Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

This varied programme, captivatingly sung by the twelve-strong a cappella
ensemble, Stile Antico, celebrated such women, exploring diverse issues and
domains from monarchs to musicianship, from the court to the convent.

The short, troubled reign of Queen Mary I (1553-58) has long been
overshadowed by that of her half-sister Elizabeth, her five years on the
throne judged as unsuccessful, bloody and unfruitful. However, her
achievement in assuming the throne and becoming England’s first female
sovereign is increasingly being reassessed. Moreover, her strict imposition
of Catholicism upon her nation may have resulted in the deaths of up to 300
of her Protestant subjects, but the reestablishment of the Catholic
services which had been abolished by Edward VI meant that the musicians of
the Chapel Royal had to revive and develop the musical liturgy.

The Latin Church music of Thomas Tallis and John Shepherd exemplifies the
refreshing of this liturgical tradition. Tallis’s Pentecostal office
responsory ‘Loquebantur variis linguis’ is brief but presents rich
elaboration around the tenor cantus firmus, and the full complement of
twelve voices relished its piquant harmonies, blending mellifluously.
Performing without a conductor they seem to communicate by quasi-telepathic
means so assured is the ensemble and collective expressivity. John
Sheppard’s ‘Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria’, a responsory for Candlemas, is both
more obvious in its homage to the monarch, whose namesake it celebrates –
“Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, Virgin Mary!” – and even more majestic. Stile
Antico pristinely delineated the counterpoint, used harmonic and cadential
nuance to bring significant textual phrases to the fore – “inviolate
permansisti” (you remained an undefiled virgin) and grew with sweet
strength towards the concluding “Gloria”.

These were unsettled times for English musicians, though, and with the
ascension of Elizabeth I it was ‘all-change’ once more. William Byrd’s ‘O
Lord make thy servant Elizabeth’ reflects the monarch’s new injunction for
textual clarity; here, the ensemble sound was consoling and warm – aptly
so, for the Catholic Byrd prays for the well-being of the woman who offers
him both patronage and protection from religious persecution. The polyphony
was smooth and calm, culminating in a gloriously florid “Amen”. John
Taverner had been master of the choir in Cardinal College Oxford (now
Christchurch), where he had forty voices at his disposal and the buoyant
‘Christe Jesu, pastor bone’, a votive antiphon to be sung after Compline,
reflects the potential offered by the large forces. It was originally
composed in honour of St William of York, but later adapted to serve as a
prayer for both the monarch and her Church. The concluding request that
they both be granted the reward of eternal life was fittingly positive in
spirit and glowing in tone.

In 1601 Thomas Morley published a collection of madrigals in honour of
Elizabeth, The Triumphs of Oriana, to which John Bennet
contributed ‘All creatures now are merry minded’ which was sung with
up-lifting lightness and joy. Richard Carlton was vicar of St Stephen’s
church, Norwich, and a minor canon at Norwich Cathedral; he too contributed
to Morley’s publication, and ‘Calm was the air’ which the nine voices
brought to a radiant conclusion of shining, rising scales, “Long live fair
Oriana!”, grounded by a sonorous low bass.

On the continent, the Netherlands had come under Habsburg control through
the marriage in 1477 of Maximilian I to Mary, daughter of Charles the Bold,
Duke of Burgundy. During the fifteenth century the Burgundian court had
emerged as a centre of cultural splendour and musical patronage, and on her
appointment as Regent of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria inherited the Grande chapelle on of the most impressive musical establishments
in Europe, rivalling even the Papal chapel. Margaret’s cultural and musical
patronage is reflected in the music manuscripts that survive from her

Alexander Agricola (1446-1506) joined the Burgundian court in 1500. His
music was described vy one 16th-century observer as ‘unusual,
crazy and strange’, and some scholars have suggested that his it lies
in-between vocal and instrumental idioms and has an almost baroque
sensibility. Certainly, the motet ‘Dulces exuviae’, a setting of Dido’s
lament from Virgil’s Aeneid sung here by eight voices, seemed to
combine musical sentiments both sensual and sacred, moving restlessly
towards a slightly tentative and inconclusive final cadence. The motet
‘Absalon, fili me’, attributed to Pierre de la Rue, is similarly
unpredictable and experimental. It includes a reference to “frater mi
Philippe”, suggesting that the text may have been written by Margaret
herself in remembrance of her brother who died in 1506. Stile Antico wrung
every drop of emotion from the extraordinary, almost painful, harmonic
twists and turns as an arpeggio-motif descended despairingly.

