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Hyperion Records

CDS44401/10 - The Sixteen & The Golden Age of Polyphony
(Originally issued on 66073, 55086, 51-6,22021-2)
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: November 2009
Total duration: 682 minutes 30 seconds

'English choral music at its finest: 11 hours 25 minutes of Tudor polyphony … from the superlative Sixteen, who have helped restore this music to the early music mainstream' (The Observer)

The Sixteen & The Golden Age of Polyphony
Robert Fayrfax
John Taverner
John Sheppard
William Mundy

When The Sixteen embarked upon their recording career back in 1982, few would have been able to predict quite how successful they would become, or how far they would go towards rehabilitating the little-known and barely recorded music of these four master composers of the sixteenth century.

In this their 30th anniversary year, we join them in celebrating a Golden Age of Polyphony, and of music-making, by presenting their twelve discs of this repertoire in an attractively packaged (and priced) 10-CD remastered set.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The present collection brings together four composers who between them cover a century’s worth of English music-making, c1490–1590—almost the whole reign of the Tudor dynasty. Despite the sixteenth century’s fully justified reputation as the most religiously volatile in Christian history, the fact that such a collection can show at least some stylistic coherence is testimony to the ongoing tradition and high skill levels of English composers, especially in the Chapel Royal.

Robert Fayrfax
Throughout the century and across Europe, the balance of liturgical music composed (so far as we can tell from the very uneven survival of sources, especially in Britain) swung from a preponderance of Mass-settings around 1500, towards other forms—on the Continent, the motet, and in England genres more directly related to the liturgy, such as the Respond. Our knowledge of English music at the turn of the sixteenth century is heavily reliant on one manuscript: the Eton Choirbook, which though incomplete preserves much of the repertory of music for the Divine Office that would have been sung at Henry VI’s college founded in 1440. The Eton Choirbook most likely had a sister volume of music for the Mass, but since this is lost our image of Mass-settings is provided by two later manuscripts, known as the Lambeth and Caius choirbooks after their present locations. In these, Robert Fayrfax is the pre-eminent figure: he has eight pieces in Lambeth and six in Caius. The manuscripts’ contents accurately reflect Fayrfax’s status in the English musical firmament of the first quarter of the sixteenth century. Born in 1464 in Lincolnshire, he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by the mid-to-late 1490s, and from 1497 onwards was granted ecclesiastical benefices, a frequent perquisite for well-connected singers. He was at the head of the list of singers at Henry VIII’s coronation in 1509, the new king having granted him an annuity of just over £9 four days previously. In the meantime he had taken the degree of Mus.B. at Cambridge (1501) and advanced to a D.Mus. in 1504, submitting the Missa O quam glorifica as his doctoral exercise. (The extreme rhythmic and proportional complexities of this piece may be attributed to its status as an examination piece—the earliest surviving one in music.) Later in life he was associated with St Albans: he died in October 1521 and was buried in the Abbey.

The Missa Albanus is not the only work associated with St Alban: Fayrfax also set a motet entitled O Albane Deo grate. The Mass-setting, like all but one of his six Ordinary cycles, is in the standard English texture of five voices: treble, mean, contratenor, tenor, bassus. It is based on a short extract from a plainchant antiphon for St Alban, previously used by John Dunstable or Dunstaple (c1390–1453); this six-note motif is presented in its natural, retrograde, inverted, and retrograde-inverted forms, as well as in imitation with itself. If such constructive techniques are reminiscent of the Second Viennese School and especially Anton von Webern (1883–1945), one may recall that Webern’s Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Vienna was on the music of Heinrich Isaac (c1450–1517), one of Fayrfax’s most distinguished Continental contemporaries: it is precisely from music of this period that Webern gained much of his inspiration.

John Taverner
The best-represented composer in this collection, and probably the best-known musical figure in Henrician England, is John Taverner. The five CDs here constitute a comprehensive survey of his output, including almost all of the works that survive complete. Taverner emerges as the master of the florid style that had been cultivated before him by the Eton Choirbook composers, but which was to vanish utterly before the end of Henry’s reign, to appear again only fleetingly under Mary Tudor. It is worth recalling that England was home to some of the most elaborate polyphony composed anywhere in Europe at this time: when one compares the direct contemporaries Fayrfax and Josquin Desprez the striking difference is the sparsity of the Continental textures against the sumptuousness of their insular equivalents. Even in Taverner’s generation, when Josquin’s asceticism had given way to the pervasive imitation and largely five-part textures of Gombert and Willaert, the English polyphony is more massive, due in part to the wider overall ranges utilized. English composers, too, seem to have favoured the use of block textures and sheer sonority as an expressive device, whereas the Continentals focused more closely on contrapuntal technique.

