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Music for Cardinal Wolsey
Richard Pygott (c.1485-1549) Missa Veni sancte spiritus
Gloria [10:07]
Credo [10:53]
Sanctus [10:29]
Agnus Dei [9:10]
John Mason (b.?-1548) O rex gloriose [11:34]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington.
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, 21-22 March 1994. DDD.
NIMBUS NI5578 [52:20]
 

CD1

Thomas Ashwell (c.1482-after 1513, perhaps 1527) Missa Jesu Christe (6 parts) (before 1513?)
Gloria [12:59]
Credo [11:16]
Sanctus [10:19]
Agnus Dei [8:59]
CD2

Hugh Aston (c.1485-1558) Missa Videte manus meas (6 parts)
Gloria [13:25]
Credo [12:39]
Sanctus [12:34]
Agnus Dei [10:31]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington.
METRONOME MET1030/1031 [43:33+49:49]

Experience Classicsonline

 



If you have read my attempts to wax lyrical about the masters of Tudor church music – the likes of Taverner, Tallis and Byrd – and wondered what the run of the mill sounded like, these two Christ Church recordings of music associated with the college’s early history should go some way towards providing an answer. I don’t mean to imply that this music is mediocre or sub-standard – the works on the Nimbus CD, in particular, are hardly that – merely that it doesn’t reach the heights of inspiration, though it does help us to set the masterpieces in perspective.
By an understandable coincidence, both companies have chosen as front covers a detail from the same portrait of Wolsey as a fat, florid and prosperous prince of the church, painted by Sampson Strong in 1526 and showing in the background Cardinal College (Christ Church), where it now resides in the picture gallery – other contemporary illustrations depict him as a much leaner follower of the renaissance New Learning.
Richard Pygott was for thirteen years master of the choristers to Cardinal Wolsey’s private chapel, an establishment which rivalled the Chapel Royal; he was thus connected with the foundation, in 1525, of Wolsey’s Cardinal College, Oxford, renamed Christ Church after his downfall four years later and affectionately known as The House from its Latin name, Ædes Christi. A Gentleman of the Chapel Royal after Wolsey’s disgrace, little of his music survives, mostly sacred pieces. The Concise Grove describes these as ‘of high quality, combining complex textures and beauty of melodic line’, a description from which I would not demur except to warn that the music does not, for me, match the high quality of much of what is found in the earlier Eton Choirbook (c.1500) or the work of his contemporary, John Taverner. The Oxford Companion to Music describes Pygott’s well-known carol Quid petis, o fili? as ‘exquisite’, a description which would also fit his music on this Nimbus recording.
Like the two masses on the Metronome set, Pygott’s Missa Veni sancte spiritus is of the type known as the short Tudor mass, without the opening Kyrie eleison. It is an elaborate work but the modern counterparts of its (probable) original singers cope handsomely with any difficulties.
John Mason, who held a similar post at Magdalen College from 1508 to 1510, stood in for John Taverner at Cardinal College after his resignation in 1529. In 1521 Mason had been a member of Wolsey’s retinue, hence his appearance on this CD. Only four works by him are known to have survived; some of them appeared on an Argo LP but this is, I believe, his only appearance on CD. His motet O rex gloriose is an attractive piece and, like the Pygott, receives a good performance from the Christ Church choristers. Both here and in the Pygott, I thought the singing more secure than on some of the Nimbus recordings which I have reviewed recently.
The connection with Thomas Ashwell (or Ashewell) and Hugh Aston (or Ashton) is more tenuous but the inclusion of these two masses in the Forrest-Heyther partbooks, a compilation initially copied for use at Cardinal College, makes it at least probable that they were performed there. Though they occur in the second part of the book, alongside music of much later date by Tye, Sheppard and Allwood, their style indicates that they may well have been composed before 1525.
The Oxford Companion to Music and Concise Grove are silent on the subject of Thomas Ashwell, but his presence as a chorister at Windsor from 1491 to 1493 gives a clue to the date of his birth and it has been suggested that he was John Taverner’s teacher. The Missa Jesu Christe, in six parts, based on the short respond at Prime from Easter week until Trinity Sunday, is unlikely to have been composed specifically for Cardinal College, since its style suggests a date earlier than 1513, the last year in which we know for sure that he was alive.
If Taverner had been his pupil, that may suggest a reason for his inclusion of Ashwell’s music in the partbook and it has been suggested that Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas was influenced by the other Ashwell mass in the collection, the Missa Ave Maria. What a shame, therefore, that the spare capacity on the Metronome set was not used for a performance of that work, which would have allowed us to judge how close the similarity is. As it is, less than 94 minutes is very short playing time for a 2-CD set. Alternatively, I should have liked to have heard Aston’s two antiphons Gaude virgo mater Christi and Ave Maria divae matris Annae, which I have seen described as his finest music.
Hugh Aston either turned down Wolsey’s offer of the post at his college and chose to remain at the collegiate church of St Mary, Leicester, until its dissolution in 1548, or was an unsuccessful applicant for the post. The date of his birth is inferred from the date of his supplication for the degree of BMus in 1510. Seven large-scale works are credited to him, but he is best known for his keyboard piece A Hornepype (British Library MS BM R.App.58); only four of his vocal works survive complete.
The cantus firmus of the mass Videte manus meas is an antiphon for Vespers of Easter Tuesday. (The words also figure in the 13th-century Officium peregrinorum or Pilgrims’ play.) This work, too, bears some similarities to Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, especially in the Gloria and Credo, but the similarities also serve to point the superiority of Taverner’s composition.
If you have yet to become familiar with the music of Taverner, I recommend that you begin there, with another Christ Church recording, Ave Dei Patris Filia: Music for Our Lady and Divine Office (Nimbus NI5360 – see review), the Tallis Scholars’ account of the Mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas (Gimell CDGIM004) or with one of the excellent Hyperion Helios budget-price reissues of his Masses: the Western Wynde mass would be a good place to start (The Sixteen on CDH55056 – see review).
Otherwise, I’d recommend the Pygott recording as the next port of call after Taverner, but the masses of Ashwell and Aston are accomplished 6-part works and they also receive fine performances. The composition of the Christ Church choir today is still equivalent to that of Wolsey’s original foundation; if the shade of their ill-fated founder is still hovering around The House, I am sure that he would have found the singing fully the equal of their sixteenth-century predecessors. He might have expressed a slight preference for the singing and the music on the Nimbus recording, but there isn’t a great deal in it.
He would have had to travel a few miles down the road to Dorchester to hear the making of that Nimbus recording. I have found some of the earlier recordings made in Dorchester Abbey variable, but I have very few reservations about the sound on this CD. I have no information about the recording venue of the Metronome CDs.
Both recordings are available from eMusic in good quality mp3 sound at bit-rates ranging from an acceptable 184kbps to a more than adequate 320kbps. (But why are all the tracks not at the highest bit-rate?) I add the usual proviso that younger, sharper ears may be less satisfied. The Metronome CDs need to be played at a slightly higher volume than the Nimbus to sound well – about 3dB higher than my usual setting sounded about right.
What you won’t get from a download, however, is any information about the composers and their music, which is fairly crucial for works of this sort. Nor do any alternative sources for downloading provide access to any notes: the iTunes versions don’t even allow you to copy the covers of the CDs and the version of the Nimbus CD on classicsonline, like the eMusic versions, offers only the cover shot.
Theclassicalshop offers the ability to download the booklets of notes for recordings of The Sixteen in similar repertoire on the Coro label. Best of all, Gimell, who offer their own downloads from their website, provide the full set of notes and CD inlays; until someone offers these Christ Church recordings with something similar, my recommendation of them in download form must be muted.
I could contact Nimbus and Metronome and request, as a reviewer, the relevant booklets, but that would be cheating – when reviewing a recording I like to put myself in the position of the potential purchaser as far as possible.
This is something to which eMusic and the companies who license their recordings to them need to give some serious thought: very few potential purchasers will know much, if anything, about this music – even I had to dig around to find some of the information which I have given above. Perhaps subscribers could opt to download the notes for the price of an extra track from their monthly allocation. Downloading is becoming an increasing reality for the record companies; if they don’t wish to offer the notes free of charge – and they have to earn a living like everyone else – why not charge a small extra fee to download them from the website?
The words of the ordinary of the mass, Gloria, Credo, etc., are easy enough to come by, but we really need to have the text of O rex gloriose, a Compline prayer to be numbered among the saints in glory:


