Welcome to Hyperion Records, an independent British classical label devoted to presenting high-quality recordings of music of all styles and from all periods from the twelfth century to the twenty-first.

Hyperion offers both CDs, and downloads in a number of formats. The site is also available in several languages.

Please use the dropdown buttons to set your preferred options, or use the checkbox to accept the defaults.

Mary and Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey

'Sisters in hope of the Resurrection'
Westminster Abbey Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor) Detailed performer information
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: June 2008
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Summerly
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: October 2008
Total duration: 65 minutes 21 seconds

Cover artwork: Portrait of Elizabeth I.
The Deanery, Westminster Abbey / Copyright © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

This ambitious new recording from Westminster Abbey tells the story of the religious and political turmoil that engulfed England in the sixteenth century, and from which composers of liturgical music could find no escape. They were forced to follow the changing edicts about permitted texts as the pendulum of power oscillated between traditional and reformed religion. Interestingly, this period saw the greatest flowering of church music in England’s history; some of the most magnificent works of the age are recorded here.

November 1558 is the chronological centrepoint of this disc. The first half of the programme consists of music performed (not necessarily in all cases composed) during Mary’s reign; the second half, beginning with the evening canticles from Sheppard’s Second Service, explores something of the immense variety of sacred music produced during the subsequent, much longer and more celebrated reign of Mary’s Protestant half-sister.




‘The beauties of this disc of 16th century choral music are many and various. The repertoire's selection and arrangement is inspired, the singing some of the best I've heard on CD … as a showcase for English choral singing at its most charismatic, this deserves to be widely heard’ (Gramophone)

‘The Choir of Westminster Abbey sings fresh, committed and emotionally compelling accounts. Many overpowering moments take place during Mundy's Vox Patris Caelestis … James O'Donnell shapes vocal lines with a keen sense of drama … the brilliance of the programming matches that of the singing’ (BBC Music Magazine)

‘Sheppard's sublime Libera nos unfolds like a hothouse flower amid other blooms from Tye, Tallis, Mundy and White’ (The Observer)

‘This latest addition to Hyperion's excellent Westminster Abbey series presents a fascinating snapshot of the musical upheavals created by Queen Mary's death and Elizabeth I's accession in 1558. Sheppard's Second Evening Service, composed in that year in a syllabic yet sonorously polyphonic style, marks the watershed between richly textured and highly elaborated Latin pieces, such as Mundy's Vox Patris caelestis, and the beautiful simplicity of Byrd's Teach me, O Lord. Recusant musical activity is also represented by Byrd's profoundly moving Ne irascaris’ (The Daily Telegraph)

‘The energy in the boys' voices is thrilling: they sear through the complex texture with evangelical zeal … this recording showcases the contrasts of style which made the 16th century such a fertile period of composition, and shows how the tradition of singing services at Westminster Abbey has continued unbroken for so many centuries’ (Early Music Review)

‘This is spectacularly fine singing, with James O'Donnell's obvious affection for the repertoire drawing from both boys and men some exquisite performances … the Westminster choir's most beautiful release to date’ (International Record Review)

‘In this brilliantly conceived programme … O'Donnell's superlative choir are peerless’ (The Sunday Times)
What might have been going through John Sheppard’s mind in late November 1558? Whether or not he had an inkling that his own death was only a month away, we can readily imagine that his thoughts were focused on the recent death of Queen Mary, which must even without our long historical perspective have seemed a momentous event—though only the latest of many Sheppard had witnessed.

