Early Music

My friend Fiona mentioned on the phone that she had bought a ‘really weird CD.’ Being the sort of person I am, I cycled straight over and borrowed it. I played it once, and then pressed repeat and left it in the CD player for days. That disc was Music of the Gothic Era by David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London.

This music was foreign to me. I grew up listening to so called Classical music — from Bach to Stravinksy — and to the Jazz and Blues inflected Pop then current. These musics are all based upon a strong melody supported with harmonies, and often reinforced with counter melodies (called counterpoint). This music seemed to exist in a different set of dimensions to other forms of music. Polyphony is based upon a set vocal chant with more voices added in decoration. Polyphony simply means having many voices or sounds. As time passed, and musical notation improved, more and more voices, or parts, were added. This process of accumulation continued for hundreds of years. By the end of the Tudor period, Thomas Tallis set his Spem in Alium in 40 parts.

Music of the Gothic Era begins in the Notre Dame period — between about 1160 and 1250 AD. At the beginning of this period, the statement of the basic chant — called plainchant — predominates. In plainchant the whole choir sings each line together in unison. No matter how many choristers there are, they are singing a single voice, or part. The Church services for each day would be sung in plainchant, which has its origins in early Christian music. The style was probably appropriated in the 4th century from the music of the synagogue and certain pagan religious music. The innovation of the Notre Dame choristers was to weave a newly composed second part around the plainchant. This innovation is the beginning of polyphony.

The addition of a second part forms an audible space. The listener hears the difference between the sung notes, as if they were engaged in a delicately choreographed dance, spiralling about each other with no fixed centre. The listener is placed, as T.S.Eliot had it, ‘at the still point of the turning world’. It is as if a beautiful, but two dimensional, calligraphed line has been extended into the third dimension.

Ars Antiqua

As the title Notre Dame suggests, this was a style that began in Paris. During the 13th century it spread throughout France, and to Italy and England. In the next period — the Ars Antiqua (old art), from about 1250 to 1320 — the music becomes yet more decorated. Another vocal part may be added, along with additional words or mots, leading to the term motet to describe such pieces. A lilt enters the music, a joyfulness, a gladness in God, as it were.

I grew up in the heart of England, in Lichfield; a Cathedral town that dates back to pre-Roman times. In the 7 th century, St Chad founded one of the earliest English Christian communities there, and the diocese was the third archbishopric of Saxon England for a while. As a youngster, I spent a lot of time in the Cathedral — largely a Victorian reconstruction, but based upon a building begun in the reign of King John, around 1200.

Although I left the Christian religion at the beginning of my teens, it seemed to me that the Gothic cathedrals were a representation of the Christian belief in the majesty of God. They must have been overwhelming when they were finished, even one of the smaller buildings like Lichfield. They strove towards the heavens, reaching higher than anything constructed before them. The stained glass windows — before the iconoclast Puritans smashed them — would have told the miraculous stories of the Bible to a largely illiterate flock. And the streams of moving colour are still wonderful to behold in those few churches where they have survived. Not like the pallid Victorian substitutes that replace so many of the originals.

These marvels of engineering were the skyscrapers of their day. And they would have had a quite different appearance when new. They were also the focus, and the pride, of the community around them. Whole generations gave their lives to the construction of these monuments to human ingenuity and hope. Building became an expression of worship. And the stonemasons, who gave design to the buildings as they rose, were the supreme craftsmen of their day, revered above and beyond any poet, painter or sculptor. Theirs was a secret art, hinting at divinity. They could build high, vaulted arches, reaching for the first time beyond their Roman precursors, and almost into the heavens. They unified the most profound aesthetic and engineering skills.

It is no surprise that the new music was born in the Gothic church of Notre Dame. Those vaulted arches were filled with the polyphonic music of the Gothic period. Of course, such ascending spires give sustain, echo and reverberation to the music sung within them. Today it is still possible to hear a choir such as The Sixteen singing in such a place, and it is a heartlifting experience. The huge space, the ethereal light, and the voices of angels unite to give the audience a taste of heaven on Earth.

