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ClassicsOnline Home » Choral Music - Music from the Eton Choirbook (Tonus Peregrinus, Pitts)
The Eton Choirbook is a giant 500 year-old manuscript from Eton College Chapel, and one of the greatest surviving glories of pre-Reformation England. This recording features the earliest polyphonic Passion by a named composer, two heartrending motets for five and six voices, two thrilling settings of the Magnificat, and an extraordinary canon in 13 parts, Jesus autem transiens. The ensemble TONUS PEREGRINUS has been widely acclaimed, not least for its “richly sung and very well recorded” programme of Orlando Gibbons, L’Estrange, and Pitts. (The Penguin Guide on 8.557681)
By Steven Ritter
Music from the Eton Choirbook
The Eton Choirbook—a giant manuscript from Eton College Chapel—is one of the greatest surviving glories of pre-Reformation England. There is a proverb contemporary with the Eton Choirbook which might have been directly inspired by the spectacular sounds locked up in its colourful pages: “Galli cantant, Italiae capriant, Germani ululant, Anglici jubilant” (roughly translated as “The French sing, the Italians quaver, the Germans wail, and the English make a joyful noise!”). English musicians had loved successions of joyful-sounding thirds (C+E, D+F) for generations before the Eton Choirbook, as can be heard in the first complete setting of the Passion (Naxos 8.555861). By experimenting with full triads (C+E+G) John Dunstaple—the first truly great English composer—was able to take this jubilation to a new level, such that in 1475 the musicologist Tinctoris could claim that music had been transformed during his own lifetime into a “new art” (Naxos 8.557341). This “joyful noise” remained a quintessentially English characteristic through the extremes of Tallis’s forty-part motet Spem in alium (Naxos 8.557770) and Gibbons’s ravishing Hymnes and Songs of the Church (Naxos 8.557681) to English composers of the 20th century and today. But it is in the Eton Choirbook itself that some unsurpassed heights of musical ecstasy were reached, mirroring the lofty perpendicular style of the architecture of the 15th and early 16th centuries.
Founded along with King’s College, Cambridge in the early 1440s by Henry VI, Eton College was to be a haven of education, devotion, and charity in the middle of political turbulence—the final stages of the Hundred Years’ War with France, the so-called ‘Wars of the Roses’, and the religious reforms and counter-reforms of Henry VIII and his children. That turbulence devastated many libraries (including the Chapel Royal library) and makes the surviving 126 of the original 224 leaves in Eton College Manuscript 178 all the more precious, for it is just one of a few representatives of several generations of English music in a period of rapid and impressive development. Eton’s chapel library itself had survived a forced removal in 1465 to Edward IV’s St George’s Chapel—a stone’s throw away in Windsor—during a temporary fall from royal favour. It was under the rule of Henry VII, who had claimed the monarchy for the Tudors in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, that the repertoire of the Eton Choirbook particularly flourished, and the Choirbook itself was put together around 1500—described in a 1531 inventory as “a grete ledger of prick song secundo folio tum cuncta”. Putting together a Choirbook was no small feat: as Magnus Williamson notes in his introduction to the recently-published DIAMM facsimile, not only would it have cost somewhere in the region of an entire annual salary (of, say, a senior chaplain), but would also have “required the skins of 112 average-sized calves”!
However magnificent, the music of the Eton Choirbook is just the tip of a titanic schedule of devotions and supplications which took place in the College Chapel. Each day some seven masses were said or sung, and in addition there were the various observances which had sprung up over the centuries around the person of Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus (later to be silenced at the strokes of pen and sword of Protestant Reformers); feastdays, of which there were many, required yet more celebration, with a particular emphasis on the events of Passiontide and Holy Week. The College’s statutes of 1443/4 made provision for, among others, 16 choristers and 4 clerks, who were to have good voices and be skilled in reading, song, and polyphony.
Out of the 25 composers represented in the Eton Choirbook, several had strong links with Eton College itself: Walter Lambe and, quite possibly, John Browne were there in the late 1460s as boys. John Browne, composer of the astounding six-part setting of Stabat mater dolorosa 5 may have gone on to New College, Oxford, while Richard Davy was at Magdalen College, Oxford in the 1490s. We can imagine these composers and their fellow-singers grouped around the huge choirbook on a lectern—seven or so men, and in front, ten boys who with eyesight still undimmed could read from the top of the very large pages. The size of the pages meant they had to be parchment and, in order to be legible in the uncertain candlelight, the music was solidly inscribed on staves 2cm high. Each voice-part is written out by itself (without barlines) on one part of the open double-page spread: unlike a modern score there is no vertical alignment between the parts and there is little to show the existence of the tactus—or beat—apart from the groupings of the noteheads. The noteheads used practically throughout are in “black-full” notation (i.e. filledin semibreves and minims) which survived later in England than on the Continent, rather than the more familiar “black-void” notation (which is more-or-less what we still use today). Red ink, too, provided a way of conveying further instructions to the performers: red text is used in sections for reduced numbers of voices, while red noteheads introduce the notion of binary ‘imperfection’ into a mensural world of rhythmic proportions grounded on the Trinitarian foundation of the mediaeval theorists—three against two: triplets and hemiolas, as musicians call them today.
