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In their debut disc on Signum, the Caius choir celebrates the relationship between seven British contemporary composers and their influences drawn from the Medieval period.
At the beginning of the last century English composers of church music began to look back to the renaissance period for inspiration, finding a welcome release from the style of the day through a rekindling of the workings of modality and counterpoint. Settings of the Mass Ordinary by composers such as Herbert Howells (1912), Charles Wood (1922/3) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1921) were beacons in this new development which persisted as a small but distinctive thread in English church music throughout the century. The use of medieval rather than renaissance music as a direct source of inspiration began to emerge in the second half of the century, but at first only sporadically. Peter Maxwell Davies was a notable pioneer; his early interest in the music of John Taverner was followed by a pursuit of medieval English music in particular, and his carol settings of the 1960s follow precisely the form and technique of the fifteenth-century English carol. But by the end of the century such isolated pockets of medievalism came to be replaced by if not a torrent then certainly a steady stream of compositions written under medieval influence. A deliberately large and diverse group of contemporary composers has been included in this recording, though several other established figures such as Thomas Adès and Diana Burrell might also have been chosen. The catalyst for the new trend was the increasing availability of medieval music, both as a result of the work of scholars and editors, such as those involved in Polyphonic Music of the Fourteenth Century (1956-85) and of recording artists, notably David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London, whose brilliant collection Music of the Gothic Era appeared in 1976. More recently specialist groups such as Gothic Voices and the Orlando Consort have commissioned new music to stand alongside their core repertoire. Bayan Northcott’s Ave regina caelorum, the first-written of his Four Votive Antiphons—of which two others are included on this recording—was commissioned and premiered at the 1987 Cheltenham Festival by Gothic Voices. Northcott wrote as follows: “Having long admired the supreme accomplishment of Christopher Page’s Gothic Voices in Medieval music, I was thrilled to be offered their first contemporary commission”. But if this music is essentially soloistic and specialist in conception, other composers were happy to work more in the mainstream world of choral music. This is true of most of Gabriel Jackson’s output, and the success of his approach was recognised by the award given to his motet O doctor optime in the liturgical category of the inaugural British Composer Awards in 2003, a work commissioned by Caius College Choir for a BBC broadcast of Sunday Worship on Radio 4 in March that year. But many neo-medieval compositions work well for either solo or choral forces, whilst others contain an effective juxtaposition of the two sonorities, as in Michael Finnissy’s Seven Sacred Motets of 1993. This contrast also appears to be implied by some music of the early medieval period in particular, in which plainsong alternates with part-music, as in the organum Vir perfecte, though it is not possible to be certain about whether individuals or groups of voices were intended to perform the chant sections (or the part-music, for that matter).
The various contemporary composers represented in this recording naturally take different points of departure, choosing to highlight different aspects of medieval music, from plainsong and modal harmony in general to all aspects of part-music involving texture, rhythm and structure. Concerning mode, Judith Weir chooses to preserve the modality of Perotin’s Viderunt omnes throughout All the ends of the earth, including only a few B flats in the Lydian mode on F, just as appear in the plainsong itself. Robin Holloway’s Missa canonica is subtitled ‘Missa bianca’ since not a single black note appears in the entire composition. Bayan Northcott’s works begin modally with the plainsong to the fore, but also include moments of extreme chromaticism. At the other end of the spectrum, Jonathan Harvey ’s Jesu nomen dulce is atonal throughout, finding its medieval inspiration more in textures and rhythms. One medieval piece included on this recording, Stella maris illustrans omnia, shows that some medieval composers also sought to push harmony to the limits; it survives in the fly-leaves to an early-modern book found in Caius College Library, and has been cited as one of the most remarkable survivals in medieval music on account of its chromatically shifting parallel triads. Medieval music is rarely this chromatic, though much of the earlier repertoire is coloured by regular use of the intervals of the second and fourth, creating an entirely different sound-world from the smooth triadic sonorities established by the mid-fifteenth century. The Kyrie sung here from the Winchester Troper, compiled c1000, is replete with these intervals, and this has been directly taken up by James Weeks in Sint lumbi, which opens with the disjointed presentation of seconds and fourths.
