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Robert White (c1538-November 1574)

Sacred Music

Gallicantus, Gabriel Crouch (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: August 2008
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: November 2009
Total duration: 73 minutes 17 seconds

The early music ensemble Gallicantus was born within the ranks of the world-class choir Tenebrae, when five of the choir’s regulars, each with a wealth of experience in the world of consort singing, decided to form a separate group dedicated to renaissance music. Literally meaning Rooster Song or cock crow, Gallicantus is a word from monastic antiquity for the office held just before the dawn. It evokes the renewal of life offered by the coming day.

The group is bound by a shared love of communicating text, and is committed to creating performances which draw out unifying themes within apparently diverse repertoire: To this end they are as meticulous about providing context and insight for audiences as they are about crafting interpretations of the music they love.


'The sensible admirer of White’s music will acquire all three recordings … sung entirely by male voices and never once is there a loss of clarity, a hint of muddiness' (Gramophone)

'What better respite from the secular pressures of Christmas shopping than these sublime sacred sounds from the late sixteenth century. White's Lamentations are not as famous as Tallis's, but their plangent harmonies and clashing lines have an equal intensity. This impressive debut disc by Gallicantus (an all-male group from the Tenebrae choir) includes White's motets and hymns, emphasising his response to the texts and his eloquent way with the single Hebrew letters that begin each Lamentation. The vocal balance is slightly bass-heavy, but the sound is beautifully recorded' (The Observer)

'While Gallicantus was formed only two years ago, its members own a collective experience of ensemble singing measurable in long decades. Their artistry shines through in this debut disc, so much so that it's tempting to award five stars as a matter of reviewing course. I've resisted simply because the fine detail in Robert White's polyphony, especially in his multi-textured psalm settings Exaudiat te, Dominus and Manus tuae fecerunt me, is occasionally muddied by the reverberant acoustic of All Hallows, Gospel Oak. Fans of majestic Tudor sacred music, however, should immediately add this to their list of albums most wanted' (Classic FM Magazine)

Maxima musarum nostrarum gloria White
Tu peris aeternum sed tua musa manet.
White, thou glorious leader of our art has died
But thy muse lives on in eternity.

This tribute by Robert Dow, copyist of one of the most important manuscript sources for Robert White’s music, was written a few years after the untimely death of the composer, who perished, together with his family, in a virulent outbreak of the plague in the Westminster area in 1574. The whole of his life as a musician had taken place against the background of Tudor religious and ideological conflict and change, for he was born in the early 1530s, shortly before Henry VIII embarked on the policies that would lead to a break with the church in Rome, and unleash a wave of destruction on English religious institutions and their fabric.

White came from a family with musical connections: his grandfather had been responsible for presenting to the London church of St Andrew’s, Holborn, an organ which was later moved to Westminster Abbey and described as an ‘excellent instrument’. He is first documented as a lay clerk in the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1555. A few years later he became master of the choristers there, and in 1560 obtained his BMus at Cambridge, by which time he was described as having studied music for 10 years. If, as seems likely, these were formative years for him, they took place during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-8), when the full Catholic rite was restored and its services enhanced by elaborate Latin-texted music. At Trinity, there were plans for a substantial choir of 12 boys and 18 men to sing the daily Mass and Offices, and though these were never entirely realised, the ritual music that White composed suggests that the standard of singing was nevertheless highly proficient.

The accession to the throne of Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth in 1558 ushered in another period of religious change, and presented composers working in the church with the challenge of once again having to adapt to rapidly changing musical requirements. With the Act of Uniformity and the subsequent publication of a new Prayer Book, services were appointed to be said in English. There were, however, certain exemptions from this instruction, notably at the Chapel Royal—the monarch’s own musical establishment—and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, presumably on the basis that these were places where Latin would have been understood, and this offers a possible explanation for the fact that so much of the finest music of the 1560s and 70s was inspired by Latin texts. The queen herself was known to have held moderate or relatively conservative beliefs, and her appreciation of music was such that inconvenient facts were sometimes quietly passed over, with William Byrd (a member of her Chapel Royal from 1572 onwards) able to remain in royal service despite his committed recusancy, for example. Whether the intended purpose of the Latin sacred music of White and his contemporary Robert Parsons was for Catholic services or for domestic devotions, it surely represents the most interesting and significant musical thought to come from the generation immediately senior to Byrd. Not only is there a perceptible move towards expressive word setting, but also towards creating more succinct imitative phrases and textures, features that were already established in much of the continental music that was beginning to find its way into England from the busy printing presses of Antwerp, Venice and other European cities.

