to nothing is known about Robert Parsons. He was born around
1530. That makes him almost the same generation as Byrd, who
succeeded Parsons at the Chapel Royal to which the latter was
appointed in 1563. He died by drowning in the River Trent in
1572. It has been suggested that Parsons’ unusual death may
have been responsible for fellow musicians and associates turning
their backs on his music immediately after the traumatic event;
and that this neglect somehow snowballed.
know that not all of Parson’s music has survived. He presumably
wrote a much larger corpus of instrumental music while at the
Chapel Royal than has survived. Indeed there are only two current
CDs containing Parsons’ music; each shares performances of his
Ave Maria (included here too) with other anthologies.
So this release with almost 70 minutes of touching, moving and
unself-consciously beautiful music performed by the accomplished
ensemble, Voces Cantabiles, is particularly welcome. All the
more so since Parsons broke new compositional ground – and not
just because he lived at a time of significant change in musical
thinking and practice.
choral writing displays some of the breadth of Taverner and
Tallis, say, and much of their command and sense of direction
with the way in which words meet music. The texts - not included
in the Naxos booklet - here are both Latin and English. The
style is both driven and mildly decorative … as at the end of
the Creed (tr.7) where a nevertheless restrained melisma
stands out for what it adds to an otherwise driven progression
of musical ideas.
– rightly – suggests that Parsons lacks the more personally-expressed
depth of his more illustrious contemporaries. Yet his music
has real beauty and is pleasantly compelling. His lines are
clear, clean and inspiring; his textures never dense or obscure.
This reflects the new emphasis on plainness and purely English
liturgical writing as required by the publication in 1549 of
Cranmer’s ‘Book of Common Prayer’. For all that icon of the
English Reformation’s implied simplicity of purpose and tenor,
Parsons’ corresponding music lacks nothing in style or detail.
It contains some almost experimental harmonies, which will delight
as one comes to know the other aspects of his choral writing.
should be noted that the ‘First Great Service’, parts
of which occupy about half this well-recorded CD, was one of
the first settings of the liturgy to comply with the new and
revolutionary requirements for composition in English. It’s
music for two five to eight-part antiphonal choirs. In that
the ‘First Great Service’ was also one of the first such services
to be unified throughout its movements, a recording which respects
that continuity would be welcome one day: this does not – movements
from the ‘Responds for the Dead’ are interspersed. These are
striking pieces from the ‘Burial Service’. The intention of
this CD’s producers has been to honour Parsons in ways that
probably didn’t happen in the sixteenth century. Very fitting.
is his largest extant composition. It’s scored for six-voice
choir and alternates plainsong and polyphony in new and radical
ways; and in ways that differ movement from movement yet at
the same time acknowledge the by then century old musical format
with great skill. This is a bit of a gem that repays very careful
there were a criticism of the way Barnaby Smith and Voces
Cantabiles perform this highly effective, melodious and gracious
music, it would be that they do not always take the time to
savour some of the more glowing passages. Though they do bring
out the music’s warmth – listen to the end of the Nunc dimittis,
and for that matter of the Ave Maria. But greater revelation
of the contrasts which Parsons achieved between light and darkness,
joy and pain would have made the interpretation more effective
This CD achieves
much. It draws attention to an unfairly neglected English composer
of what is perhaps the tradition’s richest period. It suggests
that Robert Parsons can hold his own with all but the greatest
practitioners of the time. It conveys a clear and striking sense
of his skills, sensitivity both to traditions and to innovations
from and by the clergy at the watershed of the Reformation.
It implicitly highlights the innovative writing in which Parsons
appeared strikingly comfortable. It presents the variety of
techniques of which Parsons was capable - and on which he thrived.
And it offers us a serving of some truly lovely, delicate and
yet potent choral singing.
very welcome selection of choral polyphony from the start of
the Reformation. Voces Cantabiles have enthusiastically and
carefully reached into a tightly tied sack and pulled out some
jewels - without a whiff of mustiness; and with the promise
of greater sparkle to come.