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Libera nos - The Cry of the Oppressed

Contrapunctus, Owen Rees (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: November 2012
Church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: July 2013
Total duration: 69 minutes 32 seconds

Coupling powerful interpretations with path-breaking scholarship, the choir Contrapunctus presents music by the best-known composers as well as unfamiliar masterpieces.

Directed by Owen Rees, a specialist in music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the group presents imaginative programmes revealing previously undiscovered musical treasures and throwing new light on familiar works.

This recording explores the musical ‘cries of the oppressed’ from opposite ends of Europe, which include some of the most powerful works composed in England and Portugal during this period by Byrd, Tallis, Monte and Cardoso. The highlight perhaps is the first recording of a newly reconstructed vocal work by Thomas Tallis, Libera nos.

This has long been thought to be an instrumental work, and has been recorded as such, but there’s persuasive historical evidence for us to be confident that this is in fact a choral setting of the antiphon Libera nos, and it is performed here with the relevant text restored to the five vocal parts.


'This debut recording by the clean-voiced and agile Contrapunctus ensemble includes a genuine discovery, perhaps expected when scholar/conductor Owen Rees is in charge. Rees has built a reputation as a seeker-out of lost choral glories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and here reveals a 'new' work by Thomas Tallis. Previously thought to be an instrumental piece marked simply 'Libera', Rees makes a convincing case that its underpinning is the plainchant antiphon, Libera nos, salva nos, indicating that Tallis intended it for voices. The choir sings it and works by Byrd, Philippe de Monte, Pedro de Cristo and Martin Peerson with admirable, firm-toned fluidity. More, please' (The Observer)

'Owen Rees's vocal ensemble Contrapunctus here presents a programme of Renaissance polyphony ingeniously employing lamentations for the subjugation of Jerusalem as code expressions of the plight of both English Catholics under Protestant rule, and Portuguese oppressed by Spanish hegemony. It's a rich seam of material by such as Tallis, Byrd and Cardoso. The theme is most evocatively summarised in the line from Psalm 136, How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?This forms the root both of Philippe de Monte's enchanting eight-voice motet setting of Super Flumina Babylonis, and William Byrd's equally exquisite response, Quomodo Cantabimus' (The Independent)

Music lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and captivity under a foreign power, or praying for the coming of a deliverer, was used to express the plight of Catholics in England and of the Portuguese under Spanish rule in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. This recording explores such musical ‘cries of the oppressed’ from opposite ends of Europe, which include some of the most powerful works composed in England and Portugal during this period.

England’s most highly regarded composer of the period, William Byrd (1540–1623), gave voice through his compositions to the suffering and hopes of Catholics under the Protestant regimes of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. Byrd was a member of the royal household chapel from the early 1570s, and enjoyed the patronage of Elizabeth, but was also the most senior musician within the English Catholic community at this time: he maintained close links with members of the Catholic nobility and with the Jesuit priests educated on the Continent who were sent back to England to work for the English Mission, and he provided music for the covert celebrations of Catholic liturgy which took place in some of the great Catholic houses. Byrd employed the genre of the motet as his principal political tool. Among the most famous of these works is Civitas sancti tui (published in his Cantiones sacrae collection of 1589), a poignant lament for the ‘city made desolate’ in which Byrd turns to stark and sombre chordal declamation for the phrase ‘Sion deserta facta est’ (‘Sion has become a wilderness’). More daring in terms of its message (and more dramatic in musical language) is Plorans plorabit: after weeping for the captivity of ‘the Lord’s flock’, the speaker foresees the downfall of the king and queen. Byrd published the piece in his Gradualia of 1605, and so the king and queen in question are presumably to be identified as James I and Anne of Denmark. Before James’s accession to the throne in 1603 he had been the focus of hopes for a return of the country to Catholicism, but such hope came to nothing and James maintained the Protestant regime in England: in November 1605, the year in which Byrd had published the piece, the Catholic Gunpowder Plot aimed to kill the king and queen in Parliament.