Ars Nova

Between 1320 and about 1380, the Ars Nova (new art) developed. With the Ars Nova comes a more exact form of musical notation that allowed composers to write down more precise parts, as well as a wider choice of rhythms. Works became longer, and more elaborate. The interweaving of voices seems to reach into yet another dimension, engaging the listener thoroughly, and directly affecting the emotions. The interweaving strands of colour transform like the changing light through stained glass.

A snobbery grew alongside this new music. One theorist wrote ‘This sort of song should not be performed before ordinary people, because they do not notice its fine points nor enjoy listening to it...’ It should be reserved for the learned, the élite. Thankfully, the snobs have not had their way, and the music is now freely available.

Other forms came into being — the chanson, the rondeau, the virelai and the ballade, for example. Songs began to circle through the same musical phrases, giving an almost hypnotic quality. Individual composers emerged during the Ars Nova, such as Philippe de Vitry, who is credited with the term itself, and Guillaume de Machaut, both of whom are represented on Music from the Gothic Era. A number of lovely mediaeval instruments are also played — shawm, mandora, harp, psaltery, fiddle and positive organ. The disc ends with a lovely instrumental piece by de Machaut, played on two cornetts, and alto shawm and bells. It could almost be the joyous awakening on the day of resurrection.

The Service of Venus and Mars

My second acquisition was the delightful Service of Venus and Mars by Christopher Page's Gothic Voices. This is subtitled Music for the Knights of the Garter, 1340-1440, and consists of secular music, along with the occasional song for the Virgin Mary. These include a haunting solo version of Lullay, Lullay, which describes a vision of the Virgin Mary representing motherhood. By this time the chivalric movement had brought about a more reverent attitude towards women, and Mary had come to personify womankind.

Ockeghem & Josquin

By the 15th century, a rich and complex music had developed in Europe. The Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (c.1420-1497), Chapel Master to Louis XI of France, is a fine example of this developing music. His pupil, the Dutch born Josquin des Prés (c.1440-1521), has been called ‘the father of modern harmony’. He was celebrated in his own time, and worked as Chapel Master to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Louis XII of France and the Emperor Maximilian I. I have the Naxos disc of Jeremy Summerly’s Oxford Camerata, which features Ockeghem’s Missa L’homme armé as well as Josquin’s Memor esto verbi tui. Peter Phillips’ Tallis Scholars have released beautiful versions of Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua and of his splendid L’homme armé Masses.

Medieval English Music

The English music of the 14th and 15th centuries is well represented on Medieval English Music by the Hilliard Ensemble. There is a tremendous lyrical sweetness to this music, which touches the heart and lifts the spirit. The Rondellu form is noticeable, where two voices either repeat phrases or answer each other. The use of Descant in English music is also apparent. Here there is an interval of a third between the voices. This had previously been thought of as dissonant. This use of Descant led to the recognition of an English style in continental Europe, which was known as La Contenance Angloise. From these beautiful beginnings the magnificent music of the English Tudor period would come.

John Sheppard

Listening to the radio over a decade ago, I first heard the Tallis Scholars wonderful Media vita by John Sheppard (c1515-1559). This was my introduction to the music of the Tudor court. Although it is a Mass for the dead — the opening line for which it is named is ‘In the midst of life we are in death’ — this is a celebration, rather than a dolorous piece (the same is true, of course, for Faure’s Requiem). Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars formed Gimmell Records in the 1980s, setting a high standard for the recording of Renaissance music. English Tudor music became famous throughout Christendom for its use of soaring treble parts, which seem to pierce the very veil of heaven.

It is only through the remarkable scholarship and musical artistry of Early Music groups that this wonderful music has again found an audience, much of it after centuries of neglect. It seems remarkable that when the Media vita was released Sheppard’s reputation had dwindled. Just over a decade later, he is quite rightly placed alongside the other great composers of his period, and there are many exceptional recordings of his work. Unfortunately, much of his music is incomplete, and has needed reconstruction. But, as it is the tenor part that is usually missing, this does not present a huge problem: Sheppard was one of the last composers to base his work on existing plainchant tenor parts, which are transcribed elsewhere. In his own time, Sheppard was highly regarded: he was a member of the Chapel Royal under three successive monarchs, the Protestant Edward VI, the Catholic Mary I, and their Protestant sister Elizabeth I.