The spacious acoustics of the great medieval churches were an important ingredient in the sound-world of plainsong and medieval part-music, and this recording has been made in one of the finest late-medieval buildings of this type, the free-standing Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral erected in the fourteenth century. Most of the contemporary works on the recording also benefit from this type of acoustic environment. Gabriel Jackson’s Thomas, Jewel of Canterbury, for example, builds on the dissonant effects created by listening to plainsong in a reverberant acoustic by composing lines of quasi-plainsong which are sung out of time with one another.
All the ends of the earth
All the ends of the earth was commissioned by the BBC for a Europe-wide radio broadcast on Millennium Day, 1st January, 2000, and is based on Perotin’s organum Viderunt Omnes, composed circa 1200. “In this work, the pitches and proportions of Perotin’s cantus firmus and its text have been retained exactly (re-scored, however, and sung by tenors and basses). But the duplum, triplum and quadruplum have been replaced by freely composed settings of texts from the tenth century Alleluyatic Sequence (sung by sopranos and altos.) The Alleluyatic sequence, based on Psalm 148, was written for the week before Septuagesima, after which, the singing of the word Alleluia was prohibited until Easter, in the churches of Western Europe. In addition, a small instrumental ensemble of harp and percussion has been added to embellish the cantus firm u s, and to mark punctuation points in the composition.” (Judith Weir).
The Winchester Troper holds a special place in the history of Western music since it is the earliest practical source of music in more than one part to have survived anywhere Europe. It was written down almost exactly 1000 years ago, and survives in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The manuscript contains a repertory of plainsong with an added second voice, both parts being written in a form of imprecise musical short-hand. Dr Rankin’s study of this and other sources of the period has led to the reconstruction sung here. The added voice sits generally just below the pitch of the chant itself, moving either in parallel with it or forming a held-note accompaniment.
Sint lumbi is a “reading-through” of another two-part piece from the Winchester Troper transcribed by Susan Rankin. The two-part sonorities of the Troper are heard initially divided into two groups, the sopranos and altos together, and the tenors and basses, dislocated and broken down into separate two-note chords. Single grace notes are then gradually added, building on the Winchester device of one part moving into unison with another to give an effect not unlike a grace note. The same basic textural division remains in force throughout the piece, but the grace notes become ever more complex with groups of eight or more being introduced, almost swallowing up the main note. The increase in tension caused by this is mirrored by an increasingly chromatic tonal language, and an explosion of chromatic grace notes introduces the first of three short bursts of chant sung by a soloist in a fierce declamatory style.
The St Andrews manuscript of c1240 provides a link between the music of the Parisian school of Pérotin and the development of measured polyphony in Britain, containing both music from Notre-Dame and works that were probably composed by British composers in direct imitation of the new styles developed in Paris. Two centuries after the Winchester Troper, composers now wrote long and free melismatic lines over each note of the chant, and had the notational resources to compose in rhythmic patterns. Vir perfecte is a Responsory for the Feast of St Andrew, and so may have been composed for use at the cathedral priory in St Andrews by a local composer. It juxtaposes three musical styles within the standard responsorial pattern, the chant alone, the free melismatic style over held notes of the chant, and the rhythmically defined sections in which the two parts move more closely together. The pitch chosen for this performance allows the free upper part to be sung by a modern countertenor, thus facilitating comparison with Bayan Northcott’s Salve regina.
Bayan Northcott’s Salve regina is the first in his cycle of Four Votive Antiphons, Opus 7, which sets the four anthems to the Blessed Virgin Mary sung at Compline during the church’s year. The three musical components of works such as Vir perfecte form the basis of the composition, though the two two-part idioms are here amalgamated into continuous passages which move almost imperceptibly between freer and more rhythmic styles. Northcott himself cites the recorded performances of Leonin (Perotin’s colleague at Notre-Dame in Paris) by the vocal group Red Byrd as his model here.