Born into the apparently stable, Catholic England of the 1510s, Sheppard was a young man when Henry VIII plunged the country into religious and political turmoil over his ambitions to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. By the time Sheppard was composing in the mid-1530s, Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury, and reforming pressure was being exerted on the Church and her liturgies. In 1547, six years into Sheppard’s tenure as Informator Choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford, the speed and ferocity of reform suddenly reached a radical new level with the accession of Edward VI, a puppet king for the aggressively Protestant regimes of Somerset and Northumberland. During Edward’s reign—the high noon of sixteenth-century English Protestantism—church musicians were required by edict to set vernacular texts with maximum clarity; and texts not drawn directly from the Bible itself were severely frowned upon. Those that invoked the Blessed Virgin Mary, or even saints, were outlawed. A generation of composers was forced to abandon both the rich heritage of the Latin repertory, and the musical language in which they had been trained and expressed themselves—Sarum chant and polyphony (the latter often based upon the former).

Then, in 1553, Edward’s older half-sister Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, succeeded him. Links with Rome were re-established, and a vigorous campaign to reconfirm Catholicism as the national religion was begun—not that the majority of Mary’s subjects seems to have needed much convincing. Sheppard, by now a Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, saw much of the Latin Office music he had composed in Henry’s reign pressed back into service, and, with Tallis, Tye, and other colleagues, began to compose once more for the Latin rite. The next generation of composers, too young to have been active before the 1540s, also contributed to the musical arm of what has often been mis-termed the ‘Marian Reaction’. (The short-lived but organized and vibrant activity of the resurgent English Catholic Church has been shown, notably by Eamon Duffy, better to deserve description as the ‘English Counter-Reformation’.) Among these young men were William Mundy and William Byrd, both of whom were (probably, in the case of Byrd) choristers in the choir of Westminster Abbey.

Late Tudor religion was a pendulum that tended to swing to extremes. The oscillation between traditional and reformed religion makes it impossible to date with confidence much of the Latin music of the mid-sixteenth century. Much of the music traditionally assumed to have been written in Mary’s reign may largely have been composed in, or originated in compositions of, the Henrician period; many of its ‘modern’ features may be attributable to pressure exerted by Henrician reformers. It would be entirely in keeping with the Marian regime’s Counter-Reformation orientation to have seen no reason to reverse these reforms, which approved of strictly liturgical music and, where ‘paraliturgical’ music was required, texts from the Book of Psalms, rather than the richly encrusted votive texts of earlier Tudor polyphony. Thus there are no reliable stylistic grounds for distinguishing between late Henrician and Marian polyphony.

The brevity of Edward’s reign allows for more accurate dating of Anglican music of the mid-century; for example, the simple ‘commandment anthems’, and other straightforward presentations of New Testament texts by Sheppard and Tallis, are assumed to be Edwardine, though the picture is complicated by the existence of more elaborate English music by Sheppard which must also date from 1547–53. The repertoire for this disc has, however, been assembled around a piece of music that has been dated to the period following Elizabeth’s accession on November 17 1558. Sheppard’s Second Service (of which the evening canticles are recorded here) may have been produced following orders from the Queen to the Chapel Royal composers, specifying the revival not of the Calvinistic 1552 Book of Common Prayer, but its more moderate, and ceremonially more permissive predecessor of 1549. In the event Elizabeth was forced to adopt the 1552 Book, but not, it seems, before a few settings had been made of the 1549 texts.

Sheppard’s poor health in the last months of 1558 make the proposition that he composed a full morning and evening service de novo implausible, though not completely impossible—perhaps the service was at least partly written between 1549 and 1552. But even if the Second Service is not Sheppard’s swansong, it bears musical witness to one last swing of the pendulum, and in a sense anticipates the ‘settlement’ eventually made between the Elizabethan Church and its elite composers, a ‘third way’ that elegantly avoided the iconoclasm of earlier attempts at reform while fulfilling certain of its intentions. The Second Service is no austere presentation of text unadulterated by musical fancy; while remaining almost entirely syllabic, the music is richly textured and imitative, makes use of antiphony between the two sides of the choir, and is conceived on a grand scale—indeed, it is thus the forerunner of the ‘Great’ Services of Byrd, Weelkes, Tomkins and others. It is inconceivable that Sheppard heard it performed by Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal, for he was buried on 21 December, three weeks before Elizabeth’s coronation; he is likely to be the same ‘John Scheperde’ interred in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, Westminster, in the shadow of the Abbey.

