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Nicholas LUDFORD (c1485 - c1557): Missa Dominica - "A Lady Mass for King Henry VIII"

Ensemble Scandicus
Dir: Jérémie Couleau

rec: Nov 2012, Saint Lizier (Ariège), Notre-Dame de La Sède
Pierre Verany - PV713111 (© 2013) (58'57")
Liner-notes: E/F; no lyrics
Cover & track-list

Jean-Louis Comoretto, Michel Géraud, Marc Pontus, alto; Olivier Boulicot, Jérémie Couleau, Dominique Rols, tenor; Guillaume Olry, Thierry Peteau, François Velter, bass

Nicholas Ludford is one of the composers of the English renaissance who is a little overshadowed by his contemporaries, especially John Taverner. However, as David Skinner states in New Grove, "[he] is considered to be one of the most important and innovative composers in early Tudor England". Not that much is known about him and his output is modest: 16 masses (three of which are lost), six motets and a setting of the Magnificat. Some of his masses and his motets have been recorded, but the mass recorded by the Ensemble Scandicus appears for the first time on disc.

It is possible that Ludford was born in London; here he joined the Fraternity of St Nicholas (the London guild of parish clerks) in 1521. For most of his life he worked at the royal chapel of St Stephen in the Palace of Westminster. It was his duty to play the organ, and he may also have had the supervision of music in the chapel. He experienced the tribulations of the breakaway from the church of Rome, the Protestant reforms under Edward VI and the restoration of Catholicism under Mary Tudor. It seems that Ludford remained faithful to his Catholic convictions.

The Missa Dominica is one of seven so-called Lady Masses, masses for a feast of the Virgin Mary. It is the only weekly cycle of English Lady Masses known to have survived. The subtitle of this disc says "A Lady Mass for King Henry VIII". The seven masses are copied in a set of partbooks which can be dated between about 1515 and 1525 and were probably a gift to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. These seven masses are all alternatim compositions and scored for three voices. For some reasons these masses have received very little attention from performers as yet.

A feature of the Missa Dominica is the mixture of old and modern elements. Among the former are the florid polyphony and the scoring for three voices which was common in the 15th century. On the other hand there are several moments of imitative polyphony which was to become standard practice in compositions of later generations.

This recording is not only remarkable for the choice of this mass, but also for the way it is performed. That goes especially for the interpretation of the monophonic sections. In most alternatim compositions these are performed as simple plainchant; in English music often melodies from the Sarum repertoire is chosen. Here the interpreters have applied a practice which was widespread in England. "Close examination of the manuscript leads us to believe (...) that vocal extemporisation was meant to complete a deliberately incomplete notation. (...) Singers in the Chapel Royal were required to have a thorough grasp of discant and faburden. (...) The aim of this simple contrapuntal technique is to add two or three extemporised voices to a given melody (the cantus firmus). Half of the monadic [monodic] sections in the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo make use of such improvisation, which was particularly popular in England in the 16th century", Jérémie Couleau writes in the booklet.

This practice is seldom applied, and that makes this recording even more important, in addition to the choice of rare repertoire. However, the interpretation raises some questions. The liner-notes are not crystal clear about which sections are composed polyphonically by Ludford and which have been 'improvised'. The latter word can't be taken literally here, because Couleau states that "I wrote these three- and four-voice faburdens following the rules of counterpoint set forth by Guilelmus Monachus in his De praeceptis artis musicae". It is probably too much to ask the singers to really improvise as that seems only possible if one sings this kind of repertoire on a daily basis, as in Ludford's time. I wonder why some of these written-out faburdens are for four voices, considering that this mass is for three voices throughout. It would also have been useful if Couleau had explained that faburden as practiced in renaissance England is not exactly the same as what is known as fauxbourdon. The Missa Dominica is performed here by nine voices, three per part. Is this the way a three-part work was performed in Ludford's time, or is it more plausible to perform it with one voice per part?

Setting aside these considerations this is a highly interesting and compelling recording. Ludford's music is of the highest calibre, and this part of his output is almost completely ignored. The performers' courage to approach this repertoire from a somewhat different angle is praiseworthy. They defend this approach with verve; the singing in all the voices is excellent and the ensemble perfect. It is regrettable that the booklet omits the lyrics. They should be available from the websites of the ensemble and the record company Arion, but I couldn't find them on the former, whereas the latter is not available at all.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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