This amplification of texture and concentration on sonority—the latter observable in English polyphony as far back as the thirteenth-century Worcester fragments—has a parallel in the religious practices of late-medieval England. As Eamon Duffy has shown in a succession of books of which The Stripping of the Altars is the best known, the piety of English men and women in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries often outstripped that of other nations, even those such as Spain known for their Catholic sentiment. The English were active in bequeathing money to monasteries and churches for Masses to be sung—sometimes polyphonically—for their souls; and their devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was second to none. It is surely no coincidence that the elaboration of musical expression should reach its high point in such a religious climate. Erasmus of Rotterdam found the omnipresence of music in English religious services towards the end of the 1510s quite shocking: singing was ‘so pleasing to monks that they spend their time doing nothing else, especially among the Britons; their song ought to have been mournful, yet they supposed that God is appeased by wanton whinnying and agile throats’.

Erasmus’s disapproval of florid singing was taken much further by the leading reformers: although Martin Luther was a lover of music and made provision for polyphony in the Josquin style to continue in the liturgies he devised, the Protestant churches largely gravitated towards the position of John Calvin, who approved the singing only of monophonic, unaccompanied psalms and canticles. The rather more haphazard nature of the English Reformation led to some unique compromises. On the one hand the doctrine of ‘for every syllable, a note’ as originally formulated by Thomas Cranmer in relation to plainchant, became the watchword for liturgical composition of polyphony by the end of Henry VIII’s reign; on the other, the enthusiasm for music of Elizabeth I ensured the preservation of some complex polyphony in the Chapel Royal and a few leading cathedrals, albeit now in the vernacular. John Taverner’s position within this constantly shifting landscape has only recently become reasonably well understood. The noted comment in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to the effect that the composer repented of writing ‘popish ditties’ in ‘the time of his blindness’ has been considered somewhat ahistorical due to the polemical nature of Foxe’s writing (and its distance from Taverner’s lifetime). It would seem, however, from recently discovered material relating to the composer’s later years as a customs officer at the important port of Boston, Lincolnshire, that Taverner’s position on the reforming side of the argument was indeed secure by the final decade of his life (he died in 1545). That a committed evangelical could earlier have written compositions that embody the complexity of England’s pre-Reformation liturgy appears surprising; but he was not the only composer in this position. John Merbecke, whose Mass Per arma iusticia in the old style appears alongside Taverner’s three Festal settings in the Forrest-Heyther partbooks, was sentenced to death in 1543 for excessively reforming activities, yet was pardoned by the king and lived on until the 1580s, issuing the first concordance of the English Bible, and the still widely used English plainchant of the Book of Common Praier Noted, both in 1550.

Because Taverner’s first career as a musician is well documented only in the later 1520s, it is difficult to date his output other than on stylistic grounds. Of the three six-part Festal Masses, Missa O Michael has generally been considered an early work, largely because (as Taverner’s biographer Hugh Benham puts it) ‘it is distinctly inferior, and is sufficiently different from the rest of Taverner’s music for there to be doubts about its authenticity’. This rather harsh judgement should perhaps be taken in the context of the extremely high standard set by the other two Festal Masses, Gloria tibi Trinitas and Corona spinea. If not quite reaching these levels, Missa O Michael is nevertheless an impressive achievement. For instance, the gradual building of sonority in the Gloria is skilfully handled, with a series of differently scored short sections joining in the full six-voice texture at moments such as ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ and the final ‘qui sedes’ onwards. Somewhat surprisingly, on neither of the occasions on which the name of Jesus is mentioned in the Gloria text is it particularly highlighted: to pick out the Holy Name in block chords was a popular device at this time, and one which Taverner used elsewhere, such as in the Missa Corona spinea and the Ferial Missa Sancti Wilhelmi devotio. Another noteworthy feature of the Missa O Michael is the extreme rhythmic elaboration in the second Agnus Dei (beginning around 3'00": Taverner sets the Agnus movement in tripartite form). In this duet between treble and first contratenor voices, an initial slow triple tactus gradually increases in complexity through the addition of shorter notes and compound rhythms, with eventually eight notes being fitted into the time of three, and a final scalic melisma running up one-and-a-half octaves, before a third voice enters and brings the section to a climax, the short phrases passed between the voices at this point resembling the fourteenth-century technique of hocket.

