The door to Paradise: Music from The Eton Choirbook

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, conducted by Stephen Darlington
Avie AV2395
5 CDs in a box

The last three decades have seen three remarkable recording projects, each consisting of five discs, devoted to English sacred music from either side of 1500. First, beginning in 1991, came The Sixteen featuring music from the Eton Choirbook. From the USA, starting in 2010, came Blue Heron, with revelatory works from the lesser known and later Peterhouse Partbooks. And beginning a year earlier, 2009, came Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford under the college’s Organist and Tutor in Music, Stephen Darlington, who also selected their material from the ample acres of the Eton Choirbook. Their final disc was released in 2017 and, as with the other two projects, once all five discs had been issued, they have been reissued as a boxed set this year, to coincide with Professor Darlington’s retirement after 33 years in post.

Across the five discs there are several works, such as Walter Lambe’s Magnificat (also to be found in the Carver Choirbook in Scotland) on disc I, which receive their recorded premieres. There are also a few works which are new to compact disc, but which have appeared on LPs that have never since been reissued in the newer format. One such work, also on disc I, is John Fawkyner’s Ave rosa sine spina. (Confusingly he turns up on disc III as Richard – he is indeed John in Timothy Day’s A discography of Tudor church music, 1989, but is Richard in Grove online dated 2001.) This was performed as part of a project which was a forerunner of The Sixteen and, particularly, Christ Church: a pair of LPs featuring music from the Eton Choirbook sung by the boys from the now defunct choir school of All Saints, Margaret Street, London, with the men of the Purcell Consort, conducted by Grayston Burgess. These two discs set the bar very high with an outstanding treble line and men both comfortable and capable singing early music; while this music brings the best out of The Sixteen, there is an added frisson in listening to it being sung by a choir similar in modern terms to the ensemble at Eton and elsewhere for which it was originally composed. It should be hard not to be inspired by it, and Christ Church, over the five discs, successfully emulate the achievement of their predecessors at All Saints, Margaret Street. It was a great loss when All Saints’ choir school was closed in 1968 after 125 years, but the loss is at least partially alleviated by the continuing excellence of a choir such as Christ Church, especially when it takes up some challenging repertory associated with All Saints.

As Timothy Symons tells us in his impressive booklet accompanying the discs, “The copying of the Eton Choirbook was completed at the very beginning of the 16th century”. The names of few if any of the composers are common musical knowledge, with the exceptions of Robert Fayrfax and William Cornysh. However, many heroes lived before Agamemnon (Horace, Odes 4.9.25-26) or, in this context, before Byrd. Taking two whom the centuries have treated differently, there are works by John Browne on each of the five discs, whereas only two works by Fawkyner survive. Even amongst composers the standard of whose music is never below high, Browne stands out. His glorious O Maria salvatoris mater comes at the beginning of the Eton Choirbook, and it begins disc II. The only other work in the Choirbook to approach the impact of its stunning and sumptuous opening for full choir in eight parts is Robert Wylkynson’s Salve regina (disc II) in nine. Wylkynson is sparing in using all nine at once, so that their impact is all the greater, and his passages for reduced scoring can be delicate as well as mesmerizing and eloquent. Perhaps the piece from the Choirbook that comes nearest to being a modern repertory piece is Browne’s Stabat mater (disc I), though the sublime Ave Maria by William Cornysh (disc II – by far the shortest piece in this set, and in the entire Choirbook, at 4’07; it is a shame that Christ Church use the editorial sharps for the repeated leading notes in the uppermost – alto – part at the final cadence) also has a claim. The six pieces by Browne in this set are all of the highest standard – the music for ten of his Latin works survives in the Eton Choirbook (its only source) one of which is fragmentary, and five others are listed – whereas, as we have seen, only two pieces by Fawkyner survive, both also outstanding. How is it that a composer can be so good yet so seemingly unproductive? Surely several other works by him, and by other composers represented in the Choirbook by only one or two works, must have been lost (a solution put forward in the accompanying booklet – see below), or just possibly they are lurking in a corner, or in plain sight, perhaps unattributed, waiting to be recognised, rediscovered or attributed.