On a much larger scale than Civitas sancti tui or Plorans plorabit is Byrd’s Infelix ego, which sets the first part of a famous psalm meditation written 100 years earlier by the Dominican reformer Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498): Savonarola had presided over attempts to transform Florence into a theocratic republic, a New Jerusalem, but having defied and denounced Pope Alexander VI he was excommunicated and imprisoned, and wrote his meditation on Psalm 50 (‘Miserere mei Deus’) in prison shortly before his execution: he and two fellow Dominicans were subjected to a public hanging in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, and the bodies burned. Savonarola’s meditation achieved wide circulation and lasting renown, and the opening section, Infelix ego, was set to music by a number of composers, including William Byrd, whose motet was published in 1591. Byrd’s music uses kaleidoscopic changes of vocal scoring to reflect vividly Savonarola’s inner torment as he interrogates himself, consumed by awareness of his sin, and seeking the courage finally to ask God for forgiveness in the opening words of the Psalm: ‘Miserere mei Deus’. The power with which Byrd highlighted these words represents one of his most remarkable achievements; he builds up energy gradually through the richly imitative setting of the preceding soaring phrase ‘misericordiam tuam implorabo’ (‘I shall beg for your mercy’), culminating in a dense and urgent series of cries of ‘et dicam’ (‘and I shall say’) and then silence in all the voices. At this point, musical elaboration disappears, the words ‘Miserere mei Deus’ being declaimed in simple homophony. For this phrase Byrd quotes the ostinato motive to which these words are sung in the famous setting of the psalm Miserere mei Deus by Josquin Desprez. Byrd incorporates a similar quotation of Josquin’s motive in his shorter motet Miserere mei Deus. The Miserere was reported as being recited at the scaffold by a number of the English Catholic martyrs in Byrd’s time, including the Jesuit Robert Southwell.

The plight of English Catholics seems to be echoed also in a remarkable musical exchange involving Byrd and the Flemish composer Philippe de Monte (1521–1603), chapelmaster to the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian II and Rudolf II in Vienna and Prague. The two musicians may have met when Monte came to England in 1554–5 as a member of the chapel of Prince Philip of Spain. Monte’s eight-voice motet Super flumina Babylonis—setting the first four verses of Psalm 136, a lament of the Babylonian exile—is found in English sources from Byrd’s lifetime or soon after, sources which also contain Byrd’s Quomodo cantabimus, which is likewise scored for eight voices. That the pieces might be linked is suggested by the fact that Byrd’s text picks up the psalm from the fourth verse—set by Monte—and continues with the next three verses of the psalm. For further detail about the connection between the pieces we have to rely on an 18th-century musical antiquarian, John Alcock (1715–1806), who copied the works: he wrote on the copy that Monte’s Super flumina Babylonis was ‘sent by him, to Mr Bird in 1583’, and he reported that Quomodo cantabimus was ‘made by Mr Wm Byrd, to send unto Mr Philip de Monte, 1584’. Byrd responds to the question in his (and Monte’s) text ‘how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ by adopting a texture very different from the two-choir antiphony characterizing Monte’s motet: Byrd instead maintains rich eight-voice writing almost throughout, with three of the eight voices in canon. This makes all the more telling Byrd’s switch to antiphony (after a silence in all voices, and with a striking change of harmony) for ‘memor esto Domine filiorum Edom’ (‘Remember the children of Edom, O Lord’).

There is evidence that Byrd’s teacher Thomas Tallis (c1505–1585) likewise remained loyal to the Catholic faith following the Reformation in England, and his most extraordinary motet, In iejunio et fletu, could be viewed in this light. Tallis responds to the Lenten text—in which the priests call upon God to spare his people and preserve his inheritance from destruction—with startlingly unsettled harmonies, which plunge into ever darker depths during the three statements of the opening words. Tallis’s ability to employ repetition powerfully for rhetorical emphasis is apparent also in the setting of the plea for aid—‘auxiliare nobis’—in Salvator mundi, the motet to which he chose to give pride of place at the head of the only printed collection of his motets, the Cantiones sacrae of 1575 (a joint enterprise with his pupil Byrd).

