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English Choral Practice: 1400-1650.

The 'Cambridge Studies in Performance Practice' series is intended to transmit 'the most important current research [to] a wide range of musicologists, performers, teachers, and all those who have come to regard questions of performance practice as fundamental to their understanding of music'. English Choral Practice, 1400-1650 fulfils this intention: it is clearly not designed as a handbook giving direct and explicit guidance on every matter connected with the 'authentic' performance of English choral music.

The book derives partly from a series of seminars held at Cambridge in the early 1990s under the aegis of the late Peter le Huray, and it is offered to his memory. Some of the original Cambridge sessions have, however, been replaced by new material 'in accordance with the broad thrust of the original seminars' (p. xi): several chapters in varying degrees repeat or re-present material already in print. Writers did not see their colleagues' work in advance of publication, and so unresolved differences of opinion are occasionally found, notably those of Roger Bowers and David Wulstan regarding early sixteenth-century pitch. Although contributors are mostly very well known in their areas of study, some brief notice of their achievements or academic credentials would have been useful.

Principal areas of investigation include the development of choral as opposed to solo performance of sacred polyphony (Bowers), voice types and tessituras (Bowers and Wulstan), the performance of music employing cryptic or esoteric notation (Roger Bray), and the contemporary pronunciations of Latin and English (Alison Wray). Some questions of text underlay are studied by David Mateer; and John Milsom discusses the performance context of post-Reformation Latin music, and related matters. Jane Flynn's 'The Education of Choristers in England during the Sixteenth Century' is of less importance to the present-day performer, but it valuably extends our understanding of the contemporary background. John Morehen's 'The "Burden of Proof": the Editor as Detective' deals with several situations in which sources of English church music may be misleading, defective or erroneous, and with two other topics not treated elsewhere, 'The Prayer Books as a Guide to Liturgical Practice' and 'Standards of Performance'. The presence of very few references to the structure and liturgical context of pre-Reformation Latin pieces is probably a recognition that more or less complete information is available in, for example, recent performing editions. There is no discussion of the madrigal and related secular genres, presumably because such music is properly for ensembles of soloists and is not therefore strictly choral. But it is regrettable that the book has nothing to offer on musica ficta and related concerns.

Roger Bowers's opening essay, 'To Chorus from Quartet: the Performing Resource for English Church Polyphony, c.1390-1559', is perhaps the highlight of the volume, despite a prose style that is sometimes a little forbidding. It overlaps substantially with Bowers's previous writings on the subject (as explained in footnote 2 on page 3). Bowers reviews the stages by which the groups of three or four adult soloists involved in early fifteenth-century polyphony were superseded by 'choral' ensembles of men and boys, with several singers to a part. He argues convincingly that much early fifteenth-century poly-phony employed one part of alto range and two of tenor range lying approximately in the two octaves from c to c[double prime] in terms of modern pitch. Later, when treble and bass voices were added, the three central parts were presumably retained at their original pitch, and the overall pitch range lay typically between F and g[double prime].

Bowers has thus significantly departed from the recently fashionable view that early Tudor polyphony used an overall pitch range from about A[flat] or B[flat] to a[flat][double prime] or b[flat][double prime] and a somewhat different disposition of voices - a view propounded chiefly by David Wulstan and based partly on observations relating to organ pitch valid at a later date. Differences between Bowers and Wulstan centre on the pitch and scoring of early Tudor music: essentially Wulstan has argued backwards from later practice, while Bowers has argued forwards. A forthcoming article by Bowers suggests completion of a coherent overall view extending beyond his present chapter; the title is to be 'The Vocal Scoring of English Church Polyphony: "Choir Pitch" and the Origins of "Organ Pitch", c. 1547-70'.

