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Hyperion Records

CDA67490 - Peerson: Latin Motets

Recording details: January 2004
St Paul's Church, New Southgate, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: January 2005
Total duration: 64 minutes 35 seconds

'Jeffrey Skidmore's reading pushes the unique structure of Peerson's paragraphs into the foreground: large-scale dynamic contouring, leisurely tempos and subtle shifts in balance create a spacious framework in which the composer's large structures emerge. The Ex Cathedra Consort triumphs beautifully over the vocal challenges of this music with its pellucid upper voices, restrained yet robust basses, and attention to textual detail … this reconstruction of Peerson, enhanced by excellent sound engineering, manages to reveal a master at work' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This recording is one of the most exciting discs of Renaissance sacred music to have appeared in recent years … These fine motets show that he was a highly accomplished composer of choral polyphony with a strongly individual flavour, which uses imaginatively understated means to pack a considerable emotional punch' (The Daily Telegraph)

'this recording is definitely worth listening to. It affords us what we may assume is a good overview of the works of a skilled composer, who clearly absorbed a range of influences but was not afraid to put his own personal mark on his music, and as such is an uncommon treat' (International Record Review)

'The performances are shapely and expressive, leaving nothing to be desired in technical polish. Connoisseurs will rejoice to have this rare music brought to life for all to hear' (American Record Guide)

'Tuning, balance, and ensemble are all excellent, and Peerson's often complex, even convoluted polyphony emerges with a commendable clarity that is a tribute to both director and singers. Add to that Hyperion's customary outstanding engineering, and you have a splendid disc of unusual repertoire that fully deserves widespread attention and success' (Fanfare, USA)

'For all their comparative youthfulness, these are mature voices in the ECC, complemented by agile and well-controlled technique. As is typical with Skidmore-directed performances, the Latin is shaded with pronunciation coloured with the country's local accent … just one example of these performers' thoughtful preparation and response' (Birmingham Post)

Latin Motets

The 1604 Royal May Day celebrations—the ‘Proms in the Park’ of their day—headlined with a madrigal by Martin Peerson. His career can be traced through posts at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, and his powerful patrons enabled a considerable quantity of music to be printed and published.

Today little remains. These fifteen Latin motets survive in a single, incomplete source. Their performance here—the first for some three hundred years—is possible thanks to a pioneering reconstruction (by Richard Rastall of Antico Edition) of the missing voice part.

Despite their pre-Reformation Latin texts (at a time where few institutions were permitted such Popery) and Peerson’s 1606 conviction for recusancy, the composer’s evident position at the heart of the new Anglican establishment confirms the overall esteem in which he was held. And the music more than lives up to this reputation—harmonies of sustained intensity and an intricate understanding of the contemporary imitative technique lend the collection a rare cohesion and give testimony to a man of immense compassion and faith.

The Ex Cathedra Consort—the twelve-voice ‘soloistic’ ensemble from Ex Cathedra—gives performances every bit as good as the group’s enviable reputation would predict.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Martin Peerson (c1572–1651) was probably born at March, Cambridgeshire, although the little that is known of his life relates to London and its immediate environs. An early connection was with the playwright Ben Jonson, for whose entertainment The Penates, Jonson’s May-Day production for the king and queen at Highgate in 1604, Peerson wrote the madrigal See, O see who is here come a-maying. Two years later Peerson, along with Jonson and others, was apparently convicted of recusancy. If Peerson had Catholic sympathies at that time they probably did not last very long, for he graduated BMus at Oxford (through Lincoln College) in 1613, for which acceptance of the Thirty-nine Articles was a requirement. In 1606, too, Peerson was a sharer in the Children of the Queen’s Revels, who played at the Blackfriars playhouse, an interest in theatrical affairs that may explain his connection with Jonson.

