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This recording is dedicated to unaccompanied English church music, sung in the beautiful acoustic of the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. The 23 motets and anthems are drawn from three key periods: the Reformation, in the sixteenth century; the Restoration, in the later seventeenth century; and the Anglican revival, in the mid-nineteenth century.
Thomas Tallis, Loquebantur variis linguis
Tallis began his long and distinguished career as organist of the Benedictine Priory at Dover, in the county of Kent where he is believed to have been born. In about 1538 he moved to Waltham Abbey near London, where he was a member of the choir and possibly organist. This post was short-lived: in 1540 the abbey, in common with all England’s monastic establishments, was dissolved by order of Henry VIII, and Tallis was forced to seek another job. He moved first to Canterbury to join the cathedral choir there, then in about 1543 to London, where he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal; he remained associated with the royal household till his death, serving under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and finally Elizabeth I. Tallis wrote some keyboard and consort music, but most of his surviving output is of church music; before the Reformation he wrote Latin pieces, often long and elaborate, but after the Reformation he successfully adapted to the setting of words in a simpler and more succinct style. Loquebantur variis linguis is one of the most glorious of his pre-Reformation motets, built, like so much of the church music up to this time, around a Gregorian chant, which in this case is sometimes heard on its own, sometimes woven into the fabric of the polyphony. The music seems to reflect the incandescent excitement of its Pentecost text.
William Byrd, Miserere mei
Byrd towers above all other English composers of his time; in fact he ranks as one of the greatest English composers of all time. Reputedly a pupil of Tallis, his first appointment, in 1563, was as organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral. In 1570 he moved to London to become a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal; he quickly gained royal favour and in 1575 was granted, in partnership with Tallis, a monopoly in music printing which enabled both composers to publish their own work. In 1593 he acquired a country house in Essex and progressively withdrew from London life; after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 he is unlikely to have been much involved with the Chapel Royal. Throughout his life he composed prolifically: several volumes of Latin and English church music, three Masses, besides many songs, keyboard pieces and other instrumental music. Despite the Reformation, Byrd never inwardly forsook the Catholic faith, and perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his career is the freedom with which he continued to write and publish Latin church music long after the liturgy for which it was intended had been outlawed by the Act of Uniformity, which imposed the 1549 Book of Common Prayer; possibly the personal favour of Queen Elizabeth saved him from the harsh penalties meted out to recusants at that time. No one knows why Byrd’s Latin church music was published: was it a symbol of defiance, or was it meant for the use of Catholics on the continent, or indeed in England, where secret masses were celebrated by groups of recusants in their homes? Most likely it was a musical and religious testament which its composer perhaps hoped would one day adorn Catholic worship if it should ever return in England. Miserere mei, one of the most eloquent and deeply-felt of all the Latin motets, was published in 1591. The text is set to music in an inspired combination of block harmony and expressive polyphony; the final section of the piece, to the words ‘dele iniquitatem meam’ rises to a passionate climax which subsides, magically, to a calm final cadence.
William Byrd, Haec dies
This, one of Byrd’s most popular motets, first appeared in 1591 in the third of his published collections of Cantiones Sacrae. As befits its Easter text, it is a bubbly, joyful piece, with some witty rhythmic surprises; born somewhat later, Byrd could have written marvellous jazz.
William Byrd, Ave verum corpus
One of the most familiar and treasured examples of Byrd’s church music, Ave verum corpus was included in the Gradualia of 1605, a published collection of his Latin motets. The music breathes an air of personal devotion; at the end of the piece Byrd adds ‘miserere mei’ (have mercy on me) to the official text, setting this heartfelt plea to music of special expressiveness.
Thomas Tallis, If ye love me
This is one of the best-loved examples of Tallis’s simplified post-Reformation style which represents the earliest origin of the English anthem. Chordal, hymn-like passages alternate with sections of simple polyphonic imitation which never obscure the clarity of the words; Tallis adheres fairly strictly to the principle laid down by Archbishop Cranmer that composers should set one syllable per note, and he fashions a perfect expressive gem.
Richard Farrant, Hide not thou thy face
Farrant was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, later becoming Master of the Choristers at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where he organized the choristers into an acting company that presented musical plays for the entertainment of the court. Not many other details about his life are known and very little of his music survives, but Hide not thou thy face and the rather similar Call to remembrance were among the most popular anthems of their day and have lost none of their appeal. Farrant’s interest in acting is reflected in his word-setting, which is specially direct, declamatory and expressive; the composer seems to shake a fist at heaven.
Richard Farrant, Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake
There is some doubt whether this favourite little piece was written by Farrant or by another minor Elizabethan composer, John Hilton (d1608). Like Farrant, Hilton was a cathedral musician who had an interest in the theatre, producing ‘boy plays’ enacted by young choristers.
