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Thomas MORLEY (c1557 - c1602): Sacred Music

Ferdinand's Consort; Edmund Aldhouse, organ
Dir: Stephen Bullamore

rec: February 15 - 16, 2005, Lincoln Cathedral
Priory - PRCD834 ( 2006) (73'25")

Burial Service (I am the resurrection and the life; Man that is born of a woman; I heard a voice from heaven); De profundis clamavi; Domine, Dominus noster; Domine, non est exaltatum cor meum; Eheu, sustulerunt Domine; The First Service (Venite; Te Deum; Benedictus; Credo; Magnificat; Nunc dimittis); How long wilt thou forget me?; O amica mea

Thomas Morley was one of the most prolific composers during the 'Golden Age' in English history under the rule of Elisabeth I. How much she was considered responsible for the flowering of the arts is impressively demonstrated by The Triumphs of Oriana, a collection of madrigals in honour of the Queen by several composers, put together by Thomas Morley. He himself was a productive and distinguished composer of madrigals, which were strongly influenced by Italian contemporaries. His many madrigals have overshadowed his sacred works, which have been largely neglected so far. A search on the internet suggests this recording by the Ferdinand's Consort is the only one available which is entirely devoted to Morley's sacred music.

Morley was born in Norwich, where he became master of the choristers of the cathedral in 1583. He has been the pupil of William Byrd: when he published his treatise A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke in 1597 he dedicated it to Byrd, calling him his master. It seems that he became organist of St Paul's Cathedral in London at the end of the 1580's. In the next years he began to compose madrigals, the first collection of which appeared in 1593. Morley was also active as music publisher and printer. In 1598 he received the patent on music printing, which had been in the hands of William Byrd until 1596.
Apart from some contributions to collections of psalm settings he himself published none of Morley's sacred music was printed during his lifetime. The publications of some of his works after his death are not always considered reliable. For performances one has to look into the sources, but - as John Bawden writes in the booklet - these give considerable problems as in most of them some partbooks are missing. The well-known British musicologist Thurston Dart has been one of those who have taken care of reconstructing Morley's sacred works from the sources.

Most of this disc is devoted to music on English texts. The First Service is the largest of Morley's three services. The stylistic differences of the sections of this Service suggests it wasn't written as a unity, but rather put together from pieces composed at different stages in Morley's career. It is remarkable how little of Morley's madrigal style has left its mark in this music. There are several moments where the text is illustrated in the music, but elsewhere there seems to be no direct connnection between text and music at all. Several sections are written in the style of the verse anthem. The verses are sung by members of the ensemble, and it is here that I am most disappointed about these performances. Some singers use pretty much vibrato, which is especially annoying in these solo sections. But they also undermine the overall sound of the ensemble.

The Burial Service is a short collection of pieces on texts from the Book of Common Prayer of 1552. Several of these texts are better known from the settings by Henry Purcell: 'Man that is born of a woman', 'In the midst of life we are in death' and 'Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts'. These pieces are very moving, and they are pretty well sung, although their emotional impact doesn't fully come through here.
One of Morley's best pieces is the motet De profundis clamavi, but here it is partly spoilt by the sharp, unpleasant sound of the tenors who almost overpower the rest of the ensemble in the first phrases.
The performances on this disc aren't quite what I was hoping for. I have to admit that I find it difficult to appreciate this repertoire sung by mixed choirs and vocal ensembles. I strongly prefer performances by male voices only. But apart from that these performances too seldom really come to life.

The fact that this disc is the only one available which is devoted entirely to Morley's sacred music is the only reason to recommend it. Let us hope some British cathedral or college choir is going to deliver a recording which does full justice to this fine repertoire.

Johan van Veen ( 2008)

Relevant links:

Ferdinand's Consort

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