The other two Festal Mass-settings are somewhat less intricate in their contrapuntal writing than Missa O Michael, but both are even longer (Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas lasting just over forty minutes—and one should bear in mind that at this time English composers used a truncated Credo text and did not set the Kyrie at all, so Taverner’s structures are comparable with even the longest settings by Jacob Obrecht (1457/8–1505), the most prolix of the Continentals). More importantly, they elevate the techniques used in Missa O Michael to a much higher level, creating a balanced and unified structure while retaining the melodic inventiveness that characterizes all his music. In their dimensions and scoring they can be seen as an extension of the Eton Choirbook style, whilst by their greater sense of direction and formal control paving the way for the earlier pieces by the next generation of composers, such as Tallis.

Also forward-looking in Taverner’s output are the somewhat smaller Ferial Masses such as Missa Mater Christi sanctissima and Missa Sancti Wilhelmi devotio. Though by no means meagre in size—they are approximately two-thirds the length of the Festal Mass-settings—these are indisputably more direct in their utterance, and show a greater immediacy of text-setting, for example at the opening of Missa Sancti Wilhelmi devotio, where ‘Laudamus te’ is set syllabically, and passed from an upper-voice duet to a lower-voice trio. After another short duet, the full texture enters for ‘Domine Deus’, with a very clear set of imitative entries, mostly at one or one-and-a-half semibreves’ distance. (The tenor of this Mass is a modern reconstruction, so complete certainty is impossible.) These Masses make greater use than the Festal settings of block chords and ‘quasi-homophony’ (chordal passages where one or more voices are rhythmically slightly displaced), and the overall effect is of a greater intimacy compared with the grandeur of the six-part Masses.

The focus in this note on Mass-settings is justified by their preponderance in Taverner’s work-list, and the status of the Mass genre as the highest endeavour in composition at the time. But his contributions to the Antiphon and to ritual forms such as the Respond should not be overlooked. The famous Dum transisset Sabbatum I falls into the latter genre: because it is an Easter piece, telling the story of the Marys finding the empty tomb, it contains two chant sections rather than one, the latter being a Gloria Patri, which allows a third statement of the ecstatic Alleluia setting. This recording also includes the less well-known second setting of the same text. Also noteworthy is the setting of the Te Deum, which although not the earliest (a polyphonic tradition can be traced as far back as the Musica enchiriadis of c880) has no English tradition on which to draw in the generation preceding Taverner. Also very fine are the Marian Antiphons Mater Christi sanctissima and Gaude plurimum, the former providing the basis for Taverner’s ‘parody’ Mass which, in the Continental style, takes elements of the polyphonic fabric of the Antiphon rather than a plainsong cantus firmus as was more common in England even into the second quarter of the century.

John Caldwell, in the authoritative Oxford History of English Music, describes Taverner as synthesizing the best aspects of his contemporaries: ‘Cornysh’s clarity of texture, Fayrfax’s sensitivity to the text, Ludford’s grandeur of design’, as well as innovating substantially in his own right, especially in the smaller forms. Most of all, though, it is ‘in sheer melodiousness that he transcends the common currency of his day’. Caldwell considers him ‘the outstanding figure between Dunstable and Byrd’, and if the many devotees of Tallis (including the present writer) might find this an overstatement, it is only a slight one, as The Sixteen’s performances eloquently attest.

John Sheppard
The ecclesiastical world in which Sheppard operated could not have been more different from the situation obtaining at the beginning of Taverner’s career. The first Act of Supremacy was passed in 1534, when Sheppard was probably reaching the end of his teenage years, and he died within a month of Queen Mary Tudor in 1558. Since the great majority of his work—and all of his best work—is for the Latin rite, he must be assumed to have been highly prolific during the five years of Mary’s reign, as well as composing in Latin and English under Henry, and in English under Edward VI. (It is possible also that more Latin composition continued during the years of reformation than official pronouncements would suggest—especially at Oxford where Latin was in daily use in the University, and where Magdalen College, Sheppard’s employer between 1543 and 1548, was a conservatively minded institution.) Having moved to the Chapel Royal by 1552 at the latest, Sheppard was ideally placed to provide much of the repertoire required to support the return to Catholicism of Mary’s reign.

The distinction between Sheppard’s Latin and English styles can be seen in comparing his Te Deum with the Evening Canticles of the (presumably Edwardian) Second Service. The former, like Taverner’s setting, is set alternatim (though its polyphonic verses are wider in range, giving the polyphony a very different aural impression), and is highly sectional, with frequent use of melismatic writing. The Second Service conforms for the most part to Cranmer’s strictures on syllabic writing, with some short melismas towards the end of phrases. As is the case with many composers of this period, the use of an English text has spurred Sheppard to a much more immediate form of expression, such as the martial repeated chords for ‘He hath put down’: the Magnificat is especially rich in opportunities for such contrasting writing.

