Script Zephyrus
Central Virginia's Early Music Vocal Ensemble SM

Roger Bowers Pre-concert Lecture

Roger Bowers retired from his position at Cambridge University as University Reader in Medieval and Renaissance Music in 2005, but remains active both as Fellow of Jesus College, where he is Director of Studies in Music, and in research and publication.

Dr. Bowers has provided this expanded version of his pre-concert lecture from the Zephyrus concert of April 2, 2006.

Roger Bowers

Hearing Heaven: the Creation of the Choir in Renaissance England

Lovers of music who listen to choirs, or – better still – who sing in choirs, will be aware that this social and communal activity of singing is perhaps as old as humanity itself. But within the broader context of choral singing generally, the western European art tradition, in which the members of the choir are stratified into four different timbres of voice and assemble together to decipher an abstruse and intellectually demanding written notation, appears to be all but unique, and it does provoke wonderment about how it ever can have started. It turns out that the origins of this art lie not in some distant past beyond the veil of time and memory, but well within recorded history, some five to six hundred years ago.

We need to go back to the western Europe of the turn of the fifteenth century – say, to the year 1400 – and to the country I happen to know most about, England, though much the same would apply to Europe’s other principal centre for the culture of art music at that period, namely north-eastern and northern France (including Paris), and the Netherlands. In 1400 there was nothing new about choral singing: already, that had been practised, as church plainsong, for many centuries. Nor was there anything new about the singing of music composed to be rendered in harmonised multi-part music; in one form or another, polyphonic music had been heard for 400 years or so. What was new in the fifteenth century was the marriage of the two. In 1400 nowhere in Europe could you hear a whole chorus which ventured to sing harmonised music; by 1500 you might describe it as almost commonplace, and all but a whole new art-form had been not only born, but brought to maturity. This achievement stands to the credit of musicians of the Christian church – of that single Catholic church, based on Rome, which commanded the faith and the allegiance of virtually all Western European society prior to the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century. All over Catholic Europe there stood great churches, which were richly endowed and copiously staffed to fulfil the worship of God, the sole purpose for which they existed. In 1400 in England alone, over and above some 8,200 ordinary parish churches, there stood about 800 houses of monks and nuns, 180 houses of friars, and about 100 substantial collegiate churches, which were large churches staffed by whole teams of career clergy, non-monastic. In addition to all of this, some fifteen or twenty of the very greatest men of the land – the king and the top aristocrats, the two archbishops and the richer bishops – all chose to maintain among their household staff a group of clergy, called the household chapel, to perform the church services within the chapels of the palaces and castles in which they lived.

These eleven hundred greater churches and chapels were factories of prayer. On every day of the year their staffs were occupied in the performance of never fewer than ten complex and lengthy services, occupying the community for anything up to ten or twelve hours of both night and day. The services themselves were composed of a fabulously complex amalgamation of three elements: the sacred texts, all in the language of liturgical Latin; the music to which those texts were sung; and the elaborate prescription of movement and ceremony with which the texts and their music were accompanied. And contemporaries were agreed on the purpose of having all church services sung, rather than just recited: the plainsong chant appealed agreeably to the senses, attracted and held the attention, and furnished those participating down here on earth with a vision, however imperfect, of the worship of God undertaken by his angels and saints in the courts of Heaven itself. Hence my title for this talk.

Within the church building the most important services were sung in one or other of two locations. One was the principal quire of the church, where the main choirstalls stood; the other was a separate chapel distant from the quire, dedicated to worship of the Virgin Mary and usually known as the Lady Chapel. Within the principal quire of the church, the focal point of each day’s work was High Mass of the Day, begun at around mid-morning. This was preceded by an earlier celebration of mass called the Lady Mass; using verbal texts specially votive to the Virgin Mary, this was performed in the Lady Chapel. The remaining eight services formed a cycle, called the Office, performed once each day in the principal quire. Near the end of each day there was one additional observance. Following the main afternoon service of vespers, the clergy assembled in the Lady Chapel and gathered round the image of the Virgin Mary for an extra devotion in which St Mary was addressed in music, in praise, and in prayer for her intercession. This we can call the ‘evening votive antiphon’; the devotion began with everyone present singing, originally to plainsong, a text called an antiphon, whose words were addressed to the Virgin Mary.

