Music review: Salve Regina at King's College Chapel

by
08 March 2019

Edward Wickham hears a rendition of compline as it might have been

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THE choral scholars at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge exchanged the rich-harmonied psalmody and responses of the Anglican tradition with the spare recitation of plainchant, pre-Reformation style, in a rendition of compline as it might have been sung at King’s in the early 16th century.

The “might” was admitted by the organisers on Thursday of last week, Christopher Nehaul and the Revd Andrew Hammond: the chapel at King’s was not completed until the 1530s when a compline of this kind would not have found favour in the rapidly changing Reformation environment. But this did not seem to bother the large congregation assembled to enjoy the lengthy recitation of Latin psalms; and their reward came in Wylkynson’s Salve Regina, a sumptuous polyphonic setting of the Marian antiphon in nine voice-parts, representing the nine ranks of heavenly angels.

The pre-Reformation Sarum liturgy differs in some important respects from the post-Tridentine forms, not least in the text of the Salve Regina, which is expanded by “tropes” or customised textual insertions. Robert Wylkynson (c.1450-1515) — sometime master of the choristers at Eton, and responsible for the compilation of the famous Eton Choirbook — assigns these tropes to soloists in virtuosic episodes of swirling counterpoint while the full choir is deployed to maximum effect on the traditional text sections.

There could hardly be a better acoustic in which to encounter this music, even if during Wylkyson’s career the chapel would have been smaller. The unfortunate wailing of a fire alarm at the conclusion of the service could not entirely dispel the sense that this privileged congregation had experienced something that the tourist on the obligatory trip to evensong would miss.

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