The Tallis Scholars’ fine disc also includes a version of the lovely Verbum caro. This beautiful piece is also found on the Cantate mass and other sacred choral music by The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers. The Sixteen rapidly became my favourite choir, because they have covered my favourite composers extensively, their recordings are sensibly priced, and they have a wonderful, wonderful sound. I also have Sheppard’s Western Wynde Mass, by The Sixteen (both are double discs, by the way), and that led me back to John Taverner (c1490-1545), and his Mass of the same name. Taverner was employed at one time by Henry VIII’s enormously wealthy chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, so was a significant figure in his day.

John Taverner

In the early 1990s, The Sixteen recorded six excellent discs of Taverner’s music. These were reissued on the Helios label at a very low price in 2000. I bought all six for less than a fiver each — I still feel smug. All of the discs are quite simply wonderful, but my absolute favourites are Taverner’s Mass The Western Wynde and the Missa Corona Spinea (Mass of the Crown of Thorns). Because of the low price, and the high quality of the content, these would be a great introduction to Tudor polyphony. This is a music which seems to contain every shade of human feeling, expressed with a depth and a delicacy that dissolve the listener in its welcoming beauty.

The Flowering of Genius

I had the tremendous pleasure of seeing The Sixteen at Lincoln cathedral in 2001. They were touring a marvellous CD called The Flowering of Genius, which consists of Catholic music from the Tudor period and beyond. BBC Music Magazine rightly awarded a full five stars both to the performance and the recording of this remarkable disc, describing The Sixteen’s sound as ‘distilled’ and ‘ethereal’, and adding that it is ‘hard to imagine a more sublime performance’. The Sixteen had shortly before followed the example of The Tallis Scholars and formed their own, estimable record label — Coro. The performance was mesmerising, as is the recording.

Thomas Tallis

While it is unsurprising that Taverner and Sheppard wrote Catholic music — they lived during the religious transition — it is noteworthy that the two most significant composers in Elizabeth I’s royal chapel — Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and William Byrd (1543-1623) — did not follow the Protestant religion. Elizabeth was not generally known for her love of Roman Catholics, but she recognised the enormous talent of these two brilliant men, and protected them throughout her reign. Tallis is represented with two pieces on The Flowering of Genius and Byrd with one. The Tallis Scholars, as their name suggests, have made a number of excellent recordings of that fine composer’s music. The most ambitious piece being their fine version of 40 part Spem in Alium. The Sixteen have recently released the first surround sound DVD-A of this astonishing piece. It is simply one of the most entrancing performances I have ever heard. There are moments where the fabric of time and space is rent, and the concerns of the mundane mind seem to melt in exultation.

William Byrd

William Byrd is seen by some as the pinnacle of Tudor music. It is said that his elegance in composition is unrivalled. His three Masses are all presented on a Nimbus eight disc set that includes work by Taverner and Sheppard, as well as several later composers of choral music. As is usual with Nimbus, the recordings are very well made. The choir of Christ Church Cathedral Choir Oxford is directed by Stephen Darlington. This choir includes boy trebles who give a particular quality to this music, celebrated in its own time for its ecstatic soprano parts. When I bought them, the set of four discs — over eight hours of music in all — cost a mere £20.

Continental music

I reserve a special place for the English Tudor composers, but there were a number of European composers of equal power. I have already mentioned The Flowering of Genius, which includes work by the Spaniards Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) and Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), and the Fleming Philippe de Monte (1521-1603). All marvellous pieces. I am eager to hear The Sixteen’s disc The Call of the Beloved, a collection of pieces by Victoria.

Palestrina & Allegri

A few weeks ago, I caught the end of a lustrous piece on the radio. It turned out to be an Agnus Dei by Palestrina (1525-1594) who was Chapel Master to the Pope. I rushed to The Sixteen’s website where I failed to find the recording, but did find the wonderful rendition of Tallis’s Spem in Alium, which I have mentioned, and an irresistible John Tavener recording to which I will turn soon. The Palestrina came from a disc titled for its inclusion of the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652).