The starting-point for David Wulstan's own contribution, 'Byrd, Tallis and Ferrabosco', was his essay 'Birdus tantum natus decorare magistrum' (in Byrd Studies, ed. Alan Brown & Richard Turbet, Cambridge, 1992, pp. 63-82). Here, certain technical features differentiating the music of Byrd and Tallis, notably ranges and dispositions of voices, are demonstrated in computer analyses carried out by the late John Duffill. These analyses 'confirmed' that Latin church music of Byrd's time was to be sung 'at a consistent pitch, based on that of the organs of the time, and . . . slightly below a minor third above present-day "concert pitch" (a = 440)' (p. 110). Further analyses by Duffill, comparing ranges and pitches of works by Tallis, Byrd and the elder Ferrabosco, are included in Wulstan's present essay, partly with the intention of confirming the influence of Ferrabosco on Byrd. Neither they nor their commentaries make easy reading, and one wonders if they might have been more appropriately placed in the pages of a specialist periodical. Here, although undoubtedly valuable, even striking, they jar somewhat, with their references to 'excellent results', works 'scoring' well or badly, etc. And why indeed should discussion of Byrd's early work (including observations on the correctness or otherwise of their attributions) and of influences on him feature quite so substantially in a volume concerned principally with performance practice? The essay as a whole is perhaps over-sectionalized, and the defence of opinions about pitch and transposition is no more effective for its occasionally testy tone (loc. cit.).

Roger Bray's topic is the editing and performing of musica speculativa, which featured extensively in his article 'Music and the Quadrivium in Early Tudor England' (in Music & Letters, lxxvi (1995), 1-18). In the present context musica speculativa is said to mean 'music which is conceived and presented in an esoteric format for academic presentation' (p. 48), but perhaps a more accurate definition might be 'music with what may be interpreted as esoteric notational elements'. Bray discusses the nature of the surviving sources of the Mass O quam suavis (probably by John Lloyd) and of Fayrfax's doctoral Mass O quam glorifica, and the problems for editors and performers. The manuscript containing O quam suavis presents the tenor in a highly cryptic form, and even the accompanying verbal 'canons' would not permit performance directly from this source. O quam glorifica, however, exists in versions that are effectively early Tudor performing editions. Bray's interest lies not only in establishing the nature of an esoterically notated original but chiefly and very valuably in suggesting methods for making the more rhythmically complicated sections readily performable today.

There are some useful observations about sixteenth-century 'editing' of other Masses, notably the apparent suppression of mensuration changes near the ends of the first three movements of Taverner's Gloria tibi Trinitas, and the substitution of ?? for the less familiar ?? in the Agnus Dei. Bray accordingly re-edits short passages from all four movements to give versions that modern singers may find more helpful than those in my volume John Taverner: I, Six-Part Masses ('Early English Church Music', xx (London, 1978)).

Bray's conclusions about Gloria tibi Trinitas (and somewhat similar ones about the Mass Albanus by Fayrfax) have been reached partly by observing the kinds of esoteric numerical structures found in many early Tudor pieces and noticed in Frank Ll. Harrison, Music in Medieval Britain (London, 1958; 2nd edn., 1963), 314, and Hugh Benham, 'The Formal Design and Construction of Taverner's Works' (in Musica disciplina, xxvi (1972), 189-200). More convincing numerical relationships result when Bray's adjustments are adopted than when they are not. An appendix (pp. 66-73) shows all kinds of relationships between sections in Albanus and again in Gloria tibi Trinitas. Some are hardly remarkable, but only intensive planning can have led to Taverner's exactly balancing the length of Gloria plus Credo (512 breves) and all the music with cantus firmus throughout the Mass.

It should be observed, however, that methods of counting other than Bray's (e.g. involving units other than breves) may also give interesting numerical results - as shown in Benham, 'The Formal Design . . .', for example; so relationships may work at more levels, perhaps even within a single composition, than Bray suspects. Moreover, Taverner's overall count of 899 breves, like Fayrfax's of 1023 in Albanus, is a 'strange' total - why not some convenient round figure such as 900? Bray's counts appear to be correct, so is there some special significance in 899 - such as, or other than, its being 29 x 31; or in 1023, which is 31 x 33? But what use is all this to the performer? On the face of it, none. But for Fayrfax and Taverner music was more than obvious external sound-patterns: according to Boethian philosophy, it could mirror the perfections of the universe by making number audible.

Interest in historically 'correct' pronunciations of Latin and English texts from medieval and Renaissance music has developed only within the last twenty years or so. Alison Wray concludes her chapter 'The Sound of Latin in England before and after the Reformation' with the observation that 'ultimately, of course, we simply cannot know how Latin was pronounced at a particular time in the distant past. We can only experiment with different methods in the hope of achieving something that makes sense at as many levels as possible' (p. 89). This is certainly valid, but perhaps the reader should be told it at the outset of the discussion. The chapter 'English Pronunciation, c. 1500-c. 1625' again concludes '. . . that identifying the "correct" pronunciation for a given piece is not only impossible but also nonsensical' (p. 107) - which sounds very weak after the opening sentence: 'The purpose of this chapter is to consider how the texts of church anthems and other English-texted music might have been pronounced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries' (p. 90).

