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These compositions—and the wider repertory from which they are drawn—demonstrate vividly the energy and drive, the sheer colour and variety of the English repertoire at this juncture in national and European history. The programme naturally involves the most prominent musicians of the first half of the fifteenth century, whose very names formed an illustrious ornament of the great princely chapels: Leonel Power and John Dunstaple foremost among them. But a striking feature of the culture of English polyphony at this time is precisely its strength in depth—and we also feature works by the gifted yet shadowy ‘Forest’, along with a number of striking anonymous pieces.
Henry V’s enormous retinue on campaign included not only an extended secular entourage covering all the usual and expected needs, but also a fully functioning liturgical and musical chapel, with clerics, chaplains and singers, accompanied as they must have been by all their service and music books. This active mixture of the sacred with the secular may surprise us today, but was typical of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century royal image-creation, and nowhere more sophisticatedly so than in the glittering, if tautly controlled, court of Henry V. In this, as in other areas of the business of kingship, Henry organized his affairs with his signature sense of princely determination and precision, with a keen eye for both detail and cohesion.
Our musical choices have fallen on pieces that can plausibly be associated, in various ways, with some of the contexts and events of the campaign itself, and with the ensuing English occupation of Normandy and other areas of northern France. Given the performing resources Henry had taken with him on campaign, musical elaboration would have been on hand to suit any ceremonial or ritual need or eventuality. We may readily appreciate that the sophisticated, often structurally complex and musically demanding compositions of this great artistic tradition thus describe a world in which music and politics, ritual performance and aristocratic self-image, were all closely conjoined.
Leaving aside the bespoke music used for specific, high-profile ceremonial occasions, there was also a substantial body of English music available for routine chapel performance, wherever the royal entourage happened to be, just as would have been the case in England, both at fixed royal residences and collegiate foundations, and for peregrinations around the realm. Our groups of pieces on this album, with their explanatory section titles, illustrate some of the specialized themes and the uses to which such music would have been put—for celebration, invocation, and solemnization.
Our selection of topics embraces the symbolism of kingship, nationhood and national origins; the invocation of eminent national saints, especially kingly ones; and the ritual significance of official ceremonial of different kinds, including dynastic events, treaties, coronations and so forth. The English Chapel Royal—and later, the chapels of Henry’s brothers, the Dukes of Clarence and Bedford—left a distinct musical imprint on northern France, and on the chapels of their noble Burgundian counterparts, underscoring once more the political structures and encounters that enabled the celebrated and unparalleled spread of English musical influence across Europe at this time (including also through the momentous Council of Konstanz, convened between 1414 and 1418).
Kingship and the Rise of Nation
Margaret Bent is currently elaborating a persuasive reassessment of the genesis of Sub Arturo plebs, the famous ‘musicians’ motet’ that frames a roll-call of English singers prominent at the time of its composition. According to this new perspective on its origins, the motet is not, as used to be thought, a fourteenth-century work but is in fact roughly contemporary with other structurally elaborate music of Henry V’s chapel as it was being composed in and around the 1410s (our thanks to Dr Bent for her ideas and her edition of this work, and to David Howlett for his translation of its texts). In this interpretation ‘Arthur/ Arcturus’ (the North Star) would be identified again directly with Henry V, certainly a worthy subject for the text’s claim that ‘the military flourishes with the clergy’. An exceptional piece, even by the high standards of English music circa 1400 and later, this virtuoso composition is one of the more complex and tautly controlled ‘isorhythmic’ motets of the period. It is a brilliant and exuberant tour de force of textual and musical invention that drives through to an exhilarating conclusion.
Important to the careful balance of Henry’s kingship was the good order of the Church at large, and more particularly of his own household chapel, to whose musical and liturgical staffing he gave close attention. Its dignified ceremonial and the devotional stance it represented formed a crucial part of his sense of monarchy and the state under God. A contemporary chronicle stipulates the ‘discanting’ of the antiphon Ascendit Christus super celos in the second memorial after Mass in the Chapel Royal, specifically to commemorate and celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin. Since Henry V had ordered performance of a daily antiphon to the Assumption in response to his brother John Duke of Bedford’s great naval victory in the Battle of the Seine on the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August 1416, and since no other contemporary motet on Ascendit Christus survives, it is reasonable to assume that it was precisely this setting by Forest that fulfilled that need—very clearly, it could have done. Unlike many of the elaborate occasional pieces performed here, this lovely work takes the form of a gentler, more lyrical ‘anthem’ involving two voices moving as a duo above a freely rhythmicized setting in the tenor of the Marian antiphon Alma redemptoris mater.