O Rex gloriose inter sanctos tuos, qui semper es laudabilis et tamen ineffabilis: tu in nobis es, Domine, et nomen sanctum tuum invocatum est super nos: ne derelinqua nos, Deus noster ut in die judicii nos collocare digneris inter sanctos et electos tuos, Rex benedicte.

[O King of glory among your saints you are always to be praised, yet you are beyond any words that we may speak; you are within us, O Lord, and your holy name has been invoked to protect us: leave us not, our God, so that in the day of judgement you may graciously call us to be among your saints and chosen ones, O blessed King.]

In Primers, the prayer often follows Nunc dimittis and O bone Jesu, a favourite text with early Tudor composers (Fayrfax, etc.) In the Sarum Breviary, the form of the daily offices of the Roman rite most frequently employed in pre-Reformation England, it is prescribed as the antiphon to Nunc dimittis on the feast of the Holy Name.
The words of Jesu Christe and Videte manus meas, helpfully intoned before the openings of the Ashwell and Aston masses respectively are less important, but it would again be worthwhile to have these. Jesu Christe is the short respond at Prime in Paschaltide:
Jesu Christe, fili dei vivi, miserere nobis. Alleluia. Qui resurrexisti a mortuis, miserere nobis. Alleluia. Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.

[O Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon us. Alleuia. You who rose from the dead, have mercy upon us. Alleluia. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.]


Videte manus meas repeats the words of the risen Jesus to his disciples, and particularly to ‘doubting’ Thomas:
Videte manus meas et pedes meos quia ego ipse sum, Alleluja, Alleluja.

[Behold my hands and my feet, for I am myself. Alleluia.]
These downloads come at a fraction of the cost of the discs – all thirteen tracks for little more than £3 from eMusic – but, even with the information that I have been able to offer, I must recommend all but the best-informed specialists in early sixteenth-century music to buy the CDs. (If, that is, the Metronome set is still available – it’s currently showing as out of stock, which may make the download the only option.)

Brian Wilson

 

 

 


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