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Hyperion Records

CDA67868 - Music for Henry V & the House of Lancaster
Portrait of Henry V (1386-1422). English School (15th century)
National Portrait Gallery, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67868

Recording details: May 2010
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: September 2011
DISCID: 0B110F12
Total duration: 72 minutes 39 seconds

BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE 'CHORAL CHOICE'
GRAMOPHONE CRITICS' CHOICE 2011

'A festive, celebratory disc in many ways, and a great introduction to music that deserves to be celebrated' (Gramophone)

'This is a magical and moving chance to hear music directly from the circle of Henry V … yt would be difficult to imagine more tuneful, exacting interpretations' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This repertoire testifies to the haunting purity of music from the early 15th century … The Binchois Consort under Andrew Kirkman performs with discreet, moving expressiveness' (The Daily Telegraph)

'It's subtle, beautiful stuff and no one would doubt its spiritual sincerity … the performances are faultless' (The Guardian)

'Stylishly sung, this is well worth hearing for an insight into an under-recognised period of English music-making' (Scotland on Sunday)

Music for Henry V & the House of Lancaster
Kyrie  [6'58] LatinEnglish
Gloria  [6'27] LatinEnglish
Credo  [7'34] LatinEnglish

The Binchois Consort presents a disc which demonstrates the beauty and grandeur of the music performed daily in princely chapels of fifteenth-century England. It illustrates the sheer variety of types of singing, some of it virtuosic in its brilliance. Specifically it offers sacred ceremonial pieces written either for Henry V himself, as King, or to invoke the saintly patron of the House of Lancaster, John of Bridlington, as well as a selection of intricate motets.

Scholarly notes by Philip Weller place this music firmly in its historical context, and the Binchois performances represent the highest standard of early music singing of the present day. Every nuance is considered and each phrase is relished in this immaculately polished disc.


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This recording documents in sound something of the cultural seriousness and panache of the royal princes of the House of Lancaster. Above all, it seeks to evoke the vocal and ceremonial beauty of their household chapels. In doing so it celebrates in music the brilliant, iconic figure of Henry V, hero of Agincourt and the French campaigns; the obviously unheroic but still culturally and religiously influential figure of his son, Henry VI; and finally the perhaps unlikely figure they both revered: John Thwenge (Thwing), a fourteenth-century Augustinian prior who, as St John of Bridlington, was to be the last English saint canonized prior to the Reformation. It also celebrates the great Wollaton Antiphonal, a magnificent illuminated chant book of the early fifteenth century that uniquely preserves the melodies of the Bridlington Office and constitutes one of the finest survivals of the myriad liturgical volumes of pre-Reformation England, so very few of which avoided falling prey to the purges and material destruction of the mid-sixteenth century.

Our programme presents a spectrum of English polyphonic vocal styles spanning the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI, and we have sought to balance the securely ascribed pieces (by both more and less familiar names) with the anonymous ones. The programme as a whole articulates a kind of journey through Lancastrian dynastic concerns, demonstrating as it does so the sheer variety of types of singing, some of it virtuosic in its brilliance, available to well-staffed princely chapels in England at the time. More concretely, it offers sacred ceremonial pieces written either for Henry V himself, as King, or to invoke the saintly patron of the House of Lancaster, John of Bridlington, as well as a group of motets in honorem beatae Mariae virginis.

The Bridlington Mass-setting recorded here dates from the era of his son and heir Henry VI, though it may or may not have been commissioned directly for (or indeed from within) the Chapel Royal itself. It is based on one of the melodies found in the Wollaton Antiphonal (Quem malignus spiritus), and is presented together with items of English plainchant and a selection of motets chosen not just for their sonic qualities, but to illustrate something of the range of styles in use during the ‘Lancastrian decades’ of the fifteenth century. These chants and motets are interspersed among the Mass movements, sometimes as pairs of Latin texts addressed to the blessed virgin Mary, sometimes as integral parts of the order of Mass. The opening sections of the Bridlington Office, up to and including the Responsory which provides the Quem malignus melody, are sung as a kind of musical preface or introduction, beginning at Johannis solemnitas. (As was common in Office chants of the Sanctorale, the various component texts stay very close to the narrative of the life of the saint whose feast was being celebrated, so that anyone listening or participating would be reminded of the relevant stories as the liturgy progressed.) The Asperges me, part of the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, is then performed to Sarum chant, with the ‘refrain’ being sung to improvised three-voice polyphony (a widespread and characteristic tradition, known in England as ‘faburden’). The conclusion of Mass is marked by a short ‘post missam’ motet for three voices, Agimus tibi gratias, that in time-honoured fashion answers the priest’s dismissal Ite missa est (‘Go, the Mass is ended’).

There are three chant/motet pairings dedicated, rather like votive offerings in sound, to the virgin Mary: Gloriosae virginis, Ave regina caelorum and the much-loved Tota pulchra es, which is paired with another Ave regina setting. There is also a group of three extended motets addressed jointly to Mary and St George, as prime intercessors for the kingdom of England (Salvatoris mater, Alma proles and Salve mater). These motets, written by musicians of Henry V’s own chapel, are without doubt political pieces, in a religious and ceremonial sense, reflecting the bellicose history of Henry’s reign with its central victory of Agincourt, and the King’s vital position in relation to the English realm and people at that momentous time. There were celebrations in London following on from the victory itself—an event that was mythologized almost as soon as it had happened, and had already passed into national legend long before Shakespeare and Burbage, let alone Garrick, Kean, Olivier and the rest. Motets played a key role in both the quotidian and the occasional rituals of Henry’s reign, one key event having been the performance of a (now lost) motet Ave rex Anglorum / Flos mundi / Miles Christi—which no doubt expressed sentiments similar to those of the surviving trio of motets—before the gate to London Bridge to herald the King’s entry into the city following his great victory in 1415. The motets may well belong together as a group, which is how they appear in the Old Hall manuscript, couched among the Sanctus and Benedictus settings—and so this is how we present them here, at the appropriate point within the Mass liturgy after the Sanctus (the outer two are based on the two ‘halves’ of a divided Benedictus chant, split at the word ‘ve-nit’). The central motet has the invocation ‘Christ, defend us from our enemies’, and makes a general plea for divine support for both state and people, as well as for the King himself, in time of war.

