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ClassicsOnline Home » PHILIPS, P.: Cantiones Sacrae Quinis et Octonibus Vocibus (Antwerp 1612 and 1613) (Sarum Consort, Mackay)
Peter Philips was the most famous English composer of his time, and only Byrd, a generation older, had more compositions published. Much of Philips’s life was spent on the Continent, where he wrote music of intricate, text-conscious colour, both deeply expressive and architecturally powerful. His motets and anthems, whether celebratory, meditative or dramatic, embrace the widest range of feeling and texture. The much-admired Sarum Consort’s disc All the Queen’s Men (8.572582) was praised for its ‘energy and aplomb’. (American Record Guide)
Peter Philips (1560/61–1628)
Cantiones Sacrae Quinis et Octonibus Vocibus (Antwerp 1612 and 1613)
Although Peter Philips enjoyed great fame in his lifetime, and had more compositions published than any Englishman except William Byrd, we know frustratingly little about his life. The bare facts can be quickly sketched: probably born in London in 1560 or 1561, he sang as a boy at St Paul’s Cathedral and later may have been a pupil of Byrd. His earliest known composition is a keyboard pavan dated 1580. Two years later his Roman Catholic faith caused him to flee England and he found refuge in the English College in Rome. Under the patronage of Cardinal Farnese, Philips seems to have flourished; he acted as college organist, and was influenced by Anerio and Palestrina. In 1585 he entered the service of a prominent English nobleman, Lord Thomas Paget, who was another Catholic refugee, and for five years they travelled in Europe. After Paget’s death Philips settled in Antwerp, got married, and ‘mainteyned himself by teaching of children of the virginals, being very cunning thereon’. In 1593 he travelled to Amsterdam to visit a famous organist and composer there—undoubtedly Sweelinck, who complimented Philips by writing a set of variations on his 1580 pavan. On his return Philips received a shocking reminder of his refugee status: he was arrested, accused of complicity in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I, taken to The Hague and thrown into prison. After an anxious wait for evidence to arrive from London, during which he composed a Pavan and Galliard Dolorosa, Philips was found to be innocent and released. He was back in Antwerp in time for Christmas.
In 1596 Philips published his first book of madrigals, and his fame began to spread more widely. The next year he was appointed by the Archduke Albert to be one of the three organists at the vice-regal chapel in Brussels, a post that he held until his death in 1628. During these years Philips’s colleagues at the royal chapel included some illustrious musicians, none more so than the English composer John Bull, whose ability at the virginals was legendary. He arrived in Antwerp in 1613, having fled England for a quite different reason—to escape a prosecution for ‘adultery and fornication’.
One cannot help wondering whether they hit it off, these two most renowned English keyboard players of their day. Peter Philips appears tall and thin with a pointed beard in the only portrait we have, and our best guess from the few facts we know about his life must be that like Byrd he was a serious, even austere figure; John Bull, the colourful virtuoso, must have been a very different person. Friends or not, they died in the same year, 1628, having greatly enhanced the reputation of English music abroad.
In modern times Philips’s reputation, like that of other Tudor composers including William Byrd, has benefited from the pioneering work of R.R. Terry at Westminster Cathedral. He rescued this lovely music from oblivion by editing some of the motets for Novello in the 1930s. His invaluable work was continued by various editors including Nicholas Steinitz, whose 1961–2 editions of the eight-part motets Ave Jesu Christe and Ecce vicit Leo were used for this disc. These two outstanding motets joined the cathedral repertoire in the last century and have already appeared on disc, but several of these motets are here recorded for the first time.
Peter Philips was a prolific composer of motets and madrigals and there is a substantial corpus of keyboard and other instrumental works as well. He published his collection of 69 five-part motets in 1612, and thirty eight-part motets in 1613; he also wrote a large number of motets for other combinations of voices and continuo. The Cantiones Sacrae Quinis Vocibus of 1612 and 1613 was Philips’s first major publication of sacred music. It was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, for the ‘confirmation and amplification of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman faith, and the extirpation and confusion of Heresy and Heretics’. This seriousness of intent is underlined by Philips’s choice of texts: he shows a marked preference for setting words from liturgical sources such as antiphons and responds and hardly ever chooses freely from, for example, the Psalms, as earlier Renaissance composers so often did.
Philips was an Englishman, but his music is steeped in the continental style of the late Renaissance. He uses a wide range of textures, colours and styles, from old-fashioned polyphony to simple chordal writing, from pure academic canons to light-hearted, almost madrigalian word-painting. These techniques are not used merely to show off the composer’s skill, but rather to illustrate and comment on the text, which he invariably chooses with care and responds to with fervour. Whilst space does not permit a detailed discussion of each of the motets, it is hoped that the comments that follow will provide some indication of the range and subtlety of his art.
The joyful Easter anthem Christus resurgens is subtitled In festo Resurrectionis Domini and takes its text from an Easter Saturday Responsory. Philips characteristically word-paints resurgens and et resurrexit with rising notes; and mortuus est semel is given to the three lower parts, all of whom have descending phrases. A lively alleluia concludes the piece.
Disciplinam et sapientiam has perhaps a rather heavy and monastic sounding beginning (“The Lord has taught them knowledge and wisdom”), but it is immediately leavened by a lively alleluia, and gradually the piece turns into one of Philips’s most bubbly and extrovert motets. The final triple-time alleluia is given added interest by the cantus firmus-like second soprano line, around which the other four parts weave joyful polyphony.
