Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Chorus vel Organa: Music from the Lost Palace of Westminster

Chorus vel Organa
Nicholas Ludford, William Cornysh, John Sheppard; Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Geoffrey Webber, Magnus Williamson; Delphain
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 15 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Late-Tudor polyphony for the Palace of Westminster, exploring the little known use of the organ in pre-Reformation worship

This latest disc from Geoffrey Webber, the Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge and organist Magnus Williamson on the Delphian label, explores the music used in the chapels of the pre-Reformation Palace of Westminster. The music movements from Nicholas Ludford's Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum and Lady Mass Cycle, William Cornysh's Magnificat, and John Sheppard's Sancte De pretiose. What makes the disc all the more fascinating is the inclusion of an organ, exploring the use of organ in the repertoire; something that rarely gets a mention in recitals of pre-Reformation music.

The collegiate chapel, St Stephen's College, in the Palace of Westminster was founded by Edward I and maintained a strong musical tradition until the college was dissolved in 1548 when the chapel became the first permanent meeting place of the House of Commons. It is known that the chapel had an organ, but no English organs survive from the period, and precious little music. What organ music does survive is in post-Reformation copies.

The St Teilo organ in situ in St Teilo's Church at St Fagans
The St Teilo organ in situ in St Teilo's Church at St Fagans
The organ used on the disc owes its existence to a remarkable survival, in 1977 a pre-Reformation organ soundboard was discovered in a church in Suffolk, and this has enabled organ builders to create a pre-Reformation English style organ. Goetze & Gwynn built such an organ for Bangor University's 'The Experience of Worship' project, and the organ is housed at St Teilo's Church which is now at St Fagan's in Cardiff.

Royal part-books bearing the coats of arms of Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon contain a cycle of Masses for Our Lady (for each day of the week) including Mass Propers as well as the Ordinary, set for three parts. And on this disc we hear the Kyrie (from Tuesday), Sequence (from Wednesday), Agnus Dei (from Thursday) and Gloria (from Monday). The music has organ versets, which are improvised by Magnus Williamson based on a few surviving originals from the 1530's. John Sheppard's Sancte Dei Pretiose is performed in a similar manner.


The organ is small scale but vigorous and robust sounding, and Williamson's improvisations sound convincing and form an interesting dialogue with the polyphonic choral textures. The performance really sheds new light on the sounds that would have been heard in the pre-Reformation chapel.

Nicholas Ludford was employed at St Stephen's College from around 1520. His Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum survives in the Caius Choirbook (now in Gonville and Caius College), but the manuscript seems to have been commissioned by a canon at St Stephens from 1517. The mass is a complex five-part polyphonic work; no organ here, instead just the glories of late Tudor polyphony.

Whereas the cycle of three-part Lady-masses would have been heard in the lower chapel at St Stephen's as part of the daily worship, Ludford's Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum would have been used on the grander festival occasions in the upper chapel (the chapel was two tier, like the Sainte Chapelle in Paris). The lower chapel survives  (as the Chapel of St Mary, Undercroft), and as part of the University of York's Virtual St Stephen's Project, the choir performed some of Ludford's music in the space for which it was written (see the video below).

William Cornysh's Magnificat is also in the Caius Choirbook, it is not certain which of the two William Cornysh's wrote it but it is a large scale and rather wondrous piece. It is normally performed with polyphony alternating chant, but here the choir perform in 'faburden' with the chant in the middle of a three voiced texture. The result is very striking and again, it brings whole new light onto the polyphony.

The choir sing very finely, giving a nicely blended sound with the bright young voices giving the music a flexibility. Just occasionally you sense quite how taxing this music is. The five-part music is sung multiple singers per part, but the three-part pieces use fewer voice, often just one to a part. And in the organ passages, Magnus Williamson brings the music to life.

There is not an exceptional amount of Nicholas Ludford available on disc. The Cardinall's Music recorded four discs of Ludford's festal masses (including Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum) in the 1990's but I am not certain whether the Lady Mass cycle has ever made it do disc.

Yet again Geoffrey Webber and his ensemble have shown their incurable curiosity in shedding light on unusual corners of the repertoire.



Nicholas Ludford (c1485-1557) - Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum - Gloria, Agnus Dei
Nicholas Ludford (c1485-1557) - Lady Mass Cycle - Alleluia, Kyrie, Sequence: Laetabundus, Gloria
William Cornysh (d1502 or 1465-1523) - Magnificat
John Sheppard (c1515-1558) - Hymn: Sancte Dei pretiose
Anon - Processional: Sancte Dei pretiose (from 1519 Sarum Antiphoner)
Anon - Offertory: Felixnamque (c1530)
Choir of Gonville and Caius College
Magnus Williamson (organ)
James Leitch (organ)
Geoffrey Webber (conductor)
Recorded 16-19 July 2015, St Laurence's Church, Ludlow, Shropshire
DELPHIAN DCD34158 1CD [66.56]
Available from Amazon.
Elsewhere on this blog:

No comments:

Post a comment

Popular Posts this month