More Divine Than Human - Music from The
Eton Choirbook John FAWKYNER (fl. late 15th
century) Gaude rosa sine spina [16:35] William CORNYSH (d. c. 1502) Salve
Regina [15:42] Walter LAMBE (b. 1450-51. d. after
Michaelmas 1504) Magnificat [12:58] Richard DAVY (c. 1465-1535) In
honore summe matris [17:42] John BROWNE (fl. c. 1480-1505) Stabat
The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. 16-18 March 2009 in the Chapel, Merton College, Oxford DDD
Latin texts and English translations included
AVIE AV2167 [78:55]
In 1440 King Henry VI of England founded simultaneously two
educational establishments to show his devotion to the Blessed
Virgin Mary. These were ‘the College Roialle of our Ladie at
Eton beside Windsor and….the College Roialle of our Ladie and
St. Nicholas of Cambridge.’ Thus were established what became
two of the most venerable seats of learning – and of liturgical
music – in England: Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge.
At Eton, where the college actually opened its doors in 1443,
evening devotion to the Virgin was prescribed in the statutes
from the start, with the singers required to sing in the chapel
an antiphon in her honour every evening – in Lent it was always
to be the ‘Salve Regina’. Over the years a corpus of music was
assembled at Eton and by the early sixteenth century a significant
amount of it had been copied into that remarkable treasury of
music, which survives to this day, the Eton Choirbook.
The Choirbook contains a substantial amount of music. Some composers
are represented by just one piece, whereas John Browne has no
less than fifteen of his pieces preserved in it. From this vast
collection Stephen Darlington has chosen five pieces, all of
them quite substantial and all of considerable interest. Music
from the Choirbook has been recorded by many ensembles, not
least by The Sixteen, but here Darlington offers us the authentic
experience of hearing it sung by an all-male church choir which
is just a little larger than the Eton establishment of the time:
the Eton choir consisted of sixteen choristers and ten lay clerks
while for this recording Christ Church’s choir comprised eighteen
trebles, four altos and five each of tenors and basses.
Just before discussing the performances, it’s appropriate to
note the reason for the well-chosen title of the CD. Stephen
Darlington tells us in the booklet that in 1515 an Italian visitor
to Eton described the singing he heard there as ‘more divine
I’m unsure if the music is presented in chronological order
in the programme. Indeed, little is known about many of the
composers whose music is included in the Choirbook, still less
is it possible to date with precision the date of composition
of individual pieces. However, to judge from the dates of birth
and death of the featured composers, it seems plausible to suppose
a rough chronology. Furthermore, the pieces do seem to grow
in complexity and intricacy as the disc progresses. So listening
to the contents of the disc in the order in which they’re presented
makes a lot of sense, I think. It was interesting to come to
this disc hot on the heels of reviewing a disc by the choir
of Edinburgh Cathedral devoted to the music of John Taverner.
Taverner’s music was probably written a little later than anything
on this present disc and his output represented the high water
mark of the English florid style. There’s nothing in this programme
to match the sheer exuberance of Taverner’s music though one
can sense that trait developing as the pieces succeed one another.
Interestingly, Darlington’s choir are not as unbuttoned and
open-throated as their Edinburgh peers – that’s not an implied
criticism – and their smoother, more mellifluous style is appropriate,
I think, to the slightly more sober, though no less interesting
music that they have recorded here.
John Fawkyner’s name was completely new to me and, it seems,
nothing is known of his life. Gaude rosa sine spina is
one of two pieces by him in the Choirbook. It’s not a particularly
elaborate piece. I think I’d describe it as patient music, since
it makes its effect cumulatively. Stephen Darlington’s fine
choir sing it with suitable patience too and build it up well
so that the final, affirmative stanza makes the proper effect.
There were two composers named William Cornysh, the second (younger?)
of whom died in 1523. It is thought that this setting of ‘Salve
Regina’ is by the earlier Cornysh, who can claim a footnote
in musical history as the very first informator choristorum
at Westminster Abbey. His five-part ‘Salve Regina’ shows an
advance on Fawkyner’s piece in that the music is richer in texture
and harmony and the polyphony is more intricate. It’s also a
very beautiful composition. The present performance is a splendid
one. Not only is the music very skilfully sung but a fine sense
of atmosphere is generated. Listening to it, I found it quite
easy to conjure up a mental picture of a candlelit evening rendition
in the Eton chapel.
Walter Lambe’s ‘Magnificat’ is an alternatim setting
This is a fine piece in which the polyphony frequently sounds
celebratory. Stephen Darlington leads a strong performance.
Equally successful is the account of Richard Davy’s In honore
summe matris. This is a luxuriantly expansive piece. The
technical aspects of the music are very clever for we read in
Timothy Symons’ good notes that the piece contains passages
for no less than nine different combinations of two-part writing.
These are all well done and the sections for full choir are
no less impressive. Towards the end, leading up to and during
the closing ‘Amen’, Davy employs triplets in some of the parts.
In my experience this rhythmic device is not that common in
music of this period and it makes an exciting effect.
Finally we hear Browne’s ‘Stabat Mater’, one of the jewels in
the Choirbook. As befits the text, the tone of the music is
quite sombre at the start but the music opens up as it unfolds
and much of the full choir writing is texturally rich. It’s
an imposing piece, which becomes ever more impressive as it
progresses, and the concluding ‘Amen’ is quite magnificent.
The choir perform it splendidly, sustaining the long lines,
which are musically and mentally taxing, expertly.
There’s some marvellous music here. Throughout this fine disc
the singing of the Christ Church is cultured and very impressive.
They display excellent control and the tone is full and consistently
pleasing to hear. There’s always good clarity in the delivery
of the part writing, no matter whether a small group or the
full choir is singing. It’s obvious that they’ve been expertly
trained by Stephen Darlington. The recorded sound is atmospheric
and reports the choir with clarity and presence.
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