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Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
Hymns and Songs of the Church
Songs of joy [07:15]
Songs of love [13:12]
Songs of sacrifice [08:58]
Songs of lamentation [10:19]
Songs of triumph [10:47]
Songs of unity [08:40]
Songs of faith [08:50]
Songs of hope [03:41]
Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts
rec. 28–30 September 2004, Bromley Parish Church; Finchcocks, Goudhurst, Kent, UK. DDD
NAXOS 8.557681 [71:42]

 

 


In the Jewish religion the Book of Psalms played a central role. Psalms were sung at any occasion: in the temple during the important feasts, and by individual believers on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Christian Church linked up with this, and gave them a central place in its liturgy. For about 500 years polyphonic settings of the Psalms were sung in Church, for which the texts of the Vulgata were used, the Latin translation of the Bible. Apart from the Psalms other texts, both from the Bible and from other sources, were also sung during liturgy.

The Reformation of the 16th century wasn't only about doctrine. It also had a strong impact on liturgical practice. The Reformers wanted the Church to return to its roots, and therefore texts from the Bible were given absolute priority over everything else. Naturally the Book of Psalms was restored to its original dominant position in liturgy. Martin Luther, the German reformer, considered it a kind of synopsis of the whole Bible.

The Reformation had another ideal: singing during worship should not be the prerogative of a small number of professional singers. It should rather be for the congregation to sing. This had far-reaching consequences. The settings of the Psalms should be on a text in the vernacular, for one voice and preferably metrical. This way the melodies and texts were easy to learn and to memorise, as many believers were neither able to read nor musically very educated.

Under the influence of John Calvin a Psalter was put together on metrical texts by some leading French poets and set to music by composers of considerable standing. This Psalter – generally known as the 'Genevan' or 'Huguenot' Psalter – spread over Europe and was used by Protestant communities of Calvinist orientation. Of course they sang them in their own language, but used the same melodies. They are still in use, not only in Europe, but also in countries like Canada, South-Africa and even Japan.

Metrical settings of the Psalms became popular in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1562 a Psalter was published with 65 tunes from the Genevan Psalter. In 1567 another Psalter was printed, put together by Archbishop Parker. None other than Thomas Tallis contributed to this collection. But just as the Psalms were facing competition in the Church before the Reformation so other texts were set to music in the Church of England as well.

The 'hymns and songs' by Orlando Gibbons presented on this disc were part of a collection of 'Hymnes and Songs of the Church', put together and published by George Wither in 1623. He was a poet who got into trouble a couple of times because of his satirical writings. Later in life he leaned towards Puritanism. The collection of 1623 was issued under the patent of James I ordaining that they should be bound up with every copy of the authorised metrical Psalms offered for sale.

The music Gibbons wrote for this collection is rather simple. There are about 15 tunes, which sometimes use the same thematic material, with an additional bass line. "The inner parts (if any) are left to the imagination of singers and instrumentalists",  Antony Pitts writes in the booklet. It probably depends on where these hymns and songs were used whether the inner parts were added or not.

"On this recording we have adopted a wide variety of approaches: from unadorned melody via pastiche to exuberantly postmodern counterpoint." There is even some newly composed music on texts from this collection: "The new hymns, by Alexander L'Estrange and myself, and two of my younger brothers, serve both to vary the palette and to show the continuing influence of Hymnes and Songs of the Church on hymn-writing today". The hymns are put together in eight sections which concentrate on different aspects of Christian faith according to the ecclesiastical year.

From this perspective one could say that this recording has come off well. Those who are interested in religious music in general, no matter from which time it comes, will find this disc interesting. But those who would like to get better acquainted with how metrical psalms and hymns were sung in the Church of England – and in the homes of the faithful – in the early 17th century - still a white spot in the performance practice of early music - will be disappointed. I am certainly one of them.

