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Tudor inspiration for today

08 June 2018

Garry Humphreys on the Eton Choirbook and responses to it


THE Eton Choirbook, described by Magnus Williamson, Professor of Early Music at Newcastle University, as “the undoubted queen of early Tudor manuscripts”, is a large and sumptuous volume of devotional music composed in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and still in its original location at Eton College, having survived King Henry VIII’s ransacking of the monasteries. Without it, our knowledge of the music of that period would be greatly impoverished.

Impressive though it is, visually and in terms of content, what survives is only half the original, which comprised 224 leaves containing 93 pieces (64 of which survive) by composers such as Robert Wylkynson, William Cornysh, John Dunstable, Robert Fayrfax, and Walter Lambe, to name just a few of the better-known ones. There are multiple settings of some texts, for example 15 of the Salve Regina, and 24 of “Et exultavit spiritus meus”. It is a magnificent survival whose contents deserve to be more widely known through actual performance.

The extant contents have been recorded by The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers, on five CDs now available as a boxed set (COR16040). It was this ensemble, together with the Eton College Chapel Choir under Tim Johnson, that celebrated this legacy on 22 May by performing new music commissioned by the Genesis Foundation, which has, to date, commissioned 21 sacred choral works — beginning in 1998 with Roxanna Panufnik’s Westminster Mass — to reflect its core purpose “of expanding and renewing the world’s treasury of music of faith”, besides enabling artistic leaders to act as mentors to younger talent, continuing its longstanding relationship with the composer Sir James MacMillan and conductor Harry Christophers, and drawing attention to the importance of the Eton Choirbook and its place in British history.

The new works set texts from the original volume and were performed alongside earlier settings of the same words: Nesciens Mater by Joseph Phibbs (born 1974) and Walter Lambe (born 1450); Ave Maria, Mater Dei by Phillip Cooke (born 1980) and William Cornysh (born 1465); and Stella Caeli by Marco Galvani (born 1994) with Lambe.

The centrepiece of the concert was MacMillan’s O Virgo prudentissima, followed by My soul, there is a country, by the Old Etonian Hubert Parry, the centenary of whose death is being widely marked this year (Arts, 25 May). This was sung by the Eton College Choir under the Director of Music, Tim Johnson — a performance of great feeling and contrast, and mellifluous sounds from tenors and basses, quite free of any adolescent lack of vocal development.

Without sight of the printed scores of the new works, one can only record impressions, but one might venture to suggest that the 15th- and 21st-century responses to words, voices, and acoustic were remarkably similar, except that, as Dr John Milsom remarks in the printed programme, many of the earlier pieces were probably written for establishments other than Eton, such as Westminster Abbey, the Chapel Royal, or St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where Lambe was a chorister.

Dr Milsom reminds us that the dedication of Eton College is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and so music was composed to words in her honour, varying according to season or circumstances, but always addressed to Mary. Nesciens Mater meditates on the Virgin birth, and Phibbs has written a simple piece, intended for amateur performance, as a companion to Lambe’s setting, contrasting Lambe’s flowing contrapuntal lines with a more homophonic, prayerful response.

Cooke, who used to teach composition at Eton, has the trebles of the College Chapel Choir in the antechapel singing antiphonally with the main choir, with the title-words “Ave Maria, Mater Dei” passing between the two groups as a refrain throughout the piece. At the end, the off-stage trebles fade into the distance, singing a repeated phrase rather like the end of “Neptune” in Holst’s The Planets. A magical moment, and a very young soloist.

Marco Galvani — the youngest of the commissioned composers — sets a invocation of Mary for deliverance from the “deadly plague” of sin, and mirrors Lambe’s technique of contrasting horizontal melodic lines and vertical chord patterns, in an arch-like structure that (in the composer’s words) “encompasses both the meditative and dramatic aspects of each stanza”.

MacMillan’s O Virgo prudentissima actually uses a fragment of music from the Eton Choirbook by Robert Wylkynson, beginning with hummed sounds that continue at various points from different voices throughout the piece and create what the composer calls “a heterophonic haze” as a landscape for the other singers.

This is a work on a large scale: ambitious, mature, complex, with contrasting groups, but finding concord at the end, with a joyous “Alleluia!” (I will also mention the new, robust, and impressive translation in the printed programme of the words of O virgo prudentissima by the Eton sixth-former and Oppidan Scholar Trajan Halvorsen, which moved me and I much enjoyed reading.)

All the performers came together to end the concert with Wylkynson’s Salve Regina, composed both for and at Eton, where Wylkynson was a member of the college choir. It uses a huge, nine-part ensemble, reflecting the nine orders of angels and, in Dr Milsom’s words, “it is as if we eavesdrop on that heavenly choir.” And there, before us in the chapel, lay the Eton Choirbook open on display, in its home of the past 500 years.

It goes without saying that the singing of The Sixteen under Christophers was wonderful beyond words, and it was good that among the ensemble were several Genesis Sixteen alumni, evidence of another Genesis Foundation initiative “that nurtures the next generation of talented young voices and specifically bridges the gap from student to professional practitioner”.

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