Invocations – choral music that responds to pandemics and times of crisis
The Tudor Consort under the direction of Michael Stewart
St. Paul’s Cathedral, Saturday 29 August at 7pm
It is an eerie reminder of how little the human condition has changed over time when we consider that, in the 21st century, our approach to dealing with a global pandemic is essentially medieval: practices of social distancing and quarantine have their origins in the 14th century when European populations were trying to control outbreaks of the bubonic plague. While we now have an 0800 Healthline number that we can call at any time day or night to talk to someone about COVID-19, the equivalent for our medieval ancestors was to call upon, and invoke the powers of, divine heavyweights such as Mary, Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, or St. Sebastian (patron saint of plague and protection) who were similarly available at all hours (and in high demand at the time).
On Saturday evening Wellington’s a capella vocal ensemble The Tudor Consort – a group of twenty-two singers under the direction of Michael Stewart – presented a range of beautiful choral pieces, most of them lamentations on the state of the world during an epidemic. Given the name of the ensemble, it was fitting that a number of works on the programme were indeed composed during the Tudor era (between 1485 and 1603).
The highly informative programme notes provided excellent background material to the presented pieces and reading through the pieces’ Latin texts with their descriptions of some of the disease’s symptoms was enlightening: ‘posuit me desolatam tota die maerore confectam’ (‘it has left me stunned and faint all day long’); ‘mortis ulcere’ (wound of death); ‘a me enerva infirmitatem noxiam vocatem epidemiam’ (‘untie me from the cords of harmful weakness called the epidemic) etc.
The concert began with the original plainsong ‘Stella caeli extirpavit’ which is considered to have been composed by the Sisters of the Monastery of Santa Clara in Coimbra Portugal during the Black Death (between 1347 and 1351). It is a plea for divine clemency in the face of illness and the plague, invoking Mary as a healer whose motherhood of Christ cured the ‘plague’ of original sin, asking her intercession for those suffering from physical disease. Three polyphonic settings of the plainsong’s text followed: one by John Cook, a musician who was among the personnel who accompanied the entourage of Henry V in the Agincourt expedition of 1415; and two others by Walter Lambe and John Thorne, both drawn from the Eton Choirbook, a richly illuminated manuscript collection of English sacred music composed during the late 15th century for use at Eton College. This was one of very few collections of Latin liturgical music to survive Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
While the melodic lines of these polyphonic settings all followed a clear intuition about which note or chord the piece would finish on, the tonal consciousness they reflected was very different. I found myself immersed in a past but beautiful tone world that existed before there was ever a concept of a Western tonal system. This was the aural sphere of (pretonal) modes of Gregorian chant, troubadour and trouvère music, and Minnesang. As demonstrated by the three presented settings of ‘Stella caeli extirpavit’, the focus of early polyphony is the horizontal movement of the individual voices (along the x-axis so to speak). As a result, there are moments where, in a vertical sense (i.e. on the y-axis), they chafe against each other momentarily to create striking and sometimes pungent dissonances.
The third of these settings by John Thorne consisted of a trio, performed by guest singer, Christopher Brewerton of the celebrated British men’s chorus The King’s Singers, alongside Tudor Consort members Philip Roderick and Andrea Cochrane. This exquisite performance gave us a glimpse of the divine.
Settings by English Renaissance composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis followed, who, despite both being committed Catholics, found great favour with Queen Elizabeth I who was a Protestant (albeit a moderate one) with a weakness for elaborate Roman Catholic ritual. In 1575, she granted both Byrd and Tallis a twenty-one year monopoly for composing polyphonic music and a patent to print and publish music.
Byrd’s setting of the prayer ‘Recordare Domine’ demonstrated the composer’s liking for closely woven, imitative choral textures and the repeated dissonances on the syllables ‘desoletur terra’ were a lovely effect within the work’s smooth and lucid part writing. Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah is a striking and emotive work, taking its inspiration from the poetic laments for the destruction in 586BC of Jerusalem as collected in the Old Testament’s Book of Lamentations. Punctuated only by the meditative, static treatment of the Hebrew letters (Aleph, Beth), Tallis’s music mirrors the text, achieving heightened poignancy through the use of dissonance: the contrastingly untroubled major tonality of ‘plorans ploravit’ (‘she weeps bitterly’) had a strangely charged intensity.
After a brief interval the concert continued with a motet by the Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero (1529-1599) who would have no doubt had quite a different take on Philip II’s ill-fated Armada (the Grande y Felicísima Armada) than his English counterparts. His motet Beatus es is a setting of a devotional prayer to Saint Sebastian who (along with Saint Roch) was regarded as having a special ability to intercede to protect from the plague as noted above (he is also the patron saint of archers and pin-makers). Despite the profound beauty of this work (that could have only delighted the Saint to whom it was addressed), Guerrero nonetheless ended up dying of the plague.
A further supplication to Saint Sebastian was then presented, this time in the form of a motet by Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay (circa 1397 to 1474). A group of soprano voices along with Peter Maunder and Sarah Rathbun on sackbut (an early form of the modern trombone) reopened the window into a tantalising and distant aural world of late medieval polyphony. The programme notes provided an excellent guide for the listener, explaining the canonic and ‘isorhythmic’ design of the work.
After a beautifully sung prayer for mercy ‘contra pestem’ (‘against the plague’) by Frenchman Philippe Verdelot (circa 1480 to circa 1540), the singers presented further Lamentations of Jeremiah, this time by yet another Catholic Elizabethan composer, Robert White (circa 1538 to 1574). His setting follows the example of Tallis, displaying a mastery of large-scale form and showing new harmonic boldness. The Tudor Consort’s rendition was, again, angelic.
The concert ended with somewhat of an experiment: a setting of Psalm 130 by 20th century Italian composer, Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) whom I for one had never heard of before. This was an example of sumptuous late Romantic choral writing which completely disoriented me: my ears had become so attuned to the crystalline beauty of sacred Renaissance vocal music, and my aural receptivity had adjusted so much to pretonal modal horizons, that I found Pizzetti’s setting, although wonderfully performed, quite unintelligible. Perhaps I will approach this composer and this work again one day (possibly after some prolonged listening to Scriabin beforehand).
We are so lucky in Wellington to have such a wonderful group of singers as the Tudor Consort and, assuming that their musical supplications have an impact and COVID-19 finally disappears, I look forward to their next concert on 7 November that will take a specific moment in Tudor history as its theme: The Field of the Cloth of Gold (Camp du Drap d’Or), a tournament held as part of the (geo-political) summit between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France five-hundred years ago in June 1520.