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The Sweetest Songs

Music from the Baldwin Partbooks III
Contrapunctus, Owen Rees (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: April 2016
The Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: February 2021
Total duration: 67 minutes 17 seconds

Writing in 1539, the Dean of the Tudor court's Chapel Royal noted how the Book of Psalms represented a distillation of 'the sweetest songs', touching upon the themes of all the other books of scripture. English composers of the period revelled in the opulence of these texts and here we have eleven of the finest polyphonic settings.

The richest single source of Tudor polyphony, preserving almost 170 works many of which survive nowhere else, is a set of manuscript partbooks copied between about 1575 and 1581 by John Baldwin, a lay clerk at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. This album is the third and final instalment in a series of recordings by Contrapunctus exploring contrasting aspects of this remarkable treasure house of sacred music covering much of the sixteenth century. Without Baldwin’s efforts our knowledge of the history of the motet in England would be much the poorer, and on this third recording we open a window on a striking aspect of that history: the penchant for setting Latin Psalms as motets (the so-called ‘Psalm-motet’). The principal English composers born between the 1510s and the 1530s all contributed to this genre of motet, but to a significant extent this fascinating repertory has lain in comparative obscurity and remains unfamiliar to modern audiences. More than half of the works on this album do not appear to have been recorded before now, including such glorious motets as White’s Domine, non est exaltatum, William Mundy’s Memor esto verbi tui, and Sheppard’s Confitebor tibi Domine. Because the Tenor partbook has been lost from Baldwin’s set, those works that survive only in that collection require some reconstruction before they can be performed. New editions of most of the works on this album were prepared specially for the project, and in five of these (tracks 3, 4, 6, 8, and 10) the missing Tenor part has been reconstructed by Owen Rees, while the tenor of Mundy’s Memor esto verbi tui (track 7) is adapted from that by Jason Smart.

The preoccupation with the Psalm-motet over the middle part of the sixteenth century was a distinctively English phenomenon, when compared with the output of Continental composers. Why was this? The great advantage of Psalm texts amid the religious vicissitudes which England experienced during these decades was that they were equally acceptable to Catholics and evangelical reformers (although many reformers objected to the use of Latin in services). However, contrary to the common view over the last half century, it may well be that many of these works originated not in the Protestant England of Queen Elizabeth I (by which time such pieces would have had no specific liturgical function), but during the preceding reign (1553-1558) of her Catholic sister Mary, or that of Mary’s and Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII, when the Psalm-motet may indeed in many cases have been a liturgical item. During these periods when Catholic rituals were in force in England, the tradition seems to have arisen there of providing polyphonic settings of psalms for particular liturgical slots. One such was Matins (or Tenebrae) of Holy Saturday, which includes the Psalm Domine, quis habitabit? of which we have numerous settings by English composers: there are no fewer than five in the Baldwin partbooks, including three by Robert White alone. Other Psalm-motets seem likely to have fulfilled ritual functions equivalent to those traditionally occupied by polyphonic Marian antiphons in the evening sung devotions which were ubiquitous in pre-Reformation choral establishments: in the case of the Psalm-motets, these devotions (or ‘memorials’) were to the Holy Cross or the Trinity (for example), rather than to Mary. As such liturgical and ritual ‘homes’ for the Psalm-motet disappeared during Elizabeth’s reign, the Psalm-motet continued to be cultivated by English composers who were familiar with these musical traditions (and with the continued prominence of some of the relevant Psalm texts in Books of Hours, which were major sources for Latin and English texts to set as motets and anthems) but who were too young to have written some or all of their Psalm-motets during Mary’s reign. Unsurprisingly, many Psalm-motets, including those which must be Elizabethan in date, retain the ‘fingerprints’—in terms of scoring, textures, structure, and style—which had characterized English polyphony for decades previously: the Psalm-motet was thus a vehicle for continuity within English musical culture as well as for innovation, particularly in terms of expressive response to text. The Psalm texts offer, indeed, rich opportunity for such response, given their special nature within the Old Testament as personal and impassioned addresses to God. As St Athanasius put it, ‘it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.’ Referring to Athanasius in his commentary on the first fifty Psalms published in 1539, Richard Sampson (Dean of the English Chapel Royal under Henry VIII) praised them as a ‘garden of delights’, a cornucopia of ‘the sweetest songs’ which touched upon the themes of all the other books of scripture.