The Palestrina is part of his delightful Missa Papae Marcelli, first published in 1567. It is said that this beautiful Mass was written in response to the injunction of the Council of Trent that music should be made more ‘intelligible’. This followed the Protestant reformation, and the insistence that the worship of God was becoming vain, and more concerned with aesthetics than worship. The texts were being lost under the weight of ornamentation; Renaissance Humanism was exalting the composer rather than God. There was a call for a return to monophonic — or single voice — plainchant for the Church liturgy. Some say that Palestrina alone rescued polyphony by writing this celestial, yet crystal clear, Mass. The disc also has a lovely version of the composer’s Stabat Mater (The Virgin Mary standing sorrowful at the foot of the cross...).

I already have a splendid version of Allegri’s Miserere by The Tallis Scholars (on Music from the South Bank Show), but I am very happy to add this exceptionally beautiful rendition. On both, the female soprano parts are absolutely transfixing. The Miserere was written for performance in the Sistine Chapel, in about 1638. It was sung once a year at the end of Holy Week, in complete darkness, as the Pope knelt before the altar. The work attained almost supernatural status, because successive Popes refused to publish it, and it was only ever performed in the Sistine Chapel. More than a century passed before Mozart transcribed the Miserere from memory. The setting performed by The Sixteen was made by the great composer Mendelssohn. The Miserere is a setting of Psalms 50 and 51. Miserere means ‘have mercy upon me’.

The disc begins with a superlative Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti (1667-1740). The notes explain that historian Charles Burney was moved to tears when he heard this piece. You will understand why when you hear it; it reaches straight into the heart.

Ikon of Light

The John Tavener disc that I was tempted to buy from The Sixteen’s website was by a composer who may be related to the Tudor composer (spelled Tave r ner). This contemporary composer came to international fame a few years ago with his stunning piece The Protecting Veil. In a recent television documentary (Choral Ikons, available on DVD), Tavener explained his commitment to the Orthodox religion, and his desire to use music as a direct access to faith in God. I am by nature an agnostic, more inclined towards the Buddhist impersonal view, but Ikon of Light is certainly a transcendent experience. It pierces the heart with compassionate sorrow and with joy, and very directly shares with the listener the composer’s own profound belief.

The disc opens with Two Hymns to the Mother of God, written in 1985, and dedicated to the memory of the composer’s mother. They are the most ethereal and delicate of works, giving a sure sense of the pure and unconditional love of a good mother. As with all great polyphony, they give access to another world, a world of uncontaminated emotion. The influences of both Orthodox music and Renaissance polyphony are evident throughout Tavener’s work.

The settings of Blake’s Lamb and Tyger are resonant with beauty and with Tavener’s joy in God. They date from 1982 and 1987 respectively. Both are fine settings of these well known poems, and Blake’s very immediate religious belief seems a fitting compliment to Tavener’s own. The Lamb is as simple as its subject, imbued with a quiet delicacy. The Tyger boasts all the startling strength of that most majestic of creatures. It veritably stalks up, and then pounces upon the listener. The use of a bass drone through the first four verses is captivating, bringing vividly to mind those ‘forests of the night’. And again through Tavener’s genius, and the eloquence of the performers, the listener catches a glimpse of that ‘immortal hand’.

Ikon of Light itself is a setting of the Mystic Prayer to the Holy Spirit of St. Simeon, called the ‘new theologian’. The prayer exalts the concept of ‘uncreated light’ — a light only seen by those transformed by grace. It is indeed a luminous work, moving between solo choir, and choir punctuated by an astonishing setting for string quartet. Tavener is a master not only of sound, but also of silence. A silence that is truly suffused with meaning. Again the bass voices are enchanting, and the sopranos reach into the celestial.

The Ikon is followed by Tavener’s 1989 setting of the carol Today the Virgin by Mother Thekla (with whom Tavener also wrote the opera Mary of Egypt). The disc closes with the heart-rending Eonia — the Jasmine, also from 1989. This haunting piece was written as a memorial tribute to one of Tavener’s friends. Tavener asks that it be sung with ‘no expression’. It is based upon a text by Angelos Sikelianos, and I defy anyone not to be moved by the delivery of the line ‘He asked for bread and we gave Him a stone...’ which speaks profoundly to our everyday failures in compassion.

I have ended with Tavener’s recent work, in a leap of several centuries, because it is a fitting continuation of the remarkable works of his polyphonic predecessors, and a beautiful collection that should be heard by all who have ears.

And now I must rush out and buy a dictionary of superlatives, having exhausted my stock on this immeasurably heartlifting music.

April 2004