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Hyperion Records

CDA67874 - Parsons: Sacred Music
Portrait of Mary I by Hans Eworth (c1520-1574)
AKG London
CDA67874

Recording details: November 2010
Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, United Kingdom
Produced by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Engineered by Martin Haskell
Release date: October 2011
DISCID: 9A106F0B
Total duration: 70 minutes 2 seconds

GRAMOPHONE CHOICE
DIAPASON D'OR

'The Cardinall's Musick are at their best in this repertoire, and their performances have confidence and authority … Parsons certainly deserves the hearing that Carwood's musicians afford us, so this addition to the catalogue is very valuable' (Gramophone)

'Carwood and his singers highlight the inherent drama of Parsons' style, notably in O bone Jesu, with its changing textures, brilliant canons and expressive dissonances … perhaps the crowning glory of the disc is the final Ave Maria, the slow and poignant unfolding of which echoes long in the memory. Hyperion's detailed recording, swathed in the glowing acoustic of the Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, enhances these seraphic performances' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Parsons is not a one-hit-wonder after all … one may expect the incidence of Parsons' music on programmes to increase significantly especially after such a fine sound as Carwood generates' (Classic FM Magazine)

Sacred Music

Gramophone award-winning ensemble The Cardinall’s Musick return to another master of the Renaissance, Robert Parsons. Very few records remain of the composer’s short life, and his musical output is often overlooked, perhaps in the shadow of the prolific William Byrd, his successor as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. However, his vocal writing is some of the most opulent of the period.

The Cardinall’s Musick give sublime performances of some of the composer’s most sumptuous choral works, from the remarkably sophisticated Magnificat to the dramatic O bone Jesu. As demonstrated in their previous recordings, their resonant, pure-toned singing is the perfect advocate for such exquisite polyphony. The ensemble’s seemingly effortless and magical performance of the glorious Ave Maria is the perfect conclusion to an enlightening recording.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Lack of information about a composer is a common problem for the researcher of early music, especially in sixteenth-century England where so many records have been lost. Add to this a seemingly early and unusual death and a mournful personal note from a contemporary collector of sacred music and Robert Parsons proves to be even more fascinating than most of his contemporaries.

Robert Parsons is first found in a Teller’s Roll for 1560/1 which refers to him co-ordinating payments to Richard Bower, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. The Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal records Parsons’ appointment as a Gentleman on 17 October 1563:

Merton died 22nd of September, and Roberte Parsons sworne in his place the 17th October, Ao 5to.

Unusually there is no note of the place where he had previously been employed and this, together with the references in the Teller’s Roll, suggests that Parsons was connected with the Chapel before he became a Gentleman. On 30 May 1567 he was granted a Crown lease for twenty-one years on three rectories near Lincoln (‘Sturton, Randbie and Staynton’) and in 1571 an annual tax certificate issued to court servants confirms his residence as being in Greenwich. The next mention is a further emotionless reference in the Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal:

Robt. Parsons was drowned at Newark uppon Trent the 25th of Januarie, and Wm. Bird sworne gentleman in his place at the first the 22d of Februarie followinge, Ao 14o Lincolne.

Quite why he was travelling near Newark is unclear. He may have been visiting his rectories or attending to other business but it is clear that he died in 1572, the fourteenth regnal year of Queen Elizabeth I. His only epitaph is a couplet found in the partbooks prepared by the copyist Robert Dow in the 1580s which suggests that Parsons was highly esteemed and suffered an early death:

Qui tantus primo Parsone in flore fuisti
Quantus in autumno ni morere fores.
[Parsons, you who were so great in the springtime of life,
how great you would have been in the autumn, had death not come.]

