Mary, Queen of Heaven, Wigmore Hall

In the late-medieval period, Christian thinking centred on the
belief that the surest route to eternal peace was through the agency of the
Blessed Virgin. Choral music repeatedly invoked her aid; in the Eton
she is frequently beseeched and, indeed, Eton College had been
founded by Henry VI in 1440 as ‘The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton
besides Wyndsor’. Yet, Tudor dynastic politics was never wholly absent from
either the religious or cultural life of the age, as The Cardinall’s Musick
under the direction of Andrew Carwood intriguingly revealed.

Fayrfax was one of the most pre-eminent English musicians of the
early-sixteenth century, holding many important positions during the kingship
of Henry VII and the early reign of Henry VIII. A member of the Chapel Royal,
he accompanied Henry VIII to the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. Subsequently,
his talents have perhaps been undervalued: he has been seen as a musical
‘conservative’, emulating the style and methods of Dunstable at a time when
Flemish musicians such as Josquin de PrËs were experimenting with new complex
polyphonic techniques.

Fayrfax’s Mass, O quam glorifica, is one of most complex masses
of the period, and the Gloria opened the evening’s performance. The mass was
probably written as part of Fayrfax’s doctorate submission to the University
of Cambridge c.1502, and was thus designed to show off the Fayrfax’s
technical skill and musical invention — as well as his mastery of the
perceived intellectual foundations of the art of composition, such as the
mathematical patterns which underpin the formal structure and metrical

The ten singers of The Cardinall’s Musick gave a polished and purposeful
account, Fayrfax’s fluent note-against-note counterpoint and conjunct
melodies, with only occasional dissonance, resulting in a mellifluous mass of
sound. Great dignity was evoked, and interest generated, by the perpetual
re-voicings and re-positionings of Fayrfax’s expansive chords of full
harmony. Moreover, just as the textural patterns were handled very
expressively, so the metrical complications — the mixed meters, irregular
phrase lengths and complex syncopations — were pointedly and judiciously

Interestingly, The Cardinall’s Musick presented not a perfectly blended
sound but one in which individual voices retained their distinct timbre and
character; such individualism is perhaps at odds with the contemporary
‘spirit’ of the age, but it is an approach which — complemented by
Carwood’s subtle changes of tempo and slight rubatos — nevertheless helped
to highlight and shape the points of imitation, and it brought animation and
colour to the textures.

Fayrfax’s beautiful melodic writing was noteworthy in the simple motet
Ave lumen gratiae (Hail light of grace), a litany of praise in which
each line begins with the uplifting address, ‘Ave’. But, it was the
five-part motet, Eterne laudis lilium, which brought the full vocal
voices together for the concluding work of the programme, which most was most
compelling and also most strange. After a hymn of praise to the Blessed Virgin,
there follows a genealogy of the Holy Family, tracing the female lineage from
Mary to St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. The two sections
announcing the list of names, pairing the tenor first with the treble and then
with the bass, were excitedly swept aside by imitative entries for all five
voices when ‘Elizabeth’ was announced. Records show that on 28 March 1502,
Fayrfax received twenty shillings from Elizabeth of York, the consort of Henry
VII and mother of Henry VIII, for setting ‘an anthem of oure Lady and St
Elizabeth’. Clearly this motet was intended as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth
of York who was mortally ill at the of the work’s composition — indeed, the
first letter of each line forms an acrostic reading ELISABETH REGINA ANGLIE —
and here the repetitions of the Queen’s name were finely and expressively

The Cardinall’s Music also performed compositions by Fayrfax’s
contemporaries and friends. William Cornysh’s short votive anthem, Ave
Maria, mater Dei
, is one of the composer’s eight contributions to the
Eton Choirbook, and characteristically addresses Mary as the
intermediary through whom one may find eternal rest: ‘mother of God, Lady,
queen of heaven, empress of hell’. The singers made much of the harmonic
nuances and complex rhythms, and especially relished the shifting vocal
textures. After the opening declamatory invocation for four voices, trio and a
duet sections followed, making the return to full voices for the prayer
‘miserere mei’ which ends first part most striking; the rich textures of
the final Amen were similarly dramatic.

Walter Lambe’s four-voice Stella caeli (Star of heaven) was an
interesting inclusion. It contrasts with the other Marian texts in that rather
than seeking spiritual salvation it implores the Virgin for protection against
a more mundane but deadly reality: plague. Mary, addressed as a celestial
power, is entreated to ‘be gracious and restrain the heavens, whose attacks
bring our people low with fierce and deadly wounds’.

There were some unfamiliar names too. John Plummer’s Tota pulcra
(You are altogether beautiful), is a setting of text from the Songs
of Songs
and looks ahead to the reign of Edward VI during which Plummer
flourished. Here we enjoyed some seductively smooth, conjunct melismas, the
continual shifts between two- and three-voice textures adding further appeal.
George Banaster was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the 1470s. His
antiphon ‘O Maria et Elizabeth’ continued the unification of religious and
political sentiment, moving from traditional supplication to a prayer for the
monarch and for the good fortune of the country.

Secular works were interspersed between the spiritual compositions. Fayrfax
was represented by two gentle love songs, ‘Most clere of colour’ and ‘To
complayne me’, while the less well-known Edward Turges’s ‘Enforce
Yourself as God’s Own Knight’ for soprano, alto and bass, allowed the
singers to demonstrate their vocal agility and control in the long, florid
melismas which conclude the syllabic, homophonic verses.

It was intriguing to listen to this music in a present-day concert hall, a
situation far removed from the devotional contexts in which it was performed
600 years ago. As the sound swelled, a ‘gravity’ was conveyed by the grand
choral effect, suggesting a spiritual certainty which is less frequently
encountered in the modern age.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

The Cardinall’s Musick: Andrew Carwood, director; Julie Cooper,
Cecilia Osmond (soprano); David Gould, David Martin (alto); Steven Harrold,
Nicholas Todd (tenor); Robert Evans, Robert Rice (baritone); James Birchall,
Simon Whitely (bass).

Robert Fayrfax: Gloria from Missa O quam glorifica, Most
clere of colour, O Maria Deo grata, Ave lumen gratiae, To complayne me, Eterne
laudis lilium. Walter Lamne: Stella caeli. William Cornysh: Ave Maria mater
Dei, Gaude virgo mater Christi. Gilbert Banaster: O Maria et Elizabeth. John
Plummer: Tota pulcra es. Edward Turges: Enforce yourself as God’s own knight.

Wigmore Hall, London, Monday, 8th December 2014.

image_description=Elizabeth of York [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Mary, Queen of Heaven — Sub-plot: Elizabeth of York
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Elizabeth of York [Source: Wikipedia]