The remaining work by Tallis on this recording, Libera nos, has previously been treated as an instrumental piece, and this is the first reconstruction of the piece as a splendid, if brief, example of Tallis’s vocal polyphony based on plainchant. The piece survives in a British Library manuscript, without any text other than the word ‘Libera’. However, this does not in itself indicate that the piece was conceived for instruments, since most of the items in this manuscript collection are vocal pieces with—as in the case of Tallis’s work—only the incipit of the text given. (Tallis’s ‘Libera’ is preceded and followed in the source by vocal works by Byrd.) Tallis’s music is based on the plainchant antiphon ‘Libera nos, salva nos’, as set also by John Sheppard, and the work is performed on this recording with the relevant text restored to the five vocal parts.

The Catholic sympathies of Martin Peerson (born between 1571 and 1573; died 1651)—a fine but still little-known composer from the generation after Byrd—are revealed by the fact that he was convicted for recusancy (i.e. refusal to attend Anglican worship) in 1606, and suggested by some of the choices of texts for his collection Private Music (1620), although when he took the BMus degree at Oxford he would have had to avow Protestant beliefs. His motets survive in manuscript, but without the topmost voice. (For this recording a reconstruction by Richard Rastall is used.) Laboravi in gemitu meo well represents the madrigalian expressive power of his writing, with plunging lines for ‘gemitu’ (‘groaning’), and contorted and dissonant harmonies portraying the speaker’s agony of mind.

During the same period in Portugal, sacred polyphony was likewise employed to express the people’s suffering and political aspirations. Between 1580 and 1640 Portugal was under the rule of the Spanish Hapsburg kings, a situation which gave strength to the messianic cult of ‘Sebastianism’, belief in a national saviour (identified as the Portuguese King Sebastian, lost in battle in north Africa shortly before the Spanish invasion), who would free the nation from the Spanish yoke and restore it to glory. It is this belief which is vividly evoked in the motet Lachrimans sitivit anima mea by Pedro de Cristo (c1550–1618), an Augustinian canon who directed the music at the great monasteries of São Vicente de Fora in Lisbon and Santa Cruz in Coimbra. The extraordinary text of Lachrimans sitivit anima mea combines and refashions elements from the Office of the Dead, the Song of Songs, and the opening of Psalm 41, ‘Sitivit anima mea’, prefaced by the word ‘Lachrimans’ in order to intensify immediately the plaintive tone. In one source the piece is evocatively entitled ‘Lamentatio Job’ (‘the lamentation of Job’), evoking the biblical tale of a righteous man deprived by misfortune of his belongings, children, and health, but whose patient faith is eventually rewarded by a restoration of wellbeing. The motet’s text and music poignantly express suffering and the pain of prolonged exile, and longing for the return of a saviour lord. Another motet by Pedro de Cristo, Inter vestibulum et altare, sets a text related to that of Tallis’s In iejunio et fletu, but ending with a plea that the Lord’s people and heritage be saved from foreign domination.

The group of Portuguese composers closely associated with John, Duke of Bragança—who would become King John IV at the restoration of Portuguese independence in 1640—likewise employed their skills in support of independence and therefore of John’s claim to the throne. Of these composers, the musician in closest contact with the Duke (and later King) was Manuel Cardoso (1566–1650), chapelmaster and sub-prior of the prestigious Carmelite convent in Lisbon. Cardoso published Sitivit anima mea in his first book of Masses in 1625, a volume dedicated to the Duke, and it is telling that Cardoso makes reference to John’s ‘royal house’ in the very first sentence of his letter of dedication which opens the volume. Although the text of Sitivit anima mea is appropriate to rituals for the dead, this haunting invocation of desire to see the divine face—the opening words of which chime with those of de Cristo’s Lachrimans sitivit anima mea—could well have carried also a contemporary meaning in the context of Portuguese aspirations and the belief in John as potential saviour of the nation and future king, in an era when belief in divine kingship was ubiquitous.

Owen Rees © 2013

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