This two-part piece dates from the early fourteenth century and reflects something of the common devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary during this period that extended well beyond strict liturgical observance. The text makes reference to the Annunciation, a popular Feast in Marian devotion that became associated with a variety of institutions that survive today, including pubs called the Salutation Inn, and Gonville Hall in Cambridge, dedicated to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Edmund Gonville in 1348, now Gonville & Caius College. The simple musical language of the piece allows the direct expression of the text in a freely melodic idiom with recurring phrases and gestures.
Stabant autem iuxta crucem
Michael Finnissy’s Seven Sacred Motets develop many different strands of medieval music, ranging from chant and other monody (Hildegard of Bingen) to various free and measured polyphonic techniques. The brief yet intense setting of words from the Passion story in John 19, Stabant autem iuxta crucem, involves quasi-plainsong, two-part writing in “rhythmic unison” akin to the Winchester Troper repertory (breaking into three parts at the conclusion) and the striking contrast of a single voice in free style, incorporating many rapid grace notes.
Quam pulchra es
Marian texts remained as popular as ever in England during the fifteenth century, and Quam pulchra es by John Dunstaple (d1453) reflects one of the common Christian interpretations of the Song of Songs as referring to the Blessed Virgin. The deeply personal and sensuous imagery of the text is conveyed in a direct, mostly syllabic musical style through which the composer clearly relishes the Latin poetry. Dunstaple sets the crucial text “Veni, dilecte mi” with rests, pauses and chromatic colour; such music presents a very contrasted atmosphere to the more austere and impersonal liturgical world of much medieval repertoire.
Alma redemptoris mater
The second of Northcott’s cycle of antiphons sets a version of the plainchant Alma redemptoris mater in the top line against two other simultaneous Marian texts—the bottom line also being governed by isorhythm. This was composed for three male voices, but the composer has happily agreed to the performance given here, transposed up for soprano and alto chorus. In this piece, Northcott carries forward the three-part sonorities of early fifteenth-century music in the works of John Dunstaple, Leonel Power and others, as heard in Quam pulchra es. A closer comparison might be made between this work and the setting of the same Marian text attributed to both of these composers (omitted due to length), since this has a more contrapuntal texture and opens with a simple exposition of the opening phrase of chant, as in Northcott’s setting. As in his Salve regina there is a gradual increase in momentum and tension as the piece progresses, but a particular feature of the work as a whole is Northcott’s deployment of detailed performance indications in the score, with subtle variations of dynamic and accent emphasising the character of the lines.
Alma redemptoris mater
Several English treatises from the late medieval period describe the singing of discant, the provision of an improvised line moving note-against-note with a piece of chant. Leonel Power’s treatise dating from the first half of the fifteenth century gives full details of this kind of practice, giving many examples of how the free line might move in relation to the chant. Movement in thirds and sixths was encouraged, whilst parallel fifths and octaves were prohibited. Although improvised discant was normally performed in two parts, John of Tewkesbury’s treatise refers to a manner of performance with chant, discant, and up to three other voices moving in parallel with the chant using the fifth, octave and twelfth. This track contains a conjectural realization of this type of sound (with no claim to authenticity) based on the Sarum version of the Marian antiphon Alma redemptoris mater, combining the full five-part texture of Tewkesbury with a discant line moving in accordance with Power’s suggestions. John of Tewkesbury observes that although the sound is of many people singing at once the music is in fact very simple, with only one person singing an independent line. Although the discant line is consonant throughout with the chant itself, the use of the fifth and twelfth inevitably provide a considerable level of dissonance.
