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Hyperion Records

CDH55297 - The Earliest Songbook in England
Fantastic beast in the cloister of the Abbey Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa.
(Originally issued on CDA67177)

Recording details: December 1999
Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: January 2012
DISCID: 310F2817
Total duration: 63 minutes 7 seconds


'Gothic Voices at their best … an astonishing and varied collection' (Gramophone)

'A commendable and enjoyable disc' (Early Music Review)

‘The performances are exquisite—neat, clean, with penetrating tone’ (American Record Guide)

'Another happy triumph for Christopher Page and his team. As usual with Gothic Voices the singing is seamless and utterly beyond criticism. A perfect hour’s listening' (International Record Review)

'A winner. A magical evocation of a lost English 12th-century world' (Classic CD)

'Helps us to understand how far advanced the music of the 13th century had become, while still appreciating its own brand of beauty. Gothic Voices has the skill to bring it all to life, as they do everything they touch. This is a permanent addition to any good medieval collection' (Fanfare, USA)

‘A wealth of music and poetry now reunited and brought to life’ (Early Music Today)

The Earliest Songbook in England
Cambridge University Library MS Ff.I.17(1)

Probably copied around 1200, this songbook was discarded within a generation or so and used as flyleaves for another book. It was poorly written, decayed and damp, marred by stains and the ravages of time, but because the pages were being used for another purpose, some unknown benefactor preserved this wealth of music and poetry. The songbook then remained hidden for some six hundred years.

This recording is an almost complete anthology of songs from the booklet. It isn't known where it was copied, but it is believed to be an important religious foundation that housed by chance a few unusually keen singers. Many of the pieces are associated with major feasts of the liturgical year, including some which fall in the intensely festive period between Christmas and New Year's Day. The tone of many of the texts is therefore joyful.

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Imagine a few leaves of parchment folded together, poorly written, decayed by damp, marred by stains and the ravages of time. This is our songbook. Probably copied around 1200, it was discarded within a generation or so and used as flyleaves for another book. This was fortunate, for by neglecting to throw the pages away some unknown benefactor has preserved for us a wealth of music and poetry. The songbook then remained hidden for some six hundred years.

This recording is an (almost complete) anthology of songs from the booklet. We do not know where it was copied, but we should probably think of an important religious foundation, one that housed by chance a few unusually keen singers. They wished to expand their repertoire. Perhaps one of them was the animator of the group and the collector, assembling both monophonic and polyphonic music, then arranging for the items to be copied in two different sections. (He may be one of the copyists.) The monophonic pieces come first, then the polyphony begins with the most ambitious work of all, the two-voice Cantu miro in honour of St Nicholas (December 6). Many of the pieces are associated with such major feasts of the liturgical year, including some that fall in the intensely festive period between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The tone of many of the texts is therefore joyful, suggesting great celebrations in the darkest, coldest and deadest time of the year. The rapturous exclamation ‘Eya!’ appears often in the poems, many of which have lively refrains.

Only a few items are ‘liturgical’ in the narrow sense that they have a place assigned to them in Mass or Office. These are the troped Agnus Dei: Qui pius est factus and Benedicamus Domino: Spiritus almi, two of the most pleasing miniatures anywhere in the repertoire of early polyphony. As for the rest of the songs, we might imagine their being sung before a prelate’s table during one of the feasts that took place in the Christmas season when senior clergy had duties of hospitality to many, or perhaps during a festal procession. A number of them can be assigned to specific days. One of the most lively melodies for a single voice, Magno gaudens gaudio, commemorates the Massacre of the Innocents (December 28). In a gesture both poignant and festive, the conduct of the liturgy on this day was sometimes entrusted to boys. The text of this song would certainly suit a performance by the youngest members of the choir: ‘Let our company of boys, rejoicing with great joy, celebrate in song and dance this anniversary feast!’.

The two-voice Regis cuius potentia is for the Feast of St Stephen in the same week (December 26). A glance at the texts below will show that many of the other songs are for Christmas Day or the Christmas season including the one which has pride of place here, Verbum patris umanatur o o. This is apparently the earliest example of three-part writing from England and is clamorous with dissonance as the voices cry aloud that ‘The word of the father is made human o o, when the maiden is greeted o o. Hei! Hei! New joys!’. Virgo mater salvatoris is for the close of the Christmas season with the Purification and the Presentation in the Temple (2 February). In hoc ortus occidente and Diastematica are for Easter.

At first sight, ours might seem to be a provincial songbook. It is not a luxurious object, and at least one of the pieces, In natali novi regis, is a decidedly homespun effort, the lower voice doing little more than sounding a drone all the way through. (To my mind it is one of the most pleasing items in the book.) Other pieces reveal much broader horizons and suggest that our collector’s sources of supply were very good. Several of the items he assembled will reappear in the famous Carmina Burana collection. Adulari nesciens can be found in the central source of thirteenth-century music, the Florence manuscript, probably copied in Paris around 1250–60. Here and there, we sense a taste for a more complex Latinity, and a broader purpose for song, than the simpler pieces might suggest. Diastematica celebrates Easter with an ostentatious use of Greek musical terminology. Vacillantis trutine is a cosmopolitan love-song in which a student from one of the nascent universities (possibly Paris) finds himself torn between love for his sweetheart Flora and the desire to succeed in his studies. He is constantly distracted by visions of her: ‘Now I call to mind the delights of Venus’ kind. What kisses my little Flora gives me! How she laughs! What tender lips she has!’. Argumenta faluntur fisice proclaims the incarnation of Christ with a lofty reference to Aristotle (more university echoes here).

With the monophonic songs Ecce torpet probitas, Adulari nesciens and Licet eger cum egrotis the songbook opens out to some of the great international concerns of medieval moralists and satirists: the corruptions of the times, the ubiquity of ambitious flatterers, and the sale of ecclesiastical offices, the narrow definition of the heresy of ‘Simony’.

In all of the pieces we have assumed that each syllable of text should occupy roughly the same amount of time in performance, with considerable freedom to move the rate of declamation forward when the musical texture is thinner and to slow it down when the material becomes more elaborate. In Magno gaudens gaudio this produces a result that could easily be notated with a modern time signature and bar-lines. In the other pieces, the effect is much more fluid. The range of sounds that can result is shown with particular clarity by the two versions of Ad honorem salvatoris. We have created the first by taking the lower part from the two-part texture and presenting it as a free-standing song. Like many of the lower parts in twelfth-century polyphony (perhaps most of them), the bottom voice of Ad honorem salvatoris is quite capable of standing on its own in this way. Various melodic shapes and euphonies emerge that have to be sacrificed when the second voice is added and the lower part has to compromise in certain places to accommodate what is happening above.

Christopher Page © 2000

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