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A second voyage through the miracle that is the Baldwin Partbooks draws from the singers of Contrapunctus and their director Owen Rees performances of rare integrity—and great beauty.
For example, the prayer Mater Christi set by John Taverner during the reign of Henry VIII opens with a plea to Mary as the ‘most holy mother of Christ’ to ‘move your son to kindness’, so that the singers of the prayer and those listening may dare to pray to her Son directly in the second part of the motet. Taverner enhances the rhetorical impact of the prayer through repetition: typically, the upper two voices first sing a phrase of text (such as, near the opening, ‘virgo sacrata Maria’), and then the three lower voices repeat the same music in an enriched form. Alongside these antiphonal passages Taverner deploys a panoply of textures, ranging from chordal declamation to rich five-voice counterpoint, used climactically to end sections of the motet and most gloriously of all at the concluding ‘amen’, where those who know the familiar version of the motet will notice that Baldwin copied a strikingly decorated final cadence. Among the chordal exclamations in the piece are the invocations of Jesus by name, marked—as was typical during the period—by sustained chords, a musical equivalent of genuflexion.
A particularly imposing example of such a vocal acclamation is heard at the words ‘ave Jesu’ in Robert Fayrfax’s Ave Dei Patris filia, where its appearance is highlighted by an unanticipated shift in harmony. This monumental votive antiphon to Mary represents an even older musical world than does Taverner’s motet, the world of grandiose polyphony most famously represented by the repertory of the Eton Choirbook copied at the opening of the sixteenth century. In such English works divisions between sections of text are usually marked by a change to a new combination of singers. These sections each defined by their particular vocal scoring are on a much larger scale that the antiphonal contrasts in Taverner’s Mater Christi. Thus Fayrfax sets the first of the eight stanzas for the highest three voices, and the next to the lowest three, while for the third he marks the entrance of the full ensemble with another of the chordal ‘bows’ at ‘ave’. But despite its use of this long-established English method of constructing the piece by means of scoringsections, Fayrfax’s writing also anticipates the more direct communication of text heard in Taverner’s Mater Christi: floridity of the kind found in many Eton-Choirbook works has been stripped away much of the time, so that the text is declaimed with simple lucidity by each voice. The most unadorned writing achieves a crystalline and poignant quality, as in the extended duet between soprano and tenor for the ‘Ave plena gratia’ stanza in the second half of the motet, although the music takes flight into soaring melisma as the penultimate syllable of the stanza is sung. Fayrfax’s relatively austere treatment of much of the text contrasts with the floridity of the text itself, heard for example in the extraordinary succession of superlative adjectives (‘nobilissima’, ‘dignissima’, etc) ending every line of the first three stanzas, a construction which Fayrfax emphasises by suspending the musical flow at many of these line-endings. In the first five stanzas the author of the text found manifold ways to impart the same message: Mary’s fourfold status as daughter of God the Father, mother of God the Son, bride of God the Holy Spirit, and handmaid of the Trinity. The praise of Mary as bride links this text with the Song of Songs, that great love-poem of the Old Testament, Christian interpretations of which frequently identified the female beloved therein as Mary.
The Song of Songs is the source for the text of Robert White’s Tota pulchra es. White was a chorister at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the mid 1550s, and went on to hold a succession of positions as Master of the Choristers, at Ely Cathedral, Chester Cathedral, and finally at Westminster Abbey until his death in 1574. Although his composing career thus extended across the first part of Elizabeth’s reign, it is likely that some at least of his Latin-texted works were written during the reign of Elizabeth’s elder sister, Mary. Tota pulchra es is one of four pieces on this disc which represent the strong English tradition of composing richly-textured polyphony around a plainchant cantus firmus moving steadily in semibreves, and thus lending the music a majestic sense of perpetual flow. With this unvarying cantus-firmus ‘tread’ and the more active counterpoint in the free voices as the norm, moments of relative stasis and calm in White’s piece achieve a special quality, as at the tranquil setting of ‘imber abiit’ (‘the rain is over’), and the beginning of the final invitation to the beloved, ‘Veni de Libano, veni coronaberis’ (‘come from Lebanon; come, and you will be crowned’).
This technique of cantus-firmus writing is employed also in White’s setting of another Marian antiphon, Regina caeli laetare, included on this disc. This ebullient Eastertide text calls on Mary ‘Queen of heaven’ to rejoice at the resurrection of the Son she bore, the celebratory message marked textually by the recurrent ‘alleluias’ and musically by the joyful chiming dialogues between the two equal upper voices. The acclamation of Mary as Queen of heaven at the opening of the text is at odds with the official attitudes of the Elizabethan church, in which the great feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—celebrating Mary’s bodily ascension into heaven—had been removed from the Calendar. Either, then, White’s Regina caeli is an early-career piece dating from the reign of Mary or—if composed under Elizabeth—it would not have received liturgical performance, as the Marian antiphon during the Easter season.