Missa Canonica (‘Missa bianca’)
These two Mass movements by Robin Holloway have their origins in the 1960s: “I wrote the original version of this Mass in 1964 and 1965 for my friend Christopher Herrick and his then choir of St Mary’s Primrose Hill. He’d provided the book of Sarum usage from which I took this lovely material as basis for a study in modality, white-note tonality, and rudimentary canons. The result was far too tricky for the intended purpose. Only the Credo was ever used: the rest remained unheard and the sole copy went missing until it turned up early 2004 in a Herrick household reshuffle. Thus I got it back nearly forty years on.” This rediscovery proved timely for the plans I was then making for this recording, and a liturgical performance of three of the movements in Caius Chapel allowed Professor Holloway to hear these parts of the Mass for the first time. “I found the music intriguing, and willingly made some changes enabling two of the three…to dispense with their organ-part [for inclusion on this recording]”. The Sanctus (with Benedictus) is set for two choirs, and opens with long phrases in which varied rhythmic patterns conflict with one another to undermine any sense of regular pulse. The white-note chords amplify the latent modality of the chant and create some highly unusual sounds, such as the final chord of the Sanctus (“…most High”) which contains every white note except C, but with a preponderance of D, the note of the chant. Whilst the Sanctus is texturally diverse, the Agnus Dei maintains for the most part a three-part texture, echoing much fourteenth and early-fifteenth century repertoire. Here the compositional technique turns more to canonic writing: the movement opens with the chant sung at one speed by the altos and at half-speed by the sopranos and tenors in octaves.
Stella maris illustrans omnia
This type of composition is generally referred to as a cantilena, a freely composed piece in three parts based on a non-liturgical text, taking its musical style from the manner of chant elaboration favouring parallel first-inversion triads, the so-called descant style. Whilst some cantilenas are notable for their rhythmic flexibility, this early fourteenth-century piece contains an unusually high degree of chromatic writing. The eight strophes of text are set in pairs to four sections of music, the final two of which are the most intense. The third section features parallel root-position triads moving by semitone (C minor to B minor) and a sudden shift of focus towards the triad of A flat before a return to the home triad of F. Although the score leaves little room for ambiguity concerning the notes themselves there are two possible rhythmic interpretations of the music: the only published edition of the work (in Polyphonic Music of the Fourteenth Century, vol. xvii) presents the music in compound time, but Christopher Hodkinson’s edition for this recording favours duple time.
O Jesu, nomen dulce
This was composed for the Very Rev. Michael Stancliffe, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his installation as Dean of Winchester Cathedral in 1979. Harvey has alluded to a wide sphere of influence present in the work including Tippett and Webern, but also explains that “most important are the 14-15th century allusions, as befits the text and the Cathedral for which it was written.” These vary from passages of rhythmic complexity to others composed in simple syllabic homophony to enshrine a crucial phrase such as “dulcissime Jesu” (as in Dunstaple’s Quam pulchra es). The resulting work is compact, intense, and unique in style even within Harvey’s own choral music.
Mater ora filium
In contrast to Stella maris illustrans omnia, this work seems to have had a liturgical function, appearing as the only polyphonic item in a Gradual of Sarum chant, and is based on a cantus firmus in the middle voice. The musical style is also quite different, featuring a more lively top voice. Only brief, the work has great charm; the pleasing arch structure is given some fine surface detail in the form of a four-against-three rhythmic group, a false relation (B flat against B natural) and a decorative group of 5 notes in the time of 4 at the final cadence.
Thomas, Jewel of Canterbury
The text of this motet comes from a fourteenth-century polyphonic composition in honour of Thomas of Canterbury, one copy of which survives in the same Caius College manuscript as Gemma nitens. The work was commissioned by Bill Packer for the Caius College Choir in memory of the composer Patrick Hadley, Precentor of Caius 1946-62. Conscious medievalisms abound in the work, including simple quasi-plainsong, block chords, various forms of canonic writing, and much surface rhythmic embellishment with groups of threes, fours and fives, as in Mater ora filium. Grace notes are also a prominent feature of the work, inspired by the performing style of Marcel Peres.
Campanis cum cymbalis
The bi-textual motet Campanis cum cymbalis / Honoremus Dominam is constructed on a two-voice ostinato apparently inspired by the text to imitate the tolling of bells. The work is sung here by multiple voices singing in octaves, given the relative simplicity of the harmony on such a limited pes, and the incorporation of bells into the performance echoes the use of instruments heard at the start of the recording in Judith Weir’s motet.
Geoffrey Webber © 2006