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Hyperion Records

CDA67945 - Philips: Cantiones sacrae octonis vocibus
The sense of hearing (1617) by Jan Breughel the Elder (1568-1625)
Prado, Madrid / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67945
Recording details: January 2012
St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: March 2013
Total duration: 71 minutes 49 seconds

'The Choir of Royal Holloway is a fine one on this showing … the overall sound full and well balanced but not overpowering … The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble do a fine job, ornamenting their lines judiciously without upstaging the singers … a very enjoyable portrait of a composer whose name deserves to be better known' (Gramophone)

'The Royal Holloway Choir is adept and musical and, at its best, can pull off splendid performances as we can hear in the opening Benedictus Deus noster where voices and instruments combine … the highlight of the album is the shapely and effective performance of Caecilia virgo which makes the most of the timbral contrast between the groups. And the disc ends with a version of Hodie nobis that is full of panache' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Philips, an English recusant, settled in Brussels and knew Brueghel and Rubens well, his music celebrated in artistic circles as an engine of the Counter-Reformation. These delightfully rich eight-part motets from 1613 are sung here to mark their 400th anniversary, with stately cornetts and sackbuts enhancing the majesty. Rupert Gough and his fresh young voices make a convincing case for these unjustly neglected works' (The Observer)

Cantiones sacrae octonis vocibus

The Englishman Peter Philips spent most of his life abroad, and was celebrated all over Europe in his day. Despite this, Philips’s music has been neglected since his death in 1628—of his immense output of vocal music, to this day most people know only a handful of motets from the five-voice Cantiones sacrae (1612). The present recording of half of the companion volume of eight-voice motets seeks to remedy this situation.

These triumphant and highly Italianate settings are performed by The Choir of Royal Holloway, joined by The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, who have gilded so many choral recordings of the music of Gabrieli and Monteverdi in the past.


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The Englishman Peter Philips spent most of his life abroad, and became ‘one of the greatest masters of Musicke in Europe’; this description is Henry Peacham’s (The Compleat Gentleman, 1622), and it appears in a paragraph that refers to such exalted composers as Monteverdi, Andrea Gabrieli, de Monte and de Rore. Despite this, Philips’s music has been neglected since his death in 1628. There could be little place for his Latin music in the cathedrals and collegiate chapels of Protestant England, of course: of his immense output of vocal music, to this day most people know only a handful of motets from the five-voice Cantiones sacrae (1612). The present recording of half of the companion volume of eight-voice motets seeks to remedy this situation.

Philips was born in 1560 or 1561; nothing is known of his parentage, but he was brought up by Sebastian Westcote, the Catholic recusant organist and almoner of St Paul’s Cathedral. Thus in early life Philips was surrounded by English cathedral music (but also by people of the Roman persuasion); and yet the only sign of English influence is in his music for virginals (at least some of which was written before he left England). The remainder of his output bears strongly the marks of Italian music, for he went abroad in 1582 after the death of Westcote, in order to worship as a Catholic, which he was unable to do in the England of Elizabeth I. In Rome he fell under the spell of the Italian madrigal (his favourite composer seems to have been Marenzio), and lived for three years in that city alongside Palestrina and Victoria. As organist of the English College he worked with Felice Anerio, its choirmaster. He eventually settled in the Low Countries, married, and worked as a music teacher. His wife died before 1597, but they had two children, of whom the daughter became a nun.

Philips was not left completely in peace to worship as he wished. In 1593, on his way back to the southern part of the Netherlands after visiting Sweelinck—the organist-composer that Philips regarded as ‘a Phoebus and Apollo’—in Amsterdam (in the Protestant northern part of the country), he fell ill at Middelburg (also in the Protestant north): there was a truce between the two halves of the country at this time. While recuperating Philips was accused of treason—a trumped-up charge—by Roger Walton, an English agent and paid informant. Both were arrested and imprisoned while investigations were carried out, and various appearances of the two men in court took place. The detailed reports of the investigations and trial illuminate Philips’s character in an extraordinary way. He is shown to be a man of integrity, thoughtfulness, honour and intelligence. During the hearings he translated into Dutch parts of Walton’s tirade so that the bench could understand it; and the president of the court observed ‘that he knew well enough what the justice of England was but it should not be so theare’. Philips was released, but Walton remained in prison.

