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Byrd, Parsons & White: Where late the sweet birds sang

Magnificat, Philip Cave (conductor)
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Recording details: January 2012
St George's Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: November 2012
Total duration: 74 minutes 41 seconds

Cover artwork: Second woodcut of the 1550 Rosarium philosophorum.

Magnificat's recording offers an exploration into the choral works of three of Tudor England's most compelling composers: Robert Parsons, Robert White and William Byrd. As with previous Magnificat collections, years of meticulous study and consideration has gone into this recording; it represents the fruits of their personal journey through the works and history of these composers. Magnificat has received many plaudits for the sensitivity and expressiveness of its performances, and this programme provides a wonderful opportunity to engage with music that is both challenging and rewarding to performers and listeners alike.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'Sonic splendour abounds in the Magnificat choir's performance of this repertory. Byrd's eight-part Quomodo cantabimus unfurls majestically, ravishing the ear. In White's enormous five-part Lamentations, the choir lingers at just the right places. The subtle hues of the choir, an elite corps from Winchester and Westminster cathedrals, are particularly impressive in Byrd's Lamentation, a piece in which voicing gives the music its momentum' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'The sober packaging of this disc gives little indication of the pleasure within. Pass it over at your peril. The small vocal group Magnificat, and its founder/director Philip Cave, explore Latin music from Tudor England mainly from the 1560s and 70s by Parsons, White and Byrd found in the Dow collection of manuscripts in the library of Christ Church, Oxford. An excellent booklet essay guides us through the changing fortunes of Latin texts in newly Protestant England, as well as questions of performance practice and pitch. But the long lines of intertwining and unfolding polyphony, performed with warmth and purity, is the reason to buy this inspirational CD' (The Observer)

'Compiled by the singer/musicologist Sally Dunkley and conducted by tenor Philip Cave, Magnificat's latest disc traces the survival of the Latin motet in the 1560s and 1570s. Byrd, Parsons and White were contemporaries, and the influence of Thomas Tallis, Byrd's teacher, can be felt in the purity of each composer's word-setting. From the aching lines of White's Lamentations to the deep groan of Byrd's Domine, the blend is beautifully relaxed and natural' (The Independent)

'What a way to open a CD! The spare beauty of Byrd's hymn Christe qui lux es et dies is quite devastating: no fancy part-writing, just simple block chords in which the hymn tune, sung in its unembellished form at the beginning and end weaves through the harmony leaving the other parts forlorn and angular. Performed with measured solemnity, this epitomises Philip Cave's style … Magnificat's recorded sound is spacious and rich, underpinned by a strong bass department, but with all the parts clear and some marvellous chording and part-crossing; false relations are met with discretion, and the phrasing is heart-rending … very highly recommended' (Early Music Review)» More

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The early Elizabethan years present a fascinating period of stylistic transition in vocal music to sacred Latin texts, as well as posing some intriguing questions about context. For whom was this Latin music written, given that one of the first pieces of legislation in the new Queen’s reign was the Act of Uniformity, which specified that church services should be held in English rather than in Latin, in all but a few places? And what was the practical impact of the new religious laws on composers such as Thomas Tallis, Robert Parsons, Robert White and William Byrd?

While Byrd’s lifelong commitment to the Catholic faith is well documented, little is known for certain about the religious convictions of the other composers. The debate continues on whether they favoured Latin texts because they were writing for institutions where some of these texts were still permitted, because they retained loyalty to the Catholic faith, alternatively that they had in mind domestic or devotional music-making, or simply because they had an enduring affection for the old ways. Whatever its intended destination, the music’s structure shows a move away from the ritual plainchant cantus-firmus-based hymns and responds of Mary’s chapel towards freely composed imitative polyphony in which text and music are much more closely connected. It seems to have taken noticeably longer for composers of English-texted sacred music to move on from the artistic constraints of Edwardian Protestantism to produce works of comparable musical interest (though there are, of course, a few notable exceptions to this generalisation, such as Tallis’s miniature masterpiece If ye love me).

In comparison to the momentous religious upheavals imposed during the preceding reigns, those of Henry VIII followed by his Protestant son Edward VI and his Catholic daughter Mary, the Elizabethan settlement was relatively moderate. The Queen herself was no extreme Protestant, indeed more conservative than many of her bishops, keeping a crucifix in her chapel and evidently valuing ceremonial worship.