The other two cantus-firmus works on the disc—Tallis’s Videte miraculum and Sheppard’s Verbum caro—are among the greatest masterpieces of this English genre. Tallis’s extraordinarily long career extended from the 1520s until 1585 and so encompassed the entire period of religious change in England from the reign of Henry VIII to that of Elizabeth. Videte miraculum, which might date either from Henry’s reign or Mary’s, ranks as one of the greatest expressive works of Tudor music. Its text—for the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary—celebrates the miracle and mystery of the virgin birth, and Tallis’s music evokes both mystery and wonder, highlighting the opening repeated declamation of the word ‘miraculum’ by placing a dissonance on its stressed syllable each time. The music reaches a passionate climax as the free voices ecstatically repeat the name of Mary at the end of the second section of polyphony. In the polyphonic responsory genre to which this piece belongs the polyphony falls into three sections, which are initially sung without a break. After the plainchant verse, the second and third sections only are repeated, and after the plainchant Gloria the third section is heard for a final time. Sheppard’s Verbum caro has the same form, but the affect of the piece contrasts with that of Videte miraculum: this is an exultant setting of the famous account of the Incarnation from the beginning of St John’s Gospel, and would have been sung at Matins on Christmas Day. Counteracting the duple metre maintained by the chant, Sheppard sets up triple rhythms in the free voices to achieve ‘natural’ declamation of such phrases as ‘cuius gloriam’, ‘quasi unigeniti’, and ‘plenum gratiae’. Sheppard was a colleague of Tallis’s in Queen Mary’s Chapel Royal, and had previously served as Informator choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford.
Standing at the pinnacle of the great Marian motets of the Tudor period is Tallis’s Gaude gloriosa Dei mater. Its text consists of a series of nine acclamations to the Virgin, each beginning with the word ‘gaude’ (as each of the seven acclamations of the Ave Dei Patris filia text begins with ‘Ave’). The opening verses salute Mary as mother of God and as heavenly queen, enthroned above the angels. As was common in such Marian texts, the latter part of the text focuses on Mary’s role as merciful mediator on behalf of wretched sinners and the condemned. Tallis’s handling of this monumental textual edifice is full of drama and contrast, achieved through manipulation of scoring, pacing, and harmony. In accordance with the traditional English practice heard also in Fayrfax’s Ave Dei Patris filia, the piece begins with modest forces, two differently scored trios (each setting one of the nine verses of the text), but the second of these suddenly expands into six-voice writing to reflect the word ‘omnia’ (‘all things’) at the end of the second verse of text, and the full six-voice writing continues for the next two verses. For the ‘Gaude Virgo Maria’ verse Tallis employs that most distinctive of English polyphonic techniques, gimell, dividing each of the upper two parts to create a texture of four interweaving high voices which are then joined by the bass. The next verse, for three middle voices, is among the most harmonically colourful and expressive passages of the motet, with striking chromaticism used to highlight Mary’s ascension in both body and soul, and plaintive writing for the concluding supplication to her as mediator on our behalf, ‘most wretched sinners’. This verse ends with a melismatic climax leading straight into the next dramatic ‘Gaude’ salutation, for all six voices. The penultimate verse considers ‘the eternal sufferings of hell’, evoked by Tallis with another gimell, this time involving divided basses. From this vision of the infernal realm the last verse—again for the full forces—moves to our hope of attaining heavenly bliss with Mary’s aid, and Tallis generates thrilling crowning points at ‘adesse regnum caelorum’ and—through an uplifting brightening of the harmony—in the closing moments of the ‘Amen’.
Where we rely on the Baldwin partbooks as our sole surviving source for a piece, the tenor part has to be restored editorially, since unfortunately the tenor book is missing from the set. This situation applies to the setting of the Latin canticles Magnificat and Nunc dimittis by Tallis, of which the latter was included on our previous recording of works from the partbooks, and the Magnificat features on the current disc, with a fresh reconstruction of the tenor part by myself. The Magnificat was (and is) among the most frequently sung Marian text in the liturgy, forming the canticle at Vespers and the first canticle at Anglican Evensong. The text originates in St Luke’s Gospel, as the words spoken by Mary during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, when the infant John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth acclaims Mary in the words incorporated in the Ave Maria: ‘blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. Tallis’s setting of the Magnificat is a very fine but rather curious one. When composers of this period wrote in imitative style, they chose or devised one motive for each phrase of the text they were setting. However, Tallis lavishes a superabundance of material onto the verses of the Magnificat which are set in polyphony (the other verses are left in plainchant), so that many phrases of the text are set twice over, with a different motive or texture each time. Indeed, the piece gives the impression of a ‘show-case’ of common imitative formulae. But despite these oddities it is a setting of great energy, drama, and power.
Owen Rees © 2016