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Label: Helios
Recording details: August 1988
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: July 1989
Total duration: 69 minutes 43 seconds

All of the music on this album is also available as part of the specially priced box set The Golden Age of English Polyphony: 'English choral music at its finest: 11 hours 25 minutes of Tudor polyphony' (The Observer).


‘Moving presentation of some neglected wonders of the Tudor era’ (Fanfare, USA)
William Mundy was born about 1530, the son of Thomas, sexton of the London church St Mary-at-Hill and a musician (he was paid 2d in 1540 for the ‘prycking’—i.e. writing out—‘of a song-booke’) in a church with a strong musical life. Thomas Tallis was working there in 1537 before moving to Waltham Abbey, the last of the monasteries to be dissolved in Henry VIII’s campaign to subdue the Church to national sovereignty. That was in 1540; in 1539 Miles Coverdale’s ‘Great Bible’ had been printed, the first widely accessible English translation. In 1543 there was war with France (again), William Byrd was born, and the younger Mundy succeeded Thomas Giles as head chorister of Westminster Abbey. By 1548 he was parish clerk back at his father’s church, a post entailing musical duties. This was a year after the death of Henry VIII and the accession of Edward VI, under whom Protestant reforms had been actively pursued.

The Dissolution of the Chantries, which cut much of the ground from under the feet of the old Catholic families, was followed by the Act of Uniformity in 1549, which enforced the use of the First Edwardian Prayer Book. This is hugely significant in this context because it finally replaced liturgy in Latin by services in English. This meant not merely a change of language but, backed as it was by injunctions against organs and florid polyphony, a radical shift in the nature of public worship—no longer adoration at a hieratic shrine but uniform participation in a common simpified, unadorned rite, accessible to all. (This was not of course how the authorities really wanted it: as early as 1543 we find Parliament attempting to limit access to the English Bible to the upper classes, an alarmed reaction to trends they themselves had set under way paralleled by John Knox’s 1558 ‘First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’.)

In 1550, though, Princess Mary was refusing to use the Prayer Book and still hearing Mass in obstinate devotion to the faith of her mother, Catherine of Aragon; and after Edward’s death and Lady Jane Grey’s futile outing in 1553, Mary became queen and proceeded to rescind Edward’s legislation and then her father’s, restoring supremacy to the Pope and legitimacy to the Latin liturgy. 1559 saw Mundy move to St Paul’s Cathedral as Vicar-choral, and Queen Mary’s successor Elizabeth restore the autonomy of the nation-state with the Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy, returning to Edward’s Second Prayer Book of 1552 and repudiating the Pope. But Elizabeth could not outlaw the Latin rite altogether, and probably didn’t want to. Even Edward’s reforms had exempted Winchester and Eton Colleges and the Chapel of St George’s, Windsor, and in 1660 Elizabeth sanctioned the publication of Walter Haddon’s Latin translation of the Book of Common Prayer, though some of the Oxbridge colleges to whom she hoped it would be appropriate were by now so emancipated as to describe it as ‘the Pope’s Dreggs’.

Meanwhile at the Chapel Royal ‘Mr Walker was slaine the 27th of November [1563], and Wm Munday was sworne in his place’—as a Gentleman of the Chapel—‘… from Poules’ (i.e. St Paul’s). 1563 was an eventful year: the 39 Articles were promulgated, an Act introduced ordering the translation of the Bible and the Prayer Book into Welsh, and another known as ‘Cecil’s Fast’ which made Wednesdays as well as Fridays ‘fish days’, the publication of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and William Byrd’s appointment as organist of Lincoln Cathedral. The next, and last, archival information we have about Mundy is when Anthony Anderson was ‘sworne the 12th of October in Mr Mundaies room’, which would imply that Mundy had died shortly before.

Thus Mundy’s career spanned the Reformation, the Edwardian entrenchment of reform, the Marian reaction and the Elizabethan re-entrenchment. Of the other great composers of his age, Taverner, Tye, Tallis and Sheppard were older and their compositional ways largely set by the time of the religious upheaval, while Byrd, Morley and, still later, Weelkes, Gibbons and Tomkins had never been schooled in the pre-Reformation styles. Amongst his near-contemporaries, Robert Parsons and Robert White wrote wonderful music but both died young in the 1570s—one by drowning and the other of the plague—and never fulfilled in the English rite what they had promised in the Latin. Mundy, however, sums up—and at his finest crowns—a whole compendium of widely differing musical styles at this crucial juncture.

English church music before the Reformation was strictly linked to the liturgical needs of the service, limiting the choice of texts and genres available to the composer: Mass, Magnificat, Respond to the Office, prescribing the text and plainsong for the day, and Hymn. The most ‘free’ form was the votive antiphon to the Virgin, but even here the freedom would be of musical fantasy rather than individualistic expressiveness or mood-painting. The eclectic motet hardly existed—unlike the situation on the Continent where composers were less tied, more subjective both in their music and their choice of words (Josquin was able to set the psalm ‘Memor esti verbi servo tuo’ as a reminder to the French king that his salary was due). Indeed the word ‘motet’ itself was hardly current until Morley defined it in his Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597; he also praises Mundy in this seminal book) as ‘comprehending all grave and sober music’. Two masses by Mundy survive. Both are unusual in setting the complete text (apart from the words ‘Pater omnipotentem’) including the Kyrie which was usually omitted in Tudor masses for reasons of length. However, the Kyrie on this record is a separate piece in the compromise form whereby, to save time, polyphonic choral phrases alternate with plainsong (the particular chant is unspecified in the source, but a similar Kyrie by Tye uses ‘Orbis factor’).