November 1558 is the chronological centrepoint of this disc. The first half of the programme consists of music performed (not necessarily in all cases composed) during Mary’s reign; the second half, beginning with the evening canticles from Sheppard’s Second Service, explores something of the immense variety of sacred music produced during the subsequent, much longer and more celebrated reign of Mary’s Protestant half-sister.

Like Sheppard, Christopher Tye’s career straddles the reigns of Henry, Edward, and Mary; and he survived until the early 1570s, spending most of the final, Elizabethan portion of his life as a priest in the Diocese of Ely. His psalm motet Omnes gentes, plaudite manibus may be either Henrician or Marian, though its concision and tightly wound rhythmic drive, and the fact that it remains in duple metre throughout, perhaps suggest the latter reign. The voices—especially the treble and contratenor—maintain a high tessitura throughout; this produces a brilliant sound entirely appropriate to the text, which was associated with the Feast of the Ascension in both Catholic and reformed liturgies.

William Mundy was head chorister at Westminster Abbey in 1543, around the time of his fifteenth birthday. He was too young to have written any Latin music during the reign of Henry VIII; his monumental Vox Patris caelestis is therefore unequivocally a Marian composition, and may well have been written for the Feast of the Assumption; the likely place of performance was the church of St Mary-at-Hill in the City of London, whose patronal feast was the Assumption.

The ‘votive antiphon’ (a modern term) belonged to a tradition current for at least a century before Mundy’s time, in which an Office (most usually Vespers or Compline) would be followed by a Commemoration involving an elaborate polyphonic piece on a free text in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary (occasionally of another saint). Several early Henrician examples are extant (by Fayrfax, Ludford, and Taverner among others), but from around 1530 such pieces were targeted by the reformers. When the form became available once again under Mary, it is unsurprising that certain composers seized upon it (equally, the relative paucity of extant Marian votive antiphons compared to properly liturgical pieces and Psalm motets probably reflects the forward- and outward-looking character of the Marian Church, which was not as mired in nostalgia as has been traditionally thought).

If there was a feast of the Church which merited a votive antiphon in the 1550s, it was certainly the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an observance quite beyond the pale for the reformers, for obvious reasons. It is easy to imagine the parishioners of St Mary-at-Hill celebrating their patronal festival all the more enthusiastically after the lean years of Edward’s reign; Mundy rises to the occasion in spectacular and extensive fashion. Vox Patris caelestis is scored for the most opulent voice combination available in the mid-century, a six-part choir with internal divisions known as ‘gimells’. That Mundy maintains our interest over such a vast space of time is remarkable; he achieves a sense of development, even of teleological progress, towards the final full section with its climactic cries of ‘Veni’. This is not achieved by tonal means, but perhaps in terms of sound: Mundy draws us along with a succession of various combinations of voices, heard in alternation with paragraphs for the full choir. The verse sections culminate in the brilliant passage that immediately precedes the piece’s denouement: this is for two trebles, two means and two basses, at ‘Veni ad me, Assuerum verum, Esther’—a text that likely resonated with double significance for the listeners, for Queen Mary had been described as ‘the new Esther’.

While Vox Patris caelestis was probably written for an augmented Parish Church choir, the remaining Latin pieces on this disc were mostly performed by the elite performing force of the land. By 1553 Thomas Tallis had been a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal for ten years; Sheppard joined the Chapel some time in the late 1540s. During the Marian years they seem to have embarked on a joint project to furnish the Chapel with a cycle of liturgical music for the whole year. As none of this music survives in Henrician sources, it is reasonable to assume that at least some of it was newly composed in the 1550s; indeed, some of it may even date from Elizabeth’s reign.