Parsons lived through some of the most tumultuous years of the sixteenth century as the four religious settlements loosely termed the English Reformation tore society apart. After Henry VIII’s break with Rome and his relatively conservative reforms, the baton was then passed in 1549 to his son Edward VI who, steered by his Protestant advisors and then later developing his own agenda, pursued a more radical path. This course was halted by Edward’s half-sister, Mary I, eldest daughter of Henry VIII and devout Catholic, in 1553. She returned England to communion with Rome and met with much support for her policies until the economic downturn of the late 1550s and her own increasing personal instability. Then in turn her death in 1558 and the accession of Elizabeth I, her half-sister and Henry’s second daughter, led to a new English settlement which drew on Edward’s reforms but with considerably more artistic and liturgical sensitivity than had been allowed by the young king.

The surviving music by Parsons consists of nine pieces in Latin, two Services in English, two anthems in English, a handful of secular songs and some instrumental pieces including five In nomines. The lack of small-scale English sacred music seems to suggest that Parsons was not active as a composer during the reign of Edward VI. His earliest work is probably the opulent setting of the Magnificat which harkens back to a tradition seen clearly in the Eton Choirbook and which was developed by Robert Fayrfax, Nicholas Ludford and John Taverner. Five Magnificats in the Forrest-Heyther Partbooks and the Office Hymns by Tallis and Sheppard seem to suggest that Mary was keen to reinstate large-scale music at the Office of Vespers. The lack of accompanying Nunc dimittis settings suggest these Magnificats were designed specifically for Vespers rather than the reformed Evensong when both Canticles would be required.

Parsons’ setting uses a traditional alternation of plainsong and polyphony and is scored for six voices, sometimes with lengthy divisions or ‘gimells’, but this is no mere exercise by a young composer trying to find his feet. That Parsons has a sophisticated grasp of compositional techniques is seen most clearly in his use of canon (where one or more parts will repeat exactly a melody sung by an opening voice). These can be found in the sections ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’ (at the octave between triplex and contratenor II), ‘et sanctum nomen eius’ (at the ninth between tenor and medius), ‘et semini eius in saecula’ (at the tenth between bassus and medius) and at ‘Sicut erat in principio’ (a three-part canon at the unison between the two contratenors and at the octave with the triplex). Although Parsons is obviously drawing on older models, his setting seems less archaic than that by Robert White. There is no reliance on cantus firmus and the plainchant melody is given only slight attention in the polyphonic verses. Parsons does however preserve the use of melismatic writing for the solo lines and contrasts these with more massive full-choir sections.

Two important characteristics can be seen in this piece, both of which were later to reach their zenith in O bone Jesu. The first is an enjoyment of symmetry and development. In the Magnificat the various canons (imitation at the octave, the ninth, then tenth and culminating in the three-part canon at the unison and octave) have an obvious sense of progression. The second is a remarkably sophisticated understanding of the dramatic potential of the final section of an extended piece. It can be seen clearly in the ‘Amen’ where the bass and tenor parts are engaged in a dialogue which constantly reiterates their themes whilst the other parts weave a polyphonic web above them.

Solemnis urgebat dies (‘Iam Christus astra ascenderat’) is the Office Hymn at Matins on the Feast of Pentecost. It is similar to settings by Sheppard and Tallis where plainsong alternates with polyphony, the stanza structure is rigorously preserved, all movement is virtually syllabic and the plainsong cantus firmus is quoted exactly in the upper voice.

Queen Mary did not want a wholesale return to some perceived halcyon age but was intelligent enough to realize that she had to provide a settlement which did not ignore the recent past. As composers grappled with this new reality they had to find suitable texts for any extended compositions as there seemed to be no demand for a return to the old-fashioned and lengthy Votive Antiphons to the Virgin Mary. They turned instead to the Book of Psalms and to two Psalms in particular—Psalm 15 (or 14 in the Vulgate) Domine, quis habitabit? and various portions of the extended Psalm 119 (Vulgate 118). Both texts are concerned with righteous living and the following of God’s commandments and instruct people how to live a godly life. Could it be that these texts became popular for people searching for the ‘right’ way? The to-and-fro of politics had created a considerable degree of confusion and unease and such advice could be invaluable. Or was it that such texts could apply equally to Protestants as well as Catholics and were unlikely to cause offence?

