top of page

Gigantic Polyphony

March 2017

Some forty singers gathered together in the Friends’ Meeting House, Oxford on 21 January 2017 for another excursion into largely uncharted territory under the erudite guidance of John Milsom. The two works which occupied our day were the nine-part Salve Regina by Robert Wylkynson, (Eton Choir Book and Cantus Firmus spelling), Wilkinson (New Grove) or the hybrid Wylkinson (John’s own version), and the Gloria from the mass Et ecce terrae motus (the Earthquake Mass) by his near contemporary, Antoine Brumel (ca 1460-1512/13). The New Grove gives W’s dates as ca 1450-1515 or later, the Cantus Firmus edition as ca 1475-1515 or later. There is some plausibility to this later dating, since the Newcastle University Eton Choirbook Research Project suggests that he may have been a King’s Scholar in 1494 (so he would have been nineteen or less in that year) before becoming, successively, parish clerk, lay clerk and instructor, and then leaving, in unknown circumstances, in 1515. Although the Salve Regina will be discussed in more detail later on in this review, your reviewer would like to draw attention to the following entry in the New Oxford Companion to Music (general editor, Denis Arnold, 1st edition, 1983). It is the very last entry in volume 2, at p.1995, and it reads:-

Wylkinson, Robert (fl. late 15th, early 16th centuries). English composer. He worked at Eton College, first as parish clerk and then as Master of the Choristers from 1496 to 1515. His music survives in the Eton Choirbook and includes a monumental nine-part Salve Regina and a curious setting of the  Apostles’ Creed in the form of a 13-part canon.

Wylkynson composed two settings of the Salve Regina, the other being set for five voices. The New Grove states that his style appeared to be not fully developed in the five-part setting, but appears to perfection in the nine-part setting, one of the glories of the collection (that is, the Eton Choirbook). The nine parts represent the nine orders of angels; the starring roles go to the sopranos (Seraphim and Cherubim) and basses (Archangels and Angels). The altos, being Thrones, presumably sit around looking decorative; the baritones (designated in the Musica Britannica edition published by Stainer & Bell as the ‘inferior countertenors’) have to live up to their billing as Virtues, and the tenors (the ‘superior countertenors’ being the Dominations, and Principalities, while the Powers are allocated to the part designated ‘tenor’) no doubt are charged with ensuring that the angelic mechanism ticks over regularly and doesn’t fall apart. John’s explanation of the harmonic structure seemed to reflect this, in that (as your reviewer understood it) it is largely determined by the setting of the relevant outer parts, and the rest of the harmony is written into that structure, rather like the cream and jam inserted between the layers of an enormous millefeuille pastry. This can be seen in the small section (bars 63-74 of the Cantus Firmus edition from which we sang) devoted to the single word ‘ostende’, although it was twenty minutes before we progressed to singing the word itself rather than vocalising the notes to the syllable ‘doo’. We were exhorted, in the course of this ‘dooing and froing’, to be ‘nifty’, the particular type of niftiness being that of an eager spaniel pulling on its leash-not, perhaps, the first image that might come to mind in the context of performing a composition from the Eton Choirbook.

As John pointed out to us, the composition (which he dated to around 1505) is based on a tenor cantus firmus, Assumpta est Maria in caelum. The very strong associations of Eton College with the Virgin Mary which he drew to our attention are exemplified by the special papal indulgence granted (presumably by Eugene IV on his restoration, following the expulsion of the antipope Amadeus of Savoy) in 1443 to all penitents visiting the collegiate church of Eton on the feast of the Assumption (each penitent being expected to make a contribution towards the maintenance of the college) and the armorial bearings granted in January 1447/8 which included three white lily flowers (without leaves and stalks) denoting ‘the service of God and the blessed and immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God’; see Lionel Cust, History of Eton College, (Duckworth, London 1899), pp.13 and 17. The 93 compositions which have survived to be included in the present-day edition of the Eton Choirbook include fifteen settings of Salve Regina, as well as many other Marian texts.

