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In chains of gold - The English pre-Restoration verse anthem, Vol. 2

William Byrd to Edmund Hooper: Psalms and Royal Anthems
Magdalena Consort, Fretwork Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: January 2019
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: June 2020
Total duration: 70 minutes 26 seconds

Cover artwork: Allegory of Eloquence (c1503). after Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

More sublime music-making from the finest singers and instrumentalists, and a recording made all the more valuable for the number of rarities included in the programme, from Psalm-settings by William Byrd to works by Edmund Hooper, John Mundy, Benjamin Cosyn, John Bull and Thomas Morley.

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'… to return to the expressing of the ditty, the matter is now come to that state that though a song be never so well made and never so aptly applied to the words yet shall you hardly find singers to express it as it ought to be, for most of our churchmen, so they can cry louder in their choir than their fellows, care for no more, whereas by the contrary they ought to study how to vowel and sing clean, expressing their words with devotion and passion whereby to draw the hearer, as it were, in chains of gold by the ears to the consideration of holy things.'
(Thomas Morley ‘Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practical Musick’, 1597)

Byrd, his younger contemporaries, and the roots of Versus and Chorus
More than any composer before him, William Byrd catered prolifically to a wide variety of musicians. Connoisseurs of Latin motets at home and abroad, troupes of boy actors with their viols and their unbroken voices, solo keyboard players, the choirs of the established English church, and the underground ensembles of Catholic households where mass was celebrated in secret—performers of all these kinds could look to Byrd for quantities, in some cases vast, of music of the highest excellence.

The three items that open the present collection belong to the intimate domestic sphere of private devotion. Each is a setting of the opening verses of one of the Seven Penitential Psalms, a selection from the psalter that had become well known to the faithful by its inclusion in the ‘primers’ or personal prayer manuals that were hugely popular during the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary I. Even in primers printed during Elizabeth’s reign, which inevitably assimilated the reforms of the Book of Common Prayer, the seven psalms lingered on, a whiff—maybe not so innocuous—of old Popery in a newly Protestant world.

Byrd’s attraction to these texts seems natural, not only because of his well known truculent Catholicism, but also because—as a royal patentee with exclusive rights to the importation of printed music—he was as likely as anyone in England to have been cognisant of the great Orlandus Lassus’ settings of the seven psalms, published at Munich in 1584. Metrical paraphrases of the same psalms, set for three voices, form the first seven items of Byrd’s own Songs of sundrie natures printed in 1589. Given the composer’s track record of seeing large-scale projects through to completion, it is quite probable that the three present Penitential Psalms belonged originally to a cycle of all seven, each (as with Lassus’ settings) in a different mode.

Hard it may be to accept that four such psalms by Byrd have been lost, yet Hear my prayer, O Lord (track 1) and O Lord, rebuke me not (2) both owe their survival to having been adapted for use in church (with organ accompaniment), while the viol parts of Have mercy upon me, O God (3) are extant only because the composer printed them in his Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets of 1611. It is therefore likely that these psalms date from late in Byrd’s career, when the attention of music copyists was shifting from Tudor contrapuntal rigour to the more instant melodic appeal of music like John Mundy’s home-entertainment psalm Sing joyfully (16).

Byrd’s three psalm settings are all cast in a form, almost completely unknown elsewhere in the music of the period, in which all the words—and to a great extent the melody, harmony and cadences—of each solo passage are directly repeated by the chorus. This contrasts markedly with the form of liturgical psalms (such as Byrd’s own Teach me, O Lord (5) and Thomas Morley’s Out of the deep (13)), where successive verses are alternated between soloist and chorus, and that of courtly metrical psalms (such as I will give laud (7)), where the chorus repeats merely the last few words of each solo strophe.

It is true that Byrd’s method of block repetition has a certain parallel in the once widespread practice of ‘lining out’, whereby each line of a metrical psalm was read by the parish clerk and echoed parrot-fashion by the congregation. Yet such mechanicalness can hardly have been further from Byrd’s thoughts as he imagined how, despite the constraints of homogenous texts and an unvarying musical form, each of his psalm-settings could in its own contrasting way evoke the single affect of sorrow for sin.

The more public facets of Byrd’s oeuvre are represented by further settings of English vernacular texts. Teach me, O Lord is one of several liturgical psalms composed probably for the choir of Lincoln Cathedral during the time Byrd directed it in the 1560s. Christ rising (6) can be dated to the early 1580s, and was presumably intended for the pious entertainment of Elizabeth’s court at Eastertide just as John Bull’s Almighty God, which by the leading of a star (9) was intended for Epiphany; both pieces went on to enjoy wide circulation in chapels and cathedrals with their accompaniments adapted for organ. The sprightly I will give laud, though not a dance per se, serves as a reminder that English metrical psalms sprang from the courtly milieu of the galliard.