Apart from the item by Cornysh already mentioned, the works in this set are all timed at over ten minutes, some of them well over, with the longest – Walter Lambe’s O Maria plena gratia the longest piece in the Choirbook – taking a gratifying twenty plus. While maintaining the highest level of performance throughout the five discs, Christ Church Choir sounds subtly different from one disc to the next – usually two years apart. Presumably Stephen Darlington did not have an unchanging ideal sound in his head to which all his singers had always to conform, but rather had an ideal standard of performance and to that end trusted the inevitably changing cast of his choristers, choral scholars and layclerks to achieve this through their natural voices, working with one another under his leadership. It was advantageous that all the recordings were made in the same spacious acoustic of the chapel at Merton College, Oxford. The mind almost boggles at the difficult passages of reduced scoring accomplished by solo trebles, passages in so many of the works which also challenge the adult singers – the opening of Kellyk’s Gaude flore virginali, trios in John Hampton’s Salve regina, duos in Fawkyner’s Gaude virgo salutata and two particularly acrobatic passages in Hacomplaynt’s Salve regina spring to mind. Darlington’s tempi can be deliberate but are never plodding; the priority is to render each part audible while it also blends with its fellows, whether it is a barnstorming full passage for half a dozen voices, or one of the intricate duos and trios. This approach also highlights the precision and accuracy with which the participants sing, whether a solo boy or pair of trebles, or men singing together in the lower reaches of their tenor, baritone or bass ranges, as in Edmund Turges’s Gaude flore virginali in which there are also some wicked harmonic twists which can sidle past the listener almost before they have had time to register!

Another most commendable achievement of this set of recordings is that it highlights music by gifted composers such as Fawkyner, Hampton, William monk of Stratford, Kellyk and Hacomplaynt who are the equivalent of the popular music industry’s one-hit wonders. Other works of theirs have surely been lost (see below), and they are only known to posterity by a work or two in the Eton Choirbook, playing second fiddle to the bigger names such as Browne, Davy, Wylkynson, Fayrfax and Cornysh. While acknowledging that this repertory is challenging to perform, it really should be better known than it is. I have heard many other pieces from the Choirbook besides those in this generously filled boxed set, and have never been other than enthralled by their impact and quality. To those unfamiliar with the idiom, expect glorious sonorities, heart-stopping moments of surprisingly modern and quirky harmonies besides some snappy dissonances, sweeping melodies, pensive passages of reduced scoring, and overwhelming climaxes of five and more voices. The music is nothing like that of its equally but differently gifted European contemporaries; it is quite simply a parallel sonic universe.

The presentation is good in a discreet way. I have a minor quibble with a lack of consistency in the material provided on the backs of the respective sleeves: the first has only timings for the listed pieces, the next two include timings plus the numbers of parts for each piece, and the last two include timings, numbers of parts and actual scorings – this latter would have been welcome throughout. The accompanying booklet contains a short introduction by Stephen Darlington and concise scholarly notes by Timothy Symons about the contents of each disc, though texts are not provided. The notes explain the importance of numerology in these works, with so many numbers being of religious significance: for instance, “The number seven has long been associated with the Virgin Mary through the devotions of her Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows.” These numbers can be applied, by themselves or in combinations, to note values, in order to provide structures for entire sections of these compositions. Also, many compositions have the melody of a particular plainchant as their cantus firmus; it is not always immediately obvious why a certain chant has been chosen by the composer but, once it has been identified, it can provide a clue as to the circumstances for which the work was composed. Seemingly the manuscripts that survive from England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries represent only about a tenth of those circulating at the time; this would in turn suggest that some shadowy composers who are now represented by only one or two excellent works could have contributed ten times that number to the contemporary sacred choral repertory, a possibility which would explain that otherwise seemingly fleeting excellence.

This project is quite simply a monument within the discography of English music and indeed of Renaissance music. I respectfully urge everyone with any sort of inclination towards the best of Western music – be it Birtwistle, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach or Byrd – to obtain this recording; Browne, for one, is fit to continue the roll-call of these composers.

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