Stile Antico celebrated not just female patrons but the producers of music
too. Raffaella (also known as Vittoria, her name before she took religious
orders) Aleotti (b.1575) was the second daughter of Giovanni Battista
Aleotti, a prominent architect at the court of Duke Alonso II d’Esta. A
child prodigy, in 1589 she entered the Convent of San Vito in Ferrara which
was known for its musical training and performance, and during the
following few years seems to have nurtured a growing religious vocation and
considerable skill as a composer. During Holy Week in 1593, a Venetian
Count visited the convent and was shown some madrigals, setting texts by
Guarini, which Aleotti had composed; he published them, and later that year
a collection of motets in five, seven, eight and ten voices also appeared,
attributed to Aleotti. She subsequently took her vows, but continued to
develop her musical skills becoming renowned as an organist and

Given Aleotti’s young age when she wrote ‘Exaudi, Deus, orationem’, the
motet’s harmonic daring and piquancy is striking, and Stile Antico brought
forth the very human passion of this plea to the Lord through the varied
vocal combinations and interplay. Aleotti was not the first female composer
to see her music in print: in 1568 Maddalena Casulana (fl.1566-83), a
skilled lutenist and singer, published a collection of madrigals whose
dedication to Isabella de’Medici Orsini asserted its intent to ‘show to the
world the foolish error of men who so greatly believe themselves to be the
masters of high intellectual gifts that these gifts cannot, it seems to
then, be equally common among women’. ‘O notte, O ciel, O mar’, sung by
four voices here, proves her point through its dynamic response to the text
and startling harmonic contortions and Stile Antico also captured the
flexibility and sensitivity to the text of ‘Vagh’ amorosi augelli’.

A contemporary of Aleotti, Sulpita Cesis (b.1577) also took holy orders, in
the Augustinian convent of San Geminiano in 1593. She published a volume of
Mottetti spiritual in 1619, from which we heard ‘Ascendo ad patrem’ – the
eight voices, arranged into two choirs, bringing vivacity to the central
‘Alleluia’ and lightness to the closing image of truth and certainty – and
the similarly joyful and lively ‘Cantemus Domino’. Reminding us the music
of some of these women composers would first have been heard in convent
chapels, five ladies from Stile Antico performed two works by Leonora
d’Este, (1515-75), the daughter of Duke Alfonso of Ferrara and Lucrezia
Borgia who, upon her mother’s death was sent to the Clarissian convent of
Corpus Domini. Both ‘Veni sponsa Christi’ and ‘Ego sum panis vitae’ were
notable for their melodic fluidity, as the parts interweaved and crossed,
and calm devotional air.

Lastly, Stile Antico performed a new work by Joanna Marsh, Dialogo and Quodlibet, which the composer describes as a ‘parody
piece based on the conversations found in the Dialogo della Musica of Antonfrancesco Doni [1544] … a sizable
volume containing a selection of contemporary pieces that Doni uses as a
schema for analysing music and commenting on its performance’. As the six
male singers huddled around a volume at the centre-front of the stage it
was not hard to imagine the philosophical disputations of academies such as
the Florentine Camerata de’ Bardi; or the series of musical polemics during
the 16th century, such as that between Zarlino and Monteverdi
following the publication of the latter’s fourth book of madrigals.

Conflict between old and new is not rare in the annals of music history,
whether it is a result of changes in musical theory or new voices
challenging those of established repute. Certainly, the six female singers
at the rear of the platform, with their backs turned on us, were intent on
debate and disruption. And, as we alternated between their delivery of
fragments from Casulana’s dedication and the men’s dry discussion, the
latter presented by Marsh in a rigid contrapuntal idiom which mocked the
scholarly theorising, the ladies came to the forestage, declaring proudly:
“Our wish is to entertain each other, not to hold school!” – a bold wish
which outshone the men’s fading discourse, “A pox upon these clefs; this
piece has different words you see; the discourse of a good musician, talk
well of music.” Marsh’s composition raised many a chuckle from the Hall One
audience and neatly combines insouciance of style with a serious
intellectual challenge.

Everything about this concert had been meticulously prepared, from the
spoken prefaces, to the re-arrangements of the singers’ semi-circle and
resultant entrances-and-exits. But, while the latter were executed with the
same flawless professionalism that characterised the singing itself, they
did necessitate quite a lot of stage ‘traffic’. I wondered whether Stile
Antico might have placed chairs at the rear and sides of the Hall One
platform, from which they might rise to take their places as required,
thereby facilitating smoother ‘transitions’?

However, the minor distraction in no way marred the glories of the
music-making offered here. The male scholars may have ‘talked well of
music’, but Stile Antico gave a rich, powerful voice to the women who
patronised, produced and published such music and were very much part of
the Renaissance.

Claire Seymour

Stile Antico: Breaking the Habit

Raffaella Alleotti – ‘Exaudi Deus orationem mean’; Pierre de la Rue –
‘Absalon fili mi; Anon. – ‘Se joue souspire/Ecce iterum’; Alexander
Agricola – ‘Dulces exuviae’; Maddalena Casulana – ‘O notte, o ciel, o mar’;
Sulpitia Cesis – ‘Ascendo ad patrem’; Leonora d’Este – ‘Veni sponsa
Christi’, ‘Ego sum’; Maddalena Casulana – ‘Vagh’ amorosi augelli’; Thomas
Tallis – ‘Loquebantur variis linguis’; John Sheppard – ‘Gaude, gaude, gaude
Maria; William Byrd – ‘O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth’, John Taverner –
‘Christe Jesu, pastor bone’, John Bennet – ‘All creatures now are merry
minded’; Richard Carlton – ‘Calm was the air’; Sulpita Cesis – ‘Cantemus
Domino’; Rafaella Aleotti – ‘ Angelus ad pastores ait; Joanna Marsh –
‘Dialogo Quodlibet’.

Kings Place, London; Saturday 27th April 2019.

image_description=Stile Antico [Photo: Marco Borggreve]
product_title=Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Stile Antico

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve