Thursday 8 December 2022

Music that barely survived, brought back to life: Ensemble Pro Victoria's Tudor Music Afterlives

Tudor Music Afterlives - Ensemble Pro Victoria - Delphian
Tudor Music Afterlives: Taverner, John Sheppard, Jacob Clemens non Papa, Jacotin Le Bel (or Claudin de Sermisy), Philip van Wilder, Orlande Lassus, Robert Parson, John Taverner and Christopher Tye, Ensemble Pro Victoria, Toby Ward, Toby Carr, Magnus Williamson; Delphian
Reviewed 6 December 2022 (★★★★)

A fascinating disc that examines the diverse after-lives of the pieces of Tudor music that were overlooked, forgotten or discarded, all in stylish and vibrant performances

This new disc from Toby Ward and Ensemble Pro Victoria on Delphian has the somewhat confusing title of Tudor Music Afterlives, and on it, the ensemble performs music by Tallis, Nicholas Ludford, John Taverner, John Sheppard, Jacob Clemens non Papa, Jacotin Le Bel (or Claudin de Sermisy), Philip van Wilder, Orlande Lassus, Robert Parson, John Taverner and Christopher Tye.

The idea behind the disc is to look at the wide variety of ways Tudor music survived, to go beyond the seeming monolith of the works that have a secure history to those that have only partially survived, survived in another form or have been reused.

We begin with a bit of creative re-use, Thomas Tallis' O sacrum convivium which began as a viol consort, got worked into a Latin motet for Queen Mary and was then reinvented again with an English text. This is a beautifully well-made piece that belies the complexities of its background, and Ensemble Pro Victoria sings it with a vibrant sense of line and lovely clarity.

Nicholas Ludford worked in the Chapel Royal at St Stephen's Chapel in the Palace of Westminster (which became the home of the House of Commons). His Lady Masses only just survived, as a single copy from the Royal library. This includes the vocal parts and a sketch of the organ music. The masses were performed alternim, polyphony alternating with solo organ. This latter was improvised and only a single line was preserved in m/s, the rest was invented by the player. So here, for the piece to have an afterlife, the modern performer must do a deal of recreation. A lot of what we hear on the disc is thus modern, inflected by the performer's absorption of historical styles. On the disc, we heart two Kyrie movements and an Alleluia. The style here is striking, Magnus Williamson's short yet vigorous pieces of polyphonic improvisation alternating with poised yet elaborate polyphony. 

The Ludford Alleluia uses the text Veni electa mea, which was also set by John Tavener. When this became unusable in a liturgical context, it was turned into a lute song, the voice singing the top line, the melodic part, and the lower voices covered by the lute. Here performed by soprano Fiona Fraser and lutenist Toby Carr, with David de Winter singing the chant that alternates with the lute song, a fascinating example of the way this sort of music was domesticated. And at the end we get Tavener's full version, for comparison!

Tavener's motet Quemadmodum desiderat cervus exists only in its Tudor afterlife. It survived in important 16th century part books but seems to lack the original source. It is a sober, rather dark-toned motet which responds to the ensemble's mixing of vibrant tone and characterful individual line.

When John Sheppard arrived at Edward VI's court, people were experimenting with new ways of liturgical music in the light of Protestant reforms. Versified psalms (inspired by Lutheranism filtered through French culture) came to the fore, with Thomas Sternhold producing the first metrical psalm texts. John Sheppard's settings represent an early experiment, later overtaken by vigorous Protestant hymning. Sheppard created not hymns, but devotional part-songs based on courtly dances. Their survival is, however, patchy and the main source has to have the majority of its parts reconstructed.  We hear four of the shorter ones on the disc, psalms 11, 12, 30 and 78. These are finely crafted and boldly direct in terms of the word setting, though the underlying courtly-dance basis of the music lends them an endearing charm.

Clemens non Papa’s motet Job tonso capite survives in the Sadler part books, created in Norfolk for a merchant in Norwich. The ink in the part-books is degrading and so partially illegible, requiring further reconstruction. As befitting the subject matter, it is a finely sober, well-made motet.

The French chanson had an important influence in England, and a Parisian chanson Aupres de vous (attributed to Jacotin le Bel) survives untexted in a pair of English manuscripts, neither has the full set of parts suggesting a pupil being set to work to either reconstruct the rest or to play the work as a solo. Here we hear the full choral version, perhaps sounding a little too close to the organ loft, but beautifully sung.

Perhaps the best-known chanson composer in Tudor England was the Flemish lutenist and singer, Philip van Wilder (d. 1553). His songs circulated widely on account of his privileged position in the households of Henry VIII and Edward VI. By 1529 he had risen quickly to become the highest-paid musician at court, a member of the Privy Chamber, supervisor of the king’s musical instruments, lute teacher to Henry’s children, and master of a select band of Privy Chamber singers.

His music had a strong afterlife, surviving in many collections well after his death. His song Si de beaucoup je suis aymée, even jumped the divide and a choral version survives in an incomplete set of part books. We hear the choral version in a delightfully lively performance that certainly makes you want to dance.

Sir Edward Paston was an Elizabethan Catholic, a friend of such luminaries as Byrd's patron, Lord Petre. Paston built an enormous music collection, he shared repertory with like-minded friends; his household musicians arranged choral music for instrumental accompaniment, expertly copied in Spanish lute tablature. From these, we hear the choral version of Lassus' rhythmically engaging Decantabat populus

Returning to John Sheppard, whilst some of his large-scale votive anthems survive, others have gone. One seems to have been dismembered to create a sequence of smaller, differently voiced anthems. So, we hear Illustrissima omnium, Singularis privilegii and Igitur O Jesu in a strange after-life as domestic music for vocal trio or voice and lute, again a lovely example of the way music was transmogrified, a half-way house between the sacred and the domestic.

Also in the Sadler part books is O splendor gloriae, attributed by Sadler to John Tavener but another contemporary copyist attributed it to Tavener (first half) and Christopher Tye (the rest). This is the largest piece on the disc, a splendid example of early Tudor polyphony and a fine piece, whoever wrote it.

Robert Parsons' part-song When I look back survives as a single vocal part, and as a lute entablature. From these, a speculative reconstruction has been created. So, we have Parson's sober part-song in both choral and lute-song versions.

This is a surprisingly engaging disc. The diverse repertoire provides a lovely glimpse into the complex way Tudor music was used and abused in the centuries after. It is fatally easy to think of the continuity of musical thought and survival of the great works of the repertoire. But here were have large scale anthems that have survived in lute-accompanied fragments, music that has survived but which requires detailed knowledge to reconstruct what would have actually been performed, alongside the sheer fragility of the performing materials. The disc works because the performances from Ensemble Pro Victoria across this diverse repertoire are always vibrant, stylish and engaging

Tudor After Lives recording session, Ensemble Pro Victoria, Toby Ward (Photo
Tudor After Lives recording session, Ensemble Pro Victoria, Toby Ward (Photo

Tudor Music Afterlives

Motets and lute-songs by and after Thomas Tallis, Nicholas Ludford, John Tavener, John Sheppard, Jacob Clemens non Papa, Jacotin le Bel/Claudin de Sermisy, Philip van Wilder, Orlande de Lassus, John Tavener, Christopher Tye, Robert Parsons
Ensemble Pro Victoria
Toby Carr (lute)
Magnus Williamson (organ)
Recorded 28 February - 2 March 2022, All Hallow's Church, Gospel Oak, London
DELPHIAN DCD34295 1CD [69.27]

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