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Hyperion Records

CDH55284 - The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 4
The Holy Head from a fifteenth-century Book of Hours.
CDH55284
(Originally issued on CDA66857)

Recording details: July 1996
Rickmansworth Masonic School Chapel, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: August 2010
DISCID: F30FF512
Total duration: 67 minutes 30 seconds

GRAMOPHONE EDITOR'S CHOICE

'A very special achievement … music of the very highest order, seldom recorded. Essential listening!' (Gramophone)

'A fascinating disc with superbly informative and enticing notes by Christopher Page' (BBC Music Magazine)

'At last, for the first time in over thirty years, we can hear this glorious work … as always, the booklet material is an absolute model of what these things should be; a self-contained lesson in medieval aesthetics, miraculously presented' (BBC Record Review)

'Christopher Page traduit avec toujours autant de sûreté mais aussi beaucoup de transparence les longues et expressives phrases musicales de cet ensemble remarquable' (Répertoire, France)

'Comme à l'accoutumée, une impeccable justesse le dispute à la rigueur rythmique, à la vocalité, à l'homogénéité des ensembles, au sens du phrasé' (Diapason, France)

The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 4
Missa Caput and the story of the Salve regina
Gloria  [4'53] LatinEnglish
Credo  [5'40] LatinEnglish

The English anonymous fifteenth-century Missa Caput at the centre of this disc is probably the most significant work from the period. It was copied all across Britain and the Continent and was largely responsible for the universal adoption of the 'parody Mass' technique and of today's standard four-part choir arrangement. It is a work of great stature and beauty, in this performance interspersed with a curious Latin poem which describes how two small boys composed the Salve regina antiphon while languishing in Hell.

Also represented here are six fifteenth-century carols, and an exquisite Agnus Dei from the Old Hall Manuscript.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
With the fourth volume in this series we have embarked on a repertoire entirely new to Gothic Voices: the polyphonic Masses of the fifteenth century. Taking the sound and style of a group that has always specialized in songs and adapting it to works of some twenty-five minutes duration has been an exhilarating challenge. We begin with the most famous and influential of all the English Masses, the Missa Caput, basing our performance upon an unpublished edition by Gareth Curtis. This is followed in volume 5 of ‘The Spirits of England and France’ by another English masterpiece, the Missa Veterem hominem.

The Missa Caput
The anonymous English Missa Caput was one of the most revered compositions of the fifteenth century. This much is clear enough from the fact that it has survived in no fewer than seven manuscripts, more than for any other Mass written before the 1480s. But its importance is measurable in far more than just the number of copies that have happened to escape destruction. It was also a piece that had a major impact on other composers of the day. At least two composers—Ockeghem and Obrecht—used it as a model for Masses of their own and its impact went a lot further than this: it was a key work in spawning a whole range of Masses by Continental composers constructed on similar lines and it seems to have been one of the earliest pieces to have added a fourth, low contratenor part in the bass range to the three-voice texture that was standard around the time that it was composed (probably in the 1440s). This four-voice idiom, a forerunner of our standard SATB, spread rapidly through Western Europe, and within about thirty years it had largely taken over as the standard texture for art music.

In so many way the ‘Caput’ Mass was a convergence of ideas whose ‘time had come’. It hit Continental Europe at a time when, as at no other time in history, English music was very much in vogue, and at the centre of this vogue was a huge appetite for English Mass cycles. The idea of using shared musical material for settings of successive items in the Mass Ordinary, something which we take for granted today, was still a very young one, and English composers had devised a method of construction in which a single melody was taken from outside the liturgy of the Mass and laid out in the tenor in each movement or section of a movement. Sometimes the melody was set forth in the same succession of long notes for each statement; on other occasions it was presented in more elaborate forms. But the effect was always much the same: to provide a structural framework around which various counterpoints could provide—rather in the manner of glosses on sacred texts or the illuminations and arabesques in Books of Hours—endlessly changing and richly patterned musical adornments.

This then is the world into which the Missa Caput was born: a world of remarkable musical fecundity which had at its centre a development which has been characterized as one of the founding moments of Western music. Liturgical circumstances and musical wherewithal converged to produce—for the first time—multi-movement musical structures encompassing up to half-an-hour of music. The possibilities that this new technique offered were quickly grasped: it was so widely and scrupulously imitated in the 1450s and 1460s that it is often virtually impossible to distinguish English Masses from their Continental clones.

Such a Mass cycle was usually identified in its manuscript copies by the first word or words originally set to the melody which it had borrowed for its tenor, and it is by such names that these pieces are known today. The melody used in the ‘Caput’ Mass started life as a long tenor melisma on the word ‘caput’ (in Latin, ‘head’) in a chant for a special ritual service of the washing of the feet held on Maundy Thursday in the English Sarum and other liturgical uses. The text comprises a dialogue between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus states: “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me”. Peter replies: “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head”. The melody is heard, in long notes, twice in each movement, the first time in triple metre and the second in duple metre.

For those listeners familiar with the standard form of the Kyrie, the ‘Caput’ Kyrie will come as a surprise: following English practice it sets a long troped text, or ‘prosula’, beginning with the words ‘Deus creator omnium’. It was this movement which first alerted scholars to the fact that the Mass could not be by Dufay, as was once thought, but must rather be an English work. The sad effect of this removal of the Mass from the Dufay canon was that performances of it, which had been common, dropped off almost completely. But as this recording demonstrates, it is not difficult to understand why this magnificent work was taken up by a generation of composers as a challenge to their own creative powers. Whoever wrote this beautiful Mass, with its rich, sonorous textures and elegant lines, it is as striking and satisfying a work today as it must have been when, over half a millennium ago, it was one of the most popular works in Western Europe.