Domine, quis habitabit? was set by Tallis, William Mundy, Robert White (three times) and William Byrd as well as Parsons himself. Parsons sets only the first half of the Psalm (as does Byrd) and makes a feature of juxtaposing the high voices against the lower ones. The piece seems to owe more to the Continental Flemish style than his more florid English inheritance and this becomes clear when it is compared with Retribue servo tuo, a setting of the third portion of Psalm 119. There are a further eight contemporary settings of these verses: one by Christopher Tye, three from William Mundy and four from White. Parsons’ setting is reminiscent of the old Votive Antiphon style, starting with just three voices before expanding briefly to four parts, then back to three and then four, before the first full-choir entry at ‘Increpasti superbos’. Similarly, the second section begins with a trio before moving to a quintet with a bass gimell before the final full section. It is rare to find detailed expression of text in Votive Antiphons (Fayrfax’s Maria plena virtute being a notable exception) but the full-choir flourishes could often be used for dramatic effect either to underline the importance of a portion of text or a particular word. Parsons divides the Psalm unequally with five verses in the first section and only three in the second and thus highlights the following verses with full choir writing:

Increpasti superbos,
maledicti qui declinant a mandatis tuis.
[You have rebuked the proud,
cursed are they that do err from your commandments.]

and:

Nam et testimonia tua meditatio mea est,
et consilium meum iustificationes tuae.
[For your testimonies are my delight,
and your judgments my counsellors.]

Once again Parsons’ control of drama is evident with his imaginative use of the solo sections, fooling the listener into thinking that the full choir is about to enter only to continue with differently scored solo writing. He provides a short but masterful ‘Amen’ coda, choosing a dotted subject for imitation which impels the listener forward to the final cadence. Parsons also shows his fascination with the interval of a seventh, one that needs some form of cloaking in order to sound acceptable to sixteenth-century ears. This he achieves by breaking the interval in two, most often a third followed by a fifth, or vice versa (‘non abscondas a me’, ‘a mandatis tuis’, ‘servus autem tuus’ and ‘meditatio mea est’).

The unusual setting of O bone Jesu for five voices also draws on the tradition of the old Votive Antiphon. This text had proved a puzzle for academics being a seemingly random selection of Psalm verses each concluding with an invocation to Jesus. It bears no relation to other settings which begin with the words ‘O bone Jesu’ and Parsons is the only English composer to assay these words. It was David Skinner who solved the riddle when he came across the reference to ‘St Bernard’s Verses’ in various Primers and Books of Hours, one of which contained the following rubric:

When St Bernard was in his daily prayers, the devil said unto him. ‘I know that there be certain verses in the Psalter, who that say them daily shall not perish, and he shall have knowledge of the day that he shall die.’ But the fiend would not show them [to] St Bernard. Then St Bernard [answered] ‘I shall say daily the whole Psalter.’ The fiend, considering that St Bernard shall do so much profit to labour so, he showed him these verses.

This was just the sort of devotion ridiculed by Erasmus in In Praise of Folly (1511) and condemned by Archbishop Cranmer in his Homily of Good Works (1547). O bone Jesu must be considered Parsons’ highest dramatic achievement. The piece sets full-choir writing (mainly for the invocations of Christ) against solo sections for the Psalm verses. His sense of symmetry is clear from the outset, starting with a duet, then increasing to a trio and then a quartet before the entry of the full choir signals the end of the first section. A trio starts the second section giving way to a sextet with a bass gimell (as in Retribue) with both bass voices in canon at the unison. The text ‘Clamavi ad te, Domine’ (‘I have cried to you, Lord.’) elicits an irresistible scale starting on a low F and moving up by step to a fourth above the octave—perhaps a clever cross reference to Psalm 130 ‘De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine’ (‘Out of the deep have I cried to you, Lord’) with the bass voices rising from the depths to the heaven with their cry. This canon allows an intensification of the drama and cleverly creates a ‘battle’ tension between the two bass voices impelling the music forward to the full-choir explosion at ‘O Rex noster’. The tension then recedes as the full choir moves into the final verses and increases gradually towards the final ‘Amen’ where Parsons returns to ‘battle’ between the voices, increasing the pitch one step at a time until the final eight bars where the constant hammering of the tonic note D on the weak beats of the bar allows the final cadence to feel one of total relief and fulfilment.