Famously quoted as having no desire to ‘make windows into men’s souls’, she was also a lover of music, and tolerated amongst her Chapel Royal musicians at least one whose non-conforming religious convictions must have been well-known: William Byrd. She was herself conversant in Latin, and approved a Latin Prayer Book to be published by the churchman Walter Haddon in 1560, for use in Oxford, Cambridge, Winchester and Eton, all places where the language would have been understood. The music performed in her own chapel would have been more elaborate than anywhere else in the country, and as such was showcased to visiting foreign dignitaries, who could recognise that despite the Queen’s excommunication in 1570, she trod a moderate path in matters religious.

That the ecclesiastical changes introduced at the start of her reign would prove to be permanent was not, of course, apparent at the time; the accounts that Eamon Duffy quotes in his ground-breaking studies The stripping of the altars and The voices of Morebath bring to life the reality of country people once again hiding away the church’s valuable artefacts and whitewashing over the images of saints as part of the Elizabethan ‘suppression of superstition’. There is evidence too that these changes were not necessarily concluded overnight, that they were received with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and, significantly, that the climate of opinion was much less intolerant in the 1560s and 70s than it was to become later on, when continuing allegiance to the Catholic church became associated with suspicion of political plots and threats from abroad.

Much of the music presented here is known to us not through sources compiled for use in church – hardly any have survived – but because it was included in one or other of the largely retrospective manuscript collections now in the library of Christ Church, Oxford, assembled by Robert Dow (Mss.984-88, c.1581 – 88) and John Baldwin (Mss.979-83, c.1575 – 81). Although dating individual works with certainty is rarely possible, most of the music chosen for this recording is thought to come from the 1560s and 70s.

The texts include a relatively uncontroversial psalm, two Lamentations, a Compline hymn and a shortened version of the Ave Maria. Standing somewhat apart from these is Byrd’s Quomodo cantabimus, which is noted as dating from 1584; it is the only piece that can be described as conveying a specifically ‘recusant’ message in the way that many of the 1589 and 1591 Cantiones Sacrae do, where textual references to the sufferings of the faithful can be read in metaphorical language which would have been understood by those to whom the music was directed. Assessing the purpose of the Lamentations is perhaps the most difficult in this respect, for while the concluding phrase ‘Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ originates in the liturgy, it could also be perceived through the metaphor of ‘Jerusalem’, the church, being exhorted to return to its rightful ways.

Although Parsons and White were born of near enough the same generation as Byrd (Parsons c.1535, White c.1538, Byrd c.1540), we tend to think of them as belonging to a rather earlier period, because their working lives came to an end 50-odd years before Byrd’s. Both of them met untimely deaths: Parsons drowned in the River Trent in 1572, and White died as a result of an outbreak of plague in 1574.

Parsons’s place in the Chapel Royal was taken by Byrd, who had previously been at Lincoln Cathedral, while Robert White was appointed Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey in 1569; before that he was employed at Trinity College, Cambridge and then Ely Cathedral. Byrd lived on into his 80s, moving away from Court in the 1590s to Stondon Massey in Essex, near the estate of his Catholic patron Lord Petre, where he would have been offered a degree of protection from religious persecution. He continued to publish collections of both sacred and secular music, very different in manner and harmonic language from early works such as the Lamentations and Domine, quis habitabit.

While the Lamentations of Tallis have long been well-known, those of Byrd and White may be a little less familiar, and their context continues to be debated. In the Catholic liturgy, verses from the Lamentations form part of the Tenebrae services of Holy Week, and complete sets were composed for this purpose by Palestrina, Victoria and Lassus. But it was rather different in England, where Tallis was the only person to set more than a single one of the 18 lessons. The cluster of early Elizabethan Lamentations – by Osbert Parsley, Byrd, Tallis, White (two settings of the same text) and Alfonso Ferrabosco (a native of Bologna who was resident in England on and off during these years) – might be taken to suggest that the composers valued these melancholy texts for their expressive potential, and may have written in the spirit of ‘friendly emulation’ that clearly existed between them (a phrase used by Henry Peacham in 1622, and aptly employed in connection with this period by Joseph Kerman in more recent times); they could also have found in them metaphorical significance if they did in fact remain Catholics at heart. Like the Lamentations by their continental contemporaries, the structure of these works is governed by that of the text, where each verse is introduced by one of the Hebrew letters arranged in alphabetical sequence; these letters presented the composers with an opportunity to write abstract music, and their function has been likened to the capital letters that medieval scribes so beautifully decorated. Sometimes the Lamentations are introduced with the phrase ‘De lamentatione Jeremiae’ or ‘Incipit lamentatione’, and they always conclude with the exhortation ‘Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’.

