Music from the Peterhouse partbooks, vol. 4

Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe
Robert Jones Missa Spes nostra
Nicholas Ludford Ave cujus conceptio
Robert Hunt Stabat mater
+Sarum plainchant, Kyrie Deus creator omnium

This is the fourth of five projected discs1 in which Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe’s Boston-based professional choir, records some of the cream of the great assemblage of contemporary Latin settings in the Peterhouse partbooks of c.1540, as edited and completed by Nick Sandon.

Ever since presenting his doctoral thesis on the Peterhouse books in 1983 Sandon has been quietly beavering away, editing – and revising – his completions of the more than fifty defective items they contain, plus editions of ten complete pieces that are unique to this source. Now in sybaritic retirement in rural France, Sandon is currently putting the final touches to his completion of the very last item, the Missa Libera nos by one Thomas Knyght (full of calculated piquant dissonance, he tells me). All are self-published in Sandon’s Antico Edition, which he acquired in the 1980s and initiated with his invaluable editions of the chant and liturgy of the Sarum Mass. Blue Heron’s discs are also self-published, thanks to a host of what I take to be mostly local financial backers that put British Arts philanthropy to shame. And I cannot help wondering why it has been left to a specialist American choir to record this recovered treasury of late-Henrican Latin polyphony while virtually all our home-grown counterparts (and our collegiate and cathedral choirs, for that matter) have remained seemingly unaware of the impeccably restored masses and motets that have been issuing from Antico for decades.2

The Peterhouse books (now in the library of Peterhouse College, Cambridge) were copied, probably in 1540 and 1541, by the singer-scribe Thomas Bull, for use by the newly constituted choir of Canterbury Cathedral, following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Benedictine monastery in 1540 and its almost immediate replacement by the present secular establishment, with its governing body of dean and prebendaries. The music is all in five parts, much of it of the highest quality. Bull probably took at least some items from the repertory of the then pre-eminent choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, whence he had been recruited. At Canterbury, Bull was one of the twelve vicars-choral3 (Tallis was another) who sang alongside ten boy choristers, and his immaculately copied partbooks – for use, not for show – filled an urgent need in an institution which Henry was determined to make the most splendid of the English cathedrals.4 Despite Henry’s ecclesiastical reforms, on some of which he back-tracked in his later years, it was not until 1549, two years after his death, that Cranmer introduced the first Book of Common Prayer: and even then many cathedrals were slow to make the changeover from Latin to English. Whether the Peterhouse books were brought back into use under Mary Tudor we don’t know. Their survival, though incomplete, is a prodigious stroke of luck, given that such incalculable quantities of Latin church music were wantonly destroyed during the religious upheavals of the later 16th century.

A second stroke of luck is that Sandon has undertaken the self-imposed task of restoring the missing parts that have till now made so much of this glorious music unperformable. Of the original five partbooks, the tenor book has been lost, and pages are missing from either end of the treble book. This means that in a few cases two parts out of five have had to be editorially supplied: no mean feat, given the kind of semi-free-wheeling idiom that was favoured by English composers of this period. Having followed the recording closely with the Antico editions before me, the nearest I can come to a quibble is that a two-note treble figuration in one solitary cadence does not ring quite true to my ear: all else is the product of creative, musicianly scholarship for which lovers of early church music will long remain in Sandon’s debt.

It is a third stroke of luck that Scott Metcalfe, director of Blue Heron, shares his editor’s high standards. The amply-illustrated booklet that accompanies the disc reads like a novel (as the saying goes) and is a model of its kind. In lucid, non-technical language, Metcalfe writes about the Peterhouse books, the individual works recorded, and such vital matters as contemporary pronunciation (which the choir attempts) and performing pitch. Musical sixth-formers and first-year music students might do worse than access the eventual five booklets as a reliable and up-to-date introduction to English church music of the period, and to the many problems and controversies surrounding its editing and performance.

One of the booklet’s more exotic credits is for Roy Sansom’s in-the-cracks pitch pipe at A448: very nearly a quarter-tone above our modern A440, that is, and exactly a semitone below A473, which an emerging consensus believes to have been the prevailing choir pitch of the period. With the aid of the new pipe, Hunt’s stet-clef Stabat Mater is sung at A448. The Jones Mass and the Ludford antiphon are both notated in high clefs, but transposition down a fourth (even within the A448-centred compass) produced an uncomfortably low tessitura for the singers. Praetorius’s advice in such circumstances is to raise the resulting pitch by a tone, but this produced the opposite problem, so the choir eventually settled on raising it a semitone. One polyphonic item is thus sung a semitone below presumed choir pitch, the other two (and associated chant) a semitone above. Could it be, I wondered, that centring on A448 brings the performances within the natural sounding pitch of the splendidly resonant Massachusetts church of the Holy Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, in which the recording was made? Probably not, since – with admirable candour – Metcalfe admits that working for this recording at a pitch slightly above A440, though it ‘seemed a useful experiment at the time…cost us considerable effort’, and may not in the event have ‘made any real difference’. Future recordings will revert to an A440 centrepoint.

All this may come across as hair-splitting fanaticism, but arriving at a pitch-level that (like Goldilock’s porridge) feels just right can be vital in repertory with such a wide compass, and Metcalfe’s meticulous juggling with theory and practicality contrasts markedly with the attitude of too many specialist early choirs. Over here, The Sixteen has in recent years quietly abandoned the damaging 1960s fashion for transposition up a minor third,5 but their major rival sticks determinedly to its Wulstonian guns. Some other choirs seem to settle on pitch-levels at random. I have had horrendous recent experiences of wildly – and audibly – misjudged pitches in what purported to be master classes for amateur singers.