The distinctive English traditions of polyphonic composition are vividly apparent in the first piece on the recording, Robert White’s Domine, non est exaltatum. As is typical, we do not know when White was born, and there is hence uncertainty about how much of his output dates from Mary’s reign rather than Elizabeth’s. We catch sight of him as a singer of junior rank at Trinity College Cambridge in the mid 1550s, during Mary’s reign, but there is disagreement about whether he was a boy chorister (i.e. young enough to be singing with unbroken voice) at this point, and some of his works—such as the Marian Tota pulchra es and Regina caeli included on the previous album within this series—were surely written at Trinity College during Mary’s reign. Judging by its style, Domine, non est exaltatum surely dates from the same period, rather than from Elizabeth’s reign. The essential sound-world of the piece is one that had been established by English composers over the previous century: grand sonorities encompassing an overall range of three octaves, with the distinctive English treble as the highest voice; division of the piece into two halves, the first in triple time and the second in duple; articulation of the work by alternating sections for a reduced number of solo voices and fully-scored passages, the entrances of which are often dramatic, as at ‘speret Israel in Domino’ (‘Let Israel hope in the Lord’) in the second half of White’s piece; passages of ‘gimell’ writing, in which some of the voice parts—here the bass—are further subdivided to produce thickly woven textures of echoing voices; and notably florid and energetic melodic writing. Since Psalm-motets such as this one were not written to be used as the normal psalmody of such Office services as Vespers, they do not end with settings of the doxology (the ‘Gloria’), but instead many of them—including Domine, non est exaltatum—culminate in monumental and climactic settings of ‘Amen’, as did many of the great Marian antiphon settings by Tudor composers. Of the motets on this recording, other magnificent examples conclude White’s Portio mea, William Mundy’s Memor esto verbi tui, and In te Domine speravi by his son John Mundy.

John Mundy is much the youngest composer represented on the recording, and his In te Domine speravi demonstrates the remarkable longevity of aspects of the English tradition of Psalm-motet writing just described. He was organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, from about 1580 and so he and Baldwin were colleagues; it is therefore not surprising that most of his surviving Latin-texted works are preserved in the Baldwin partbooks. The text of Mundy’s In te Domine is not—as was conventional within the Psalm-motet genre in England—a complete Psalm or a complete section of the long Psalm 118, but is a compilation of single verses from three different Psalms. However, in musical terms many of the same stylistic characteristics—such as elaborate melodic and rhythmic filigree—and architectural conventions are there as in the Psalm-motets of his father and others of that older generation such as White. For example, the hugely extended and mesmerising gimell section, beginning ‘Vide humilitatem meam’, is scored for the same voice-parts (divided means, contratenors, and basses) as in William Mundy’s Memor esto verbi tui. Although the striking short-note declamation at ‘non erubescam quoniam speravi’ in the gimell of the younger composer’s piece goes further than such declamatory moments in William’s motet, the rhythmically lively declamation of ‘peregrationis’ in Memor esto likewise occurs during the gimell. As had his English predecessors writing in this style for many decades, John Mundy exploits tellingly the potential for dramatic alternation of soloists’ and fully scored sections, adding force to the plea ‘Exaudi Domine vocem meam’ (‘O Lord, hear my voice’) in the first part of the piece, as had his father at the equivalent point in Memor esto, positioning this first appearance of the full forces at a significant shift in the text’s affect (‘The proud acted iniquitously altogether’). By way of contrast, after the dense contrapuntal play of the gimell section in the second part of John Mundy’s work a sudden turn to simple chordal declamation marks touchingly the well known prayer from the service of Compline, ‘In manus tuas Domine commendo spiritum meum’, ‘Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit’.

William Mundy’s Memor esto may form a pair with the last example on this recording of the grand Psalm-motet using traditional English construction and style: Portio mea by White. This pairing is suggested by the fact that the texts of the two works are successive sections of the monumental Psalm 118. The motets open with trios for the same three voice-parts, and the endings of their first sections—the insistent repetitions of ‘et consiliatus sum’ in Mundy’s piece and the threefold declamation of ‘non sum oblitus’ in White’s—may be echoes of one another: this may have been prompted by a textual parallel, White’s text here being ‘I do not forget your law’ and Mundy’s ‘I remembered, O Lord, your judgements of old …’. White and Mundy certainly knew one another: Mundy was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal during White’s years as Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, from 1569 or 1570 until his death of the plague in 1574. White’s motet again shows how long-established English compositional habits were repurposed by this generation of Psalm-motet composers to serve the potent expression of the impassioned psalm texts they were setting. A telling example is the beginning of the second part of Portio mea, which draws upon the decades-old English custom of starting a new section with a duet and then introducing a third voice ‘late’ when the second phrase of text is reached. White here deploys this device to make vivid the Psalm’s image ‘in the middle of the night [or ‘at midnight’] I shall arise to give thanks’. The ‘nocturnal’ bleakness and sobriety of the tenor and bass duet opening, with stark octaves between the voices, is dispelled by the sudden intrusion of the high treble for ‘I shall arise to give thanks’.

