NOTES ON THE PROGRAM

Tonight’s program presents music from one of the most prolific periods of composition in English history, the Middle Ages. English composers were much admired by their continental counterparts in Europe and their influence on some of the greatest composers of the 15th century, such as Binchois and Dufay, was readily acknowledged. Indeed, the venerated theorist Johannes Tinctoris, working in Naples in the 1470’s, gave English composers the credit for inventing a ‘New Art’ that was adopted and followed right up until his own time.

It was not just in the field of composition that English musicians excelled. At the Council of Constance, held from 1414-1418, the locals were reportedly enchanted by the quality of the visiting English polyphonic singers and the skill of the wind-band performers. That English vocalists were so admired should perhaps come as no surprise. Some of the most famous English choirs of today, Winchester Cathedral and St. Paul’s Cathedral, to name but two, had their origins in choir schools that were established in the later part of the 13th century.

Yet why is it that so little English music of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance is known today? The answer lies in the fact that one of the traditionally acknowledged heroes of English music, King Henry VIII, is also one of its chief villains.

In the 1520’s, King Henry VIII, married at the time to Katherine of Aragon, began a romantic entanglement with Lady Anne Boleyn. Henry wished to obtain a divorce from Katherine, but he was denied this by the Church of Rome. His reaction was to take England out of the Roman Catholic Church and establish the Church of England, thereby allowing him to begin divorce proceedings in 1527. Now free of Rome, Henry began to covet the wealth and riches held by the Catholic foundations (monasteries, abbeys and churches) and it was within the libraries of these institutions that the great majority of the most important music manuscripts in the land were housed. When Henry announced the dissolution, the sacking and destruction that ensued wiped out almost all of the music composed in the previous 500 years.

That any of the music has survived is due to remarkably good fortune. Copies of the music that had been commissioned for use in foreign chapels and taken to destinations in the Low Countries, Italy and beyond, survived the catastrophe. Beyond this, however, detective work by musicologists has revealed that some of the paper on which the music was written was not completely destroyed but used instead to cover new books, much in the same way that children today use odds and ends of paper to cover school books. In some instances enough pages survived in this manner to make it possible to re-construct complete pieces, offering a fascinating cross-section of medieval English church music. One of the largest collections of these fragments was found in the cathedral library at Worcester, smaller ones at Meaux and Fountains Abbey: each of these sources is represented in tonight’s program.

The Music

Of the many compositions preserved in the Worcester Fragments, which date from the late 13th and early 14th centuries, one can see both an awareness of foreign styles and an articulation of purely English mannerisms. Alleluia moduletur is one of the earliest pieces in the collection and is strongly influenced by the Parisian ‘Notre Dame’ school of composition. In contrast, O sponsa dei electa is unmistakably English, displaying a harmonic fondness for intervals of a third and a sixth, a contrast to the continental preference for sweeter fourths and fifths. The Sanctus is a gentle and lilting setting that stands in its own right and is unrelated to any settings of the other Mass movements. Thomas gemma Cantuarie celebrates St. Thomas Becket in the highest part, while the second voice address Thomas of Dover (d.1295), thereby giving a clue to the possible date of composition. The piece is structured as a set of variations over a repeated patter, or ‘ground’.

Meaux and Fountains Abbeys were Cistercian abbeys in Yorkshire, in the North of England, and musicologists debate whether or not, as foundations with a reputation for austerity and which looked with suspicion on polyphony, this music would ever have been sung there. Spiritus at alme - Gaude virgo salutata (which along with the rest of the manuscript is now to be found at the University of Chicago) combines a well-known Marian Gloria text with the text of a Marian sequence: these are declaimed simultaneously. Chosen from the first set of Fountains Abbey Fragments, dating from the middle of the 14th century, Ave mundi rosa is a sequence of verses dedicated to the Virgin, set in a florid style with all the parts moving together. The Credo comes from the second set of fragments, compiled approximately 50 years later. It is written for four voices, all independent of each other and a sense of speeding up and slowing down is cleverly achieved by changing the time signature rather than the actual tempo.

Next come two pieces with royal connections - this helps suggest why they survived unlike so many of their contemporaries. Both En Katerine solennia by Bittering and the Sanctus by Roy Henry are to be found in the Old Hall Manuscript, a manuscript that was copied for use in the chapels of the royal court and which lay for many years in the library of St. Edmund’s College, Ware, some 40 miles from London. Bittering uses a text in praise of St. Katherine and there can be little doubt that he chose it as an allusion to the royal marriage of King Henry V and Princess Katherine of France soon after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The Sanctus is attributed to ‘Roy’ Henry, but whether the composer was really King Henry V, or perhaps his son King Henry VI is unknown.