There are quite clear indications that Byrd’s Look and bow down (8) and John Bull’s Deliver me, O God (11) are settings of words written by none other than Queen Elizabeth I during the highly charged months of the 1588 Armada crisis. Her ministers were anxious that the narrow escape from invasion by Counter-Reformation forces would be perceived as divine providence: accordingly on 24 November the Queen entered the City of London in state, for the first time since her accession thirty years and one week previously, to offer thanks at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Both poems may have appeared in print within weeks of the thanksgiving, for they are included (with attributions to Elizabeth) in a 17th-century reissue of The Countrie Mans Comfort, an anthology originally licensed for publication on 16 December 1588. Since not one copy printed at the time of licensing survives, and the title page of the reissue describes the contents as ‘enlarged’, it is not certain that the royal poems formed part of the 1588 collection. Yet an assertion by the editor (one ‘I. R.’) that Look and bow down was ‘performed at Sainte Pauls crosse in London’ is corroborated and amplified by an independent source. A manuscript of the same poem—once owned by the distinguished legal historian Sir Henry Spelman (1563/4-1641), and now held at the National Maritime Museum (ref. SNG/4)—is headed, in the hand of the original scribe, ‘A songe made by her ma[jes]tie and songe before her at her cominge from white hall to Powles throughe fleetestre[et] Anno D[omi]ni 1588’. Elements of the poem appear intimately connected with the solemnities of 24 November. The ‘sacrifice’ of the royal sceptre mentioned at the end of the first stanza can be linked to the Queen’s arrival at Temple Bar, the reigning monarch’s historic point of entrance to the city. There, following ancient custom, Elizabeth temporarily surrendered her sceptre to the Lord Mayor in exchange for a sword of the corporation which was borne before her in the ensuing procession. On reaching the west door of St Paul’s, she was greeted by clergy decked in obsolete copes salvaged from the Chapel Royal. Thus the poem’s references to priests, incense and sacrifice are more than merely figurative.

Indeed, those references, like the procession itself, inalienably connoted the traditions of England’s Catholic past, and can hardly have been calculated to appeal to the Calvinist wing of the new religious establishment. Might therefore the poem even have been addressed to that precarious constituency of the Queen’s subjects who accorded her unyielding loyalty in matters temporal, but in matters spiritual were unyieldingly loyal to the Pope? For such Catholics, of whom Byrd was one, the threat of a papally backed invasion had been not only a national crisis but also a deeply personal one.

Though music was played and pageants were performed throughout the Fleet Street procession, modern scholars concur that a performance of Byrd’s setting of Look and bow down would most likely have taken place in St Paul’s churchyard following the cathedral service and a sermon delivered by the Bishop of Salisbury from the famous outdoor pulpit known as ‘Powles Crosse’. From remarks in two contemporary ballads, it seems there was then singing by the cathedral choristers. The customary indoor accompaniment of viol quartet would necessarily have been substituted with a wind ensemble, then as now the preferred medium of open-air music making.

Scholars are less than unanimous in accepting the attribution to Elizabeth of the words of Deliver me, O God. Though there is no evidence that it was performed during the state thanksgiving, Bull’s setting may well be contemporaneous, the composer having become a gentleman of the royal household chapel choir in 1586. The earliest known source of its text—a pamphlet published in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot by John Rhodes (not necessarily the ‘I. R.’ of The Countrie Mans Comfort)—describes it as ‘An Antheme often Sung in the Royall Chappel of our late Queene Elizabeth in any time of danger: Made in Anno. Dom. 1588’.

Whereas Look and bow down is a consort song for chorister voices lavishly accompanied by four instruments, Deliver me, O God is a church anthem in which paired contratenor voices are bordered by the two widely separated strands of an organ part. Despite these differences of texture, the composers of both works employed vocal duets, Byrd in his third stanza by bringing together the soloists from his first and second stanzas, and Bull persistently in alternation with passages for full chorus.

At first glance these duets seem hardly to be warranted by the poetry itself, which is expressed in the first person singular. They may not be unconnected, however, with the Tudor doctrine of ‘the king’s two bodies’, an arcane yet unanswerable legal fiction devised to settle questions surrounding the ownership and testation of non-crown property by the monarch. The same doctrine also represented a sort of resolution to the conflicting loyalties of Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects, allowing them to profess unflinching allegiance to her imperishable ‘body politic’ whilst disregarding the Protestantism of her legally distinct ‘body natural’.

Instrumental accompaniments for the solo passages of two of Byrd’s penitential psalms have been reconstructed from arrangements found in two contemporary organ books. Och MS Mus. 6 adumbrates three of the four viol parts for Hear my prayer, O Lord, while NYp MS Drexel 5469 supplies the instrumental bass only for O Lord, rebuke me not. The voice parts of both anthems are transmitted in John Barnard’s First Book of Selected Church Musick of 1641, and those of Hear my prayer, O Lord also in some two dozen pre-Restoration manuscripts.

Och MS Mus. 6 is also the sole source to transmit an organ part for Byrd’s Teach me, O Lord, but its texture is neither consistent nor idiomatic. The right-hand part of the accompaniment to the solo passages has therefore been re-imagined in the style of better preserved verse compositions by William Mundy, Richard Farrant, Byrd and Morley.