The composer of the Missa Caput probably envisaged that his work would be sung by four singers, all adult males, or possibly by larger forces in a proto-choral distribution that is especially likely to have favoured extra singers on the top part. In this performance the Mass is performed with one voice to a part, and all four voices have been texted. It was customary for the upper two parts (superius and contratenor) to be texted in English Mass music of this period; as for the lower two parts, including the tenor which uses the ‘Caput’ melisma, ‘it seems entirely plausible that the skilled [medieval] singer would accommodate text as he could, breaking ligatures as necessary … Where he encountered insoluble problems … presumably he could have divided one or two long notes if only a few syllables remained to be sung, or he could have cut the text in a convenient manner, resuming with the next phrase’ (G Curtis, ed., Fifteenth-Century Liturgical Music III: The Brussels Masses, Early English Church Music 34 (London, 1989), pp. xiv–xv). This seems eminently sensible. The Missa Caput is not a set of Renaissance madrigals designed to project a text but a means of adorning a major liturgical feast with an appropriately luxurious clamour while the Ordinary texts are being spoken by the celebrant and other ministers. Texting—or partially texting—the lower parts of the Mass produces a richer palette of vowel colours than when the two lower parts are vocalized, and produces musical lines which are more appetizing for the performers to sing and are easier to phrase. Full texting also provides a useful artistic resource, namely the chance to synchronize vowels for extended melismas in all voices and thus to modify the colour of the music. If a word like ‘mundi’ is to be sung, for example, there is a profound contrast between a four-voice prolongation of the bright second syllable (munDI) and a prolongation of the darker first syllable (MUNdi).

It has been suggested that some fifteenth-century Masses—perhaps most of them—were conceived by their composers as large compositional projects in five movements, the intervening plainsong and ceremonial having little place in their artistic conception. This view has its attractions, of course, for it prints a licence for us to do exactly what we find easiest and most convenient: namely to study or perform these Masses without reference to their liturgical context. We have taken the view here that an alternation of monody and polyphony can be a great aid to the modern listener when presented with the five movements of a Mass such as the Missa Caput. Accordingly, we have interspersed the movements of the Mass with verses from a recently discovered Latin song about the origins of the great Marian antiphon, Salve regina.

The story of the Salve regina
The antiphon Salve regina was a vivid part of the medieval soundscape. It was sung at Compline in many monasteries and churches; at the Church of St Magnus in London there was a Guild of the Salve regina whose members would gather at the end of the day to hear the antiphon. (There were many such guilds.) The story told in the song performed here relates how two young boys join a monastery of Black Monks (that is, Benedictines); despite their having been exemplary in all things, one hot summer day they disobey their master and bathe in the monastery stream. Satan makes a golden cup appear in the water—it is a ghastly parody of the grail—and as the boys try to reach it they are drowned. The great Cistercian, Bernard of Clairvaux (d1153), then has a nocturnal vision in which he is led into hell and sees the souls of two boys on a fiery mountain. The Virgin Mary appears and, as she passes, the two boys sing the Salve regina which they have composed. They are saved (of course!) and so are we all, the poem assures us, if we sing the Salve regina every day.

The song, designed to be sung to any melody for the well-known hymn Pange lingua, has seventy stanzas in all, and is here performed in an abridged version which retains the essentials of the story, culminating in a performance of the antiphon itself.

Most of the other items gathered here are carols, three sung and three performed on a trio of medieval lutes. Carols make excellent instrumental music, and contemporary pictures suggest that fifteenth-century listeners were fond of the bright, brittle sonorities of strings plucked with quill plectra. The poetry of carols often expresses a profound but plain religious conviction: note the triumphantly simple view of Becket’s conflict with Henry II in the first verse of Clangat tuba. The musical settings in the carol repertory seem ideal for such poetry, for they are open-hearted, joyful, and wear their learning lightly. In many of these carols we find the root stock of English melodic and contrapuntal art that flowers so remarkably in the Missa Caput; listen especially to the duets in Clangat tuba, for example.

The form of the carol, with its alternation of verse and chorus, is undoubtedly derived from the dancing songs which bore exactly the same name (Chaucer, for example, calls them carole). However learned their music, the polyphonic English carols usually retain a certain lightness of tone from their predecessors, hardly any of which were written down. We may imagine the polyphonic carols being performed in a secular or ecclesiastical hall on one of the great feasts of the church year (especially Christmas). The performers would have been drawn from the singing men and from the choristers of some choral foundation.

Virtually all of the fifteenth-century English carols are anonymous, but a small number are attributed to a medieval Lennon and McCartney, namely Smert and Trouluffe, both Devonshire men. Richard Smert was Rector of Plymtree, near Exeter, between 1435 and 1477.

Finally, the four-voice Agnus Dei from the Old Hall Manuscript. This is the oldest piece on the recording, and admirably illustrates the sheer love of chords which is such an enduring quality of medieval English music and which the Missa Caput displays so generously.

Christopher Page © 1996


Other albums in this series
'The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 1' (CDH55281)
The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 1
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55281  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 2' (CDH55282)
The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 2
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55282  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 3' (CDH55283)
The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 3
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55283  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 5' (CDH55285)
The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 5
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55285  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
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