There is certainly no lack of interest in the Eton Choirbook among vocal ensembles. A considerable number of recordings have been devoted to this important collection of sacred music from the English renaissance. This is the second disc by the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. The first volume was reviewed here
The Eton Choirbook was put together around 1500 and originally comprised 94 pieces by the then leading composers in England. 64 of these compositions have survived complete. One of the incomplete works is O Maria plena gracia
by Walter Lambe. A complete performance as on this disc is possible because the same piece is included in another source of the same period, the Lambeth Choirbook
. It is also the longest piece in the whole collection. Apart from its length it is notable for various reasons. Lambe is the only composer of the renaissance who set this text. It is not written in poetry, as was common, but in prose, and is in the first person singular. It is divided into a number of sections which differ in scoring. The sections for full choir are largely syllabic; melismatic passages are included in the episodes for a smaller number of voices.
The differentiation in the number of voices is one way in which composers of this time singled out parts of the text. In his setting of Salve Regina
Robert Wylkynson mostly reduces the number of voices, but all nine of them participate in three passages: "O clemens" (O merciful one), "O pia" (O pitying one) and the closing phrase: "O dulcis Maria, salve" (O sweet Mary, hail). The scoring for nine voices is not unusual in this collection: there are various pieces for a relatively large number of voices. These include the opening motet, O Maria salvatoris mater
which is for eight voices - not for double choir, to avoid any misunderstanding. There is a strong contrast with the next piece, Ave Maria, mater Dei
by William Cornysh, which is for four voices - without trebles - and which is also the shortest piece in the Eton Choirbook.
The composers included here all belong to those who are well represented in the collection. John Browne is present with ten works, Davy with nine, Lambe with eight, Wylkynson with seven and Cornysh with five. Browne may have been associated with Eton College when he was a treble; later he may have gone to New College in Oxford. He is generally considered the main composer in the period between Dunstaple and Taverner. Little is known about Davy, apart from the fact that he was a scholar and informator choristarum
(instructor of the choristers) at Magdalen College in his early years. He has become best-known for composing the first Passion setting in England which is also included in the Eton Choirbook, but is incomplete.
Walter Lambe was probably born in Salisbury and was for some time scholar at Eton College. Later he worked at St George's Chapel, Windsor. Wylkynson was active at Eton College as a singing clerk and as informator choristarum
. Cornysh was closely connected to the court. He was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and became Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal in 1509. He has become best-known for his secular partsongs in the vernacular, such as A robyn, gentyl robyn
and Woffully araid
Despite the differences between the pieces of the programme, described by Timothy Symons in the booklet, there is also a strong degree of coherence: all the pieces are connected to the virgin Mary who was especially venerated at Eton College. The college was dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. There was a Salve
ceremony every day, at which the sixteen choristers amd their master would perform an antiphon in her honour.
The reference to the number of singers involved brings us to matters of performance practice. The list of singers in this recording includes 32, exactly twice the number Symons mentions in his liner-notes. The number of trebles is fourteen, almost as many as the whole number of choristers in the time the Eton Choirbook was put together. This is probably due to their way of singing. The sound of the trebles is sweet and soft-edged, and seems to reflect more the 'angelic' ideal of the Victorian era than the way trebles used to sing earlier in history. In recent decades various British choirs of boys and men have adopted a different approach in which the training of the boy's voice leads to a stronger sound, which is sometimes called 'continental'. Examples are the choirs of New College Oxford and St John's College Cambridge. The effect could be that fewer singers are needed and as a result that transparency is greater.
The size of the choir also affects the delivery. It is true that in this repertoire the text is not central. However, this should not mean that the listener can hardly understand a word. That is exactly the case here as soon as the full choir sings. When you have lost track of the progress of a piece it is hard to find out where the singers are, even with the lyrics in front of you. In passages for a reduced number of voices the text is much better audible which only confirms my view that a smaller choir would have been preferable. It should be added that in those passages the vibrato of some of the lower voices is clearly noticeable. This is definitely not apt in this kind of repertoire.
The last issue concerns the text of the first motet, O Maria salvatoris mater
by Browne. According to the booklet the text "shows signs of having been written by someone (Browne himself?) with an imperfect understanding of poetic structure." Several examples are mentioned. It has been decided to correct these 'imperfections'. I find this decision incomprehensible. For me it is a matter of principle not to correct a composer. It is different when the music is known from a copy by someone else, and the copyist has made a clear error. However, the Eton Choirbook was carefully put together and it is highly unlikely that imperfections would not have been corrected if they were considered a problem. Apparently that was not the case. Modern performers should reconcile themselves to this situation.
The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral is an excellent ensemble, no doubt about that. The singing here is admirable, and I certainly don't want to give the impression that this disc is not good. It is. However, it could have been better with a different approach in regard to the size of the choir and the style of singing of, in particular, the trebles. Fairly recently I reviewed a disc with motets from the Eton Choirbook by the Huelgas Ensemble (review
). The approach to this repertoire is quite different and I found the results convincing. With its 15 voices the ensemble is sufficient to interpret the music from the Eton Choirbook.
Johan van Veen