Orlando Gibbons, O clap your hands
Orlando Gibbons is acknowledged as one of the foremost composers of his period; he wrote some 40 anthems, a variety of other church music, a book of madrigals, and a large quantity of keyboard and instrumental consort music. He was born in Oxford of a musical family, and sang as a boy in the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, where later, in 1599, he became a student. In about 1603 he moved to London to become a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. By the time of his death he was senior organist there, and also organist of Westminster Abbey. O clap your hands is one of the largest and most festive of Gibbons’ anthems, making vivid use of its eight-voice double choir layout. It was first performed in 1622 at a ceremony in Oxford when Gibbons and his friend William Heyther received the degree of Doctor of Music; one source states that Gibbons wrote the piece as a qualifying exercise for the degree. The music certainly offers convincing evidence of Gibbons’ impressive compositional skill, and it contains examples of such ‘learned devices’ as canon which would no doubt have gratified the examiners.
William Byrd, Bow thine ear, O Lord
This piece first appeared in Byrd’s 1589 collection of Cantiones Sacrae to a Latin text, but it was later fitted to the present English translation, probably not by Byrd himself, however. The music shows Byrd’s mature style at its most poignantly expressive; his choice of text is believed to be an oblique reference to the plight of the English Catholics and their outlawed faith.
Orlando Gibbons, Hosanna to the Son of David
Like O clap your hands, this is a vivid and resplendent anthem for double choir (though with a single bass part, used to especially telling effect near the end); it could well have been written to grace a royal or other ceremonial occasion. The multiplicity of its printed and manuscript sources is indicative of its widespread popularity in the seventeenth century.
Henry Purcell , Lord, how long wilt thou be angry
Purcell, the greatest English composer of the Baroque period, divided his career between the church and the theatre. As a boy he was a Chapel Royal chorister, and at the age of only 20 was appointed organist of Westminster Abbey. In 1682 was added to this the post of organist to the Chapel Royal, for which much of his large output of church music was written. At about this time he began to write music for the London theatre, remaining prolific in this field until his death. Songs, court odes, the opera Dido and Aeneas, five ‘semi-operas’, and some instrumental music make up the rest of his work. Lord, how long wilt thou be angry dates from around 1680 when Purcell was still writing in a style influenced by Tudor polyphony, though with a boldness of dissonance and chromaticism that is distinctively his own; his later church music, mostly ‘verse anthems’ with prominent solo parts and orchestral accompaniments, moved more into line with the international Baroque style of Lully and his Italian contemporaries. Purcell’s ability to bring a text vividly to life remained a constant factor in his style and is one of the most remarkable facets of his genius.
Henry Purcell , Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts
This brief but eloquent anthem, written for the funeral of Queen Mary in 1695, shows Purcell’s style at its simplest and most moving. The music, almost all note-against-note without contrapuntal elaboration, unfolds with dignity and pathos.
Henry Purcell , Hear my prayer, O Lord
Hear my prayer, O Lord was discovered in an album written in Purcell’s own hand and dated 1682. It is a fragment of an intended longer work; blank pages were left for its completion. Great concentration and intensity are apparent from the very opening, not only in the emotional expression of the text but in the contrapuntal intricacy of the music: Purcell handles eight-voice writing with impressive skill.
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Beati quorum via
Stanford, born in Dublin, spent most of his life teaching and conducting at Cambridge University. He studied in Germany, rapidly gaining a reputation in many branches of composition on his return to England; he was appointed Professor of Music at Cambridge at the early age of 35, and held the post till his death. His church music has a valued place in the Anglican repertory, thanks to its tunefulness, superior craftsmanship and convincing sense of structure. Beati quorum via was written in 1905 and dedicated ‘to Alan Gray [a friend and colleague] and the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge’. The music is gracious and fluent, making imaginative use of a six-voiced texture. The Latin psalm text is primarily a springboard for the music; the piece could be thought of as a miniature symphonic movement for choir.
Charles Wood, This joyful Eastertide
Like Sullivan and Stanford, two other leading figures in the revival of English music which started in the 1880s and gathered strength after 1900, Wood was an Irishman. He taught at Cambridge, becoming Professor of Music on Stanford’s death in 1924. As a composer he is remembered chiefly for his beautifully-crafted church music; he also had a gift for choral arranging, of which This joyful Eastertide is a simple but well-loved example.
Herbert Howells, Sing lullaby
Herbert Howells is a composer as hard to classify as he is easy to recognize. Despite the influences apparent in his work—Tudor polyphony, the modality of his friend Vaughan Williams, the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel—his style remained individual: subtle and evocatively sensitive, it often has a melancholy flavour strangely akin to the blues. Church music formed an increasingly important part of his work, much of it written for specific cathedral or collegiate choirs. Sing lullaby, one of a set of three ‘carol-anthems’, dates from 1920; the author of the text was a friend of the composer.
Herbert Howells, A Spotless Rose
This, one of its composer’s most familiar and well-loved pieces, was written in 1919 and published as No 3 of the set of ‘carol-anthems’. Although it is a fairly early work it bears Howells’s unmistakable stamp in its harmonic subtlety, metrical freedom, richness of texture, sensitivity to words, and long-breathed vocal lines.