From 1597 Philips was employed at the Brussels court by the Archduke Albert, who (with his wife Isabella; the two were married in 1599) ruled the country as regents for Spain. He thus arrived at an ultra-Catholic court—one where the regents considered themselves spearheads of the Counter-Reformation in the north. The religious wars had taken their toll on the Netherlands, and Albert and Isabella were chronically short of cash: Philips, indeed, was partly paid by being granted sinecure positions in the church (canonries and the like). The extremely bloody Thirty Years’ War was still rumbling on in more easterly parts of Europe, but, nevertheless, Philips had found a secure home that was to last him for the rest of his life. His near neighbours were the English composers Bull and Dering, both of whom had also fled England; Rubens and members of the Brueghel family were also colleagues or neighbours. Indeed, the Brussels area was ‘the artistic centre of Europe’ (C V Wedgwood). Philips acted as organist to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella (as they liked to be called); the chapelmaster was Géry de Ghersem. On this recording the eight-part motets are interpersed with two versions of the Whitsun sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus, which do not form part of the 1613 Cantiones sacrae. In the first of these we can hear how Philips provided music for occasions when the choral singers were absent, the plainsong being sung (perhaps by monks or the resident priests) in alternate verses. The second—for solo organ—acts as a reminder that Philips was admired as a keyboard virtuoso, and that his position as court was as an organist.

Among Philips’s first publications were four of his own madrigals that he included in Melodia Olympica (Antwerp, 1591), a collection, of which he was the editor, of madrigals mostly by other composers: he then published three books of his own Italian madrigals, two for six voices (in 1596 and 1603 respectively), and one—unusually—for eight voices (Antwerp, 1598). In 1618 Jan Brueghel the Elder included the part-books of Philips’s 1603 set in his painting The sense of hearing, perhaps because the title page includes the dedication to the Archdukes, who were extremely popular with their subjects. In his later life—like some other composers affected by the Counter-Reformation—Philips turned his back on secular things and gave his time over to composing church music. In this field his output was extensive, and varied from solo pieces to nine-voice choral music. He was the first Englishman to publish music using the new-fangled basso continuo (in Gemmulae sacrae of 1613), but it was only quite late in his life that any influence of the ‘new music’ of Venice is found. Nevertheless, the publishing houses of nearby Antwerp were quick to issue the new music coming out of the Most Serene Republic, so one can assume that Philips was aware of modern developments. But his loyalty remained largely towards Rome.

In 1612 and 1613 three volumes of church music by Philips were published: the very large five-voice Cantiones sacrae, the eight-voice Cantiones sacrae, and Gemmulae sacrae for two and three voices plus continuo. It must have taken many years to compile these collections; and this writing presumably started at the very latest after the publication of the last volume of madrigals in 1603 (though some pieces are much earlier). The Cantiones sacrae octonis vocibus (1613, with a second edition—where a basso continuo is added—in 1625) is a collection of thirty motets dedicated to St Peter, and opening with a setting of Tu es Petrus, a text in honour of that saint. Perhaps the composer chose his dedicatee in grateful acknowledgement of the part Rome played in his musical upbringing—for St Peter is closely bound up with that city. The pieces are for two choirs, and are intended for the major feasts of the Church’s year: the four Antiphons to the Virgin Mary, used in rotation for three months of the year, are also set. Multi-choir music was a particular mark of Venice at this time—and the various choirs in Venetian music would often have a different scoring. Philips’s pieces are much more Roman in style, and only three motets have choirs of a different make-up. These are Caecilia virgo, which contrasts a group of higher with a group of lower voices; while Benedictus Deus noster and Regina caeli laetare have two choirs of similar overall range, though in both the first choir replaces one of the lower voices with a second soprano.

