging from the astonishing balance of harmony and counterpoint in Browne’s O regina mundi, to the elegance and simplicity of Fayrfax’s setting of the Magnificat. This is liturgical music which truly gives the listener a glimpse of the mystery of the eternal.
From The Eton Choirbook, compiled over 50 years of the 15th century and jealously preserved during the years of Protestant rule, is a monument of English polyphonic practice. Yet it has, until now, been known more to musicologists than to performers. The vast walls of music characteristic of the 15th century style, largely devoid of points of imitation, give the listener little to hold onto or keep track of. The series of recordings by the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, under director Stephen Darlington, entitled The Gate of Glory and traversing the entire contents of the choirbook, has made the music come alive, and this release, the fifth volume in the series, may be a good place to start for those wanting a sample of or a way into this repertory. The names of the composers, possibly excluding Robert Fayrfax, remain all but unknown, at least outside British choral circles. The program contains five motets, giant in the characteristic way of the period, and in Darlington's hands they're glorious. The most important thing he and his choristers do is to shape a distinctive timbre for each of the vocal lines. There are up to seven in the opening Gaude flore virginali of Hugh Kellyk, but the listener has no trouble picking them out of the texture. You might sample this mighty work, nearly 20 minutes long, to hear especially the cutting, coruscating sound of Darlington's boy trebles, who appear in each piece except for the other Gaude flore virginali, by Walter Lambe. What makes the album a good sampling is that the music covers much of the period encompassed by the choirbook; the later composers simplified the texture a bit and, under the influence of Continental composers, began to experiment with imitation; in the earlier pieces, the structure is delineated mostly by reductions to solos and duets. Avie's sound engineers capture both the scope of the music and the admirable clarity of the singing here. English polyphony of this period is not for everybody, but here it takes a big step forward in intelligibility.
  1. Gaude flore virginali a 7
  2. O regina mundi clara
  3. Magnificat ‘Regali’
  4. Gaude flore virginali a 4
  5. Salve regina

Composer Info

John FAWKYNER (fl late 15th century), William CORNYSH (d. c. 1502), Walter LAMBE (b. 1450–51, d. after Michaelmas 1504), Richard DAVY (c. 1465 - 1535), John BROWNE (fl c. 1480–1505), Robert WYLKYNSON (b c 1475–80, d 1515 or later), John Hampton (1484-1521), Edmund Turges (1469-?1508), William Horwood c.1430-1484, William, monk of Stratford (?fl. c.15th-early 16th c.), Hugo Kellyk, Robert Fayrfax, Robert Hacomplaynt)

CD Info

AV 2395, AV 2167