The staffs of the great majority of these greater churches consisted just of adult men; in particular, the monasteries and the friaries were houses of religious orders which, at least in principle, imposed for admission a minimum age of 16 or even 18 years. However, most of those 100 or so large collegiate churches – including nine of the English cathedrals – and the fifteen or twenty household chapels of royalty and the aristocracy were remarkable in that their staffs consisted not of adult men alone, but also of boys between the ages of about eight and fourteen , known as choristers or choirboys, with voices as yet unbroken. And it turns out that, eventually, these would be the churches and chapels wherein the choir as we know it today would develop. For wherever you had singing-boys, you had to employ a musician of superior capacities to be their teacher; and it would be these premium-quality musicians who would prove able to perceive the full capacities of the musical resource at their disposal, and create the modern choir.

The cathedral, collegiate church and household choirs were of diverse sizes. The vast cathedral buildings employed choirs to match: at Salisbury Cathedral, for instance, 52 men and 14 boys; at Lincoln cathedral, around 40 men and 12 boys; at Wells cathedral 50 men and 9 boys; at St Paul’s cathedral in London, 42 men and 10 boys. The king of England in 1400, Henry IV, employed a household chapel of some 20 men and 6 boys; his successor, Henry V, increased this to 32 men and 16 boys. In this respect, continental churches were far less prodigal and ostentatious than the English. The great cathedral of Rheims in France, to which the composer Guillaume de Machaut retired in about 1360, was satisfied with a choir of twelve men and four boys, and such numbers were more the norm on the European continent.

Numbers such as these make one thing clear at the outset: no-one was endeavouring to create equality of sound and maintenance of balance between the high voices of the chorister-boys and the adult voices of the men. These choirs were created to render only one kind of music: the unadorned plainsong of the church service. Consisting of a single line and strand of melody, unharmonised, unrhythmicised, unaccompanied by any instrument, this was vocal music at its most elemental, in which the voices of the boys were never intended to balance with those of the men, but merely to add to them a relatively slight but brilliant sheen at the upper octave. Today we most commonly hear plainsong sung by men’s voices alone, but perhaps this example will give some idea of the sound more commonly to be heard in the greater non-monastic churches 600 years ago. The music is the opening of vespers on a festival day. (The choir is Westminster Cathedral, so the boys are a bit more prominent than probably they would have been in a fifteenth-century choir.)

MUSIC EXAMPLE 1. Plainsong: Deus, in adiutorium meum intende

In order to enable each phase of every service within the annual cycle of the church’s liturgy to be characterised by its own unique music, there had evolved over many centuries an immense body of this plainsong chant. Indeed, to sing the services, no-one actually needed anything other than the appointed plainsong; the repertory was both comprehensive and complete. At its finest, of course, there is nothing simple about plainsong; rather, it is full of nuance and of subtlety of expression. However, the fundamental business of reading the music and producing the notes was relatively undemanding and straightforward, so that from its notation plainsong could readily be sung by anyone with merely a reasonable voice and a modicum of education and aptitude; and within the medieval choirs there were always to be found a handful of singers here and there who hankered after rather more of a challenge. These were the singers who – when they were allowed to – revelled in the opportunity to sing pieces specially composed for the church services in harmonised music, to supersede and take the place of the authorised plainsong.

In around 1400 in England, there was within each of perhaps some forty of the greater choirs of men and boys a group of the adult singers, normally numbering four, who were cognisant with the very special techniques of singing harmonised music. Doubtless they considered themselves an élite; in particular, the established practitioners passed on and taught their skills to carefully identified and selected members of the next generation of young men, engaging exactly that relationship of master and apprentice which was ubiquitous among craftsmen of every sort throughout medieval European society. The distinctive skill possessed by these carefully regulated groups, in addition to possession of a singing voice of superior capacity, was that of comprehending the notation of polyphonic music.