The setting begins with a short nine-voice section in which the tenor (T3 in the Cantus Firmus edition) renders the Assumpta est Maria cantus firmus, on the word ‘Salve’. It is periodically re-stated throughout, by the tenor, and also by soprano 1 (quadruplex) in the last of the three tropes, beginning on Et pro nobis flagellato, and the composition is brought to a symmetrical conclusion by the tenor’s final, slightly ornamented restatement, to the words O dulcis Maria, salve. The Cantus Firmus edition prints four of the six verse tropes associated with Salve Regina, though the Wylkynson setting does not utilise the Dele corpus miserorum verse which precedes O dulcis Maria, salve. Throughout, the full nine-voice sections alternate with contrapuntal or polyphonic passages. John explained to us that, technically, ‘counterpoint’ is a term which refers to settings for two voices; three or more constitute ‘polyphony’. There is but one short section at the beginning of the first trope, Virgo mater ecclesie, which is truly contrapuntal, as it is sung by S2 and B2, the Cherubim and the angels, before the tenor joins them for the second half of the verse, esto nobis refugium.

To sing through the entire piece, as we did at the end of the day, was a remarkable experience; as one tenor said at the end, ‘The final Salve Regina was worth the trip’. Indeed, John’s suggestion that the stresses of everyday living might be alleviated by obtaining a copy of the Eton Choirbook and singing along with the Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars might with advantage be communicated to Jeremy Hunt; one volume of the Musica Britannica edition at approximately £70 from Stainer & Bell has to be a lot cheaper than a course of anti-depressants, though of course, it is not so readily portable as a small pack of (say) Celexa or Prozac.

In between working up the Salve Regina to something like end-of-the-day performance level (though, unaccountably, the O clemens section and part of its trope more or less escaped any rehearsal) we were taken through the Gloria of the Brumel Earthquake Mass. Brumel was a fairly prolific composer who appears to have led a restless life, beginning as a singer at Notre Dame in Chartres, ending as maestro di cappella at the ducal court of Ferrara and holding other positions in France and Switzerland in the interval, though in a career apparently dogged by controversy and frosty relations with employers, he held none of them for more than six years. The New Grove credits him with fifteen Masses, thirty-one motets, three Magnificat settings and a few secular works with popular texts such as le moy de may and tous les regrets. The New Grove says of the Earthquake Mass, which it places in the middle period of his compositions, that ‘a work of such proportions must have been a distinct novelty at the time’ and criticises his technique, remarking that ‘the rather close grouping of the lower voices sometimes produces a thick, heavy texture, perhaps reflecting the composer’s inexperience with large forces’; and indeed, apart from three motets, two for five voices and one for eight, no other composition of his written for more than four voices is extant. The article is less disobliging about the cantus firmus, acknowledging that the Easter antiphon which serves in that role is ‘often skilfully moulded into a three-part canon’. One example is the laudamus te section with T1, T2 and B3 entering at three-bar intervals, a fifth apart.

We sang from an edition prepared by Sally Dunkley. This provoked a short debate about reduced note values which turned out to be about as inconclusive as the Brexit referendum. The setting is for twelve voices, three each of sopranos, countertenors, tenors and basses. There are no passages written specifically for smaller numbers of voices and the treatment of the text is in many places unexpected; for instance, some of the most highly ornamented and rapidly moving writing is devoted to the words ‘…miserere nobis Qui tollis peccata mundi’. It is perhaps less unexpected that this style continues into ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram patris’ but then, instead of moving on to ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, there is a passage of a dozen bars in which the words ‘miserere nobis’ are interpolated into the text. ‘Tu solus Dominus’ proved to be somewhat disconcerting as those words are set in ways which produce different stress patterns in the various parts, thereby creating what one might call a foundation of chaos, on which was superimposed a layer of uncertainty as those of us previously unacquainted with this work picked our way through it for the first time. It was something of a relief to reach the relatively uncomplicated final section, and the tea-break before singing through the Gloria and then the Salve Regina was particularly welcome.

We are all deeply indebted to John for another fascinating musical experience and we hope (notwithstanding his announced intention of devoting himself henceforth to directing events where the singing is from facsimile) that he can yet be persuaded to direct a TVEMF event occasionally. No-one else (at least, in this reviewer’s experience) has led us down so many previously unknown and ultimately rewarding pathways. Warm thanks are also due to Nicola Wilson-Smith for organising the event, to David Fletcher who reformatted and printed the Brumel Earthquake Mass, and to the providers of tea, coffee, cake and biscuits.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

bottom of page