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"Echoes of an Old Hall - Music from the Old Hall Manuscript"

Gothic Voices

rec: Oct 27 - 30, 2018, Boxgrove (Chichester), Boxgrove Priory
Linn Records - CKD 644 (© 2021) (76'03")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Agnus Dei; Sanctus; Gilles BINCHOIS (c1400-1460): Adieu mon amoureuse joye; Dueil angoisseux; Thomas (?) BYTTERING (fl c1400-1420): Nesciens mater; John COOKE (fl 1402-1419): Gloria in excelsis; Stella caeli extirpavit; Thomas DAMETT (c1389-c1437): Beata Dei genitrix; Salve porta paradisi; Guillaume DUFAY (c1397-1474): Ave regina caelorum; Flos florum; John DUNSTAPLE (c1390-1453): Ave regina caelorum; Veni sancte spiritus/Veni sancte spiritus/Veni sancte spiritus/Mentes tuorum; Johannes HAUCOURT (fl 1390-1410): Je demande ma bienvenue; JOHANNES DE LYMBURGIA (fl 1400-1440): Tota pylchra es; John (?) FOREST (c1365-1446): Qualis est dilectus; MAYSHUET DE JOAN (MATHEUS DE SANCTO JOHANNE) (fl 1378-1386): Arae post libamina/Nunc surgunt; plainchant: Alma redemptoris mater; Ave regina caelorum; Beata progenies; Nesciens mater; Qui diceris paraclitus; Regina caeli laetare; Veni creator spiritus; Leonel POWER (c1375-1445): Ave regina caelorum; Gloria in excelsis; Jehan (?) PYCARD (fl 1390-1400): Gloria in excelsis

Catherine King, mezzo-soprano; Steven Harrold, Julian Podger, tenor; Stephen Charlesworth, baritone
with: Josh Cooter, tenor; Simon Whiteley, bass-baritone

Until the time the way to print music was discovered, music was collected in manuscripts. In the case of liturgical music, such manuscripts had the form of choirbooks, which were put on a lectern, around which the singers were assembled. One of such choirbooks is known as the Old Hall Manuscript, the largest source of English sacred music of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. It is named after the last location of private ownership, St Edmund's College, Old Hall Green, in Hertfordshire. It was sold to the British Library in 1973.

The manuscript includes 148 pieces, 77 of which are written in score rather than in separate parts. In addition to settings of sections of the Ordinary of the mass, grouped together by section, the Old Hall Manuscript includes motets, many of which are devoted to the Virgin Mary. The first item in the programme, recorded by Gothic Voices, is an interesting one, as it reveals what was considered the aim of singing at the time. Arae post libamina by Mayshuet de Joan says: "At the altar after the oblation, with odes and songs of praise, we will sing joyfully, the intention of which is good. (...) Most singers, whose art is unfavourable, seek vain glory. Sing with good will, not inanely, for the sake of God, so that for eternity you may be led into the kingdom of heaven".

This piece may be sung at the end of the mass, as a substitute for the Deo gratias, Julian Podger states in his liner-notes. Here it opens the programme, and the various sections of the mass are disseminated across the programme, not in the liturgical order. The pieces in the Old Hall manuscript are written in two different styles. One is known as 'English discant', a note-against-note style with Gregorian chant in the middle voice. In other pieces, the top voice dominates, known as 'chanson style', as the upper voice is written in a florid style known from chansons of the time. Among this style also belong isorhythmic pieces and pieces which include canons.

The programme is divided into two sections. In the first we get pieces from the Old Hall Manuscript as well as some plainchant. The best-known composer is John Dunstaple, who was also known at the continent, during his lifetime and after his death. About his musical education nothing is known. He has been associated with several royal and noble households. Dustaple was a highly educated man, known not only as a composer, but also an astronomer, astrologer and mathematician. Veni sancte spiritus is one of many isorhythmic pieces in his oeuvre.