With the increasing informality of ritual under the reforms of Edward VI came scope for new sources of texts, especially psalms either entire or in part—though not yet the personal selection of verses which later became common (and caused the unfortunate sixteenth-century Flemish composer Laurent de Voz to be hanged for a motet containing a suggestive choice of psalm texts). These Latin psalm-anthems form an intermediate stage between the impersonality of ritual and the subjectivity of individual devotion, both in the choice of words and the possibilities of expressiveness in the music.

Adolescentulus sum ego is a setting of part of Psalm 118 (119 in the modern psalter), a popular source for composers at that time: Tye set one section, White four, Parsons one and Mundy two others, perhaps in collaboration, as Sheppard, Thomas Byrd and Mundy had together composed a setting of ‘In exitu Israel’, Psalm 114. The form of ‘Adolescentulus’ is modelled on the votive antiphon, which it was replacing in post-Marian times, scaled down but still substantial in its bipartite structure and cumulative richness of texture—hardly of a style to have merited the condemnation of the London clergyman John Field in his ‘An Admonition to the Parliament’ of 1572, fulminating that the Anglican service had ‘no edification, according to the Rule of the Apostle, but confusion; they tosse the Psalmes in most places like tennice-balls’.

The musical language, though, is much more ‘modern’ than that of Vox patris caelestis which, inspired as it is by examples by Tallis and Sheppard, can be considered the culmination of the great antiphon tradition, the most grandiose musical form of the century. Typically, it begins with two voices only, expanding to a trio before the full choir enters with éclat; in the second half, now in duple instead of triple time, the solo sections are enlarged in scope, climaxing in a ‘gymel’ (derived from the Latin for ‘twin’) where two equal treble voices soar above the rich accompaniment of double alto and bass. Even in full sections the vocal writing is elaborate and virtuosic, the range daunting; contrast this with the measured grace of Latin anthems like Sive vigilem and Beatus et sanctus, sophisticated examples of the developing Elizabethan motet—tightly controlled and affecting music.

Vox patris and Videte miraculum (another form, the Respond with its plainsong ‘cantus firmus’ base, now going out of fashion) were almost certainly written in the reign of Mary. Latin was still used for services later, certainly in Elizabeth’s own Chapel Royal, and Latin music published, thanks to the queen’s dispensation of a monopoly, in Tallis and Byrd’s 1575 Cantiones Sacrae. Thus to use the language at all did not in itself imply recusancy, but Mundy may well have retained Catholic sympathies. His early, Marian anthem Exsurge Christe, very unusual for its time in setting non-liturgical words, is a prayer against heresy, and pleads for the confounding of schismatics; his son John, who succeeded Merbecke as organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, in 1585, wrote an overtly pro-Roman setting of the Lamentations (though not even this would have to imply treason—the queen could describe the Earl of Worcester, one of Byrd’s patrons, as ‘a stiff papist and a good subject’). And Mundy’s English music seems most successful when reminiscent of a Catholic ritual function: O Lord, the world’s Saviour and O Lord, the maker of all things—the latter deservedly one of the most popular and widely circulated anthems then as now, so renowned as to be later ascribed to Henry VIII—are Hymns for Evening Prayer. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘in medio chori’ is easily his largest-scale English work and among the most ambitious by anyone in the sixteenth century in the richness of its scoring (up to eleven parts), the contrasts of varied solo and full voices, and the rare use of very high trebles. Few establishments would have been able to muster the resources for such a work, including a separate solo group in between the normal ‘decani’ and ‘cantoris’ sides of the choir—presumed to be the meaning of the subtitle. We must assume a special occasion at the Chapel Royal and once again regret the lack of documentation on Mundy’s career.

The verse anthems Ah, helpless wretch and The secret sins show the composer adapting late in life and with considerable verve to a new form which would be of enormous significance for the future history of English church music. The essential novelty here is the presence of an independent accompaniment—adapted for organ and church use from the secular lute or viol consort—to a single voice echoed by the full choir. Mundy, with Richard Farrant and Byrd, was the first to develop this genre, which appears to derive from the hugely popular choirboy plays mounted by such as Farrant with choristers from St Paul’s, the Chapel Royal or Windsor. These last had their own theatre at Blackfriars, as well as being hired out for city functions, and were ambiguously celebrated by Shakespeare in Hamlet and excoriated by puritans: ‘Even in her Majesty’s Chapel do these pretty, upstart youths profane the Lord’s Day by the lascivious writhing of their tender limbs, and gorgeous decking of their apparel, in feigning bawdy fables gathered from the idolatrous heathen poets …’—in the case of Ah, helpless wretch none other than the author of The poore Widowes mite, one Christopher Hunnis, Master of the Choristers of the Chapel Royal after Farrant, who wrote the play from which the song comes in 1583.

The text only of The secret sins occurs in a source attributable to Mundy. The music was long thought to be by Gibbons, but the family resemblance to Ah, helpless wretch is inescapable, not least when the sobriety of the music gives way to a more elaborate ‘Amen’, a feature of Mundy’s talent one may find especially endearing. Often somewhat out of scale with the structure of the preceding music, these ‘amens’ testify to a natural musician rejoicing in the opportunity for free composition, a long-drawn-out lavish cadence appropriate to the finely detailed, confident yet introverted, even melancholy character of his habitual style. His technique, growing in assurance from the 1550s to the 1580s, makes full use of the most characterful devices of the time, especially the emotive, discordant ‘false relation’, but gives a clear impression of an individual voice—direct and graceful.

Sad we cannot now flesh out in greater detail the personality behind this fine music. It would be good to know more about a musician considered in his time second only to the great Byrd, as we discover from Robert Dow’s conceit:

Dies lunae
Ut lucem solis sequitur lux proximae lunae
Sic tu post Birdum Munde secunde venis.
Moon day:
As the light of the moon follows close on the sun
So you after Byrd, Mundy, next do come.

Nicolas Robertson © 1989

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