And so, at last, to the music and the performances. Ludford’s Marian votive antiphon Ave cujus conceptio is pure joy and a major discovery. I would fully endorse Sandon’s claim in the Introduction to the Antico edition that Ludford, who ‘on the evidence of his better-known earlier music [in the Lambeth and Caius choirbooks] is commonly regarded as a worthy but minor master’ is shown by his Peterhouse works to be ‘a highly individual, imaginative, resourceful and polished composer, fit to be ranked alongside Taverner’ – high praise! The choir does Ludford ample justice, dipping and soaring effortlessly in his long-drawn phrases while pointing up the pervasive but never rigid imitation that binds the textures together and prefigures the procedures of such as Tallis and Byrd.

If Robert Jones’s Mass is deliberately less showy, it is an impressively-crafted work of great harmonic assurance that repays repeated listening. The four movements are of similar length, thanks to a radically truncated Credo text (everything from ‘et in Spiritum Sanctum’ to the end is omitted) and a lengthy, tripartite Agnus. (Was Jones thinking in the ‘symphonic’ structural terms that David Fallows sees as a feature of many sixteenth-century masses?6 Or was there extended ritual activity to be covered? The setting is based on a matins chant for Trinity Sunday, a major feast on which there might well have been a general communion and lengthy washing-up to be accommodated at a solemn mass in the royal household chapel for which Jones was almost certainly writing.) The Kyries of English festal masses of the time were always sung to plainchant (as were all Requiems) and the appropriate Sarum troped Kyrie is interpolated here to telling effect, with a commendably un-Solesmes-like vigour and an uncompromisingly rhythmic interpretation – though for some reason the latter aspect is not referred to in Metcalfe’s otherwise comprehensive notes.

Robert Hunt’s is the only setting of the Stabat Mater in the Peterhouse books, as against five in the Eton Choir Book of forty years earlier: perhaps a sign of a shift in the taste of composers towards more refined and ‘literary’ texts. Hunt is an otherwise unknown composer, possibly to be identified with a Magdalen chorister in the years around 1490 and/or with a Chichester chantry priest named in 1535. Sandon has had to restore both the treble and tenor parts of this work, which he sees as mirroring the pared-down exuberance of Fayrfax: like Jones’s Mass, it is a step on the way towards a style – akin to the more ascetic type of late-Perpendicular architecture – that might have become one of the norms in post-Trent England had the Edwardian Reformation not intervened. Here again both the singing and the crystal-clear recording do justice to a hugely enjoyable work, not least at the dramatic cries of ‘Crucifige!’ and in the extended, heart-stirring Amen.

Only two things in Metcalfe’s performances bother me a little. The slowings-down at the ends of sections (especially in the Mass) are not excessive in themselves but can sometimes seem so because of the slightly-too-long gaps that follow: a miscalculation of the editing process, perhaps? And, so far as I can make out, the reduced-voice sections are typically sung not by soloists but by pairs of remarkably well-matched voices: though that is certainly preferable to both a weedy, single-voiced rendition and to the full-choir-throughout policy that was such a negative feature of the pioneering Sheppard recordings of the Clerkes of Oxenford. The contrast of sheer weight between solo and full sections is, surely, a calculated structural element in this repertory, and I miss it most in Jones’s Agnus, the second of which is entirely for the four upper voices. On the other hand, there is no red notation to differentiate reduced-voice from full-choir sections in the Peterhouse books (as there is in the Eton Choir Book) and Blue Heron models itself not on the ten choristers and twelve (-plus?) singing men of Canterbury Cathedral but on the more modest numbers of the household chapel of the Earl of Northumberland, so I suppose it could be argued that in such circumstances no solo/full distinction may have obtained – or, perhaps, have been deemed desirable.

But such worries pale to insignificance in the face of the ongoing achievement of the projected five Peterhouse volumes by this skilled and sensitive choir, the latest contribution to which I most heartily recommend. Follow-up volumes remain highly desirable pie-in-the-sky unless and until further funding can be raised from their generous patrons, but meanwhile the choir is about to embark on the long-term project of recording the complete works of Ockeghem – something to look forward to.

Hugh Keyte

  1. Vol. 5 will be released in 2016.
  2. An honourable exception is the choir of New College, Oxford, under Edward Higginbottom, which included Ludford’s Ave cujus conceptio and the equally stunning Domine Jesu Christe in a recent-ish recording. A complete Antico Edition catalogue is available online at
  3. There was also a number of petty (minor) canons on the foundation, some of whom may well have sung in the polyphonic choir.
  4. Polyphony had long been cultivated at Canterbury, by at least a monastic choir and probably also a Lady Chapel choir. Boys may even have been involved, but standards can never have been as high nor repertoire so impressive as those envisaged for the new set-up.
  5. Lutenists went through a comparable process in the ’70s. One of our leading players, much criticised by the cognoscenti for using nails when most of his rivals had changed to flesh, made the changeover without broadcasting the fact, and it was six months before anyone noticed.
  6. David Fallows, The Last Agnus Dei: or: The Cyclic Mass, 1450– 1600, as forme fixe in A Ammendola, D Glowotz, J Heidrig (eds.), Polyphone Messen im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert: Funktion, Kontext, Symbol (V & R unipress – 2012)