The two Mass-settings of Sheppard represented here are analogous to the two styles of polyphonic writing seen earlier with Taverner: Missa Cantate is an elaborate six-part structure in the vein of Taverner’s Festal settings, whereas The Western Wynde Mass is one of two that take Taverner’s own Mass on the same tune as their point of departure (the other being by Christopher Tye). Cantate is among the last settings of its scale for the Latin rite as England’s official liturgy: although it may well be post-dated by Tallis’s Missa Puer natus est nobis of 1554, the latter is written without the high treble part that characterizes the early Tudor English style.

Sheppard’s major contribution was to the Latin Offices, especially plainsong-based settings of Responds and Hymns. Usually with Sheppard, both of these genres feature a cantus firmus in equal note-values—which is fortunate since the tenor part is lost from many of these pieces, though because of the rigidity of the compositional structure it can be reconstructed with confidence in these cases. In certain pieces the cantus firmus is found in the treble part (Filiae Hierusalem is an example, where perhaps the high-voice plainsong represents the daughters of Jerusalem of the title). One exception to the norm of tenor or treble cantus firmus is found in Sheppard’s settings of the text Libera nos, salva nos, performed frequently at Magdalen College, where the plainsong is found in the bassus, while six other voices create lines so melismatic that the first setting in particular is practically a vocalise. Especially noteworthy here is the control of tessitura: having consistently hit a top note of c" (at notated pitch), in the last thirty seconds of the piece both treble parts at last go one further to high d"—a thrilling moment.

Sheppard’s music is still not all available in reliable modern editions, and at the time these recordings were first issued was very little known outside scholarly circles. His recent appreciation has much to do with these groundbreaking performances.

William Mundy
If Sheppard was reaching adulthood at the time of the Act of Supremacy, William Mundy at about the same age saw the old king Henry buried and the boy Edward VI enthroned. Despite the fact that only five of his adult years were spent under Catholic rule, and that as a Lay Vicar of St Paul’s Cathedral early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth he signed his assent to the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, Mundy seems to have remained committed to the Roman church, as his younger contemporary William Byrd notoriously did, and quite possibly also Thomas Tallis. (Given the musical glories that were swept away in the establishment of the Anglican Church, it is hardly surprising that musicians should have felt more than a little nostalgia for the old rite.)

Since a number of pieces possibly by William Mundy or possibly by his son John are attributed only to ‘Mundy’ in contemporary sources, it is difficult to be certain how much of his music we have surviving, but a best estimate is approximately twenty English pieces and thirty Latin. In both languages he was capable of large-scale works: the Antiphon Vox Patris caelestis and the Service ‘in medio chori’ recorded here are perhaps his finest pieces, and indeed among the finest of the whole century. Also noteworthy is the six-part motet Adolescentulus sum ego, which as an exercise in expressive writing to a Latin text shows an entirely new aesthetic, perhaps developed alongside the imitative technique of Tallis.

The Sixteen in the Early Music Revival
As noted above, these recordings brought significant quantities of music to the public ear for the first time: in particular that of Sheppard, but also much of Taverner that had never previously been recorded. Fayrfax and Mundy were similarly new to disc, and no full CD other than the present one has yet been devoted to Mundy. This is not to say that the repertory had been unexplored altogether: both The Sixteen and their near-contemporaries from Oxford, The Tallis Scholars, derive much inspiration from the work of David Wulstan, who pioneered the performance of pre-Reformation English music with The Clerkes of Oxenford. Wulstan favours performance at a high pitch: had there been a pitch standard of a'=440Hz in Tudor England (which there was not), his editions would appear transposed up a minor third. Others (notably the Cambridge scholar Roger Bowers) disagreed, favouring a pitch that does indeed approximate to A440. The debate remains unresolved, at least to the satisfaction of the original antagonists, though more recent research (notably Andrew Johnstone in Early Music, xxxi (2003), 506–26) suggests a standard for the earliest Anglican repertory around a'=475Hz—a fraction below halfway between the positions of Wulstan and Bowers, or ‘up one-and-a-third semitones’ compared with the modern pitch-standard.

The pitch standard for these recordings is therefore probably somewhat higher than that which pertained at the time of composition: since, however, much else has changed in the intervening 500 years, such that we cannot hope to recapture the experience of hearing this music as its original listeners did, this is of only limited relevance to our experience of The Sixteen’s recordings. These are still among the finest ever made of this repertory, exhibiting vocal virtuosity that matches the compositional skill of the music’s creators.

Stephen Rice © 2009

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