Byrd’s I will give laud and Look and bow down have been reconstructed from the Spanish tablature of Edward Paston’s lute-book Lbl Add. MS 31992. The treble viol part of the former, and the uppermost voice part of vv. 2 and 3 of the latter, are absent from the tablature, having been notated in a companion manuscript which—like the original instrumental parts for both pieces—has long since disappeared.

Andrew Johnstone © 2020

The Orlando Gibbons Project
The project was launched in 2016 with the aim of making a first complete recording of the consort anthems of Orlando Gibbons, as Volume 1 of a series ‘In chains of gold’, to be devoted to the wider field of pre-Restoration verse anthem repertoire. It was released in 2017 (SIGCD511) to critical acclaim, including the accolade ‘Gramophone Critics’ Choice 2017’. In this second volume, exploring early examples of music in ‘verse style’, we continue the practice established in the first, performing in the original keys at A=466Hz, this being a close practical approximation to the level established by recent research into English choir and organ pitch of the period (see Andrew Johnstone, 'As it was in the beginning’: organ and choir pitch in early Anglican church music’, Early Music xxxi/4, November 2003). As we found on the Gibbons recording, the vocal ranges of the music make a perfect fit at this pitch with historical voice types, such as ‘contratenors’ (high, light tenors rather than falsettist altos) and this results in an intense clarity in the middle of the vocal texture. We also use the same consort of smaller-scale English viols, specially restrung for A=466Hz, whose translucent sonority seems to us well suited to this repertoire (but note that one anthem, Hearken ye nations, seems clearly intended for a lower ‘secular’ pitch, and for this we use the richer and darker sonority of a correspondingly larger consort of viols at A=392Hz—on varying pitch standards in consort anthems, see William Hunt, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, PhD thesis forthcoming). To these we have added the strikingly characterful sound of a reconstructed ‘Tudor organ’, which can be heard in a number of the anthems and in solo pieces by William Byrd, John Bull and Benjamin Cosyn. In contrast to the gentle, flute sonorities usually heard today in this repertoire on anachronistic instruments, the more pungent quality of its metal principal pipes, combined with the comparatively sparse texture of the original organ parts (shorn of their usual editorial filling) produce distinct solo voices in their own right. They converse on equal terms with the solo singers in verse sections (as well as supporting with a 10-foot stop the bassline of chorus sections at the lower octave) and seem to encourage a bolder, more rhetorical approach to the music. In the two large occasional pieces (William Byrd Look and bow down and Edmund Hooper O God of gods), cornetts and sackbuts are added (too seldom heard today in English early 17th-century choral music, but clearly documented as frequent participants in both cathedral and court performance—see Helen Roberts, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, PhD thesis 2019) and, towards the end of the final track, a tenor dulcian. Such a variety of vivid colours may still surprise those for whom the broad term ‘Tudor church music’ evokes polite understatement, but the evidence for it is there in contemporary illustrations, such as the decorative carvings on a door-post of the Charterhouse Chapel, and recorded in witness accounts. It is part of an English Baroque that remains largely unknown.

Hooper and the ‘occasional’ anthem
The name of Edmund Hooper is relatively unfamiliar today, yet it is clear that in his own time he was highly regarded. Born in Devon, he rose through the world of sacred choral music to become Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey in 1588 and was later appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, where he and Orlando Gibbons worked together as joint organists until their deaths in 1621 and 1625 respectively.

His two works performed here display the dramatic flair appropriate to a major state occasion, though in very different styles. O God of gods, written for the ‘King’s Day’ (being the anniversary of succession of James I) is on a grand scale. Three verses, adapting lines by Sir George Buc, Master of the Revels, blend prayer and psalm with epideictic rhetoric, subtly laced with propaganda, to celebrate James’ divine right to the throne vacated by Elizabeth and his project to unify the crowns of England and Scotland. That very act of union is symbolised by Hooper in an impressive coup de théâtre, whereby the final chorus at first divides into a lengthy passage of full antiphony, worthy of St Mark’s Venice and far exceeding in scope anything comparable in English choral writing of the period, and then reunites for a magnificent ‘Alleluia, Amen’. The sources in which the work survives point to later adaptation for church use, but our performance seeks to recreate one of the possible ways in which it might have received its first airing, perhaps at court.

Hearken, ye nations could hardly present more stark a contrast. Little more than two years after James’ accession, Hooper was called upon to mark the outrage of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He produced music of raw intensity, which defies comparison with anything in the verse anthem repertoire of the period. Indeed, modern critics have found difficulty in assessing his style, and its ability to combine dense counterpoint with powerful oratory. Major and minor harmonies are hurled into dissonant collision in cadences that border occasionally on musical hysteria, to express both the horror and the relief of carnage narrowly avoided. Its performance, probably in the Chapel Royal before the full court on the first anniversary of the event, the newly commemorated ‘Gunpowder Treason Day’, may well have been heard alongside one of the most celebrated sermons of James’ favourite preacher, Lancelot Andrewes, of which it contains striking echoes. Hooper takes forward that fusion of the learned and the theatrical that underlies the verse anthem form, one to which Gibbons was to give unparalleled poetic flowering, and which Hooper invests with an extravagance that is no less ‘baroque’.

William Hunt © 2020

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