music of the 16th century is very popular among vocal ensembles,
choirs and instrumentalists of all kinds, and is frequently
recorded. One aspect of this heritage has fallen a little short
in attention: music for organ. Some recordings with keyboard
music of the 16th century contain items played on a chamber
organ, but most are also playable on other instruments, like
the harpsichord or the virginals. Music specifically written
for the organ, and in particular to be used in liturgy, is seldom
performed and recorded. This disc therefore breaks new ground,
especially as it contains liturgical music in which both voices
and organ participate.
of the main reasons this part of England's musical heritage
has been largely neglected is that we don't know what the organ
sounded like in the 16th century. In the booklet Magnus Williamson
writes: "No organ built in England before the later seventeenth
century survives in anything approaching a playable state".
This disc is the first in 'The Early English Organ Project',
whose aim is "to use what little remains by way of physical
evidence to reconstruct two organs of c. 1530, and so to help
revive this largely lost tradition".
ruinous remains to which Magnus Williamson refers consist of
two soundboards – "central components within any organ,
and hence essential clues as to its layout, size, pipework and
likely sonority". They were discovered in 1977 and 1995
respectively. They seem to date from around 1530. These were
the starting points for attempts to build two organs which reflect
the style of organ building of the first quarter of the 16th
century. These two organs, built by Martin Goetze and Dominic
Gwynn, have been used in the present recording.
England it took a little longer for the organ to develop into
a common instrument than on the European continent. The only
source of keyboard music before Henry VIII is the Robertsbridge
Codex, dating from the middle of the 14th century, but that
contains French music; nothing from England. From the middle
of the 15th century the organ began to be used more widely as
a solo instrument. Organ tuition became a part of the training
of choristers, and organ music of the time shows a strong connection
to vocal music.
first section of this disc is devoted to organ music as it was
played during liturgy in pre-Reformation England. The first
three pieces are examples of the 'alternatim' practice, meaning
that verses are sung and played in alternation. The singing
is either unison or in faburden. Thomas Preston's 'Felix namque'
is one of many settings of this text which have survived from
the 16th century. This offertory was part of the Propers of
Lady Mass. The number of settings reflect the importance of
the Virgin Mary in the religious thinking of the time.
disc also reflects the religious turmoil in England during the
16th century. The break from Rome led to a change in liturgy:
in the Protestant church music had a much smaller role to play.
As a result organ music was played outside church, and even
in secular music. But that wasn't solely the consequence of
liturgical developments. The organ and organ playing had become
increasingly popular among lay people anyway. The second section
of this disc is devoted to secular repertoire and sacred music
played outside church or used as study material. Some pieces
had to be reconstructed, like John Sheppard's part-song 'Vaine,
all our life', which has only survived in an anonymous keyboard
arrangement. As one part of the original has been preserved
with text, John Caldwell has been able to reconstruct the part-song,
which is performed here.
Protestantism came out on top eventually - after a short-lived
restoration of Catholicism under Queen Mary - the organ was
given a new role in religious life, both in and outside liturgy.
The music of that period is the focus of the last section of
the program. The organ is presented here in three different
capacities. Firstly it was used to support the singing of metrical
psalms and hymns, as in the first two items of this section.
Then the organ was to accompany both solo voices and tutti in
the verse-anthem. Perhaps the oldest specimen of this genre
is Byrd's setting of verses from Psalm 119: Teach me, O Lord.
The same practice is used in the Magnificat of his Second Service.
Lastly organ music was played at certain points during morning
and evening prayers and offertories during holy communion. It
is likely Byrd's Ut re mi fa sol la and Nicholas Carleton's
duet which ends this programme were used at such occasions.
a historical perspective the 'Early English Organ Project' is
of the greatest importance. This recording gives a much deeper
insight into music life and in particular liturgical practice
of the 16th century. In addition the music of this period is
impressive in its quality. Magnus Williamson gives splendid
performances of the organ pieces which show that the standard
of organ playing in the 16th century must have been very high.
It is a little disappointing that a mixed choir has been used
in the liturgical pieces. The solo parts are all sung by members
of the choir. Some are very good, others less so (in particular
in regard to the use of vibrato). I also regret that a historical
pronunciation of Latin is absent from this project.
critical remarks take nothing away from my enthusiasm for this
disc and the project of which it is part. I hope we are going
to hear much more from it in the future. I assume that the appearance
of further discs will depend at least in part on the public response.
What better way to support this project than buy this disc? Strongly
recommended because of its historical importance and the high
quality of the music, performed on reconstructions of two 16th
Johan van Veen