Dedicated ostensibly and primarily to John the Baptist, Dunstaple’s Preco preheminencie surely also celebrates that other John, Henry’s brother the Duke of Bedford, and his rout of the French navy in 1416. Known otherwise only from its stipulation for the Chapel Royal’s memorial to St John the Baptist, aspects of the text of this motet are strongly suggestive: while its primary force is directed to the saintly John, the herald (preco) who preceded Christ, it is also easily susceptible to reading in reference to the actions of his fifteenth-century namesake in leading the English navy to victory and thereby ‘preparing a way’ for his kingly brother. The motet might well have been sung in Canterbury Cathedral in August 1416, in the presence of Henry and Emperor Sigismund, after the conclusion between them of the Treaty of Canterbury (though it seems perhaps unlikely that so sophisticated and intricate a piece could have been composed in such short order directly for this occasion).
St Thomas Becket—Protector of England
The Lancastrian kings cultivated a cluster of saints, dubbed by us ‘protectors of England’, whose veneration was of long royal tradition. There were first and foremost kingly saints such as Edward the Confessor and St Edmund, who complemented the other native English saints and national figureheads such as Thomas Becket, John of Bridlington, and St George (for the latter two see The Binchois Consort’s ).
Becket (‘St Thomas of Canterbury’) was without doubt the pre-eminent English saint on the European stage throughout the high and later Middle Ages. As such, he projected as strong an image of the nation, spiritually and emblematically, as did St George in the military and chivalric sphere. There were of course many other venerated saints and many important saints’ shrines in England; but the Becket tradition was ubiquitous and stretched far and wide, the length and breadth of Europe.
This group of pieces in Becket’s honour interleaves Mass movements by Leonel Power with two striking—and strikingly contrasted—motets of the fourteenth century. It begins with a rare survival from an Oxford manuscript (New College MS 362; inscribed ‘De sancto Thoma Cantuarie’): the brilliant Ianuam quam clauserat / Iacintus in saltibus / [Iacet granum], which is constructed over the famous and much-used plainchant Iacet granum (the third responsory at Matins for the saint’s feast day, 29 December). The magnificent Gloria and Credo comprise a pair of isorhythmic movements each constructed on a different Lauds antiphon for the same feast, respectively Ad Thome memoriam (Gloria) and Opem nobis, o Thoma (Credo), this latter being the antiphon to the Benedictus.
In the sublime Credo ‘Opem nobis’, both the chant scaffolding, in the lowest voice, and the two elaborative upper parts, are treated with the utmost delicacy by Power. The chant is paraphrased in long notes at the opening of each section, underpinning the texture. However, it often suddenly increases in rhythmic intensity in its brief duets with the contratenor when the upper voice rests. This texture, in alternation with duetting discantus and contratenor above a slow-moving tenor, enables Power to derive the maximum textural interest from the three voices he employs.
For this recording the text has been largely reset, using a distinctively English practice known as telescoping which may have been applied in Power’s original version. This produces, as with a polytextual motet, a counterpoint of text and voice which can enable the lengthy ritual texts of the Credo to be dispatched more succinctly than would otherwise be the case. In this instance, it allows for a more extended, melismatic character within the upper two voices which in contrast are very syllabic in their sole surviving source. Combined with Power’s skilful control of texture, this gives a greater rhetorical power to the brief sections in which only a single text is heard, the otherwise dense counterpoint of texts briefly coalescing into unified declamation.
Dividing these two Mass movements is a Vespers plainsong antiphon for the Magnificat, Pastor cesus, followed by a brief fourteenth-century polytextual motet constructed on a tenor derived from the first phrase of the same chant, supporting two upper voices which set, respectively, the Opem nobis text once more and the text of a second Magnificat antiphon, Salve, Thoma.