It is a pity that Antony Pitts and his colleagues have opted for an unhistorical approach to this repertoire. It isn't just that new material has been used; my main problem is the way Gibbons' music has been dealt with. Some songs are so strongly arranged in a style which is distant from that of Gibbons' time that the original melodies are hardly recognisable. Another aspect of this deliberate unhistorical interpretation - if you can use that word here - is that some of Gibbons' melodies are sung to texts from a much later time.[see footnote***] As the objective of this disc was not to perform the music in a historical way it is perhaps not appropriate to criticise the singing style adopted by Tonus Peregrinus. Even so I can't hide my disappointment about the slight vibrato of the singers, the sometimes strangely slow tempi and the often stiff organ playing. Considering the overall approach it come as no surprise that the words are pronounced as if they were written in modern English.

Is this recording to be recommended? That very much depends on what one expects and would like to hear. I only recommend it to those who are interested in liturgical music in general; not to those whose main interest is early music. This disc just hints at what could have been had this repertoire been performed from a strictly historical angle. But for the time being we have to wait until someone decides it is time to explore this kind of repertoire thoroughly and perform it as it was intended.

Johan van Veen 

See also Review by Gary Higginson

*** Comments received from Antony Pitts

. The majority of the review is a history lesson, and does not refer to the disc at all. What the reviewer has missed, to begin with, from the sleeve notes (and common sense) is that hymns, unlike most early music, are part of a living tradition - not a few of the Gibbons hymns are in regular use today in churches. Further, and most crucially to this particular repertoire, the Gibbons hymns were published *only* as melody and bass, and therefore there are two main performance options: to perform them simply with the melody and bassline alone (which we did on a number of verses, but I can assure you that you and most listeners would have been very disgruntled if we had maintained this approach for long), or to devise inner parts of some kind. This latter option we pursued from substantial combined experience of the British choral tradition (I note the reviewer appears to have a Dutch name), and *deliberately* demonstrated a variety of refinements on this option, while taking into account the fact that these hymns continue to 'evolve' today. We even tried to give a sense of what improvised inner parts (on organ or with singers) might have sounded like. We also specially recorded the music partly in a home and partly in a church to get precisely that subtlety of
acoustic and atmosphere lost on our reviewer.

Comment from Johan van Veen

Thank you for bringing Antony Pitts' comments to my attention. I'm sorry
that he feels I haven't done his recording justice.

I have compared Mr Pitts' comments with what I have written and as far as I can see there is one error on my part. Mr Pitts writes: "we sang all of the Gibbons 'Songs' to their original texts (one or more verses thereof), and recorded further, separate versions of just two of them with other words". I have read the booklet and looked into the tracklist once more, and I have concluded that he is right in this respect. Although it seems to me my remark about this is only one - and certainly not the most essential - element of my assessment of this disc, this error shouldn't have escaped my attention during the phase of final correction.

Let me add that in my view my judgement of this recording isn't as negative as Mr Pitts seems to think. In my review I have quoted his own explanation of his approach to this repertoire, and later on I wrote: "From this perspective one could say that this recording has come off well. Those who are interested in religious music in general, no matter from which time it comes, will find this disc interesting." It is true I'm not British, and therefore an outsider in regard to British religious music practice of today, although I have a keen interest in it. But as a regular listener to BBC's Choral Evensong I know that Gibbons' music is part of a living tradition. My basic approach in all my reviews, though, is that I assess recordings from an
'early music perspective'. I think in my review I made a clear distinction between the two different angles from which to look at this repertoire, and the different perceptions of this particular recording which come from them. If I had been aware of the approach by Tonus Peregrinus beforehand I would not have chosen this disc to review for MusicWeb and had left it to someone who has a better knowledge of British religious music of later ages and a more positive attitude towards modern musical styles.

I noticed that the other review on MusicWeb - which is brought to the reader's attention at the bottom of my review - gave a different assessment of this disc. Therefore the reader has the possibility to compare them and make up his own mind.

Comment from Len Mullenger

MusicWeb International is always pleased to correct factual errors in reviews. I have appended Johan van Veen's remarks so it just remains for me to say that I think the opening historical background to this review is a perfectly valid approach intended to assist our readers by placing a recording in context.

 


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