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Music exhibition: Cantate Domino: Music in the Lambeth Palace Library Collections

04 August 2023

Glyn Paflin reviews the Lambeth Palace Library exhibition of music

Lambeth Palace Library

Arundel Choirbook (Arundel, Sussex, c.1525)

Arundel Choirbook (Arundel, Sussex, c.1525)

AT THE press conference for the 1953 coronation, Tom Driberg rose to his feet and asked the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, “Will the Sursum Corda be sung?” The Archbishop’s eyebrows shot up (our man from the Church Times, Alan Shadwick, recalled), and, after a hasty consultation, he reassured the MP that, yes, it would be sung.

How carefully Fisher went on to plan for this is clear from the aide-memoire for the intonation of the Proper Preface jotted down in his hand in the order of service, which can be seen in the new free exhibition “Cantate Domino: Music in the Lambeth Palace Library Collections”. Would that his acceptance of the burden of preparation were more widely imitated.

Fisher’s idiosyncratic notation for the chant brings this well-planned and exquisite little exhibition full circle; for the earliest items date from well before the Reformation and illustrate how ancient some of the collection is. A late-ninth-century fragment of Ennodius’s Dictiones, Epistolae, Peomata with an unstaved line of neumes, illustrated in the excellent guide, edited by Mary Clayton-Kastenholz, is not in the show, but gives place to several more impressive items that exemplify ways in which fragments of music have been preserved in non-musical manuscripts, books, and bindings — even in a 1550s printed edition of works by Martin Luther.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, with a display case all to itself, is far from a fragment: the giant illuminated Arundel Choirbook (c.1525, reign of Henry VIII), one of only two extant large-scale choirbooks surviving from that era. The format enabled several singers to read their part simultaneously from a double-page spread. It makes an interesting comparison with the presentation of the parts of Tallis’s Third Mode Melody in Archbishop Parker’s metrical Psalter of 1567, ornately bound as a gift to the Countess of Shrewsbury.

Partbooks, on the other hand, gave only one part: a full set would be needed to sing the Te Deum of Gibbons’s Short Service, which a collection of services and anthems (bass part) is open at. This manuscript, c.1625, was possibly used at Lambeth when Archbishop Laud resumed sung services in 1633.

Although many visitors will be most drawn to the display about Protestant hymns — with a focus, inevitably, on “Amazing Grace” in its 250th-anniversary year — liturgical books containing music are a strength of this exhibition, and very beautiful, too, particularly the York Breviary (14th-15th century). Anyone conversant with the square notation found in the not-quite-so-Protestant English Hymnal (1906) — open here at the four-part (modern) printing of the Third Mode Melody, which the book’s music editor, Vaughan Williams, used as the basis of his famous Tallis Fantasia — has a sporting chance of reading at least some of the music.

But textbooks and manuals have always been important, as is clear from Lambeth’s selection. William Chelle’s Compendium of music (1526) is visually delightful, open at a bell-ringing diagram as well as lines of music, and Boethus’s De Institutione Musica (c.1100-50) is striking visually, but mathematically and philosophically esoteric. Particularly interesting as a secular exhibit is an amazingly well-preserved 14th-century roll of North French trouvère songs.

The exhibition, rich but not tiring, is enhanced by the background music, sung by the Olympia Singers, whose director contributes a handy brief history of church music in England to the guide.

At Lambeth Palace Library, 15 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1, until 18 September. Phone 020 7898 1400. www.lambethpalacelibrary.info

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