Byrd’s Lamentations date from relatively early in his career. While their points of imitation are more extended than was to become standard later on, and their harmonic writing is sometimes diffuse (and editorially challenging – one voice has to be reconstructed for some sections), they display a wealth of complex contrapuntal writing in the Hebrew letters especially, and conclude with a powerful working of the words ‘Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’; rarely was Byrd’s tribute to Tallis, his teacher, more manifest than in the final bars, which echo those of Tallis’s Lamentations I.

The unusually expressive writing of White’s five-voice Lamentations was noted by Robert Dow, Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and compiler and copyist of a beautifully calligraphed set of partbooks that appear to have been intended for domestic use:

Non ita moesta sonant plangentis verba prophetæ
Quam sonat authoris musica moesta mei.
Móurnful to mé thèse wórds of the plángènt próphet of óld tìmes
Yét mòre móurnful this músic now sóundìng fórth from its mákèr.

Though Dow annotated his partbooks frequently, a comment of this kind is very rare; we may certainly concur with his assessment, for the desolation in this music is palpable. The particular selection of verses that White chose (Lamentations I, vv.8-13) does not appear to tally with any of the Holy Week lessons as appointed, but he made two settings of it, respectively for five and six voices. While they share the same Phrygian mode (which is characterised by two plangent-sounding semitones, immediately above the key-note and the 5th), in other respects they present very different musical approaches.

The six-part contrasts trios and quartets with the full six-voice sonority, while the five-part is by far the more forward-looking of the two. White sustains our interest throughout this substantial work, exploring a uniquely bold harmonic vocabulary in pursuit of expression and making effective use of different textures, with one voice sometimes leading the others in chordal passages. The words ‘Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ are presented at the halfway point of the verses as well as the end, but there is no evidence in any of the sources to suggest that this is anything other than a single work, albeit one of exceptional length.

The traditional pattern for office hymns of alternating plainchant verses with polyphonic ones built around the chant as cantus firmus was followed by White in his four settings of the Lenten Compline hymn Christe qui lux es et dies. Probably one or more of these settings may date from his years at Trinity College, Cambridge, during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-58), though it is interesting to see that the text was still being issued with royal authority as late as 1564, suggesting that this prayer for peaceful rest continued to be valued in Elizabethan times for private devotion even if not official liturgy. Byrd also turned his attention to this text, and perhaps in response to White’s first setting, where the voices move in simple block chords, he adopted a similar pattern. But characteristically he added an extra technical challenge, moving the chant up through the voices verse by verse, and dispensing with the alternatim scheme. The greatest compositional sophistication characterises White’s setting No. IV, perhaps the latest of his four. Here the plainchant cantus firmus is surrounded by succinct imitative phrases weaving their way through the other voices. Nowhere is White’s art better displayed than in this exquisite miniature whose final verse opens up from absolute simplicity into gently flowing quaver patterns.

The justly much-loved Ave Maria is the piece that introduced many of us to Parsons’s music (mainly because it was made available in a modern edition long before any of his other works). It too would originally have been sung at a time of reflection, the end of the evening service of Compline, and conveys a sense of great serenity as it gradually unfolds through a rising pedal-point in the top voice and culminates in an Amen whose soaring phrases seem to make a perfect counterpart to the architecture of the time. The text is presented in a shortened form, omitting the concluding prayer ‘Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis’ and making a musical repeat of the phrase ‘et benedictus fructus ventris tui’.

