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"Music for Henry V and the House of Lancaster"

The Binchois Consort
Dir: Andrew Kirkman

rec: May 11 - 13, 2010, London, St Silas' Church, Kentish Town
Hyperion - CDA67868 ( 2011) (72'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E

anon: Agimus tibi gratias; Missa Quem malignus spiritus; John COOKE (c1385-1442?): Alma proles/Christi miles; Thomas (?) DAMETT (?-1436/37): Salvatoris mater/O Georgi Deo; Walter FRYE (?-1475): Ave Regina coelorum a 4; 'ROY HENRY' (attr HENRY V, 1386-1422): Gloria; plainchant: Asperges me, Domine; Ave Regina coelorum; Gloriosae virginis; The Office for St John of Bridlington; Tota pulchra es; Leonel POWER (?-1445): Ave Regina coelorum; Gloriosae virginis; Nicholas (?) STURGEON (?-1454): Salve mater/Salve templum

Mark Chambers, Timothy Travers-Brown, alto; Richard Butler, Edwin Simpson, Matthew Vine, Christopher Watson, tenor

The music of this disc dates from the 15th century when England was ruled by the House of Lancaster. Three kings belonged to this dynasty: Henry IV (1399-1413), Henry V (1413-1422) and Henry VI (1422-1461 and 1470-1471). Henry V claimed the throne of France and defeated the French armies several times; the most famous victory was in the Battle of Agincourt which established his reputation. Henry VI suffered from the rivalry of his cousin Edward of York who imprisoned him in 1461. Henry returned to the throne in 1470, but was replaced only six months later by Edward. The conflict between the the House of Lancaster and the House of York is known as the War of the Roses. In 1485 a rebellion put the reign of the House of York to an end and brought the House of Tudor to the throne, whose most renowned member was to be King Henry VIII.

Henry V and Henry VI had a lively interest in music. They greatly valued the quality of polyphonic music in their chapels and the composers represented in the programme on this disc belonged to the most famous of their time. Obviously the music to be performed in the Royal Chapel wasn't just the fruit of the monarchs' musical taste, it was also meant to reflect their political power. Their activities in the field of music had a lasting influence on the development of the music scene in England, not the least through the foundation of the colleges in Eton and Cambridge by Henry VI. From the beginning these were set up as places where polyphonic music was to be cultivated.

The core of this disc is an anonymous mass setting, the Missa Quem malignus spiritus. Its cantus firmus is a chant from the so-called Bridlington Office. This Office also builds the framework for the programme on this disc. The name refers to St John of Bridlington, an Augustinian prior of the 14th century, who was the last English saint to be canonized in pre-Reformation England and who was also the patron saint of the House of Lancaster. The mass may have been the result of a commission from the Royal Chapel under Henry VI. The programme is not a kind of liturgical reconstruction, though. Elements of the liturgical order are included, but there are also motets from the same time which are not connected to this Office.

The programme opens with a Gloria composed by 'Roy Henry', who is probably identical with King Henry V. This piece is taken from the famous Old Hall manuscript. The Office then starts with the Antiphons and a Responsory. "As was common in Office chants of the Sanctorale, the various component texts stay very close to the narrative of the life of the saint whose feast was being celebrated, so that anyone listening or participating would be reminded of the relevant stories as the liturgy progressed", Philip Weller writes in the liner-notes. In the five sections of the mass one of the voices sings the text of the chant which is the cantus firmus of this mass: "An evil spirit had seized a possessed man so intently that he incurred frenzy of mind. Having poured out prayers to the Lord, he [John] cast out that spirit". The Kyrie is troped, meaning that the fixed text is extended with new material.

The plainchant in this programme is performed according to the Sarum chant; in Asperges me the refrain is sung with fauxbourdon, or, as the English called it, faburden. Plainchant is sung several times in pairs with polyphonic motets on the same text: Ave Regina coelorum and Gloriosae virginis, both by Leonel Power. The chant Tota pulchra es is combined with a 4-part setting of Ave Regina coelorum by Walter Frye. Three motets are addressed jointly at Mary and St George "as prime intercessors for the kingdom of England". In Salvatoris mater/O Georgi Deo by Damett, Alma proles/Christi miles by Cooke and Salve mater/Salve templum by Sturgeon the three voices - triplex, contratenor and tenor - have their own texts, which are sung simultaneously. This makes it hard to understand them, and that was the reason that the Council of Trent in the next century forbade this practice.

The understanding of the text is here even made harder because the singers use a pronunciation of Latin which apparently was practised at the time in England. That is not a criticism - on the contrary: it is a part of historical performance practice which is too often ignored. Here it bears witness to the great care with which this project has been realised. The booklet provides a lot of background information, not only in regard to the music itself, but also its historical and religious context as well as about the manuscripts in which the music has been preserved.

The Binchois Consort sings with six voices; it is not quite clear whether they all participate in all polyphonic music. The singing is generally very good. Only in the passages which are sung by a solo voice a slight vibrato creeps in in some voices. But that is only a minor blot on a superb production which sheds light on a period in British history in which music flourished. This is fascinating repertoire and nobody with a more than average interest in the sacred music of the renaissance should miss this disc.

Johan van Veen ( 2012)

Relevant links:

The Binchois Consort

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