By 1562 White had moved from Cambridge to nearby Ely Cathedral, succeeding Christopher Tye (whose daughter he married) as master of the choristers, and four years later he went on to a better paid post at Chester Cathedral. Further promotion came in 1569, when he was appointed master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey, and so arrived at the centre of London music-making. Although most of the years of White’s maturity took place during the reign of Elizabeth I, only a single piece of securely attributed and originally English-texted sacred vocal music has survived. That may be explained in part by the vagaries of manuscript loss, but nevertheless it may be appropriate to speculate a little about the composer’s own religious convictions. There is surely some significance in the fact that at his death White was owed a substantial sum of money by Edward Paston, Norfolk gentleman, leading Catholic and patron of music. Whatever else, there is proof in his output that Latin-texted polyphony continued to be cultivated in the earlier part of the reign, when the climate of opinion was less intolerant than it was to become in the 1580s as those who held on to their Catholic beliefs came to be regarded with increasing suspicion.

In each of the four settings he made of the Lenten Compline hymn Christe qui lux es et dies, White followed the established pattern of alternating plainchant verses with polyphonic ones that incorporate the chant as a cantus firmus. Perhaps one or more of these settings may date from his years in Cambridge, but 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. In White’s first setting, the voices move in simple block chords, a pattern closely mirrored by Byrd in his own early setting. A greater degree of compositional sophistication characterises setting No IV, where 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.

Like many continental musicians from the generation of Josquin onwards, English composers of the early Elizabethan period such as White, William Mundy and Robert Parsons often looked to the psalms for Latin motet texts; the resulting works might have been sung either in domestic circumstances or as anthems in establishments where Latin texts were permitted. Of the 12 psalm motets by White that have survived, the five included on this recording display an interesting variety of musical techniques. Especially when compared to the formalised framework of plainchant-based hymns or responds, a portion of psalm verses presented the composer with altogether different challenges: a new freedom of expression, coupled with a need to bring about convincing musical continuity. White responded in several ways, either by dividing the text and the music into distinct sections, with marked contrasts of scoring between them (as in Exaudiat te and Manus tuae), and by emulating the votive antiphon pattern where substantial ‘verses’ for three or four voices lead into ones for the full ensemble, or alternatively by using a continuous texture throughout the piece, either with imitative writing (Ad te levavi oculos meos and Domine, quis habitabit III ) or imitative mixed with chordal (Miserere mei, Deus). The latter naturally afforded the closest relationship between text and music, and may be seen used to great expressive effect in the 5-part Lamentations. It is tempting to wonder whether Miserere mei, Deus, another text specified for Holy Week, was intended to be sung alongside these Lamentations. Like them, it sometimes makes use of block chords where one voice leads the others, which makes the words more clearly audible; in a text of this length and complexity that must have been important. The variety of sonority and vocal scoring that a five or six-part ensemble afforded was another element that White clearly valued, displaying a particular fondness for pairs of equal-range voices which naturally leant themselves to the exchange of musical phrases and imitation at the same pitch. Domine, quis habitabit is scored for three such pairs of voices, while both Exaudiat te and Manus tuae include sections scored in this way, with one or more voice-parts divided to achieve it. These ‘gimell’ sections contain some of the most memorable music, and in Exaudiat te lead into a particularly exciting and extended Amen.

White was one of a number of English composers to set texts from the Lamentations, which formed part of the Holy Week liturgies of the Catholic church. What their intended destination was in Elizabethan England is not known, but the composers—Parsley, Byrd, Tallis and Alfonso Ferrabosco as well as White—may have been attracted to these melancholy texts not only for their potential to elicit an expressive musical response but also, if they had Catholic sympathies, for the metaphorical significance they took on in their own times, when the sufferings of ‘Jerusalem’ were associated with those of ‘Rome’, the Catholic church. 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 five-part is the more forward-looking of the two, making use of bold harmonic shifts in its pursuit of expression. The six-part, in contrast, has trios and quartets that stand out against the full six-voice sonority. As was the convention, the Hebrew letters that preface each verse provided a context for the composer to show his skill in writing abstract music, their contrapuntal decoration perhaps comparable to that practised by medieval scribes illuminating initial capitals. The sombre verses of the Lamentations conclude with the traditional exhortation ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’.

Non ita moesta sonant plangentis verba prophetae
Quam sonat authoris musica moesta mei.
Not even the words of the gloomy prophet
sound so sad as the sad music of my composer.

as Robert Dow wrote of the Lamentations a5.

Sally Dunkley © 2009

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