Byrd’s psalm motet Domine, quis habitabit dates from early in the composer’s career and stands apart from all his other works for its scoring: nine voices, with three bass parts of equal range and function. It was not included in any of his published collections but survives in a single manuscript source from the 1590s which is laid out in score format, unusual at this time. Only the first three words of Psalm 14 are cued, but the verses that follow can be fitted to the music (with a few phrases imported from other contemporary translations, and considerable skill on the part of the editor, Warwick Edwards). The use of a minor 6th as the opening interval is striking; the motet then proceeds mainly in imitation, with a consistently dense texture and some pungent dissonances that build up to a purposeful conclusion. Already Byrd is seen to reserve the introduction of an extra note at the top of the range for the final iteration, a technique that he continued to use to great effect in later motets.

Parsons’s setting of the same psalm, Domine, quis habitabit, is scored for six voices, and adopts a rather different musical manner from that of Ave Maria, opening with some rather foursquare and largely syllabic imitative writing. Later on there are contrasts between blocks of high and low voices, and the motet concludes with some fine descending phrases to the words ‘proximos suos’.

The origins of Byrd’s eight-part Quomodo cantabimus, also unpublished in his lifetime, can be traced to a very rare documented instance of two composers from distant parts of Europe engaging in a personal musical exchange. According to an 18th-century manuscript in the British Library, Philippe de Monte, who seems to have made contact with the young William Byrd when he visited England in 1554 as part of the choir that accompanied the Spanish king Philip II to his marriage to Mary Tudor, sent to Byrd some 30 years later the double-choir motet Super flumina Babylonis; in the following year Byrd responded with Quomodo cantabimus, whose words were drawn from that same famous psalm of captivity and exile (No.136). Its text would have had particular resonance for Byrd at that time, as a barely veiled allusion to the dangerous situation that he and his fellow Catholics were facing at a time of rising political tensions in England. Like de Monte’s motet, Byrd’s is scored for eight voices, but they are generally heard in through-composed polyphony rather than in two choirs. Byrd displays his great technical skill by weaving a canon in the first section for three voices, one of them in inversion.

The question of performing pitch for music of this period has attracted much attention and debate over the last 50 years or more. Whereas E H Fellowes instinctively transposed much of the Anglican repertoire up a minor 3rd, which made it well-suited to performance by a standard SATB group, a scholarly debate initiated by David Wulstan in the late 1960s led to the adoption of upwardly transposed pitch for pre-Reformation English music too; the theory was put into practice by Wulstan’s ensemble the Clerkes of Oxenford, who pioneered the performance of pieces with treble parts that then went up to high B flat. Foremost in publishing material refuting these theories was Roger Bowers in 1986, and the debate has more recently been convincingly continued by Andrew Johnstone and others. With this in mind we have adopted ‘low’ pitch for this recording, but in doing so we pay affectionate tribute to the inspirational performances under David Wulstan that introduced us to much of this repertoire.

Considering and compiling this recording is something that has occupied my thoughts over several years. Both in content and performing style it represents the fruits of a personal journey that started at a time when most of this music was not at all widely known. None of us dared to dream then that it could ever be shared with the thousands of people who have now come to value it. Time moves on, and witnessing that positive progress gives cause for some satisfaction.

Sally Dunkley © 2012

Performances of Renaissance polyphony continue to require a gamut of musical decisions, including such issues as tempo, pitch, scoring and style. The resulting variety of interpretations has widened our understanding and appreciation of this repertoire and of the ways in which we might perform it.

The issue of pitch is particularly significant in works with a wide vocal range, such as White’s Christe qui lux, or a luxuriant texture as in Byrd’s Domine, quis habitabit, where seven of the nine parts are for men’s voices. The wide range of several individual voice parts might suggest some instrumental participation: on this recording Magnificat sings a cappella and reveals the astonishingly rich textures and colours generated by performing these pieces at written pitch. Magnificat has received many plaudits for the sensitivity and expressiveness of its performances, and this programme provides a wonderful opportunity to engage with music that is both challenging and rewarding to performers and listeners alike.

Editions of most of the works on this album have been prepared by Sally Dunkley, whose career has been devoted to the performance and editing of Renaissance choral music. Singers and audiences worldwide have benefited from Sally’s extensive championing of this repertoire, and Magnificat is delighted to have this opportunity to acknowledge her contribution and scholarship.

Philip Cave © 2012

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