Philips’s musical language avoids the extremes of chromaticism and dissonance that are found in up-to-date Italian music of his time, though these devices are replaced by a colourful use of expressive harmony. Contrapuntal imitation between the voices—that particular mark of Roman polyphony—is often confined to the opening bars; and yet the overriding importance of illustrating the text owes an immense amount to the Italian madrigal. To emphasize the words so that the listeners could the more readily understand them—a form of ‘preaching’—was a fundamental trait of Counter-Reformation music (and it was, in turn, used by Protestants); every nuance of the text is mirrored in the motets, adding an extra layer of information to the religious ideas being expounded. Often such devices lead to a contrast between long notes and short ones: the apparent changes of speed were clearly much enjoyed by Philips. The presence of two bodies of singers in this music naturally leads to the passing of phrases from one chorus to the other, though in Philips’s output there is no indication that the performers were spatially separated, as they clearly were in St Mark’s Venice.

Yet as in Venetian music, the use of many choirs (along with accompanying instruments) was a means of pressing home the Catholic message—a manner of working sometimes denigrated by Protestants as ‘triumphalism’. The court had no regularly employed instrumentalists, but in a city like Brussels there would be no difficulty in finding players to accompany the singers (or, indeed, to replace any that might be missing). Such illustrations as we have from Philips’s time show instrumentalists performing along with the singers; though this does not mean that the music was always done with instrumental accompaniment. This recording therefore uses a variety of combinations of voices and instruments.

We can draw attention to at least one facet of each of the motets included on this recording. The triple time at the end of Benedictus Deus noster parallels the joy of ‘et secum regnare in aeternum’ (‘and reign with him for ever’). The setting of O quam suavis recorded here is the second of this text in the volume. Unusually, the full choir is used at the opening, singing a slow progression of chords moving in a flatwards direction that would have been recognized as ‘sweet’ (‘suavis’) by Philips’s contemporaries.

In Jubilate Deo omnis terra a change from the prevailing duple to triple time illustrates ‘servite Domino in laetitia’ (‘serve the Lord with gladness’). The words ‘caelum et terram’ (‘heaven and earth’) near the end of Benedictus Dominus are depicted with high notes moving to low ones. In Beati estis Philips illustrates ‘exsultate’ (‘be glad’) with a flurry of little notes, while alternate phrases in Ecce panis angelorum are sung in plainsong. In Salve regina, vita, dulcedo there are short references to the plainsong (as well as the solo intonation) at the beginning; in Regina caeli laetare the plainsong is stated in long notes at the beginning (an old-fashioned cantus firmus technique), the accompanying voices moving from duple to triple time beneath it in order to illustrate ‘laetare’ (‘rejoice’).

In Panis sancte, panis vive the descending lines that illustrate ‘qui descendisti de caelo’ (‘who came down from heaven’) are recalled at the end of the motet. In Caecilia virgo the first use of all the voices sounding together is at the words ‘Iuncta voce’ (‘With one voice’). The liveliness of Gaudens gaudebo is enhanced by varying the distance between ‘model’ and ‘echo’ in the two choirs.

The four high voices in Beata Dei genitrix sound alone at ‘Beata quae credidit’ (‘Blessed are you who believed’) and ‘quae dicta sunt ei’ (‘that was said to you’) to depict ‘Blessed Lady’. Gabriel’s greeting in Alma redemptoris mater (‘Ave’) is cast in slow notes for emphasis; and the final passage maintains that speed in order to draw attention to the harmonic clashes that illustrate ‘have mercy on sinners’. The expected descending line in Hodie nobis de caelo occurs at the opening; but the conventional trumpet fanfare figure (an arpeggio) is used at ‘per totum mundum’ (‘through all the world’) as if denoting a military conquest.

Lionel Pike © 2013

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