As has been suggested, foreign scholars and musicians who included England on their schedule of travels throughout Europe would regularly return home armed with manuscripts that could be copied for use in their own chapels. The most important collection of English polyphonic music to have survived is to be found today in Trento in Northern Italy: six large folios are held by the Museo Provinciale d’Arte (MSS 87, 88, 89, 90 and 92) and the Museo Diocesano (MS 93). Two of these (MSS 87 and 92) were probably brought from Basel and Strasbourg, although the other four were actually inscribed in Trento by cleric musicians of the cathedral. The anonymous Stella celi is a wonderful example of the kind of piece that would have been lost forever were it not for the active international ‘trade’ in music manuscripts.

The reputation of John Dunstaple and his connections with royalty have ensured that a significant body of his music has survived both in England and Europe. Until very recently, tantalizingly little was known about Dunstaple’s life and career except for his death date, Christmas eve 1453, and an association with John, Duke of Bedford, a younger brother of King Henry V. We now know, however, that he was also employed by the widow of King Henry IV (d.1413), from whom he also received an annuity, valuables and robes. After her death and that of King Henry V (d.1422) and John, Duke of Bedford, he passed into the service of her last remaining son, Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester. Dunstaple also had strong links with St. Albans Abbey, and on his death the Abbot wrote the following epitaph:

"He is enclosed in this tomb who enclosed heaven in his breast, John Dunstaple, who had secret knowledge of the stars........This man was your glory, your light, your prince, O Music; and one who has scattered your sweet arts throughout the world."

The grand motet Veni sancte spiritus / Veni creator spiritus with its simultaneous texts was composed in time for performance in 1416 as part of the thanksgiving ceremonies held at Canterbury Cathedral in the aftermath of the victory at Agincourt and attended by King Henry V and the Emperor Sigismund. Descendi in ortum meum is a sonorous motet with a text from the Song of Songs. It is another piece that could so easily have been lost for all time thanks to the destructive work of King Henry VIII’s men. However, when the Oxford scholar Margaret Bent was studying two separate fragmentary manuscripts, each of which contained two voice parts of untitled and mostly untexted four-part pieces, she was the first person to notice that, as if it were a medieval jigsaw, the parts belonged together. From these scraps the original masterpiece was resurrected.

While John Dunstaple is the most familiar composer of this era, other composers must have played their part in musical developments. Little biographical information is known about Pyamour and Forest, other than that the former probably belonged to the Chapel Royal. Pyamour’s Quam pulcra es, his sole surviving work, is characteristic of Song of Songs settings of the period - more intimate and free-flowing than most motets and alternating long, shapely melismas with conspicuously declaimed passages. Forest’s Tota pulcra es is less ambitious but none the less beautiful, and the piece is especially notable for the gentle rhetoric of its closing section.

The final items in the program represent the post-Dunstaple generation. One Mass and four motets are all the music by Plummer that has survived, yet the large-scale Anna mater matris Christi reveals him to have been a composer of grand design. The text is dedicated to Mary’s mother and the passing of melodic phrases from voice to voice is a notable feature. Audivi vocem is a ‘respond’; those parts of the plainsong chant upon which the piece is based that would normally have been sung by the celebrant are replaced by polyphony (the chant can be heard in the tenor part), and the remainder is left in unadorned plainsong.

Although most of the repertory that survived in England was intended for the private chapels of the great and powerful, or for choral establishments founded by them, more provincial sources are not unknown. Into this category falls the Ritson manuscript, which was possibly copied for a Franciscan monastery in Devon in the west of England. The two anonymous motets in this program are highly sophisticated. Though short, Ave regina celorum is full of artifice, the complex interaction of the four voices looking forward to the intricacies of English music at the end of the 15th century. The three-voice Gaude virgo is comparable in style but rhythmically more robust and involving more imitative counterpoint. Though this music is difficult to date with certainty, the 1450’s or 1460’s seem likely.