Sir William Walton, What cheer?
Sir William Walton began his musical life as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. His first published composition, A litany, was a short anthem written at the age of 16, and from time to time he returned to church music, though the bulk of his output is orchestral. His handful of church pieces are all of high quality. What cheer?, a carol written in 1960, represents the exuberant, rhythmic side of his musical personality.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, O taste and see
Vaughan Williams was never directly associated with any cathedral or collegiate choir, but his prolific output includes a fair amount of church music. O taste and see, one of the last of his sacred pieces, was written for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The music is of distilled simplicity, with a pentatonic flavour that reminds us of the composer’s lifelong interest in folk-song.
Benjamin Britten, A hymn to the Virgin
Church music forms only a small part of Benjamin Britten’s large output, but it is a valuable part nevertheless: such works as the Ceremony of Carols (1942), the Festival Te Deum (1944) and the Missa Brevis (1959) bear the stamp of his unfailing professionalism, originality, and imagination with the handling of words. A hymn to the Virgin (written in 1930 when he was 17 and revised four years later) is among his earliest published compositions. The text, like many other medieval carol texts, is macaronic, that is, it is partly in Latin and partly in the vernacular. Britten seizes on this feature and lays the music out for two choirs, a larger one singing the English lines and a smaller semi-chorus the Latin. The two choirs sing strictly in alternation until the last verse, where they combine to sonorous effect.
Elizabeth Poston, Jesus Christ the apple tree
Elizabeth Poston’s life in music embraced composition, broadcasting, and the editing and arranging of folk-songs and carols. Jesus Christ the apple tree, an original setting of a striking and visionary early American text, first appeared in 1967 in The Cambridge Hymnal and gained immediate popularity. The music, almost primitively simple and recalling a curious mixture of Satie, Poulenc and the American shape-note tunes, is of haunting beauty.
Sir William Harris, Faire is the heaven
For most of his long life Sir William Harris was a cathedral organist and teacher. From 1933–61 he was organist at St George’s Chapel, Windsor; while there he gave piano lessons to the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. His published compositions are few, all of them church or organ music. Faire is the heaven, written in 1925, is counted his finest work; it remains a cornerstone of the Anglican repertory, beloved by every choir that has ever sung it. It is a spaciously conceived and richly romantic setting for double choir of a fine and little-known text—Harris’s inspired choice of texts is characteristic of him—and it seems to evoke with infinite nostalgia the vanished Edwardian England of Harris’s own youth: a world where the sun always shone, mellow and golden, through the cathedral windows, where life was secure, leisured and elegant (for the fortunate few) and, above all, where there was no inkling of the cataclysmic World War to come.
Collegium Records © 1988
Unaccompanied church music was written during all three of these periods, though the purity of the a cappella ideal does not withstand too much critical scrutiny in the sixteenth century, when the use of organ and possibly other instruments to double voice parts was very likely widespread. In the seventeenth century, choral music in general was accompanied at least by continuo, but in the three Purcell anthems here included we have a rare homage to the older polyphonic style; these so-called ‘full’ anthems contrast with the majority of Purcell’s church music, which has independent instrumental parts.
The nineteenth- and twentieth-century items represent a rediscovery of the Renaissance a cappella ideal, which provided the point of departure for new and imaginative writing for unaccompanied choir: the work of such pioneers as Stanford and Wood revived interest in a medium neglected for over two hundred years and paved the way for such later composers as Vaughan Williams,Howells, Britten and Walton, whose church music has so greatly enriched the Anglican repertory.
The Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, the largest Lady Chapel in England, was begun in 1321 and completed by about 1350. It is virtually a separate structure, standing to the north side of the cathedral itself and connected to it by a short corridor. Built of stone with large elaborate windows, it measures 100 feet long, 46 feet wide and 60 feet high; the unsupported stone roof represents a considerable feat of medieval engineering. The interior is richly decorated with stone carvings depicting the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary, most of which were sadly vandalized at the time of the Reformation; the floor is bare except for moveable wooden pews. This impressive and beautiful building, a living symbol of medieval devotion to the Virgin, is blessed with an acoustic which, for the singing of a cappella polyphony, is very possibly unequalled anywhere in northern Europe. A glorious five-second reverberation miraculously combines with a transparent clarity that allows every strand of a complex texture to be heard, even in quite fast-moving music; the chapel almost seems to sing before the choir begins, and its music certainly continues, to magical effect, long after the last note has been sung. The saying goes that you cannot photograph a ghost, and I had always felt that the unique Ely sound was, in a similar way, impossible to capture on record. But miracles do happen, and my producer Jill White and her sound engineers Peter Sidhom and Neil Murray achieved the impossible with this analogue recording which, digitally remastered, is so evocatively faithful to the sounds I remember hearing as I conducted, that I can almost smell the cold, damp stonework of the chapel and see the pale Fenland sunlight that once or twice broke through the mist of those two October days in Ely.
John Rutter © 1988