By 1609 Peerson had some reputation as a virginalist. The four pieces in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, his only surviving keyboard works, confirm this but hardly suggest that his reputation grew much: they are certainly attractive pieces, but only the fine setting of Piper’s Pavan is at all substantial. Audrey Jones has noted (in her 1957 thesis on Peerson’s life and works) that the acquisition of a degree in 1613 was probably the turning-point of Peerson’s career, leading to new opportunities. Almost immediately he was invited to contribute three items to Sir William Leighton’s Teares and Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soule (1614) and a recommendatory poem to Thomas Ravenscroft’s Briefe Discourse (1614). In the next two years or so Thomas Myriell included much of Peerson’s work in Tristitia Remedium (now in London, British Library, Add. MSS 29372–7), his compilation in which music by composers connected with St Paul’s Cathedral features prominently; Peerson’s keyboard pieces were included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book; and another invitation from Ravenscroft resulted in the metrical psalm-tune ‘Southwell’ for The Whole Booke of Psalmes (1621). At this stage, when he must have been almost fifty, Peerson published a collection of songs, the Private Musicke or The First Booke of Ayres and Dialogues (1620): there was never a second book of airs, but ten years later Peerson published a quite different kind of collection, the Mottects, or Grave Chamber Musique (1630), setting poems by the poet-courtier Sir Fulke Greville.

The prefaces and contents of these two publications tell us several things. Peerson, who was a competent composer by 1604 (even assuming that the version of See, O see who is here published in Private Musicke is a revision of the original) and a very good one by 1615 or so, felt confident enough to go into print by 1620. This argues for a firm reputation as a vocal composer, at least in some circles that mattered. By then he was involved in domestic music-making, presumably as a private teacher, for the dedicatees of his 1620 collection, both daughters of influential men, had performed some of the music and were almost certainly his (ex-)pupils. Ten years later his second publication shows him to be not only a master of large-scale composition – he was that by 1615 or so – but one who was capable of sustaining a whole collection of substantial pieces in full and verse style. The dedication also states that he had enjoyed Greville’s patronage, but does not say when or for how long.

Peerson gained stability and honour, if these had not come to him earlier, during the 1620s. Between 1623 and 1630 he was a sacrist at Westminster Abbey; and in 1624 or 1625 he became Almoner and Master of the Choristers at St Paul’s Cathedral, a post that he held for the rest of his life, even after the choir was apparently disbanded in late 1642. It is from his will that the connection with March is made, confirmed by the marriage register entry of 1570 that may relate to his parents and another from 1573 that may record the remarriage of his mother. Audrey Jones has shown that Peerson must have been married four times, although little is known about his wives. He is not known to have had children: a grandson mentioned in his will may be the son of a step-child.

Peerson is now known, when he is known at all, as a composer of very attractive miniatures. This is understandable, for while some little gems – such as the song Upon my lap my sovereign sits and the two keyboard genre pieces The fall of the leafe and The primerose – are easily available, his large-scale achievements, including much of his best music, are generally difficult to obtain. Survival in relatively few manuscript copies accounts for the fact that his verse-anthems, for instance, are still almost entirely unknown.

Even in these circumstances the fifteen Latin motets, here being heard for the first time since the seventeenth century, are a special case. They survive in a single copy made by Thomas Hamond, of Hawkedon, Suffolk, now MSS Mus. F 16–19 at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Hamond’s work seems to have been completed in 1655–6; but it had been started much earlier, and Peerson’s pieces could have been copied in the 1630s. In any case, Hamond’s tastes were clearly retrospective, so that the motets could have been composed much earlier still, in the first or second decade of the century. The copy originally consisted of five partbooks, but the Cantus book is now lost; the remaining four books give only an incomplete texture, and the top voice must be reconstructed. The version presented here (Martin Peerson, Latin Motets, edited by Richard Rastall; Antico Edition, 2003) is apparently the only complete reconstruction and edition ever made.

The composition of Latin motets does not necessarily imply that Peerson was a Catholic when he wrote them. These motets do not demonstrate the kind of underground protest that we can see in Byrd’s Latin compositions of the 1580s, for instance. Some of the texts can be traced to the pre-Reformation liturgy, but nothing here would have been unacceptable in the services of those Anglican institutions allowed to perform music with Latin texts. They could have been sung in Westminster Abbey, which is a royal peculiar and where, as already noted, Peerson was sacrist from 1623 until 1630. This would place them among Peerson’s late works, which stylistic considerations would suggest in any case.

