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CD reviews






English music of the 15th century

[I] "Music for the 100 Years' War - A brief history in Music & Alabaster"
The Binchois Consort
Dir: Andrew Kirkman
rec: Jan 7 - 9, 2016, Ascot Priory, Berkshire
Hyperion - CDA68170 ( 2017) (76'35")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance]
anon: Anglia tibi turbidas
[Kingship and the Rise of Nation] Johannes ALANUS (fl c1400): Sub Arturo plebs/Fons citharizancium/In omnem terrama; FOREST (fl 1st half 15th C): Ascendit Christus super celos/Alma redemptoris mater; John DUNSTAPLE (c1390-1453): Preco preheminencie/Precursor premittitur/Inter natos mulierum
[Sir Thomas Becket - Protector of England] anon: Ianuam quam clauserat/Iacintus in saltibus/[Iacet granum]; Leonel POWER (?-1445): Gloria Ad Thome memoriam; plainchant: Pastor cesus in gregis medio; anon: Opem nobis, o Thoma/Salve, Thoma/[Pastor cesus]; Leonel POWER: Credo Opem nobis, o Thoma
[St Edmund, king and martyr - Protector of England] anon: De flore martyrum/Deus tuorum militum/[Ave rex gentis Anglorum]; Ave miles/Ave rex, patrone/Ave rex gentis Anglorum; FOREST: Gaude martyr/Collaudemus venerantes/[Celestium contemplator]
[The Coronation of Henry VI] plainchant: Ecce mitto angelum; John DUNSTAPLE: Missa Da gaudiorum premiaa; Veni Sancte Spiritus/Veni creator Spiritus
[Conclusion] anon: The Agincourt Carol; Kyrie ... Domine miserere/Ab inimicis nostris

James Hall, Timothy Travers-Brown, alto; Dominic Bland, Steven Harrold, Matthew Vine, tenor, with George Pooley, tenora

[II] "The Lily & the Rose - A further history of the 'long' fifteenth century in Music & Alabaster"
The Binchois Consort
Dir: Andrew Kirkman
rec: May 7 - 9, 2017, Ascot Priory, Berkshire
Hyperion - CDA68228 ( 2018) (72'57")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance]
[Intercession against plague] John (?) COOKE (c1385-1442?): Stella celi extirpavit; plainchant: Salve sancta parens; Walter FRYE (?-1475?): Kyrie So ys emprentid; Missa Flos regalis (Gloria); Guillaume LE ROUGE (fl c1450-1465): [Stella celi extirpavit]
[The Annunciation to the Virgin] John BEDYNGHAM (?-c1459/60): Superno nunc emittitur; John DUNSTAPLE (c1390-1453): Ave maris stella; Walter FRYE: Missa Flos regalis (Credo); Thomas (?) DAMETT (?-1436/37): Salve porta paradisi; John DUNSTAPLE: Gaude virgo salutata/Gaude virgo singularis/Virgo mater comprobaris/Ave gemma celi
[The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin] John BEDYNGHAM?/Walter FRYE?: Sancta Maria, succurre miseris; Walter FRYE: Missa Flos regalis (Sanctus & Benedictus); John (?) FOWLER (fl c1460): O quam glorifica; FOREST (fl 1st half 15th C): Qualis est dilectus; John DUNSTAPLE: Sancta Maria, succurre miseris
[Lineage of the Virgin] anon: Virga Jesse floruit; plainchant: Matronarum hec matrona; John PLUMMER (c1410?-c1484): Anna mater matris Christi; Walter FRYE: Missa Flos regalis (Agnus Dei)

James Hall, Timothy Travers-Brown, alto; Dominic Bland, Nicholas Madden, George Pooley, Matthew Vine, tenor

In 2011 Hyperion released a disc with "Music for Henry V and the House of Lancaster", performed by The Binchois Consort, directed by Andrew Kirkman. The House of Lancaster ruled England from 1399 to 1471. 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.

With the two discs under review here, The Binchois Consort continues its exploration of English music of the 15th century. They are also part of a special project, which links music and the visual arts, more specifically alabaster sculpture. The booklet to the first disc says: "We are illustrating some of the historical and religious figures of our musical programme with examples of English carved alabasters that are exactly contemporary with the events and music encapsulated by our recording. These sculptures relate directly in time and devotional culture to the music presented here as part of our Hundred Years' War project. Together, and in parallel, music and alabaster constitute a hugely influential cultural transmission of late medieval English art not only at a regional and national level, but right across the then-known (European) world." Examples of carved alabasters are included in the booklets to the two discs.

The first is, as the quotation above indicates, devoted to the Hundred Years' War, a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the French House of Valois, over the right to rule the Kingdom of France. The starting point is the Battle of Agincourt, which took place on 25 October 1415. "Our musical choices have fallen on pieces that can plausibly be associated, in various ways, with some of the contexts and events of the campaign itself, and the with the ensuing English occupation of Normandy and other areas of northern France."

The programme opens with an anonymous carol on a specifically political text, Anglia tibi turbidas: "England, hope for light for yourself after the turbulent darkness. Now the wickedness of the conspirator, and the army of the tyrant, take flight before the troops; secure with confidence, hope for light after darkness." Next follow four chapters, entitled "Kingship and the Rise of Nation", "Sir Thomas Becket - Protector of England", "St Edmund, king and martyr - Protector of England" and "The Coronation of Henry VI". The programme closes with a 'Conclusion'.