St Edmund, king and martyr—Protector of England
Two similarly concise but impressive fourteenth-century motets begin our cluster of pieces for St Edmund, king and martyr. Both compositions are built upon the antiphon Ave rex gentis Anglorum, a well-known chant for St Edmund which shares its melody with the Marian Ave regina celorum, mater regis angelorum (the pieces are discussed and transcribed by Bukofzer and edited by Harrison). The two compositions are paired in an Oxford source (Bodleian MS E Mus 7), and hail ultimately from the musical environment of the Abbey which housed the shrine of St Edmund, at Bury in Suffolk, one of the richest and most eminent Benedictine foundations in medieval England. It seems quite possible, though, that they would have circulated more widely than this and could have been available to be sung, ceremonially or devotionally, by suitably equipped princely or collegiate chapels.
Gaude martyr, the second of two works on this album by the musically distinctive ‘Forest’, seems, as proposed by Robert Nosow, to be a rare further survival of a motet for Edmund, who met his end at the hands of the Danes in 869 for refusing to renounce Christianity. Edmund’s status as an early English royal martyr clearly made him a focus of Lancastrian veneration, as revealed by John Lydgate’s presentation, in 1433, to Henry VI of a sumptuous manuscript Life of St Edmund. The two texts of the motet are read here as an allegory both of Henry V, ‘clothed in purple and crowned with victory’, and also of his young son Henry VI, for whom Edmund, who was crowned at fourteen, would have presented a model of princely fortitude and probity to a child monarch. The motet also invokes other kingly saints, including the nordic St Olaf/Olave and St Magnus. Nosow suggests, as an occasion for the motet, the knighting of the four-year-old Henry by his protector-uncle John Duke of Bedford, at the (still surviving) church of St Mary de Castro in Leicester on 19 May 1426, an occasion intended to cement aristocratic loyalty, in a divided country, to the young king.
The Coronation of Henry VI
Since we know that the entry into Notre-Dame of Paris for the French Coronation of Henry VI on 16 December 1431 was accompanied by the antiphon Ecce mitto angelum, this seems an impeccable curtain-raiser for a group of pieces that can perhaps be associated with that great dynastic event. The version of the chant recorded here comes from the so-called Liber regie capelle, a manuscript now in Evora, Portugal, that details Lancastrian royal ceremony including the coronation rite for Lancastrian kings. The fact that this book was copied (by the Dean of the Chapel Royal) for Count Alvaro Vaz d’Almada, a Portuguese Knight of the Garter, speaks vividly both of the brilliant ceremonial and of the international success of the Lancastrian dynastic project, which had evidently engendered a desire to copy its rituals in courtly settings far from its actual seat of power.
The next two works continue this ‘coronation’ theme. Frank Harrison long ago proposed that Dunstaple’s motet Veni Sancte Spiritus / Veni creator Spiritus and the same composer’s now-fragmentary Mass on Da gaudiorum premia might have been composed directly for the Notre-Dame coronation in 1431. While the demonstrably earlier copying of the motet and its direct structural parallel with Preco preheminencie, plus the likely performance role of both in the routine ritual devotions of Henry V’s chapel, undermine this hypothesis, it may yet be the case that both it and the Mass were indeed performed there. (The same might equally be true also of the boy Henry’s earlier English coronation, held at Westminster in November 1429.)
The hymn Veni creator was, as Harrison, Hughes and Wright all noted, an essential component of the coronation ritual; and the words of the verse of the Trinity respond quoted in the tenor of the Mass would have been exactly fitting for the occasion: ‘Give the rewards of joy, give the gifts of grace; loosen the chains of strife, tighten the bonds of peace’. Indeed, the relationship between motet and Mass may be closer still: the liturgical Da gaudiorum text seems itself to have been lifted (as Wright noted) from a recension of the Veni creator hymn, the very source which supplied Dunstaple with much textual and melodic material for his great motet. The order of Mass for the Holy Trinity was widely used in the Middle Ages for votive Masses for important state occasions, a category that clearly included coronations. Furthermore, the ‘rex genitor’ trope used by Dunstaple for his Kyrie seems to have been chosen, in preference to the usual Trinity one, for its emphasis on the qualities of kingship and for the way it subtly underlines the parallel of earthly–heavenly monarchy.
