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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Mary and Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey: ‘Sisters in Hope of the Resurrection’
Christopher TYE (c.1505-?1572) Omnes gentes, plaudite manibus [4:15]
William MUNDY (c.1530-before 1591) Vox Patris cælestis [17:26]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585) Videte miraculum [8:53]
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1558) Libera nos, salva nos I [3:27]
The Second Service: Magnificat & Nunc dimittis [9:00]*
William BYRD (1539/40-1623) Teach me, O Lord [3:20]*
Ne irascaris, Domine [8:53]
O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth [2:43]
Robert WHITE (c.1538-1574) Exaudiat te Dominus [7:40]
Robert Quinney (organ)*, The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell
rec. All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, 19th-20th June, 2008. DDD
Booklet includes sung texts and English translations of the Latin texts
HYPERION CDA67704 [66:42] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


Just about everything here exists on other recordings, mostly (very) well sung by the likes of The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen and Chapelle du Roi, but the present programme usefully brings together the music of composers whose working careers spanned the two ‘great divides’ of English religion in the 1550s.  There have always been two schools of thought about the momentous events of that decade – some maintaining that they were twice marked by violent change – with the death of the ardent young protestant King Edward VI in 1553 and again with the accession of his half-sister Elizabeth in 1558 – others that the transition from Mary to Elizabeth was in the nature more of evolution than revolution.
 

With the death of Henry VIII and the accession of the under-age Edward VI in 1547, the English reformers under Archbishop Cranmer were free to develop the vernacular liturgies in English which they had probably been long planning.  The first development, the Order of Communion of 1548, an insertion into the Latin Mass, and the First Prayer Book of 1549 were comparatively conservative developments, but the Second Prayer Book of 1552 represented a much more radical break with the past, especially in respect of church music – Merbecke’s 1550 Booke of Common Praier Noted, modified plainsong designed for the 1549 book, was obsolete almost as soon as it was published.  Though it developed a peculiar after-life following its rediscovery in the 19th century and was widely in use in parish churches and cathedrals before the introduction of the modern-English liturgies of the late 20th century. 

The death of Edward and accession of the fiercely Romanist Mary brought new opportunities for composers and much of the finest music of Tallis and Sheppard probably dates from this period, but it was a short-lived interval and all was thrown into doubt again with the death of Mary and the accession of her half-sister Elizabeth in 1558.  Historians have presumed to read the mind of Elizabeth, but their readings have differed – some maintaining that she would have liked to return to the moderate reforms of 1549, others that she was as much in favour of radical reform as any.  Whatever the truth, the refusal of any of Mary’s bishops to support her and the overwhelmingly Calvinist beliefs of the reformers who returned from exile in 1558/9 left her little choice but to restore the more protestant Prayer Book of 1552, with several small but very significant returns to the more Catholic wording of 1549, notably in the words of administration of Holy Communion. 

Whatever Elizabeth’s views about such divisive theological issues as double predestination – we shall probably never know the mind of the woman who famously said that she had no windows to look into men’s souls – she did love ceremonial, church vestments and music.  And with composers like Tallis around, willing to adapt and simplify his style and to set English as well as Latin texts, the way was clear for great music to continue to play an important part in the new scheme of things, especially in places like the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey. 

Lovers of literature and music have much to be grateful for from the reign of Queen Mary.  William Roper, son-in-law of Thomas More, at last felt that the time was right to complete his life of his father-in-law, essentially a draft version later expanded by Nicholas Harpsfield.  Both are available from the Early English Text Society and Roper’s is also available online. 

In musical terms, one of the finest pieces from that period is Tallis’s mass Puer natus est – paradoxically, it seems to have been written for Queen Mary’s phantom pregnancy, making the music of much greater importance than the non-event.  It must have been very tempting to have included a section of this work on the new Hyperion disc, but, with so many excellent versions already in the catalogue, not least those of Chapelle du Roi/Alistair Dixon on Volume 3 of their complete Tallis cycle (Signum SIGCD003), The Sixteen/Harry Christophers (COR16037) and the Tallis Scholars/Peter Philips (Christmas with the Tallis Scholars, Gimell CDGIM202), they wisely turned instead to his Candelemas Videte miraculum, well supported on the Marian side of the divide by the music of Tye, Mundy and Sheppard. 

I’ve called Videte miraculum music from the Marian side of the 1558 benchmark, but, as Robert Quinney remarks in his excellent notes, the music might have been composed at any time in the 1550s and ‘some it may even date from Elizabeth’s reign’ where such a piece could have been sung as the anthem at Mattins or Evensong.  Chapelle du Roi hedge their bets by including it in neither the Marian nor the Elizabethan volume but in Music for the Divine Office (1) (SIGCD010).  At 8:53 the Westminster version is slightly faster than Chapelle’s 9:11 and, I think, therefore, very slightly preferable. 