Music from this time is not that often performed, and certainly not outside the United Kingdom, and by other than British ensembles. Therefore it can hardly surprise that among the composers represented here, are several who are hardly known. That goes for Johannes Alanus, who has become almost exclusively known for the piece included here, Sub Arturo plebs. The reason for that is that it includes the names of a number of composers, who are unknown. Therefore the time this piece was written has been the subject of debate among scholars. Ascendit Christus super celos by Forest is an antiphon at Vespers on the Feast of the Assumption. It has been included here because Henry V had ordered performance of a daily antiphon to the Assumption in response to his brother John Duke of Bedford's naval victory in the Battle of the Seine on the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August 1416. It is an example of how the music has been selected. Likewise, Dunstaple's Preco preheminencie has been chosen as it is dedicated to John the Baptist and "surely also celebrates that other John, Henry's brother the Duke of Bedford, and his rout of the French navy in 1416".

The two next chapters are devoted to two saints, who the Lancastrian monarchs adopted as "protectors of England". Thomas Becket, also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury (c1119/20 - 1170), was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. The anonymous Ianuam quam clauserat is written in his honour; it is based on Iacet granum, a responsory at Matins for Thomas's feast day, 29 December, the day he was murdered. Leonel Power's settings of the Gloria and Credo are based on an antiphon at Lauds for the same feast.

Edmund the Martyr, also known as St Edmund or Edmund of East Anglia (?-869), was king of East Anglia from about 855 until his death. The two anonymous motets are both based on the antiphon Ave rex gentis Anglorum, a chant for St Edmund on the same melody as the Marian antiphon Ave regina celorum, mater regis angelorum. Forest's motet Gaude martyr is also written for St Edmund.

The last chapter is about the coronation of Henry VI, which took place in Notre Dame in Paris in 1431. It opens with Ecce mitto angelum: "Behold, I send my angel so that he may precede you and always watch over you". This was the antiphon, which accompanied the entry into Notre Dame. It has been suggested that the motet and the incomplete mass by Dunstaple included here, were specifically written for this occasion.

The disc comes to its 'Conclusion' with two pieces. As its title indicates, The Agincourt Carol is specifically written at the occasion of the event which was the starting point of this recording. This strophic piece on an English text has as its refrain: "Deo gracias Anglia redde pro victoria!" (Give thanks to God, England, for the victory). The end is a little more subdued, as it is a setting of the Litany, including the lines: "From out enemies, defend us Christ. Look kindly on our affliction".

"The common ground shared by music and alabaster sculpture in the 'long' fifteenth century (c1380-1520) is staked out most obviously by their principal themes. As for spiritual life in general, these revolved most centrally around the lives of Christ and - perhaps still more powerfully - the Virgin Mary, the prime intercessor for earthly souls, to whom the beauty of music could offer a special plea." The lily and the rose, mentioned and depicted on the frontispiece of the booklet to the second disc, are two of many titles given to the Virgin Mary.

Again, the programme is divided into four chapters: "Intercession against plague", "The Annunciation to the Virgin", "The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin" and "Lineage of the Virgin". Each of the chapters includes a section of the Missa Flos regalis by Walter Frye. As English mass settings of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance usually omitted a Kyrie, a separate setting by Frye is included. It is based on the song - either by the composer himself or by John Bedyngham - So ys emprentid. As only a discantus line has been preserved, it was reconstructed for this recording. This Kyrie and the Gloria from Frye's mass are part of the first chapter, in which Mary's role as protector against the plague is highlighted. This is expressed in the text of Stella celi extirpavit, heard here in settings by John (?) Cooke and Guillaume Le Rouge respectively: "The star of heaven that suckled the Lord has rooted out the plague that the first father of men planted".

With the Annunciation we come to one of the feasts of the Christian church. This chapter opens with a contrafactum: Bedyngham's song Le serviteur is sung on a sacred text, Superno nunc emittitur: "From heaven is now sent the only-begotten of the Father. The Virgin is not sullied. The one dedicated to our salvation is in her growing womb." The chapter ends with Gaude virgo salutata, an isorythmic motet by John Dunstaple: "Hail Virgin, greeted by the angel's message, soon pregnant yet free of all sin".

Next are the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin. This chapter opens and closes with settings of the same text by Bedyngham or Frye and Dunstaple respectively, Sancta Maria, succurre miseris, the Magnificat antiphon at First Vespers of Our Lady of the Snows. The former of these settings is another contrafactum: the music was first written on the text So ys emprentid. In this section we meet another little-known master, (John?) Fowler, who may be identical with the clerk of Chapel Royal from 1433 to 1467. Qualis est dilectus by Forest is a setting of a text from the Song of Songs: "What is my beloved more than other beloveds, o fairest of women?"

The last chapter is about the Virgin's lineage. Obviously Jesse, father of King David, figures in this section, with the anonymous Virga Jesse floruit: "The tree of Jesse flowered, on which a bloom appeared, the Son of the most high." Tradition has it that Mary's mother was called Anna, and the two next pieces are about her. First we hear a responsory at Matins of St Anne in plainchant, Matronarum hec matrona. It is followed by John Plummer's motet Anna mater matris Christi: "Anne, mother of the mother of Christ, graciously look down upon us". This piece is notable for being scored for one upper voice in the alto range and three tenor voices of equal range. The disc closes with the Agnus Dei from Frye's Missa Flos regalis.

The importance of these discs can hardly be overstated. This is fascinating repertoire of high quality, most of which is little known. The fact that the selected pieces are performed within a historical context - either political or religious - makes much sense. The comprehensive liner-notes are most helpful in making their meaning understandable. The performances are excellent. The Binchois Consort comprises six singers in the range of alto and tenor. On the first disc one singer allows himself a slight vibrato now and then, which is discernible, but not really disturbing. Even so, I am glad that it is absent in the second disc. What makes these performances even more interesting is the use of a historical pronunciation of Latin which shows the influence of the English language.

May this interesting project be continued.

Johan van Veen ( 2019)

Relevant links:

The Binchois Consort


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