Yet another link between composers of the mid-sixteenth-century is their penchant for producing sets of Lamentations and Responds from the Office of Matins in the Funeral Rite. No Lamentations have survived from Parsons but settings were produced by Tallis, Osbert Parsley, White (two sets), Alfonso Ferrabosco and Byrd. It is interesting to note these names when looking at the three Funeral Responds set by Parsons, as three similar Responds are set both by Alfonso Ferrabosco and William Byrd. Libera me, Domine (9th Respond) is an austere work with the plainsong cantus firmus maintained throughout in the tenor part. It is likely that Parsons’ setting was the model for one by William Byrd published in his 1575 Cantiones Sacrae. Peccantem me quotidie (7th Respond) sounds more modern even though it carries the plainsong tune as a cantus firmus in the contratenor I part; its lines are smoother and there is more step-wise movement in the melodies and a greater reliance on plangent harmonies. Credo quod redemptor (1st Respond) sounds the most modern of the three as its style is more reminiscent of the early Elizabethan motet as developed by Tallis and Byrd. There are striking similarities between this piece and a setting of the same text by Alfonso Ferrabosco and it has been suggested that Ferrabosco, originally a native of Bologna who was resident in England at various times in this period, had brought the idea of setting the Funeral Responds from the Continent. However, if this is the case it seems odd that Parsons should have set two such Responds using the old-fashioned cantus firmus technique. Parsons’ characteristic broken sixths and sevenths are obvious in the opening bars of Credo quod redemptor and it seems more likely that Parsons was the model for Ferrabosco.

Deliver me from mine enemies and Holy Lord God Almighty are definitely influenced by the Flemish style from the Continent. They are full throughout and the text-setting is efficient although with no hint of the Edwardine style where homophony is the norm. Both pieces rely heavily on close imitation, especially Deliver me from mine enemies which is based on a canon between the two highest voices. Holy Lord God Almighty does use the Edwardine form of ABB which is found in short anthems by Tallis, Sheppard and others but its rather instrumental style clearly places it as an Elizabethan piece.

Ave Maria has become Parsons’ most famous and well-loved motet since it was included in the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems in 1978. Settings of the Ave Maria are not frequent in England—even William Byrd only set them as required by the liturgy in his two books of Gradualia (1605 and 1607) rather than as stand-alone pieces. Parsons simply sets the lines found in the Gospel of St Luke and has no invocation for the dead (authorized by Pope Pius V in 1568). This is a magical setting and it is not surprising that there is a beautiful ‘Amen’ coda. Initially the piece gives the impression of using a cantus firmus in the top part but it is in fact free-composed throughout. Parsons starts each medius phrase one note higher than the previous one, beginning on F and then moving up to D with long slow notes before reaching ‘benedicta tu’ when it joins the other voices in equal importance. Paul Doe has suggested that this piece might have been prompted by the early promise or subsequent plight of Mary, Queen of Scots. There is no direct evidence for this but it is not unreasonable to consider Parsons and indeed most of the mid-sixteenth-century writers—Sheppard, Tallis, White, Mundy and Tye—as Catholic sympathizers. They seem more free, more expressive, more expansive and more brave in their Latin compositions and it is tempting to speculate that in setting words from Psalms 15 and 119, the Lamentations and the Funeral Responds, they were consciously producing music with a Catholic slant. In comparison their English works tend to be shorter and less virtuosic and even the fledgling Great Services are short on excellent material, but then these mid-sixteenth-century composers were creating a new genre not previously explored and were probably writing to fulfil a set of rules which were not entirely clear. England had to wait for another generation—headed by William Byrd, Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Morley—before writing in English could achieve greatness.

Andrew Carwood © 2011

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