My colleague Michael Greenhalgh has made detailed comparisons with other recordings – see review – and I shan’t bore you by repeating them all.  He compares Mundy’s Vox patris cælestis with the Tallis Scholars’ recording– actually, he seems to have got his wires slightly crossed: the version on GIMSE401, the catalogue number which he gives, is not the 1996 version but the earlier version from 1980, running to 19:16.  It’s the version on Live in Oxford (CDGIM998) which dates from 1996 and runs, officially, to 17:55 – actually, as MG says, the running time is slightly less than that. 

The 1980 version, originally a splendid bargain on Classics for Pleasure, was my introduction to the piece and, indeed, to the Tallis Scholars; I was very impressed then by their performance and am again now by their 1996 remake, but I take MG’s point that there are swings and roundabouts here.  The Westminster performance benefits from the use of boy trebles and makes a greater impact, whereas the Scholars, as so often, impress by the sheer beauty of their singing.  I find it almost impossible to choose between two such fine accounts – three, if you count Live in Oxford and the 1980 version, which still holds a special place in my affection. 

John Sheppard’s Libera nos (track 4) and the evening canticles from the Second Service (trs. 5 & 6) represent the actual watershed between music written for the Roman and the Anglican liturgies, though, as the notes point out, it’s far from certain that Sheppard composed the two English settings in 1558, since he himself died soon after Queen Mary.  The wording of the doxology corresponds to the 1549 formula ‘as it was in the beginning, and is now ...’ rather than the wording of 1552 and subsequently, but the text of the Magnificat corresponds to that of neither: all versions from 1549 onwards and Merbeck’s 1550 setting read ‘my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour’, whereas Sheppard’s text has ‘rejoiceth’.  (See The First and Second Prayer Books of King Edward VI, London: Dent, 1910, and online versions of the 1549, 1552 and 1559 books at justus.anglican; Merbeckes’s 1550 settings may also be found here.)  Incidentally, the recording by The Sixteen to which MG refers is now part of a highly recommendable two-for-one Hyperion set, CDD22022 – the CDA number which he gives is obsolete).  It’s just possible that these two setting were written between 1549 and 1552 and dug out again in late 1558. 

What is apparent from this programme is the extent to which traditional musical forms were preserved after 1558, though no longer set to prayers to the Virgin Mary or other saints, now regarded as examples to follow rather than objects of veneration, and mostly with English words.  The final piece, Robert White’s Exaudiat te neatly illustrates the chameleon nature of the Elizabethan compromise – a Latin text, set in a very traditional style, for a church with a Catholic hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons, a liturgy largely derived from its medieval predecessors, preferring English but tolerant of Latin wherever it was ‘understanded of the people’, yet with a fiercely Calvinist and anti-Roman set of theological beliefs in the Thirty-nine Articles. 

Exaudiat te is a fine piece, fully worthy of inclusion in the company of the better-known Tallis, Byrd and Sheppard.  I’m glad that James O’Donnell included the lesser luminaries, Tye, Mundy and White and that his choir’s performances are such as to make listeners want to hear more of them.  Gimell have an excellent recording devoted solely to White (CDGIM030) several items from which also appear on their Bargain of the Month Tudor Music (2) (CDGIM210 – see review).  Hyperion have excellent budget-price selections of William Mundy’s music, set to Latin and English texts (The Sixteen/Harry Christophers, Helios CDH55086) and of Christopher Tye’s Missa Euge bone and other music (Winchester Cathedral Choir/David Hill, CDH55079).  Some of Mundy’s music is combined by Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly with Tye’s Omnes gentes and Missa Euge bone on Naxos 8.550937 – an equally strong recommendation if you decide not to run to the two Helios recordings. 

This Hyperion CD has frequently ousted more seasonal music from my player over the Christmas period.  If you’re looking for some fine Tudor music, very well performed, with very impressive boys’ voices rather than the women’s voices of the professional groups, excellently recorded – that best of recommendations: I wasn’t aware of the recording, for good or ill – and very well presented in typical Hyperion fashion, you need look no further than the new Hyperion. You can even decide whether to keep Elizabeth on the front cover or reverse the booklet and have Mary.  If it’s your first foray into Tudor church music, be warned – it probably won’t be your last.

Brian Wilson

see also Review by Michael Greenhalgh





 


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