Walter Lambe, the youngest composer represented here, was employed periodically at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, from 1479 until 1504. Since Stella celi was a popular prayer for relief from the plague, and an outbreak had killed his immediate predecessor there, this setting may have been one of the first products of his new employment. Be that as it may, it was entered into the Eton Choirbook, the most opulent collection of Marian antiphons from 15th-century England. Its gracious lines and fluid rhythms render it a worthy tribute to the longevity of the ‘English manner’.

THE ORLANDO CONSORT

 

Formed in 1988 by the Early Music Centre of Great Britain, the Orlando Consort has rapidly achieved a reputation as one of the most expert and consistently challenging groups performing repertoire from the years 1050 to 1500. While all four singers in the group are established soloists, they also contribute enormous experience and expertise in the field of early music gained through working with groups such as the Tallis Scholars and the Gabrieli and Taverner Consorts. Working with leading academics on music that has often never been performed in modern times, they have set new standards of performance, particularly with regard to the pronunciation and tuning of this fascinating repertoire. For their work on the extraordinary techniques of 12th Century Aquitanian polyphony they were awarded the 1996 Noah Greenberg Award by the American Musicological Society. In recent times the Consort has also attracted considerable attention for their imaginative programming of contemporary music.

The group has made numerous commercial recordings with Saydisc, Metronome and the Deutsche Grammophon label ‘Archiv’. ‘The Mystery of Notre Dame (works by Perotin and others) was nominated for an Edison award in the Netherlands, while Loyset Compère, 1445-1518, Popes and Antipopes (Papal music from the 14th and 15th Centuries), Passiontide (15th Century Flemish Easter music), the Missa De plus en plus by Ockeghem, ‘The Saracen and the Dove (Music for the courts of Padua and Pavia), and Motets by Josquin Desprez have all been short listed for Gramophone Awards. ‘he Works of John Dunstaple won the 1996 Gramophone Award for Early Music. Their most recent release, Food, Wine and Song marks their first release for Harmonia Mundi USA and has been described in the press as having attained the "standard by which other performances should be judged".

The Orlando Consort have made frequent appearances on the British and Dutch Early Music Networks. Regular performers at the Wigmore Hall and Purcell Room in London, the Consort has also sung in festivals in Santander, Valencia, Las Palmas and Madrid (Spain), Alden Biesen, Antwerp, and Bruges (Belgium), Regensburg, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Cologne, and Berlin (Germany), Vienna, Graz, Feldkirchen and Melk (Austria), Athens (Greece), Amiens and Le Thoronnet (France), Jaroslaw and Warsaw (Poland), Plzen and Prague (Czech Republic), St. Petersburg (Russia), Florence, Venice, Rome and Padua (Italy), and Skara (Sweden), as well as the Spitalfields Festival, the Bury St. Edmunds, Aldeburgh, St. David’s, Stour, Deal, Brinkburn, Hexham, Cheltenham and Chester Festivals, the Manchester Early Music Series, the City of London Festival, the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (a performance subsequently nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award), and both the Beverley and York Early Music Festivals. The Consort performed in November 1992 at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, USA) at a conference held in honor of the 500th anniversary of the death of Antoine Busnoys. In 1993 and 2000 they appeared at the Annual Meetings of the American Musicological Society held in Montreal and Toronto (Canada), and in June 1997 they gave two concerts at the Boston Early Music Festival. They were Artists-in-Residence at Queen’s University, Belfast from 1993-94 and are currently an Associate Ensemble at Southampton University. The Consort made their debut at the BBC Proms in the 1997 season, returning in 2001, and at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1998. The group has toured extensively in the United States and Japan, and has traveled on a six-concert tour to Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In April 2000 the Consort performed the inaugural concert at the National Centre for Early Music in York.

The work of the Orlando Consort extends well beyond conventional early music presentation: they have frequently performed with local amateur choirs and with the actors Robert Hardy and Prunella Scales. In the next year they will be extending their collaborations with the jazz quartet ‘Perfect Houseplants’ and the brilliant Dutch ensemble, The Calefax Reed Quintet. The coming season also includes visits to the USA, Holland, Italy, France, Spain and Japan.

For more information please visit our website: www.orlandoconsort.com

 


This concert is made possible in part by a grant from the City of Houston and Harris County through the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County


http://www.HoustonEarlyMusic.org
P.O. Box 271193 | Houston TX 77277-1193 | Phone 713-432-1744 | email info@HoustonEarlyMusic.org
Copyright 1996-2003 by Houston Early Music.  Updated May 11, 2003