In around 1400 this was already a very special and particular skill; the notation then in use was far more complex than that with which we are familiar today. The notation of musical intervals was not dissimilar: note-symbols were placed on a staff of five lines. Beyond this, all was very individual indeed. Most complex of all was the designation of rhythm. A note written as a simple semibreve might contain either two minims or three. A note written as a simple breve might contain either two semibreves or three, and, according to context, either nine, eight, seven, six, five, or four minims. Notes might be written in black ink, or red, or even blue, might have filled-in heads or void, might sometimes convey proportional cross-rhythms such as nine notes in one voice occupying the time of four in another. This system of polyphonic musical notation was, indeed, one of most refined, most subtle, and most complex among all the most elevated constructs of the late medieval intellect. For its successful decipherment, an elaborate system of rules had to be learnt and mastered, involving many years of study and practice. It was not for the faint-hearted. The vast majority of church singers were content to sing just their conventional fare of plainsong. Throughout all of England, probably there were at the start of the fifteenth century no more than a couple of hundred individuals, in about forty or fifty choirs, who understood the notation of polyphonic music, and could read and sing from it. Across the whole of Europe, there may well have been fewer than a thousand. Still much smaller at any given moment was the number of those who could actually compose in this unique genre of musical endeavour.

For the singers in England who belonged to this select fraternity, their proficiency was but a hobby. Their employment by the church was to sing plainsong; nobody there actually needed this polyphonic music, and only in a few circumstances did their masters allow them to indulge in it. Mostly it was in devotions performed at a safe distance from the principal quire that they were given this liberty; in practice, polyphonic music was used primarily to lend distinction to those services that were sung in special honour of the Virgin Mary in the Lady Chapel. Typical was the arrangement at Lincoln cathedral, where four of the forty-odd singing-men were recognised as the better singers (cantores meliores) and were paid extra to sing the daily Mass of the Blessed Virgin, or Lady Mass, with polyphonic music. Generally speaking, only on the greater saints’ days and similar festivals were the singers ever given a chance to render polyphonic music at the services held in the principal quire; on these occasions, a motet with words honouring the festival might be sung at High Mass of the Day, either at the offertory or at the very end of the service.

Virtually all the music now surviving from around 1400 was composed in three or four parts, and was written for an ensemble of solo voices. The manuscripts were relatively small in size; placed on a lectern near the altar-step, their music could readily be sung, one voice to a part, by the designated singers standing in a group around it. In terms of vocal timbre, the groups appear to have been of fixed constitution. Among the many common factors exhibited by the compositions of the fourteenth and early fifteenth century is that of overall compass, by which I mean the range between the highest and lowest notes. As written, this was quite strictly limited. The great majority of pieces have a compass of thirteen, fourteen or fifteen notes – that is, one octave and a sixth to two octaves. Very few pieces exceed this, and – out of some hundreds of surviving compositions – none has a compass greater than seventeen notes. Moreover, the manner in which the three or four voices were laid out was not random, but surprisingly consistent. Each voice used a range of up to the eleven notes which can be accommodated on the five-line staff. In three-part writing –much the most common – two equal low voices occupied the lowest tenth of the overall two-octave compass, while the upper voice lay a fifth higher and occupied the upper tenth. In four-part writing, the upper voice was doubled. So consistent are these scorings that it becomes clear that this pattern of two lower voices and two upper voices separated by a fifth constituted a grouping of singers that was uniform and standard.

Two octaves, of course, was a very restricted range. It used nothing like the full potential of over three octaves which can be generated by men and boys together, and it is possible to identify the portion of that potential which was being eschewed at this time. The voices of the singing-boys, we know, were not yet used in composed polyphonic music; young boys had quite enough to learn without venturing upon the arcane and private mysteries of the notation of medieval polyphony. And although choirs must have contained singing-men whose voices extended into the bass timbre, so low a register was not engaged in plainsong and it is evident that it was not used in composed polyphonic music either. These considerations, plus a variety of corroboratory factors, indicate that the timbre in which the two lower voices sang was something closely akin to the modern tenor, while that of the two upper voices was akin to the modern countertenor, yielding a two-octave compass probably sounding at a level never very far from modern c-below-middle-c to c-above-middle-c.

A very serviceable example of this scoring and sound, suited perfectly to a rendering by four solo voices, being two altos and two tenors, is provided by a setting of the Creed for Lady Mass composed in about 1400 by one Pennard (of whom, regrettably, we know absolutely nothing). It takes about three minutes to sing; you’ll notice how between them the two altos gallop through the text while the tenors sustain longer notes beneath, leaving a good one-third of the whole music to a cheerful and bouncy setting of nothing but the word Amen, written, it seems, just for the fun of performing it.

MUSIC EXAMPLE 2: Pennard, Credo

What was new from the start of the fifteenth century was the way in which the groups of enthusiasts who were allowed in this way to indulge their hobby of singing polyphonic music in church began suddenly to attract first the attention, and then the approval and the encouragement, of their employers; and given that their employers were the arbiters of taste, the pinnacles of society, and the sources of all authority – the king and peerage, the archbishops and bishops and cathedral deans – this was the fundamental kick-start required to transform what in 1400 was but an esoteric hobby into what by 1500 had become a business. For in a Christian Europe embarking upon its intellectual Renaissance, harmonised music offered something very distinctive and desirable. It offered a special element of beauty in sound, to set alongside the contemporaneous revolution in values in art and sculpture; it offered a means mightily to impress the distinguished visitor to church or chapel; it offered something in the promotion of which the great and good of society at large could take a boastful pride. The great of the land began to appreciate that musicians, just like artists and illuminators, sculptors and architects, couturiers and goldsmiths, had something special to offer to those who could obtain their services, and they began to be much valued for it. Characteristically, it is from about 1400 onwards that manuscripts of music begin for the first time to record by name the composer to whom people now wished to know was due the credit for each example of compositional craftsmanship and inspiration. Thitherto, virtually all composition had been but little regarded and anonymous.

Critically for the evolution of the choir, it took no great amount of time for musicians to realise that the gravity and the grandeur of their music could be enhanced, and their service to their employer thus be made all the more welcome, by their increasing the numbers of singers involved. Initially, of course, the scale of any such increase was severely limited by the relatively small number of singers able to understand polyphonic notation, which at first confined the adoption of this process to those at the very pinnacle of society who could command that level of service – that is, to the king and royal family. The pioneer appears to have been King Richard II, who, in a two-year experiment abruptly terminated by his deposition in 1399, had set up for the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey an ensemble of six singers of polyphony consisting of four altos and two tenors, augmented by their master, whose singing-voice was not prescribed. In allowing two singers to perform each of the upper lines in four-part music, such a configuration amplified to a degree the tonal grandeur of the music, and may well have reproduced practice in Richard’s own household chapel, the Chapel Royal.

Moreover, a similar arrangement appears to have been adopted also in the household chapel of at least one top member of the royal family of the next generation. This was Thomas, Duke of Clarence (c.1390-1421), the eldest of King Henry V’s three younger brothers. Clarence’s household chapel was staffed by twenty-four men and four boys; among the men was the pre-eminent composer of this period, Lionel Power. It is clear that this chapel was at the forefront of the promotion of composed polyphonic music, and it is thought to be the source of one of the few manuscripts of music from this period which have survived pretty well complete. Called the ‘Old Hall Manuscript’, and compiled in the years around 1417-19, this contains 147 compositions for use at the daily Lady Mass. (One is the Credo by Pennard which we heard a moment ago.) Of these 147, ten of the grandest pieces display one unusual and very conspicuous feature: composed principally in either three or four parts, each incorporates lengthy passages distinguished by being written for only two of those voices (the others resting), for which the verbal texts were written out in the manuscript not in the usual black ink, but conspicuously in red.

This is a feature which turns up again in various other English manuscripts of the next hundred years or so. Study of these sources makes evident the reason for this device. The performance of the piece as a whole was to be undertaken not by a group just of solo voices as of old, but by the novelty of a small chorus, probably of six to eight voices. This full and agreeably sonorous chorus, two or three singers to a part, performed the sections composed for full voices; the passages for two parts were to be sung, in the old way, by a pair of soloists, and the use of red ink was a signal to the non-soloists that for the duration of this passage they were to cease singing. The objective of such an approach can readily be inferred; engaging a technique which anachronistically we might call the concerto grosso principle, it enhanced the degree of sonic contrast between successive sections – between concerto and ripieno, as it were – and so served to maximise the impact made by the music on both the listener and the performer. The sheer physical size of the Old Hall Manuscript corroborates this contention; with pages, staves and notes considerably larger than those of most predecessors, its music could indeed be read by a group of up to eight singers standing round its position on a lectern, and certainly the twenty-four men of Duke Thomas’s household chapel rendered this entirely feasible.

Within a couple of decades, by around 1440, some manuscripts were actually marking the passages composed for full voices with the abbreviation ‘cho.’, evidently directing performance by ‘chorus’. It was a device designed to satisfy an emerging appetite for tonal grandeur, realised by the contrast of the traditional sound of the solo ensemble against the more opulent sound of the small chorus. By around 1440-50 the practice of contrasting three-or four-part music with intervening sections in two parts was being adopted widely by composers of the generation of Lionel Power and John Dunstable, John Bennet and John Plummer, and it seems fair to reckon that wherever the resources existed, standard practice was to apportion the two-part sections to pairs of soloists, and the full sections to a small chorus. An example is provided by the Sanctus from a mass for three voices composed by John Plummer, who was Master of the Choristers of Henry VI’s Chapel Royal. An ensemble of six voices sings the passages written for all three parts, being alto and two tenors; soloists sing the duets.

MUSIC EXAMPLE 3. John Plummer (c.1410-86): Sanctus, from Mass for three voices.

It was in the years around the middle of the century that there arose the crucial development that permitted composers and choirmasters to please their masters yet further by effecting the expansion of the singing of polyphony from the constraint of being a preserve of no more than the four, six or eight most rare and highly trained adult specialists, to an enterprise engaging most or even all of the members of these quite large choirs, in a true and fully choral sound extending to the voices of both men and boys.

This development was a progressive simplification in the notation of polyphonic music. Starting from about the 1430s, composers began to abandon the most minute and fastidious intricacies of rhythm by which much late medieval polyphony had been distinguished, and found in consequence that they could notate their music in manners intellectually far less demanding than before. The music was just as good; but now it required of its performers no excessive act of intellectual will or determination to enable them to sing it. By the 1450s or so, this shake-out was even starting to produce a notation which it was realistic to endeavour to teach to the young – to the chorister-boys, the singing-boys, of the greater choirs. Of course, it was never going to be easy to get that majority of contemporary adult singers who ‘didn’t do polyphony’ to learn this notation, but this impediment proved to be only temporary. Before long, they were dying off and were being replaced by a new generation of singing-men who, since they had been taught it as boys, were already familiar with this polyphonic notation. And so, in a surprisingly short space of time, namely just the third quarter of the fifteenth century, there emerged, almost out of thin air, the choir of human voices as we have known it ever since.

Though rapid, this achievement was progressive. The first step was the engagement of the treble voices of the singing-boys, a step explained by the manner in which it was not uncommon for those musicians who possessed the knowledge and skill to be composers of music also to serve in the position of Instructors or Masters of the Choristers, both jobs requiring a certain superior level of musicianship. The earliest evidence that composers of polyphony had begun to use the voices of singing-boys in their music is to be found in probably the latest surviving work of John Dunstable, a composer whom we know to have died in about 1455. This is a setting of the text ‘Descendi in ortum meum’, a votive antiphon in honour of the Virgin Mary, composed to be sung at the beginning of the evening devotion to the Virgin conducted in the Lady Chapel. It is in four parts. The three lowest have a thoroughly familiar look; they were composed for the long-established pattern of two tenor parts at the bottom, and an alto part pitched a fifth above. But above these there is new fourth voice, lying at a level of pitch never engaged before by any composer; it uses a new clef, the treble clef of g on the second staff-line up, and is pitched a fifth higher than the alto. It can only be a line of polyphony for boys’ treble voices, and the superimposition of this new voice upon the old trio of alto and two tenors expanded the overall compass from two octaves to two octaves and a fourth – an unprecedented eighteen notes. Dunstable composed the piece in a flowing succession of sections, separating passages for full voices by duets of various pairings of voices – an approach inviting in performance the long-established principle of alternating full choral singing with passages for solo pairs, both textures involving boys’ voices. Maddeningly, we have no idea for whom Dunstable was working in the early 1450s, so we cannot identify the choir which first surprised the world with this highly original and unprecedented sound.

This music has been recorded just once at a correct level of pitch. However, the soprano is sung by one female rather than by a few boys’ voices, which does deny the music some of the immediacy and piquance which boys’ voices would bring to it.

MUSIC EXAMPLE 4: John Dunstable (c.1395-c.1455), Descendi in ortum meum.

A least a couple of other four-part compositions scored thus for two tenors, alto, and treble, are known from the 1450s and early 1460s, but this departure was short-lived since it rapidly stimulated a further expansion of the vocal palette. It did indeed produce an intriguing sound, but perhaps there were many for whom it seemed a little top-heavy. Certainly, a remedy for that was ready to hand. As I mentioned earlier, there must always have existed within the choirs adult male singers with a good bass range. However, pitches lower than about c an octave below middle c had not been used for plainsong, and thus had never yet been used for polyphony either. But now their time had come, for the bass range below the tenor was evidently the perfect foil for the new treble range lately introduced above the alto. We cannot be sure by whom or where experiment was first made with this device; nevertheless, certainly there does survive in a manuscript datable to the 1470s a composition in five voices, in which the four-part disposition of treble, alto, and two tenors, is complemented and completed by a bass part, using the F clef on the fourth line and lying a fifth below the tenor. This again is a votive antiphon in honour of the Virgin Mary, its text being Gaude flore virginali. The manuscript is damaged; the music is incomplete and, sadly, no composer’s name has been preserved.

Nevertheless, the accomplishment of the composers of this period between 1450 and 1475 stands out clearly. They had taken the historic core scoring of alto and two tenors, and had added above it a part for boy’s treble, and below it a part for adult bass. The resulting five-part texture of treble, alto, two tenors, and bass was clearly found to be eminently satisfactory, and it became the standard scoring for polyphonic music for the next fifty years or so. Among its earliest practitioners was William Horwood, who was born in about 1430, worked in London and later as Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, and certainly had mastered the style by the time of his death at Lincoln in 1484. This five-part scoring was considered fundamental by the generations of Walter Lambe and of Robert Fayrfax and their contemporaries; above all, it was the basic scoring for the music of the celebrated Eton Choirbook, compiled around 1502-05.

With astonishing speed, the composers created a musical style characterised by a wonderful grandeur of scale and monumentality of sound. The voices were exploited to their fullest practical extent. The overall compass of the new music commonly extended to three octaves and a second, or 23 notes; in terms approximately of modern sounding pitch, the boys were taken up to high treble g”, the basses down to bottom bass F. By 1500 composers were setting ever longer verbal texts, and by continuing to exploit the alternation of passages for soloists with passages for full choir were able to create monumental pieces of a duration of fifteen minutes, or even more, of unbroken, unaccompanied singing.

Most particularly of all, by the close of the fifteenth century it was practical in the greater choirs to expect almost every member, man and boy, to be able to read and perform from a notation which by now had been pared down to a system which in principle was only a little more complex than that which we use today, though it was still being applied to generate intricate rhythms requiring of the singers an uncommon degree of vocal agility and stamina. The performance of this music by now was indeed truly choral. The choirs by which it was sung consisted commonly of between eight and a dozen boys, and up to twenty-odd men. Composers had the confidence to compose not only in five, but in six, seven, eight, or even nine parts. Moreover, to accommodate bodies of singers so large as these, the makers of the music manuscripts from which they sang now went into heroic overdrive. We still possess (out of the hundreds that once existed) three of the immense choirbooks which preserved the music of this period. The parchment on which they were written was made from sheepskin, and of these enormous choirbooks each page is one whole sheep. Each page of the largest measures 30 inches by 19 inches, and the books are so heavy that it takes two strong men to carry them; the staves are an inch and a half high, with notes and text correspondingly large; experiments have shown that well over twenty singers can indeed gather round and sing from such a manuscript. The resulting tone and texture were monumental; certainly, no employer of a choir singing this kind of music can have been dissatisfied with the service being done for him by his singers in projecting both his munificence as a supporter of Holy Mother Church, his magnificence as one of the lords of human society, and his beneficence in bringing to earthly mortals the sounds of Heaven itself.