Peerson’s texts for these motets are taken from the pre-Reformation liturgy (four motets), from the Psalms (five) and from unidentified sources (six). No fewer than ten motets form pairs (prima and secunda partes) presumably intended to be performed together. In some cases the reason for this is unclear, apart from the obvious affinities of the texts, although two pairs set series of Psalm verses (motets 4 and 5, Psalm 120 (121): 1–6; motets 14 and 15, Psalm 31 (32): 9–11). But in every case the two motets of a pair share their key-note, the prima pars ending on the ‘dominant’ and the secunda pars returning to the shared final.

In addition to this, the collection as a whole falls into three groups of motets, distinguished by both tonality and subject-matter. It is not clear whether these define larger groupings that were intended to be performed together, but it is a compelling reason to present the motets in their source order in this recording. Motets 1–5 have G as the final, with or without a flat in the key-signature; the texts concern the needs of sinful Mankind and the power of God to meet that need. Motets 6–9 have A as the final: they treat Christ’s death on the cross as Man’s way to salvation. The last and largest group, motets 10–15, again have G as the final: this group begins with a joyous reminder of Christ’s promise to send the Comforter, and then sets out the intellectual argument for Christ as authoritative Redeemer and the individual sinner’s need to consider God’s mercy and to rejoice in it. It is notable that the end of the very last motet includes the only section of triple-time music in the whole collection.

Such a range of texts, with their treatment of central issues in Christian life, demands a commensurate range of expression from the composer. Peerson’s response to these texts is indeed a virtuoso display in which he uses the full range of compositional techniques available to him. In a five-part texture of often dense polyphony, block chords are sometimes used for dramatic effect, as at the words ‘voca; justifica’ (No 3, Pater fili paraclete) or ‘Quomodo David’ (No 11, Quid vobis videtur), or to emphasize particularly important text (such as ‘pro nobis’ in No 7, Christus factus est). Elsewhere a single voice is pitted against the rest (as at ‘O Jesu’ in No 2, Redemptor mundi). At the other end of the compositional spectrum, the ‘standard’ imitative exposition of the Continental style (used in England most effectively by Byrd and Gibbons) rarely appears; and when it does, as in the opening sections of the last two motets (No 14, Nolite fieri, and No 15, Multa flagella peccatoris), the resulting sections are arguably among the less interesting in the collection. More often, the imitative expositions are so irregular that they make one wonder where ‘imitation’ gives way to free polyphony; and yet the ear hears the relationships between the various lines and recognizes the imitative technique at work.

This feature is perhaps the key to Peerson’s greatest achievement in the motets. Large paragraphs are built up from obviously imitative material – sometimes fairly long points, but often very short ones – that is not used in the normal imitative way but subjected to constant melodic and rhythmic variation. The eleven-bar passage in No 11 (Quid vobis videtur) in which he set the word ‘Jesus’ in a largely syllabic way is an extreme case in point, but only one of many: the passage sounds entirely natural, but closer consideration shows a formidable and very individual technique at work. In the end, of course, these methods can succeed only if they are underpinned by a firm control of the harmonic flow, as regards both the speed of harmonic movement and the precise harmonic content of the music.

If they did nothing else, these works would demonstrate Peerson’s mastery of this aspect of composition, and this is one reason why these pieces are regarded as probably relatively late works. But they show much more than this, and both listener and singer will be struck by the sheer performability of the lines and the dramatic and expressive effects of the texture as a whole. Such passages as his setting of ‘Jesu miserere mei’ near the beginning of No 1 (Deus omnipotens), or the wonderfully luminous passage for ‘neque dormiet qui custodit te’ in No 4 (Levavi oculos meos), show not merely a highly intelligent composer at work, but a human being of immense compassion and religious faith.

Richard Rastall © 2005

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