Explore Program Notes

Download PDF

Stile Antico: The Voice of Melody

All of tonight’s works were written during – or have close links with – the culturally rich Renaissance period. The music of three generations of Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal provides a thread which runs through this program. Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) and his younger friend and pupil William Byrd (c.1540-1623) produced some of the most skillful and sublime vocal music of all time in an age of political and religious turbulence. Together with Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) and his contemporary Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) they represent what has often been considered the golden age of English music, and demonstrate both the uniqueness of the English musical tradition, and the ways in which it drew on continental influences. To throw these into relief, their music is combined with contemporaneous works by continental masters and two recent settings of Renaissance texts.

Both Byrd pieces included here were written not for the Chapel Royal, but for the recusant English Catholic community of which Byrd was a part – often treading a dangerous line between the overt expression of his Catholic leanings and staying on the right side of his royal patron and friend Elizabeth I. Vigilate is a defiant work from the Cantiones sacrae of 1589 – one of Byrd’s most politically subversive motet collections. The text is one whose severe exhortation was not difficult for the Catholics to read as of particular relevance to them, and Byrd pulls out all the stops in order to bring the text to life – the crowing of the cockerel, the drooping head of the lethargic believer, and the sudden scurrying panic at the unexpected return of the master are all portrayed in a vivid madrigalian fashion.

Robert Ramsey (c.1590-1644) probably hailed from a family of Scottish court musicians who traveled to England with James VI of Scotland when he became James I of England in 1603. Best-known amongst his relatively small output of compositions are the works which he wrote in honor of Henry, Prince of Wales, who had tragically died in 1612; the exceptionally fine madrigal Sleep, fleshly birth is one such work, showing a powerful and affecting mastery of harmony and rhetoric.

Orlando Gibbons’s gloriously exuberant setting of Psalm 47, O clap your hands together, has an unlikely history. Two accounts relate that Gibbons wrote it for his friend William Heyther to present in order to supplicate for his Doctorate of Music at Oxford in 1622. Convention dictated that in order to receive the doctorate, an 8-part composition be presented, but Heyther – although a renowned singer – was apparently no composer. That a genuine subterfuge occurred, however, is unlikely. It seems most probable that Heyther’s DMus was an honorary degree (perhaps connected to his involvement with the founding of a history chair at the university) and Gibbons’s anthem served to fulfill a formality; Heyther later went on to endow the first chair in music at Oxford.

Two Spanish composers working in Italy are represented next. Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-1553) was a singer in the papal chapel when Pope Paul III persuaded Charles V of Spain to sign a peace treaty with Francis I of France in 1538. Whoever wrote the text of his motet Jubilate Deo ensured that the Pope received plenty of credit. The motet employs a cantus firmus consisting of the word ‘gaudeamus’ (let’s rejoice), the incipit of the plainsong Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, repeated in the first tenor part throughout the motet – eight times in the first part and ten times in the second. Around this weaves varied and exuberant polyphony giving thanks for the ‘lasting peace’ brought about by the treaty, which was sadly to be short-lived. Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611) spent a large portion of his career in Rome, gaining a reputation as one of the finest composers of his day. The intimacy and luminous harmonic qualities of his work are often remarked upon and the striking motet O vos omnes is no exception. His carefully-paced control of dissonance and the compelling quality of his close-knit four-part texture results in a work of unusually remarkable poignancy, justifiably one of the best-known motets of the Renaissance.

The first recent work in the program, Woefully arrayed by John McCabe (1939-2015) was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival for Stile Antico, and received its first performance in 2009. In the words of the composer:

 “Woefully arrayed is a supreme choral setting by William Cornysh, Junior, who died in 1523, of a text usually regarded as of anonymous composition, though there have been some attributions to John Skelton. It is a thoughtful, powerful meditation on Christ on the Cross, and though Cornysh’s setting has remarkable intensity and contrapuntal artistry, I felt a strong wish to add my own response to this fine text. The different versions of it have different verses...  I have chosen to restrict myself to the three used by Cornysh, using my own adaptation of the modernized words which yet incorporates some archaisms – a deliberate choice for reasons of rhythm and verbal sound.”

The Gloria setting which opens the second half of the program is from Tallis’s extraordinary Christmas mass, Missa Puer natus est – one of the most unusual and innovative works of the period. In spite of the work’s phenomenal scope, there is no conclusive evidence as to its origin. One theory holds that the mass was first performed by the joint forces of Queen Mary’s Chapel Royal and Philip II of Spain’s renowned Capilla Flamenca in December 1554 (Philip and Mary had married earlier in the year). It is based on the plainchant Puer natus est nobis – the introit for Christmas Day mass – and it has been suggested that the plainchant may well have held a double entendre for its first listeners, as Mary was at the time erroneously believed to be pregnant with – people hoped – a male heir. The work’s lavish seven-part scoring and the presence of Flemish influences in Tallis’s writing lend possible weight to this theory. On the other hand, the joint service in question took place at the start of Advent, not at Christmas, and, as scholar David Humphreys has argued, both the sex and the safe delivery of the supposed child were uncertainties. 

