in: Reviews

April 22, 2012

Exsultemus Features Eton Choirbook

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A spectacular six-voice Stabat Mater by the little-known composer John Browne was the featured work on a program of music from early Tudor England performed by singers from Exsultemus at Christ Church, Cambridge, on Monday, April 16th. Part of the Cambridge Society for Early Music’s Candlelight Series, the program was heard previously in Carlisle, Weston, Salem, and Ipswich.

John Browne’s Stabat Mater is preserved only in the magnificent manuscript known as the Eton Choirbook, a collection of Magnificats and motets for the Virgin Mary prepared around 1500 for the chapel choir of Eton College and one of the very few sources of English polyphony from this period to have survived the vicissitudes of the Reformation. Like most of the music in the Choirbook, the Stabat Mater is notable for its intricate polyphony, in which extended melismatic lines weave around each other in infinitely varied combinations of small rhythmic and melodic figures that often obscure the underlying triple or duple meter. Considerable textural variety is provided by the vocal scoring: passages for changing groups of three voices contrast with duos in various pairings and full-voice sections for all six voices, comprising soprano, alto, two tenors, and two basses. The excellent program notes by Flynn Warmington provided a useful outline of the changing textures in the motet. Shannon Canavin, founder and General Director of Exultemus and the only female singer in the group, sang soprano with pure intonation and supple phrasing, sounding for all the world like an ideal boy treble. Music Director and countertenor Martin Near, alto, tenors Owen McIntosh and Jason McStoots, and basses Paul Guttry and Sumner Thompson were equally convincing.

The text that Browne set consists of the familiar eight tercets taken from the medieval Franciscan penitential poem, augmented by six additional stanzas in quatrains that the composer may have written himself. The dramatic high point of the motet comes two thirds of the way through when, after a full cadence, the voices enter in close succession with the words “Crucifige, crucifige” (Crucify, crucify), the soprano entering last on ferociously repeated high fs.

The only other work from the Eton Choirbook on the program was a four-voice Ave Maria, mater Dei by William Cornysh. This work was performed here earlier this month by the Tallis Scholars, who attributed it in their program to William Cornysh the Younger, who died in 1523. It seems more likely, however, that the Ave Maria and other sacred works in the Eton Choirbook are by William Cornysh the Elder (d.1502), as suggested in the Exsultemus program. Although less spectacular than the Stabat Mater, this motet belongs to the same stylistic family in its varied scoring for duets, trios, and full sonorities, and in its elaborate melismas and closely spaced imitations that are more decorative than structural.

The remainder of the program was devoted to works on English texts, and as such decidedly less compositionally ambitious than the rarified polyphony of the Eton Choirbook. Having been once led up to those heights, so to speak, and breathed in the atmosphere, one would have liked to hear more of these challenging works, delightful as the carols and secular songs turned out to be. The Fayrfax manuscript is the most important source of secular song from the early Tudor period, that of Henry VII and his son Prince Arthur. This collection also contains a number of devotional songs in carol form, with a series of stanzas set to the same music and a recurrent “burden,” or refrain. In the burden of “Ah, gentle Jesu” by a composer identified only as Sheryngham, a dialogue between a sinner and Jesus is represented by two high (male) and two low voices, all four singers joining in the final “Ah gentle Jesu.” Two secular songs by Robert Fayrfax, who may have copied the manuscript that was owned by his family, are set to serious poems in the courtly love tradition. “Most clear of colour and root of steadfastness,” for soprano, alto, and tenor, featured extravagant melisma on the word “womanhood.” “That was my woe is now my most gladness” was an exquisite duet for alto and tenor. Fragments of the song by Edmond Turges, “Alas, it is I that wot not what to say,” were reused by John Browne in his Stabat Mater, the betrayal of Jesus finding its secular parallel in a courtly love theme of betrayal and abandonment. From a large miscellany of secular music, vocal and instrumental, English and foreign, from the courtly circle of the young Henry VIII we heard the lovely anonymous song “Madame d’amours” and the popular “Ah, Robin” by William Cornysh the Younger, followed by two anonymous comic songs in carol form: “Hey, trolly lolly lo” about the narrator’s encounter with a milkmaid, and the equally ribald “I am a jolly foster [forester (lover)].”

Hearing the Stabat Mater again in its entirety at the end of the program was a welcome jolt back to the ethereal world of the Eton Choirbook. This was a special gift to the audience, the kind of “encore” that should be offered more frequently when a new or highly complex work is presented. The singers from Exsultemus are all accomplished virtuosi, known to Boston audiences as recital, oratorio, or operatic soloists, and equally at home in Renaissance, Baroque, and contemporary repertoires. Singing without conductor, they demonstrated the kind of unswerving musicianship that places accurate tuning, coordinated ensemble, clear diction, and stylistic sensitivity first and foremost.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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