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"More sweet to hear - Organs and Voices in Tudor England"

Magnus Williamsona, Geoffrey Webberb, Francesca Masseyc, organ
The Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (Geoffrey Webber)d
rec: June 27 - 28, 2005, Cambridge, St John's College (Chapel)
OxRecs - OXCD-101 ( 2007) (76'45")

anon: 81 psalme (Be light and glad)a; A solis ortus cardinea; The trowmpettusa; Vaine, all our lyfe we spend in vaine (intabulation); John Blitheman (c1525-1591): Gloria tibi Trinitas I, IIa; Avery Burnett (fl 1527-1541): Te Deum laudamusa; William Byrd (1543-1623): Second Service: Magnificatc; Teach me, O Lordc; Ut re mi fa sol laab; Nicholas Carleton (c1573-1630): A verse for two to play on one virginall or organsab; Thomas Caustun (c1520-1569)/John Farmer (c1570-c1601): Psalmus: O Lord turn not away (harm. William Parsons (fl1545-1563))a; Richard Edwards (1525-1566): Where grypinge griefesa; Thomas Morley (1557/58-1602): Out of the deep; Thomas Preston (fl1543-1559): Felix namque es, sacra virgo Mariaa; John Redford (d1547): Lucem tuam - Nunc dimittis - Lucem tuama; O quam glorifica (single verset)a; John Sheppard (c1515-1559): Vaine, all our lyfe we spend in vainea; Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585): Fond youth is a bubble/Purge me, O Lorda; Veni redemptor gentiuma

Katy Butler, Karl Gietzmann, Clare Lloyd, Joelle Meakin, Charlotte Roberts, Felicity Weston, [mean]; Hannah Cooke, Pierre Dechant, Joseph Harper, Matthew Knight, Joseph Mills, Helena Nicholls, Andrew Taylor, [countertenor]; John Herford, John Kelly, Alex Patton, [tenor]; Tom Faulkner, James Halliday, Sam Queen, [bass]


English music of the 16th century is very popular among vocal ensembles, choirs and instrumentalists of all kinds, and is frequently recorded. There seems to be one aspect which has fallen a little short in attention: the music for organ. Some recordings with keyboard music of the 16th century contain items played on a chamber organ, but most of these are also playable on other keyboard instruments, like the harpsichord or the virginals. Music specifically written for the organ, and in particular to be used in liturgy, is seldom performed and recorded. Therefore this disc is breaking new grounds, especially as it contains liturgical music in which both voices and organ participate, as its title indicates.

One of the main reasons this part of England's musical heritage has been largely neglected is that we don't know what the organ sounded like in the 16th century. In the booklet Magnus Williamson writes: "No organ built in England before the later seventeenth century survives in anything approaching a playable state". This disc is the first in 'The Early English Organ Project', whose aim is "to use what little remains by way of physical evidence to reconstruct two organs of c. 1530, and so to help revive this largely lost tradition".
The remains Magnus Williamson is referring to consists of two soundboards "central components within any organ, and hence essential clues as to its layout, size, pipework and likely sonority". They were discovered in 1977 and 1995 respectively. They seem to date from around 1530. These were the starting points for attempts to build two organs which reflect the style of organ building of the first quarter of the 16th century. These two organs, built by Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn, have been used in the present recording.

It seems in England it took a little longer for the organ to develop into a common instrument than on the European continent. The only source of keyboard music before Henry VIII is the Robertsbridge Codex, dating from the middle of the 14th century, but it contains French, but no English music. From the middle of the 15th century the organ began to be used more widely as a solo instrument. Organ tuition became a part of the training of choristers, and organ music of the time shows a strong connection to vocal music.

The first section of this disc is devoted to organ music as it was played during liturgy in pre-Reformation England. The first three pieces are examples of the alternatim practice, meaning that verses are sung and played in alternation. The singing is either unison or in faburden. Thomas Preston's Felix namque is one of many settings of this text which have survived from the 16th century. This offertory was part of the Propers of Lady Mass, and the number of settings reflect the importance of the Virgin Mary in the religious thinking of the time.

This disc also reflects the religious turmoils in England during the 16th century. The breakaway from Rome led to a change in liturgy: in the Protestant church music had a much smaller role to play. As a result organ music was played outside church, and even in secular music. But that wasn't solely the consequence of liturgical developments. The organ and organ playing had become increasingly popular among lay people anyway. The second section of this disc is devoted to secular repertoire and sacred music played outside church or used as study material. Some pieces had to be reconstructed, like John Sheppard's part-song Vaine, all our life, which only has survived in an anonymous keyboard arrangement. As one part of the original has been preserved with text, John Caldwell has been able to reconstruct the part-song, which is performed here.

When Protestantism came out on top eventually - after a short-lived restoration of Catholicism under Queen Mary - the organ was given a new role in religious life, both in and outside liturgy. The music of that period is the focus of the last section of the program. The organ is presented in three different functions here. Firstly it was used to support the singing of metrical psalms and hymns, as in the first two items of this section. Then the organ was used to accompany both the solo voices and the tutti in the verse-anthem. The perhaps oldest specimen of this genre is Byrd's setting of verses from Psalm 119: Teach me, O Lord. The same practice is used in the Magnificat of his Second Service. Lastly organ music was played at certain moments during morning and evening prayers and offertories during holy communion. It is likely Byrd's Ut re mi fa sol la and Nicholas Carleton's A verse for two to play which ends this programme were used at such occasions.

From a historical perspective the 'Early English Organ Project' is of the greatest importance. This recording gives a much deeper insight into music life and in particular liturgical practice of the 16th century. In addition the music of this period is impressive in its quality. Magnus Williamson gives splendid performances of the organ pieces which show that the standard of organ playing in the 16th century must have been very high. It is a little disappointing that a mixed choir has been used in the liturgical pieces. The solo parts are all sung by members of the choir. Some are very good, others less so (in particular in regard to the use of vibrato). I also regret that a historical pronunciation of Latin is absent here.

These critical remarks don't take anything away of my enthusiasm about this disc and the project it is part of. I hope we are going to hear much more from it in the future. I assume that partly depends on public support. What better way to support this project than buy this disc? I strongly recommend it.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

The Early English Organ Project
Goetze & Gwynn
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge


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