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Elizabeth of York [Source: Wikipedia]
11 Dec 2014

Mary, Queen of Heaven, Wigmore Hall

O Maria Deo grata — ‘O Mary, pleasing to God’: so begins Robert Fayrfax’s antiphon, one of several supplications to the Virgin Mary presented in this thought-provoking concert by The Cardinall’s Musick at the Wigmore Hall.

Mary, Queen of Heaven — Sub-plot: Elizabeth of York

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elizabeth of York [Source: Wikipedia]


In the late-medieval period, Christian thinking centred on the belief that the surest route to eternal peace was through the agency of the Blessed Virgin. Choral music repeatedly invoked her aid; in the Eton Choirbook she is frequently beseeched and, indeed, Eton College had been founded by Henry VI in 1440 as ‘The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor’. Yet, Tudor dynastic politics was never wholly absent from either the religious or cultural life of the age, as The Cardinall’s Musick under the direction of Andrew Carwood intriguingly revealed.

Fayrfax was one of the most pre-eminent English musicians of the early-sixteenth century, holding many important positions during the kingship of Henry VII and the early reign of Henry VIII. A member of the Chapel Royal, he accompanied Henry VIII to the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. Subsequently, his talents have perhaps been undervalued: he has been seen as a musical ‘conservative’, emulating the style and methods of Dunstable at a time when Flemish musicians such as Josquin de Près were experimenting with new complex polyphonic techniques.

Fayrfax’s Mass, O quam glorifica, is one of most complex masses of the period, and the Gloria opened the evening’s performance. The mass was probably written as part of Fayrfax’s doctorate submission to the University of Cambridge c.1502, and was thus designed to show off the Fayrfax’s technical skill and musical invention — as well as his mastery of the perceived intellectual foundations of the art of composition, such as the mathematical patterns which underpin the formal structure and metrical arrangements.

The ten singers of The Cardinall’s Musick gave a polished and purposeful account, Fayrfax’s fluent note-against-note counterpoint and conjunct melodies, with only occasional dissonance, resulting in a mellifluous mass of sound. Great dignity was evoked, and interest generated, by the perpetual re-voicings and re-positionings of Fayrfax’s expansive chords of full harmony. Moreover, just as the textural patterns were handled very expressively, so the metrical complications — the mixed meters, irregular phrase lengths and complex syncopations — were pointedly and judiciously articulated.

Interestingly, The Cardinall’s Musick presented not a perfectly blended sound but one in which individual voices retained their distinct timbre and character; such individualism is perhaps at odds with the contemporary ‘spirit’ of the age, but it is an approach which — complemented by Carwood’s subtle changes of tempo and slight rubatos — nevertheless helped to highlight and shape the points of imitation, and it brought animation and colour to the textures.

Fayrfax’s beautiful melodic writing was noteworthy in the simple motet Ave lumen gratiae (Hail light of grace), a litany of praise in which each line begins with the uplifting address, ‘Ave’. But, it was the five-part motet, Eterne laudis lilium, which brought the full vocal voices together for the concluding work of the programme, which most was most compelling and also most strange. After a hymn of praise to the Blessed Virgin, there follows a genealogy of the Holy Family, tracing the female lineage from Mary to St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. The two sections announcing the list of names, pairing the tenor first with the treble and then with the bass, were excitedly swept aside by imitative entries for all five voices when ‘Elizabeth’ was announced. Records show that on 28 March 1502, Fayrfax received twenty shillings from Elizabeth of York, the consort of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII, for setting ‘an anthem of oure Lady and St Elizabeth’. Clearly this motet was intended as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth of York who was mortally ill at the of the work’s composition — indeed, the first letter of each line forms an acrostic reading ELISABETH REGINA ANGLIE — and here the repetitions of the Queen’s name were finely and expressively sung.

The Cardinall’s Music also performed compositions by Fayrfax’s contemporaries and friends. William Cornysh’s short votive anthem, Ave Maria, mater Dei, is one of the composer’s eight contributions to the Eton Choirbook, and characteristically addresses Mary as the intermediary through whom one may find eternal rest: ‘mother of God, Lady, queen of heaven, empress of hell’. The singers made much of the harmonic nuances and complex rhythms, and especially relished the shifting vocal textures. After the opening declamatory invocation for four voices, trio and a duet sections followed, making the return to full voices for the prayer ‘miserere mei’ which ends first part most striking; the rich textures of the final Amen were similarly dramatic.

Walter Lambe’s four-voice Stella caeli (Star of heaven) was an interesting inclusion. It contrasts with the other Marian texts in that rather than seeking spiritual salvation it implores the Virgin for protection against a more mundane but deadly reality: plague. Mary, addressed as a celestial power, is entreated to ‘be gracious and restrain the heavens, whose attacks bring our people low with fierce and deadly wounds’.

There were some unfamiliar names too. John Plummer’s Tota pulcra es (You are altogether beautiful), is a setting of text from the Songs of Songs and looks ahead to the reign of Edward VI during which Plummer flourished. Here we enjoyed some seductively smooth, conjunct melismas, the continual shifts between two- and three-voice textures adding further appeal. George Banaster was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the 1470s. His antiphon ‘O Maria et Elizabeth’ continued the unification of religious and political sentiment, moving from traditional supplication to a prayer for the monarch and for the good fortune of the country.

Secular works were interspersed between the spiritual compositions. Fayrfax was represented by two gentle love songs, ‘Most clere of colour’ and ‘To complayne me’, while the less well-known Edward Turges’s ‘Enforce Yourself as God’s Own Knight’ for soprano, alto and bass, allowed the singers to demonstrate their vocal agility and control in the long, florid melismas which conclude the syllabic, homophonic verses.

It was intriguing to listen to this music in a present-day concert hall, a situation far removed from the devotional contexts in which it was performed 600 years ago. As the sound swelled, a ‘gravity’ was conveyed by the grand choral effect, suggesting a spiritual certainty which is less frequently encountered in the modern age.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

The Cardinall’s Musick: Andrew Carwood, director; Julie Cooper, Cecilia Osmond (soprano); David Gould, David Martin (alto); Steven Harrold, Nicholas Todd (tenor); Robert Evans, Robert Rice (baritone); James Birchall, Simon Whitely (bass).

Robert Fayrfax: Gloria from Missa O quam glorifica, Most clere of colour, O Maria Deo grata, Ave lumen gratiae, To complayne me, Eterne laudis lilium. Walter Lamne: Stella caeli. William Cornysh: Ave Maria mater Dei, Gaude virgo mater Christi. Gilbert Banaster: O Maria et Elizabeth. John Plummer: Tota pulcra es. Edward Turges: Enforce yourself as God’s own knight.

Wigmore Hall, London, Monday, 8th December 2014.

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