Thomas Damett was connected to the royal household, St Paul's Cathedral and St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. Only nine pieces from his pen have been preserved, all in the Old Hall Manuscript, including four Gloria and two Credo settings. Salve porta paradisi is one of his three motets. Nine compositions are also all that we have from the pen of John Cooke, and these are also part of this same manuscript. They comprise four Gloria and two Credo settings. His Gloria performed here is written in the 'chanson style'. He was a chorister at the Chapel Royal, which he left in 1419; it is unknown where he may have been employed after that. Thomas Byttering is represented by five pieces in the Old Hall Manuscript, and that is all we have: two settings of the Gloria and one Credo as well as two motets. It has not been possible to identify him with any amount of certainty. Leonel Power was the second main composer of the late Middle Ages, alongside Dunstaple. Little is known about his life. For a part of his life he was choirmaster at Christ Church, Canterbury. Forty pieces that are contributed to him are considered authentic. Of all English composers he is best represented in the Old Hall Manuscript. His Gloria included here is written in the 'chanson style'. Lastly, the two anonymous Mass sections, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, are specimens of the 'English discant' style.

The first part of the programme is entitled 'Contenance Angloise' - "the english manner". The term originates from the French poet Martin Le Franc, who wrote that Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois "have a new method of making fresh harmony (...) and have adopted the English countenance and followed Dunstable (...)". The latter is generally considered the founder of this style. The second half of the programme consists of sacred and secular pieces that attest to the English influence. It is called 'Reverberances'.

The disc had already started with a piece connecting France and England. Mayshuet de Joan was born in France as Matheus de Sancto Johanne; from 1366 to 1368 he was in England, where he was active as a clerk in the service of Enguerran de Coucy, Earl of Bedford and Count of Soissons, son-in-law of Edward III. Later in his life he worked as a chaplain in the papal chapel at Avignon (1382-1387). In the second part of the programme we hear pieces by Dufay and Gilles Binchois, the most famous Franco-Flemish composers of the time. The others are lesser known. Johannes de Lymburgia was mostly active in Italy. Tota pulchra es is one of four (probably five; one piece is of doubtful authenticity) settings of texts from the Song of Songs. They show the growing popularity of such texts, as well as the connection between the sacred and the secular. With the two pieces by Binchois and the one by Johannes Haucourt, we are entirely in the world of secular music. Haucourt was a priest of French birth and was for some time a singer in the papal chapel in Avignon. Je demande ma bienvenue is a rondeau, and one of only three pieces by Haucourt that have been preserved.

England is also represented in this part of the programme. It opens with Qualis est dilectus by a composer whose last name is Forest; his Christian name may be John. He is, alongside Dunstaple, one of the first who is associated with the 'contenance angloise'. Qualis est dilectus is another setting of a text from the Song of Songs. The disc ends with a piece by another English composer whose first name is not known. It may be Jean; Jehan Pycard alias Vaux was recruited for the chapel of John of Gaunt in 1390/91 and appears to have served until the late 1390s. The Gloria performed here is one of four such pieces in the Old Hall manuscript, attributed to Pycart.

The concept of this disc is not new; at least one disc has also brought England and France musically together (La contenance angloise). However, the way it has been constructed is different and so is the selection of pieces. Gothic Voices can look back on an impressive history of performing and recording medieval music. Under the direction of its founder, Christopher Page, it recorded a large number of albums for Hyperion. In recent times it has again showed its qualities with a disc of medieval English music for Christmastide and a programme of music by Dufay. I very much enjoyed both recordings and I was impressed by the quality of singing and playing. There is no playing here, but the singing is of the highest order. This disc offers a splendid survey of the 'contenance Angloise' and its influence on the continent. The only question mark here is the Latin pronunciation; I can remember that Julian Podger once performed a programme of English sacred music of the Renaissance, in which the Latin texts were pronounced with a marked English accent. That is not the case here. Unfortunately the issue is not discussed in the booklet.

That does not take away anything from my appreciation of this disc. This is fascinating repertoire, which is presented here in the best possible manner.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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