Videte miraculum is the Responsory (or Respond) at First Vespers of the Purification, known in England as Candlemas. The chant on which Tallis bases his polyphony comprises several sections, the full choir alternating with soloist or solo group. Tallis leaves the solo portions as unadorned chant, implanting the choral sections of chant in a six-voice polyphonic texture. This type of Responsory is known as a ‘choral respond’; in a ‘solo respond’, only the solo portions of chant are set. The advantage of the choral respond, which developed from the solo respond in the early sixteenth century, is the dynamic musical structure imposed by the polyphonic setting of the repeating parts of the chant: the form can be summarized, omitting the brief chant intonation, as A-B-C-d-B-C-e-C (solo chant verses in lower case). In Videte miraculum this means the repetition of ‘Stans onerata’ and ‘Et matrem se laetam’ after the first solo chant verse, then, after the second verse, one final repetition of ‘Et matrem’. Tallis exploits this pattern by starting ‘Et matrem’ with a fleeting glimpse of what would now be called the relative major; this unexpected and touching moment gains in effect with each repetition. Most memorable, however, despite being heard only once, is the opening point of imitation on ‘miraculum’—a dissonance, repeated at regular intervals by each entering voice to hypnotic effect.

Sheppard’s first setting of Libera nos, salva nos takes as its text the sixth antiphon at Matins on Trinity Sunday. Its liturgical position was thus about half way through the chief morning Office, as celebrated in its festal form with three nocturns. The text, a petition to the Holy Trinity for freedom, redemption and absolution, is sufficiently general to allow the possibility that Sheppard’s setting was used at other Offices, in the place where votive antiphons had once been sung (and where in Anglican Offices the choir sings the anthem); it is likely that the piece was composed during Sheppard’s time at Magdalen College, Oxford, among whose statutes is the ordinance that this very text be recited twice a day. Unusually, and unlike Sheppard’s Office hymns and responds, the chant cantus firmus is placed in the lowest voice. The rate of harmonic change is consequently very slow; this, and the mode’s tonal stability, accounts for the serenity with which the music unfolds.

William Byrd represented a new generation of composers, and a new generation of English Catholics. Byrd’s formative years as a musician coincided with the brief Catholic renaissance of 1553–8; the earliest music we have by him (it is now thought) was a collaboration with Sheppard and Mundy on the polyphonic verses of the festal Psalm for Easter Day, In exitu Israel, for use at Westminster Abbey. But he was to live the vast majority of his unusually long life under Protestant monarchs. Byrd remained a practising Catholic, while simultaneously pursuing a career in public musical life, first as Organist of Lincoln Cathedral from 1563 until 1572, then as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.

The Psalm setting Teach me, O Lord most probably dates from Byrd’s Lincoln career. It was apparently not designed as an anthem, but as a truly liturgical piece, a festal Psalm to be sung after the Preces; it was popular enough to have found its way (usually as an anthem) into several sources. The piece might almost have been written to exemplify the Royal Injunction that required ‘a modest distinct song, so used in all parts of the common prayers in the church, that the same may be as plainly understood, as if it were read without singing’—though, as Peter Phillips has pointed out, this fundamentally misunderstands the effect of choral singing on text. Nevertheless there is a new intimacy, even compared to Sheppard’s Second Service, between text and music; this is partly due to the verse idiom, in which a soloist alternates with the full choir. A modern listener used to hearing Evensong cannot help noticing the similarity of the full sections, with their regular cadential formulae, to Anglican chant.

A far cry from the mainstream worship of the Elizabethan Church were the Latin motets Byrd published in 1575 with Tallis, and by himself in 1589 and 1591, under the exclusive patent granted to the composers by Queen Elizabeth. In particular the second two publications are open to interpretation as manifestos for the recusant Catholic community, containing as they do prayers asking for mercy ‘for us rather than for me’, and texts on exile, the desolation of Jerusalem, and the coming of liberation.

