In the upheavals wreaked by the English Reformation triggered by King Henry VIII's rejection of Roman Catholicism, most of the Latin liturgical and devotional music hitherto composed was violently destroyed, often with the institutions and buildings that harbored the manuscripts that contained it, and it is something of a miracle that any of it survived at all. What survived was passed on to us in a large part through the preservation of the Eton Choirbook, a richly illuminated manuscript collection kept at Eton College. Only 64 out of the original 93 compositions contained in the original manuscript remain, complete or in part. Harry Christophers and his vocal ensemble The Sixteen first tackled the Eton Choirbook in the early 1980s through a collection published by Meridian, still in print (see my review of Stabat Mater: Music from the Eton Choir Book). In the early to mid-1990s, they returned to that source for Collins Classics, in a more thorough survey, which ultimately totaled 5 CDs. Collins is now gone, but fortunately those CDs and the rest of the recordings of The Sixteen have been reissued on the ensemble's label, Coro.
This music is sublime. I discovered it, by chance, more than a decade ago, through the Tallis Scholar's recording of the choral music of William Cornysh (about that see my review of William Cornysh: Stabat Mater), but it is only now that I've come to explore more, through The Sixteen's Meridian CD and now this superb anthology.
I'm no specialist of English Renaissance music and I tend to bundle everything in a common category that goes from Dunstable to Byrd, although a century and a half separate them. But, already through Cornysh and now with all these selections from the Eton Choirbook, this music gives me a kick that I didn't recall having ever experienced with Byrd or Tallis. I pulled out my CDs those two composers, to see if my earlier impressions were confirmed, and if so, to try and understand why. In the Byrd masses I selected the Tallis Scholars, who had been such a revelation in Cornysh (Byrd: 3 Masses by The Tallis Scholars), and in Tallis' Lamentations I took my ECM CD of the Hilliard Ensemble (Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah).
Impression confirmed, and part of my explanation is: sopranos. They fly and gambol in the stratosphere with heart-rending purity, and each of their leaps is an additional emotional stab in the heart. If angels have voices, I hope this is how they sound. But then, the vocal virtuosity, the sinuous and sensuous vocal lines, the huge compass are not reserved to the sopranos. In fact, this very virtuosity of writing ("the dare-devil complexity, the density of texture, above all the sheer size and scale of music" is how John Milsom, the author of the liner notes, describes the "Eton style".) is a shared characteristic of all these composers, that seems to have been abandoned by their post-Reformation successors. As beautiful as it is, the music of Byrd and Tallis is simpler, melodically and harmonically, more serene and "un-eventful", conveying less of a sense of exultation (the composer Wilfrid Mellers, who wrote the illuminating liner notes of the Tallis/ECM CDs, has a brilliant if perhaps a bit contrived explanation for that simplification of the music, relating it to Protestantism's centering on the individual and on the social solidarities of the individuals, a consequence being the importance for words to be understood and for the rhythms to follow the inflexions of the spoken word, making "the human import [...] therefore more readily manifest than it is in the labyrinths of Catholic counterpoint". Se non è vero è ben trovato). Conclusion: Henry VIII and the Reformation chased the Angels from England. Their loss.
Having reached volume 5 of The Sixteen's collection and after more than five hours of it (not in a single day, though), I don't feel that I've grown satiated of that music - proof is, I've just ordered The Sixteen's 10 CD-set of 16th Century English choral music collating the recordings made for Hyperion before they moved to Collins Classics (Golden Age of English Polyphony). Highlights on this final installment from the Collins series are Walter Lambe's radiant Salve Regina (with a sublime trio - if my ears don't deceive me, but in fact it's hard to detect how many there are - for interlacing female voices between 8:04 and 9:45), Richard Davy's ecstatic Salve Regina (one of its most interesting features being its alternation of passages for "tutti" voices, for male voices only and for female voices only) and his triumphant "In Honore Summae Matris". The lush Magnificat by William, Monk of Strattford has the peculiarity of being written for male chorus. Richard Plummer (1410-1484) is of an earlier generation than most of the Eton Choirbook composers, most of whom straddle the two centuries, and his music is more simple and hymn-like, but there is a touching tenderness to it.
The other installments in the series (in the Coro reissues) are:
The Rose & The Ostrich Feather - Eton Choirbook Volume I
The Crown of Thorns: Eton Choirbook Volume II
The Pillars of Eternity: Eton Choirbook Volume III
The Flower of all Virginity - Eton Choirbook Vol IV
And the original Collins release of this volume 5:
The Voices of Angels: Music from the Eton Choirbook Volume V (Collins)