The Baldwin Partbooks are our main source for the music of John Sheppard, containing more items by Sheppard than by any other composer, and indeed Baldwin marked his high estimation of the composer by giving him pride of place, opening the books with a group of his motets. This group comprises Psalm-motets except for one work with an unusual and intriguing text, Confitebor tibi Domine. This text is based upon a passage from the Book of Isaiah, but this has been substantially altered in ways that would have made it particularly appropriate to the first year or so of Mary Tudor’s reign, from August 1553, while she was working to restore Catholicism as the country’s official faith, but before the official reconciliation with the Church of Rome and absolution of the nation in late 1554. In Isaiah’s text the Lord’s anger has already been turned away and the speaker has been comforted, whereas in Sheppard’s version the divine forgiveness is yet to be achieved: ‘let your anger be turned away and you will comfort me’. The new text inserts references to the joy brought by the return to and spreading of (true Catholic) ‘doctrine’, and concludes with the exultation of ‘the blessed church of Christ’. Sheppard chose a style for his motet which is far from the slowly unfolding grandeur of the Psalm-motets by William Mundy and Robert White on this recording, and which foregrounds the dramatic delivery of text, presenting it compactly with clear-cut divisions into short musical paragraphs, using abundant chordal declamation and antiphonal exchanges between high and lower voices.

Robert Parsons’s Domine, quis habitabit? stands still further away from the traditional English manner of building great polyphonic edifices from the alternation of extended solo-voice and fully scored portions, although antiphony between high and low voice-groupings is once again prominent: here the basic sound-world evokes that of the contemporary Continental motet, busy with the play of imitation between the six voice parts which produces an effect of effervescent energy. This lively imitative style, using the lingua franca of contemporary Continental polyphony, is heard also in the unattributed and very fine Confitebor tibi Domine copied by Baldwin and in the motet with the same title by William Daman, both of which are recorded here for the first time. Daman was brought from his native Italy in the 1560s to serve in the group of household musicians maintained by Thomas Sackville, and in 1579 he became one of Queen Elizabeth’s musicians. An arresting harmonic swerve in his Confitebor tibi Domine shining a spotlight on the phrase ‘you have delivered my soul from hell’ is worthy of Lassus. In the anonymous Confitebor tibi Domine the entire final section is repeated to reflect the text ‘his justice endures from age to age’, a conceit common in both English and Continental works, but the effect here is notably dynamic: the climactic ascent through successive entries of ‘manet in sæculum’ is extended the second time around so that the top voice peaks on the highest note in its range as the piece’s final gesture.

Such works—and indeed the contents of the Baldwin Partbooks more generally—highlight how extraordinarily eclectic was the motet (including Psalm settings such as these) in Elizabethan England and at Elizabeth’s court. This eclecticism is encapsulated in the work of the greatest English motet composer of the age, William Byrd, whose output is (after Sheppard’s) the most richly represented in Baldwin’s manuscript. In the early 1570s Byrd took up the place in Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal which had been occupied by Robert Parsons until his death, and he was thus a colleague of Baldwin’s in that choir. The first group of works by Byrd in the Baldwin Partbooks includes two pieces recorded here—Peccavi super numerum and Ne perdas cum impiis—which Byrd never published. Ne perdas is either an early piece or a deliberately archaic one: although taken mainly from Psalms 25 and 139, the text is a liturgical item (a Responsory for Passion Sunday), an element of the rituals swept away in Elizabeth’s reign. Byrd maintains the English tradition of setting such items by laying out the plainchant as a cantus firmus in semibreves: here the chant is hidden from the listener in the outer sections of the piece by being placed in a lower voice, but surfaces in the topmost voice for the verse (the middle section). Peccavi super numerum is a fine early example of Byrd’s mastery of setting penitential texts in a deeply affective manner, the text in this case being partly from the Prayer of Manasseh, an apocryphal ode appended to the Book of Psalms. But it is markedly surpassed in expressive power by another of the Byrd motets in Baldwin’s anthology and one of his greatest masterpieces: Tristitia et anxietas. Here we see Byrd’s powers as a musical orator at their most potent and compelling. The emotive power is intensified by the expansiveness of the canvas on which each element of the text is depicted, such as the doleful and mesmerically repetitive intoning of the opening word ‘tristitia’, the steadily mounting anguish of the successive statements of ‘in dolore’, the urgently paced cries of ‘consolare’, and the concluding pleas of ‘miserere mei’.

Contrapunctus’s project which ends with this recording has cast a spotlight on three contrasting aspects of the vast collection of polyphony bequeathed by John Baldwin: works concerned with mortality, pieces in honour of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, and settings of the Psalms. Through the thirty works selected we have revealed the extraordinary chronological and stylistic reach of his anthology, providing a history of Latin polyphony in England from the early sixteenth century to the motets of his admired contemporary William Byrd. It might seem as though all the archaeology required for us fully to know the Tudor sacred repertory has long ago been completed, given the enduring fascination with this period and the long traditions of editing, studying, and performing its music. But a project such as this one vividly reveals how much fine music lingers still in obscurity and awaiting rediscovery.

Owen Rees © 2020

Other albums in this series

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