Other, perhaps more persuasive occasions cited by scholars for the first performance of the Mass, especially given the reconciliatory and political tone of the respond verse, both occurred much earlier, in 1420: the Treaty of Troyes (signed on 21 May, in St Peter’s cathedral in Troyes); and the marriage of Henry V to the French princess Catherine of Valois (solemnized on 2 June, in the Troyes parish church of St John or in the same city’s cathedral). Since 2 June was Trinity Sunday, the relevance of the Trinity respond verse speaks for itself. Yet just as striking is the relevance of the political message of the verse to a peace treaty, beseeching God, here in eloquent polyphonic form, to ‘tighten the bonds of peace’. It may just be that Dunstaple, had he been in France at that time, could have been enjoined to compose the Mass expressly in celebration of one, or even both, of these epoch-making dynastic and political events. It could then easily have been revived for the later coronations, as necessary.
Yet whatever the exact occasions—and there may possibly be others we are overlooking—it is safe to say that the genesis of both motet and Mass must hail back to royal occasions of ceremonial pomp and circumstance and high dynastic significance. The Mass was probably written by Dunstaple as a complete cycle, though we no longer have all the movements: the Credo and Sanctus survive intact (in an important source in Aosta); the very fragmentary Gloria is much too incomplete to allow any kind of recovery; but we have included a new performing version by Philip Weller of the Kyrie, reconstructed from a fragmentary source in Cambridge (Emmanuel College, MS 300), and here presented for the first time.
No musical celebration of the Hundred Years’ War, and of Agincourt in particular, could be complete without The Agincourt Carol. The confident strut of this justly famous piece, articulating as it does in very direct (almost ballad-like) strophic fashion the prevalent mood of popular celebration at the king’s exploits, would have made it a singularly appropriate statement for his well-documented return to London after his great victory, alongside the giant, lion, antelope and larger-than-life figure of St George who leered down on the assembled populace from their lofty perches on London Bridge.
In conclusion, and as a more reflective foil to what has gone before, we offer the much more measured ritual of a litany sung in chant and relatively simple, sober polyphony. The litany, typically, uses the standard form of invocation of the Kyrie (‘Lord have mercy’) as its basis, but appends to it the text Ab inimicis nostris, defende nos Christe (‘From our enemies, defend us Christ’), typically said in time of war, in a setting from a source in Cambridge (the later, so-called ‘Pepys MS’). Receding now from the battlefield, this quieter and more reflective setting serves to open up an extended musical moment for contemplation of the vivid, varied and forceful aural impact of the sounds of a long distant, but now revivified, cultural and musical splendour.
Andrew Kirkman & Philip Weller © 2017
This bringing together of music and image comes about as the result of The Binchois Consort’s current engagement with the Castle Museum, Nottingham, and a wider team of researchers and curators, in a research and performance project involving these unique English fifteenth-century sculptures in tandem with thematically related music. Our aim is to bring the vividness of live and recorded performance into closer proximity with related images—and in particular with those in alabaster, whose vivid and translucent visual qualities clearly gave it such special cachet during the time of its artistic currency. Exploring and illustrating the synergy of these two media is part of our joint creative brief, and will offer audiences of all kinds a new way of understanding and experiencing the music of the ‘long’ fifteenth century (c1380–1520) in terms of its original visual and spatial, as well as social and more general historical context.
In parallel with the arts of warfare, diplomacy and government, the later Plantagenets also cultivated refined taste in visual and musical expression. These arts were appreciated for their devotional potency and presumably for their intrinsic beauty; but just as importantly also their power was harnessed, in a political sense, as part of statecraft—of the art of expressing ritual magnificence and regal authority. The three Henrys especially, but also the three brothers of Henry V (all six of them descendants of the super-cultivated John of Gaunt and inheritors, as well, of the de Bohun tradition of education and learning) established a dynastic tradition of promoting music, visual art, and books. This was a form of cultural activity, combining both religion and the arts, that expressed itself privately and personally, as well as publicly—in reading and contemplation as well as in ceremonial ritual and display.
Such a remarkable dynastic engagement with the arts among the later Plantagenets (every bit as impressive as that of the Tudors, still to come) was manifested above all in the context of aristocratic devotional practice and the wider forum of princely ceremonial—the musical aspects of this being showcased especially through public ritual observance and virtuoso ensemble singing, in the joint service of politics and religion. As vivid illustrations of the nature of the ‘silent partners’ in this kind of artistic and ritual display we offer here a brief range of images that, in conjunction with the music they accompany, we hope will take on a wider and a more penetrative eloquence.
Andrew Kirkman & Philip Weller © 2017