From one of these three great volumes, the Choirbook of the chapel of the collegiate church of St Mary at Eton, near Windsor, comes one such piece, a setting as a votive antiphon of ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’, composed probably in the 1490s by John Browne. It is for six voices: the standard treble, alto, two tenors and bass, amplified by a baritone. Like all other large-scale vocal music of this period, it utilises the concerto grosso principle, alternating small groups of soloists with the full choir; listen to the build-up of momentum introducing the full choir’s dramatic interjection of the words Crucifige, crucifige: ‘Crucify him, Crucify him’. (This recording is old enough to use boys’ voices; it comes from the 1960s, before the boys’ choirs were elbowed out of this sort of repertory by the rise of modern professional groups of mixed voices, such as The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen).)

MUSIC EXAMPLE 5: John Browne (fl. 1490-1505), Stabat mater dolorosa.

By 1500, there was emerging at large in England an extraordinary appetite for promoting musical performance in church at this challenging and demanding level, which indeed only intensified as the old Catholic church grew in vigour during the early sixteenth century, and before almost everything was choked into oblivion by the Reformation. The earl of Oxford, employer of the choir of sixteen men and twelve boys which included John Browne, was merely one of about thirty top aristocrats, secular and ecclesiastic, who supported chapel music within their personal households at this level. Even the Venetian ambassador envied the quality of Henry VIII’s Chapel Royal. Whenever any wealthy bishop or aristocrat created a new collegiate church with which to augment the worship of God, it was invariable for its personnel to include a fully staffed choir of men and boys, plus a skilled musician to train them. Collegiate churches with too few boys to create a satisfactory balance in choral polyphonic music hastened to amplify their numbers, such as St George’s Chapel, Windsor, which increased its choristers in number from six to thirteen. Numerous existing and well-endowed collegiate churches founded only for adult priests with no boys at all, such as Mettingham in Suffolk and Rushworth in Norfolk, hastened to recruit teams of chorister-boys and a few specialist adult singers, to create choirs to sing music of this kind. Monastic churches were hamstrung by the manner in which their minimum age for admission of 16 or 18 years obstructed any similar recruitment of young boys as members of the community; nevertheless, eventually some seventy or eighty monasteries, including the small and middling as well as the great, began to engage and employ small specialist choirs of singing-men and schoolboys to sing this elaborate music, primarily at services sung at a safe distance from the principal quire, especially the daily Lady Mass and evening votive antiphon to St Mary, both sung in the Lady Chapel. The example set by the monasteries was followed by perhaps so many as two hundred of the wealthiest parish churches in the cities and towns, which from about the 1480s began to employ part-time singing-men and enthusiastic school-boys under a full-time Master of the Music, to learn polyphonic music and sing it every day at Lady Mass and the evening antiphon, and at High Mass on holy-days.

Already by the 1490s the need for skilled singing-men was so great that demand was outstripping supply, which to some extent was a bonus. It meant that the great cathedrals reduced their numbers of singing-men from commonly over forty to around twenty-four – so inadvertently much improving the balance made with the always far smaller numbers of boys. Being in a seller’s market also meant that the singing-men got fairly rewarded for the work they did; it became a respected and well-paid living, which even some younger sons of landed gentlemen were happy to occupy. The top musicians, of course, now found themselves at risk of becoming engulfed and lost within a substantial new profession of church singers – a position very different from that of former times, in which their predecessors had been a tiny élite made important by their unique ability to read and sing from polyphonic notation. Nevertheless, it proved not too difficult to pre-empt any bruising to their feelings. For those top singers in priest’s orders, new job descriptions such as ‘minor canon’ were invented, on higher rates of pay. To satisfy any musician possessing the special capacity of composition, the English universities – uniquely in Europe at this time – embarked on the creation of bachelor’s and doctor’s degrees in Music, for the ablest composers to acquire, and to boast. All this was done to preserve a musical élite, and thus visibly – and financially – to restore the public superiority of the very ablest practitioners. It appears that composers such as Robert Fayrfax and John Taverner died as wealthy men.