Paradoxically, it was the very alienation of the Church from its Catholic heritage that allowed Byrd to select his own texts, free from liturgical necessity, and to set them in a way entirely his own, free from the influence of chant. Thus we meet in Byrd’s Cantiones sacrae a new, personal expressivity; and the context in which the collection was assembled only adds to our sense of personal connection with him, across the years. It seems likely that Byrd, like many recusants, became more militant after the gruesome execution of Fr Edmund Campion and two other Jesuit priests in 1581; certainly much of the imagery in Byrd’s 1589 and 1591 motets would have been familiar to fellow recusants from Jesuit pamphlets and other material. Of these probably the best known is Ne irascaris, Domine. The bitterness of the prophet’s call to God is married with the sweetest music; the lament over Jerusalem is intensified almost to unbearable extremes, the final phrase ‘desolata est’ heard no fewer than 54 times.

Byrd escaped serious censure for his recusancy, thanks to the patronage of the Queen and certain of her courtiers. Byrd’s music—a huge repertoire not only of sacred vocal music in Latin and English, but of songs, madrigals, consort music and works for keyboard—embodies the paradox of his life. He was, to some extent, both courtier and conspirator, a pillar of the establishment and an illegal. These were not his double standards, of course, but the government’s: the Rural Recusant was more-or-less free to go about his private business as long as the Gentleman of the Chapel Royal came up with loyal musical goods when occasion demanded. Yet it is hard to detect cynicism in the music with which Byrd kept his side of the bargain. Perhaps he realized that the deal had only been brokered because of his immense talent; or perhaps he was simply incapable of unimaginatively fulfilling a brief. Certainly, in the case of the magnificent ‘Great’ Service (recorded by the Abbey Choir on Hyperion CDA67533), he seems to have regarded the provision of music for the Church of England as a challenge to be relished. In the mellifluous full anthem O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth it is tempting to hear actual personal warmth in the music—or is that Elizabethan propaganda, still working after four centuries?

Of all the music on this disc, perhaps the most difficult to date is the majestic Psalm motet Exaudiat te Dominus by Robert White. Born around 1538 in London, White was at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1550s; having earned the MusB degree in 1560, he succeeded his father-in-law Tye as Master of the Choristers at Ely Cathedral two years later. Sometime around 1567 he moved to Chester Cathedral, and thence to Westminster Abbey in 1570; he died in post of the plague four years later. It seems unlikely that White’s Psalm motets could have been written during Mary’s reign (White was only a year or two older than Byrd; twenty at Mary’s death). An Elizabethan date seems ineluctable, but the style of White’s Psalms complicates the picture: they are very archaic, harking back in both their structure and sound-world to votive antiphons such as Vox Patris caelestis—itself a consciously archaic piece. The most plausible conclusion is that White heard this repertoire during Mary’s reign, and, having probably composed in the style as a young man, returned to it some years later. For which specific group of performers, if any, the Psalm motets were written is unknown; the ranges are extreme and the vocal lines occasionally rather angular.

The imposing choral texture of the pre-Reformation antiphons is well suited to White’s highly individual style. Though his Psalm motets all start with two- and three-voice verse sections, it is the full choral writing White seems to relish: once he gets going, his polyphony is an irresistible force. This is never more the case than in the final paragraph of Exaudiat, beginning at ‘Domine, salvum fac regem’, where White starts the point of imitation by stealth, in what appears still to be a verse section for divided countertenors and tenors; he then plays in the remaining voices, retaining the gimell in the inner parts, to produce an opulent seven-voice texture, as the music rolls inevitably toward its triumphant final cadence.

The text of Exaudiat te Dominus is a prayer for the monarch—specifically, for victory over his (or her) enemies. There is (as yet) no evidence to suggest a political reading of White’s motet; but at the least it seems remarkable to find an Anglican musician of the mid-sixteenth century setting such a text in Latin, to music that celebrates—or perhaps memorializes—the liturgical life of a vanished age.

Robert Quinney © 2008

Other albums in this series

Waiting for content to load...
Waiting for content to load...
Waiting for content to load...