The Missa Quem malignus spiritus is an extended cantus firmus setting based on the chant extracted from the Bridlington Office. It was evidently quite widely known and performed, surviving as it does in as many as four sources (two of which are in fact the same version copied twice). In particular, it survives (in only fragmentary form) in the so-called Lucca Choirbook, a musically substantial manuscript collection of great historical interest that was written circa 1463, in Bruges, probably for use in the chapel of the English Nation of Merchant Adventurers (whose governor William Caxton, a long-time resident of Bruges, had recently become). The chant melody in (relatively) long note values is given in the lower of the two tenor voices, and in our recording has been sung to its original Bridlington text. The high tenor and discantus parts form an integrated pair of voices above this, and are written with a degree of rhythmic interplay and melodic imitation that gives a sense of tautness and momentum to the texture as a whole. This is exceptional, yet not uncharacteristic, for English music at this period. It is becoming clearer, the more the repertory is explored and investigated in greater depth, that there was a really wide range of vocal idiom and compositional style operative in England during this era. And the anonymous status of so many important works, including such pieces as the Bridlington Mass and the iconic Missa Caput, can only serve to sharpen our awareness of this situation, standing as they do beyond what we (often too readily and uncritically) see as the self-consistent personal styles of the best-known composers.

The Quem malignus Mass was evidently conceived for a skilled ensemble of singers, whose art seems to have left its mark upon the polyphony—its clearness of line, its sense of rhythmic focus and balance, and the general elegance of its solutions to the problem of presenting the liturgical texts in cogent phrases, while offering at the same time a real sense of articulate musical flow, are all evidence of this. It undoubtedly reflects the professional world of the Lancastrian chapels, and those of the important noble families associated with them (Beauchamp and Beaufort, for example). It is a very individualized piece, and one not easily susceptible to close linkage with others; perhaps the work that offers the closest points of analogy is Frye’s beautiful Nobilis et pulchra Mass, although this relationship ought not to be exaggerated. For the present, the proud anonymity of the Missa Quem malignus spiritus (like that of the Caput Mass, indeed) will remain one of its distinguishing characteristics.

Like the Mass, the anonymous three-voice Agimus tibi gratias is also found in the Lucca Choirbook. It is one of a group of (presumably) English motets written together in the manuscript, that are for use at the end of the liturgy (blessing and dismissal); and we may be certain that at some time or other it was heard at Mass in Bruges together with the Missa Quem malignus spiritus, the two being sung from the manuscript they shared.

The four-voice motets Gloriosae virginis and Ave regina caelorum are jewels of the art of Leonel Power. These pieces are not long, but their sense of compactness is lightened and dispelled by the exquisite control of line and sonority which they exhibit. Their finely judged and ‘easy’ intricacy lifts them into a time-dimension where a musical moment or phrase may be neither long nor short, but simply of a perfect duration. Moreover their sound is distinctive and individual, as well as beautiful—this is an idiom unlike any other at that period, even in England, and creates a sense of space and luminosity through the masterly interplay of its musical elements. These short antiphon texts are set as a combination of votive offering and gently impassioned invocation, freely alluding to their respective chants as they do so.

The Frye Ave regina caelorum was one of the most widely copied and evidently best-loved motets of the entire fifteenth century. It survives in a wide range of sources, was depicted in visual art being sung by angels, and was reworked in keyboard arrangements and with expanded vocal textures. Our version is in four voices, and is transmitted in a source as far away as late fifteenth-century Bohemia.

The chant for St John and the succession of the Mass are prefaced by a Gloria, found in the Old Hall manuscript as one of two pieces by ‘Roy Henry’, very probably Henry V himself. That a royal personage should have been a literate musician, no doubt well versed in the arts of singing and musical leisure in addition to those of composition, as well as being very conscious of the personal interest a royal prince ought to take in the musical and ceremonial ordering of his chapel, is on the face of it surprising. Yet as we have seen, the Lancastrians offer, in the vigour of their cultural as well as military prowess, the very archetype of a complete prince in a way that stands as a model for the later Middle Ages, and yields nothing to the princely ideal of later decades. In Henry V’s case, as in that of Charles the Bold later in the century, this engagement with the art of music was clearly a skilled and active involvement.

If the English music of the fifteenth century still has the power to speak to us today, with its individuality of sound, its particular beauty and sense of aesthetic priorities, then that is all of a piece with the fame it enjoyed in its own time. For several generations it was valued and performed both at home and abroad, occupying a leading position on the European stage from Italy and France in the west to musical communities far away in Germany and central Europe. It was sung in the most prestigious chapels and ecclesiastical centres, but also in far-flung places which one might hardly expect English music to have penetrated. This was one of those few moments when English music was at the very forefront of European developments, and was openly acknowledged to be so by European masters. No group of aristocratic patrons did more to foster the emergence of such a situation than the princes of the House of Lancaster.

Philip Weller © 2011

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