I‘ve dwelt today upon the history of the choir in England, because that’s what I know about. Of course, similar developments were occurring in those other parts of Europe – primarily northern France, the Low Countries, and latterly certain parts of Italy – where likewise, composers wrote and singers performed repertories of polyphonic church music. But England is the sole country for which any systematic research has yet been done; and, most particularly, it is clear that it was in England that the SATB choir as we now know it was earliest to develop at this time, since the English were first to recognise the full potential of genuine soprano voices – in this case, of boys’ treble voices. On the continent of Europe, for the topmost line most choirs around 1500 and later preferred the very high falsetto voice (called soverano) of adult men, or even – in extreme cases – the castrato. This is one reason why, taking the music of two exact contemporaries, most Josquin des Près, from the continental tradition, sounds significantly different from most Robert Fayrfax, from the English. The respective performing resources for which they were composing were rather different each from the other, and, as yet, only in England was the contemporary choir the true SATB choir.

In England, indeed, church music had become a business. At their peak in the mid-1540s, there may well have been over three hundred professionally-trained church choirs of men and boys singing on a regular basis the music of Fayrfax and Taverner, Ludford and Tallis, and their numerous contemporaries. The performers were no longer numbered in merely the lower hundreds, but in the upper thousands; indeed, in a fit of insomnia I once calculated that perhaps one in forty of all educated males in England over the age of eight were by then making all or at least part of their living in church singing. It was not just business – it was big business.

To give some sense of proportion and perspective, let me bow out with a few notes from a piece in a style known in the 1520s to have been in the repertoires both of the finest choir in the land, that of Henry VIII’s Chapel Royal, and of the choir of a well-heeled but otherwise humble and unpretentious parish church, namely All Saints’, one of the more modest of the eighteen parish churches of the city of Bristol. In 1524 the choirmaster at All Saints, William Brygeman, died and bequeathed to the church the extensive collection of copies of polyphonic music which he had built up for it in the twelve years he had been there. It included the five-part mass O bone Iesu by the Chapel Royal composer Robert Fayrfax. There is no recording of that particular music sung by a choir which uses boys’ voices, but here is a piece in many ways very similar, Fayrfax’s Marian antiphon ‘Eterne laudis lilium’. Here is the sound of the choirs both of the nation’s finest chapel and of a relatively unremarkable parish church. This recording, indeed, is by a choir not too dissimilar from that of a pre-Reformation parish church, consisting of part-time singing-men, in this case students of a Cambridge college, and a bunch of enthusiastic Cambridge schoolboys.

MUSIC EXAMPLE 6: Robert Fayrfax, Eterne laudis lilium.

That, in the England of Henry VIII, was the choral sound to be heard in some hundreds of the churches dotted throughout his realm, until, between 1548 and 1575 or so, almost all was snuffed out, at least as a feature of worship in church, by the protestant Reformation brought to the English people by Henry’s own son and daughter, Edward VI and Elizabeth I. But what the Reformation could not do was to dissolve entirely one of the greatest glories of the late medieval English church – the creation and consolidation of the polyphonic chorus of human voices, stratified into the four timbres of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. That is with us still, a medium for the performance of music over which the subsequent experience of over five hundred years of human musical endeavour has not been able to cast any improvement.

Copyright © Roger Bowers, 2006

Music examples:

1. Recorded from a live BBC radio broadcast of Choral Vespers, sung by the choir of Westminster Cathedral, c.1999.

2. The Hilliard Ensemble, directed by Paul Hillier: The Old Hall Manuscript, EMI Reflexe CD, CDC 754111 2 (issued 1991), track 9.

3. The Clerks’ Group, directed by Edward Wickham: Brussels 5557, Signum CD, SIGCD015 (issued 1999), track 15.

4. The Cardinall’s Music, directed by Andrew Carwood: Music from All Souls’, Oxford, ASV CD, GAU 196 (issued 2000), track 6.

5. The Choristers of All Saints’, Margaret Street, London, and the Purcell Consort of Voices, directed by Grayston Burgess: Eton Choirbook (record 2), Argo LP, ZRG557 (issued 1968), side A, track 2.

6. The Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, directed by Geraint Bowen: Aeternae Laudis Lilium, Alpha LP, ACA 546 (issued 1985), side A, track 2.


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