Loquebantur variis linguis describes the moment when the Apostles spoke in tongues to the multitude. A comparison with Thomas Tallis’s setting of the same text is instructive; while the Tallis is almost breathless with awe at the miracle, the Philips is much more understated, to the extent that the lively and syncopated alleluia comes as a surprise when it suddenly breaks out in the second soprano part.
The text Ne reminiscaris, Domine is familiar in English because of Henry Purcell’s celebrated setting Remember not, Lord, our offences. When Philips wishes to be meditative he generally abandons his usual polyphony in favour of slow-moving chordal writing, and this is the case at the start of this motet. This section is unexpectedly followed by a triple-time ‘Parce Domine’—the rhythm here being used for extra expressivity rather than to express joy—which includes a remarkable echo effect between the two top parts. The fine last section includes a typically plangent cadence with the treble parts rising and falling in thirds on ‘sanguine tuo’.
Gabriel Angelus apparuit contains one of Philips’ favourite devices; it is of the format ABCBD where D is the final alleluia section; in other words, he repeats section B ‘et multi in nativitate eius gaudebunt’in such a way that the second time it goes straight into the alleluias, producing an effect of energy and momentum.
Viæ Sion lugent, another text which is well known in both Latin and English (The ways of Zion do mourn), employs a canon between the upper two voices ad supertonum—that is, with the top line imitating the second two and a half bars later and a tone higher. This device produces a feeling of constantly rising pitch and emotional intensity, and enables Philips to paint the desperation in the text to great effect.
Ave Jesu Christe, the first of the eight part works featured on this disc, is one of only a few of Philips’s motets which are already in the repertoire. Justly admired, it matches one choir against the other in polyphony of great subtlety, each initial lead emerging from the sound of the other choir to magical effect. Philips uses the full eight parts only sparingly where the text invites extra colour, for example for ‘fons pietatis’, for ‘te rogamus’, and in the wonderful final cadence.
Philips’s setting of the Pater noster contrasts with the majority of his five-part motets, which are scored for SSATB with two equal top parts, with its single rather low soprano part and its extra baritone voice. By comparison with the others, the motet lacks drama; but this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of setting this text, and what it lacks in excitement it makes up for in richness of tone and the effortless smoothness of the contrapuntal movement, as Philips skilfully weaves the short phrases of the text into a coherent whole.
Philips’s celebration of Beata Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, takes its text from the Magnificat Antiphon at Vespers. Its passionate text gives him every opportunity for the word-painting at which he excels, from the dramatic opening (‘Blessed Agnes, in the midst of the flames, prayed with extended hands’) through the threats of the sacrilegious tyrant and the vileness of the flesh to the extraordinary yearning of her final rhetorical flourish (‘I come to you whom I have loved, whom I have sought, whom I have always longed for’).
Elegerunt apostoli is another example of the format particularly favoured by Philips, where the piece falls naturally into sections because of a quotation in the text; here, after an introduction vividly setting the scene (‘While the Jews stoned him...’), Stephen’s words are quoted, beginning with simple homophony (‘Domine Jesu, accipe spiritum meum’) and expanding into a meditative alleluia reminiscent of that in Philips’s celebrated motet O Crux splendidior.
Media vita is a familiar and powerful Lenten text which is in fact part of an antiphon from the service of Compline. The piece gains a meditative colour from the relatively low SATTB voices, and begins gently, but soon builds to a climax at the words ‘Sancte Deus, sancte fortis’.
The eight-part Ave Regina caelorum shows off Philips’s extraordinarily felicitous writing for two choirs. As in Ave Jesu Christe, he weaves one choir’s leads into the texture of the other with a subtlety which is far removed from the simple dialogue of the Italian polychoral style.
The text Ave gratia plena is composed specifically to celebrate St Anne, mother of Mary. The words are an early equivalent of those quaint nineteenth-century hymns dashed off by headmaster priests celebrating obscure festivals. As usual, Philips crafts a wonderful motet from the relatively quotidian material, and includes some particularly felicitous writing for the two sopranos.
The double choir motet Ecce vicit Leo is justly famous for its dramatic, trumpet-like initial phrases, the smoothly contrasting ‘Dignus est Agnus’, the lively interplay between the two choirs (‘accipere virtutem…’), and the resonant final alleluia.
In the short motet Ne timeas, Maria Mary is encouraged not to be afraid by the soft entry of the voices, one by one. The other notable point here is that Philips avoids the obvious when word-painting ‘Altissimi Filius’; rather than progressively rising, the phrases descend from the highest point, perhaps suggesting the relationship of father and son.
The short celebratory Gaude Maria virgo is delightfully dedicated In Festo S. Mariae ad Nives—for the Feast of Our Lady of the Snow. The text is an antiphon to Psalm 95, to which Philips adds a characteristically fine alleluia.
Virgo prudentissima is to be regarded as the secunda pars of the preceding motet; however, this more extended work uses a different text, a Magnificat antiphon based on the Song of Songs 6:10. Philips responds to the rapture in the words with an extended melismatic passage which is as near to openly emotional as this composer allows.
In Cum jucunditate the Birthday of Our Lady is celebrated with the tripla rhythms characteristic of Philips expressing great joy, and is full of lively running figures on the word ‘celebremus’. The absence of an alleluia or a noë is the major clue that it is not one of the Christmas motets that it so closely resembles.
Salve Regina and Eia ergo are the prima and secunda pars of a Marian antiphon. This well-known text gives the composer a wealth of opportunities to show off a wide palette of expression; ‘Te suspiramus’is set with a Monteverdian hiatus, whilst the final ‘O clemens: O pia: O dulcis Virgo Maria’draws forth some of the tenderest phrases that Philips ever wrote.
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