Whatever the work’s original purpose, even the Gloria alone leaves an impression of immense grandeur, an effect created at least in part by the steady progression of the cantus firmus, coupled with the almost unbroken use of a seven-part texture throughout. While the manner of his counterpoint seems to reflect the latest trends of Flemish composition, the use of a different plainchant melody as a cantus firmus is very much a nod to the conventions of earlier generations. Indeed, his treatment of the plainchant is governed by an extraordinarily complex quasi-medieval numerological scheme, whereby each note is assigned a value based on its vowel in the original text.

Two settings follow of the beautiful Old Testament love poem, the Song of Songs – one of the most often-set sources of motet texts in the Renaissance. The thrilling polychoral motet Veni, dilecte mi by Sebastián de Vivanco (c.1551-1622) heralds the early Baroque with its antiphonal writing – indeed, one could easily envision the piece performed with basso continuo, cornets, and trombones. Vivanco brings out the rhetorical and sensual qualities of the text through his distinctive control of texture and harmony, as well as the use of striking contrasts between slow and fast passages, which thrillingly convey the heady excitement of the text. Ego flos campi by Jacob Clemens non Papa (c.1510-1555/6) is equally masterful, though of a different character: here it is the static harmonies, never straying far from the warm, familiar tonic chord, combined with a rich and intricate yet remarkably unfussy seven-part texture, that lend it such an opulent beauty. For Clemens, this text had a very particular association: he seems to have written his setting for the Marian Brotherhood in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he worked briefly in 1550. The Brotherhood’s motto was ‘sicut lilium inter spinas’ (as a lily among the thorns) – words from the very text he sets, which he highlights by setting them homophonically three times, in contrast to the surrounding seven-part counterpoint.

Byrd’s Ecce Virgo concipiet is one of the Propers (seasonal texts for the Mass) set for Advent and published in his Gradualia of 1605 – the first of two books in which he set out to provide the recusant Catholic community with a comprehensive collection of year-round musical settings. As was Byrd’s custom in Gradualia, this motet is a model of concision, perfectly proportioned, economical in material and efficient in its largely syllabic word setting. The power of this motet is in the awe and wonder created by the unexpected shifts in tonality in its opening passage. These lend a palpable sense of anticipation which is only fulfilled at the final return to the opening key of C minor, as the name of the promised child, ‘Emmanuel’,  is revealed. 

In pace was a responsory sung at Compline between Quadragesima and Passion Sunday in the old Sarum rite observed in England before the Reformation. Tallis’s fine setting was therefore most likely to have been written either late in the reign of Henry VIII (in the mid-1540s), or during the reign of Mary I (1553-8), when the Sarum rite was briefly restored. The work is a model of fine craftsmanship with its shapely phrases and its involvingly close-knit imitative texture.

The Phoenix and the Turtle was recently composed for Stile Antico by Huw Watkins (b.1976). It is a setting of a poem by William Shakespeare, without doubt the best-known literary figure of the 16th and early 17th-century. Some scholars have contended that Shakespeare may have held Catholic sympathies or closet Catholic beliefs; if this is true then it may provide a window into understanding this most obscure of Shakespeare’s poems. The words, ostensibly depicting the funeral rites for two birds,  are clearly allegorical, and may perhaps be read as referring to Catholic martyrs. Or it has been suggested, the martyr Anne Line (c.1563-1601) whose husband had died in Flanders in 1594. If this is the case, then the ‘bird of loudest lay’ of the opening stanza probably refers to William Byrd, whose Catholic connections were well-known. Watkins’s setting depicts vividly the bustle of the funeral arrangements, before a sublime setting of the Threnos which brings the poem to a close.

Thomas Tomkins’s thrilling anthem O Praise the Lord closes the program. This is a sumptuous feast of twelve-part polyphony which displays elements of both the intricate counterpoint of Gibbons and the antiphonal effects typical of the continental polychoral motets of the period, where the parts split into groups and sing phrases alternately, coming together at moments of particular intensity. The work appears in Musica Deo Sacra, a collection of Tomkins’s sacred work, published posthumously by his son Nathaniel in 1668.


                               Program notes by Matthew O’Donovan