Both of Wray's chapters make very interesting reading, but include more linguistic and phonetic detail than their context requires. Those unfamiliar with phonetic symbols will need to search out their meaning from footnote 49 on page 84 and from the tables in the chapter on English pronunciation (which of course come after the chapter on Latin is finished), without ever, I think, finding a clear explanation of '[ae:]'. A straightforward table of symbols at the outset might have been worth the space it would have occupied.

Wray's chapter on Latin culminates in a detailed study of the Magnificat verse 'Quia respexit . . . generationes', as it may have been pronounced c. 1500, with alternatives for c. 1580 and c. 1620, and a comparison of a version for c. 1450 from Harold Copeman, Singing in Latin (Oxford, 1990). (The verdict in brief is that Anglicized pronunciations prevailed.) An example might have been drawn more profitably from a verse that regularly had polyphonic treatment in Magnificat settings, rather than from one performed only in plainsong; references to the Ordinary of the Mass would have served an even wider purpose. Wray might usefully have alluded to the practice of music copyists in such matters as spelling. For example, the 'c' - 's' equivalence could be demonstrated from one source of Taverner's 'Ave Dei paths filia': John Baldwin in Oxford, Christ Church, MSS 979, 980 and 981 prefers 'cessioni', and in MS 983 'sescioni', to other copyists' 'sessioni'. English copyists normally prefer 'generaciones' to 'generationes', thus apparently confirming an 's' rather than 't' sound in this word and others like it.

Wray is almost certainly right in assuming that, in an era before the influence of the Italian bel canto tradition, 'the sung [English] language . . . had the potential to resemble very closely the singer's own speech'. Thus one may 'apply to vocal music the information that is available about the sounds of speech of the time' (p. 94). Tables on pp. 94-7 show the development of vowels and diphthongs from 'pre-1500-1600' through 'post-1500-1650' up to 'post-1600-1700', but there are a few minor inconsistencies: (modern) 'blood' and 'mouth' hardly share a common vowel sound, while 'hat' and 'man' are often dissimilar in contemporary speech. Examples in the third column do not always correspond in order to the modern spelling variants listed in the first column. The three detailed studies of contemporary texts are useful, but references to, or quotations from, the associated musical settings might have been included, particularly where reference is made to accentuation or numbers of syllables.

David Mateer's essay 'John Baldwin and Changing Concepts of Text Underlay' examines in particular that copyist's attempts in Christ Church MSS 979-83 and in London, British Library, R.M. 24.d.2 to modernize the underlay of early sixteenth-century music, notably by transferring a melisma from the final syllable of a phrase to the penultimate, and by introducing verbal repetition. Mateer identifies the essential dilemma: 'Does one practise safe musicology and produce a mere diplomatic transcription . . . or should an attempt be made to restore passages suspected of being corrupt as closely as possible to their original form?' (p. 159). He appears to favour the second alternative, even 'if the manuscript tradition depends on a single witness'. His article will certainly facilitate such an approach, even if it perhaps underestimates the difficulty.

John Milsom's 'Sacred Songs in the Chamber', an urbane and approachable piece, emphasizes that much late Elizabethan and early Jacobean Latin 'church' music was intended not for liturgical or other church use but for the chamber, and therefore employed small ensembles rather than large choirs. Milsom examines the origins, ownership and purpose of various important manuscript and printed sources from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and reaches some interesting conclusions, among them that the partbooks copied by John Sadler (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MSS Mus. e. 1-5), Robert Dow (Christ Church 984-8) and John Baldwin (Christ Church 979-83) were 'the product of a hobby. Performance from them, if it took place at all, may have been secondary to the urge to collect, preserve and neatly transcribe' (p. 167).

English Choral Practice, 1400-1650 is a well-produced volume, containing fairly plentiful music examples and tabular presentation of information. The two plates are copies of pages from Christ Church 979-83, chosen to illustrate aspects of John Baldwin's underlay. The volume appears to have been very thoroughly proof-read. Perhaps the only error worth recording here affects the second phonetic symbol in line 35 of page 77, which should be '[[Epsilon]:]'. All in all, the book is well worth buying. Even though much material in it has already appeared elsewhere, some is new; and never before has so much about the performance practice of early English choral music appeared in a single volume.

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Author:Benham, Hugh
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1997
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