The original index lists more than 60 antiphons—all votive antiphons designed for daily extraliturgical use and fulfilling Mary’s prophecy that “From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed”; one of the best known—and justifiably so—is Walter Lambe’s setting of Nesciens mater  in which the composer weaves some of the loveliest polyphony around the plainchant tenor (sung by itself on track ). The Magnificat is Mary’s song of praise and joy in response to her cousin Elizabeth’s own prophetic salutation: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb”; and at some point no fewer than 24 versions of the Magnificat were added to the Choirbook, including a virtuosic setting by Hugh Kellyk —of which this is believed to be the first recording; and last but certainly not least, the ebullient four-part setting by William Stratford  which we sing here in alternating (and finally combined) choirs of upper and lower voices. Stratford’s polyphony appears to contain two quirky but audible examples of rhythmic wordpainting: one lost beat between the words “the rich” and “He hath sent empty away”, and one extra beat at the words “his seed for ever”.
Almost the final addition to the Choirbook is a Passion setting—the first by a named composer, Richard Davy. The opening pages of his St Matthew Passion  have been lost, so the story begins here with Jesus standing in front of Pilate. Davy’s polyphony sets the spoken parts of the narrative, with the rest of the text intoned by a single voice), and is notable for its intense and fast-changing response to the text—for instance, the way the names of Barrabas and of Jesus are contrasted. A main index was compiled after all these pieces had been added; the only two pieces not listed in this index are by Robert Wylkynson and were presumably added between 1500 to 1515 during his time in charge as Informator choristarum at Eton. The final page of the manuscript contains what John Milsom has described as its “most bizarre” item, Wylkynson’s Jesus autem transiens / Credo in Deum —a canonic setting, for 13 voices, of the Apostles’ Creed (as shown on the cover of this album). The names of the twelve apostles are inscribed above successive phrases of the Creed in the manuscript, and the opening chant “But Jesus passing through them” can be heard passing from one voice to another. Although unique in structure and musically idiosyncratic, Jesus autem transiens does demonstrate several obvious aspects of the Eton style: the harmony is based on simple triads, in either root position or first inversion, decorated with numerous passing-notes and only briefly disturbed by a couple of accented dissonances; the melodic line is characterized by syncopation and irregularity in both rhythm and phrasing, while its range of 13 notes is very wide for a single voice. The overall compass of 22 or 23 notes of many of the other works in the Eton Choirbook is likewise remarkable.
This recording is perhaps the jewel in the crown of our Naxos series of “milestones of Western Music”—the first music in four parts (Naxos 8.557340), the first opera (Naxos 8.557337), the first complete polyphonic mass and Passion settings (Naxos 8.555861), the first sounds of the Renaissance (Naxos 8.557341), and the first English hymnbook (Naxos 8.557681). In this interpretation of music from the Eton Choirbook we have attempted to bring these black and red dots on the page to life, and to recover some of their vibrant harmonic colour. Our main tool for this restoration is the considered addition of momentary sharps and flats, over and above those scattered throughout the manuscript. Here we draw on three resources: the writings of contemporary theorists on musica ficta and other practices, an editor’s ear for consistency and harmonic direction (i.e. when “beauty” should triumph over “necessity”), and years of rehearsal with the ensemble trying out different possibilities for each part’s vocal line. The result, we can be sure, is never going to be one hundred per cent the same as 500 years ago, but we can be equally positive that these “wrong notes” (as some critics might term them) are on the right track, as once-pallid polyphony bursts into resonant combinations of tones that match the vivid blues, golds, and greens of the Choirbook itself. And on that note, we are delighted that our performances have been recorded using a revolutionary new technique (outlined by Geoff Miles overleaf) which, to our ears, captures the live sound of TONUS PEREGRINUS as never before.
Note on the recording technique
The main pair of microphones on this recording are indeed unorthodox, and this will be the first commercial release that has used them. They are an attempt to provide the listener with a new approach to the idea of high resolution sound. “High resolution” in audio is generally taken to mean extending frequency range, and providing the widest dynamic possibilities across that range. This would seem like a good idea; however, producing microphones that operate well across such an extended range without making certain trade-offs is impossible. One side effect of extended frequency in many microphones is an increase in a form of distortion called “intermodulation”. This is a non-harmonic distortion which is perceptible as a “glassy”, “metallic” or “hard” quality, most obvious when recording high sound levels. Unlike most modern microphones, these experimental microphones are designed to provide enhanced dynamic resolution within the region that our own ears are most sensitive. Research into the neurology of hearing suggests that the way in which harmonics interact within this region provides crucial information to the brain about pitch, timbre, dynamics and timing. Clouding this important area with non-harmonic distortion makes a recording more difficult for the brain to process, and therefore more tiring to listen to. The result of removing the distortion is in many ways unremarkable. Lines (as in this beautiful polyphony) should be easier to follow, individual voices should be clearer and easier to place, and the timbre of each voice should be more easily distinguishable. This microphone development is a workin- progress, but I believe it may prove the beginning of an important new direction to be pursued much further. Having said all of this, I hope that if I’ve done my job properly most listeners will just enjoy the music!
Geoff Miles (recording engineer)
With many thanks to the Vicar, Fr Christopher Smith, Verger, Greg Rupprecht, and the staff and congregation of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London, and to the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM)—images of the Eton Choirbook © 2003 the Provost and Fellows of Eton College and provided by www.diamm.ac.uk; images of TONUS PEREGRINUS and of the facsimile by Ian Dingle © 2011
As this disc is so much about transmission from one generation to another, and—on a narrative level—about the joys and trials of parenthood, it is dedicated to our children: Thomas (1993), Anna (1997), Raphael (1999), Sophia (2001), William (2002), Daniel (2003), Edward (2004), Eleanor (2004), Jessica (2005), Benjamin (2006), William (2006), Toby (2006), Luke (2007), Hugo (2007), Arran (2007), Harry (2008), James (2008), Sophie (2009), Grace and Archie (2010), …
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