Taverner & Tudor, vol I+2

Johan van Veen, Musica Dei Donum
Tirsdag, 18. maj Musica Dei Donum

The two discs reviewed here concentrate on music written in England around the time of the Act of Supremacy (1534), which marked the split with the Roman Catholic Church and the foundation of the Church of England. The first disc brings music which was largely composed before this happened. The main composer of sacred music at the time was John Taverner. Despite his reputation not that much is known about his life. Although he had no official ties with the court there seem to have been connections with some circles at the court. In 1526 he became Informator (choirmaster) at Cardinal College (now Christ Church) in Oxford. Here he had a choir of no less than 16 choristers and 12 clerks at his disposal. The College was founded by Cardinal Wolsey. But when he fell from royal favour the provision for choral services was greatly reduced. In 1530 Taverner returned to his native county Lincolnshire and lived a prosperous life in Boston, then one of the richest towns in England thanks to the wool trade. Here he became associated with the choir of the Guild of St Mary, but little is known of his musical activities.

Both discs centre around one of Taverner's Masses. Both are remarkable in various ways.

The Missa Western Wind is noticeable for being one of the very few English masses based upon a secular cantus firmus. The same song was used for masses by John Sheppard and Christopher Tye. Even when one doesn't know the song - and the version which has been preserved is somewhat different from the cantus firmus in the Mass - it is easily recognizable as the tune is used 36 times in the whole work, a number of times in the upper voice. As usual in pre-Reformation masses the Kyrie is not set polyphonically: it was common to sing a Kyrie with tropes (additional free texts) in honour of a saint or feast. The Western Wind Mass is introduced by the Kyrie Leroy. The disc ends with In pace in idipsum by Christopher Tye, a respond sung at Compline during Lent. The Mass is interspersed by four carols from the Fayrfax Manuscript, which was compiled around 1500. The term carol is nowadays almost exclusively associated with Christmas, but originally it has nothing to do with it. A carol is a sacred or secular song with similar stanzas and provided with a refrain or chorus. The four carols on this disc are all on the subject of Christ's Passion. Woefully arrayed by William Cornysh contains quite strong text expression, for instance on the words "They mowed, they grinned, they scorned me". The anonymous Ah, my dear son is for high voices only. The first stanza of Ah, gentle Jesu by Sheryngham, a composer about whom nothing is known, not even his Christian name, is a kind of dialogue between the sinner - the high voices - and Jesus, sung by the low voices. This stanza is repeated at the end. John Browne must have been a composer of a considerable reputation. He is mainly known for his Stabat mater which is in the famous Eton Choirbook. His carol Jesu, mercy is also an expressive piece of music, for instance on the lines "And suffer would pain as sorrowful thought, with weeping, wailing, yea, sowning for woe".

The Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas is Taverner's most famous mass, in particular as his setting of the words "in nomine Domini" in the Benedictus was used by many composers for writing consort pieces. In fact, it created a whole genre, the In Nomine. The cantus firmus is 'Gloria tibi Trinitas', an antiphon for the Vespers of Trinity Sunday. Therefore the Mass is sung together with plainchant propers for Trinity Sunday. Also included are pieces by composers of an earlier (Robert Fayrfax) or later (Byrd, Tallis, White) generation. Fayrfax was one of the most prominent composers before Taverner. He was Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and participated in many occasions of the state, like the funeral of Henry VII and the coronation of Henry VIII. His Magnificat Regale is also part of the Eton Choirbook.

The pieces by William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Robert White are hymns which are part of the ritual at the evening service of Compline. In Byrd's Christe qui lux es et dies the cantus firmus moves from the lowest voice upward through the voices until it reaches the upper voice.

Paul Hillier is the chief conductor of Ars Nova Copenhagen since 2003 and therefore it is probably not very surprising that the sound of the ensemble is very much alike that of comparable English ensembles. Fortunately it produces a more releaxed sound than, for instance, the Tallis Scholars. Also they have avoided the dominance of the upper voices, which is a deficiency of some ensembles of this kind. I am very impressed by the beautiful and stylish singing of Ars Nova Copenhagen, which suits the repertoire on these discs very well. The passages which are particularly striking in regard to text expression are excellently realised. The diction is very good, and the acoustical circumstances suitable to the repertoire. Maybe the carols could have done with a more intimate atmosphere as they were probably not meant to be sung in church. Disappointing is that no attempt has been made to sing the carols in a historical pronunciation. Still, with these two discs one gets some of the most impressive specimen of English 16th-century polyphony in very good performances.