The Orlando Consort has paused their traversal of the songs of Guillaume de Machaut (their intention to record them all has yielded three CDs so far) and devoted their latest release to charting the radical development of music between the late thirteenth and mid fifteenth centuries—the transition from what is at essence embellished chant to the extraordinary mathematical intricacies of experimental polyphony.
Beneath the northern star, subtitled “The rise of English polyphony, 1270-1430” was released this month on Hyperion Records.
Much early English sacred music is notoriously difficult to date in better than general terms; nevertheless, this anthology can be said to cover just under two centuries, with the earliest piece dating from around the middle of the thirteenth century through to those by Dunstaple which seem unlikely to have been written after about 1430. Unsurprisingly, the variety of styles is wide, ranging from the distinctively English version of the Ars Antiqua through to the development of the so-called ‘contenance angloise’ which had so much influence on Continental music from the 1440s onwards.
One of the most audible features of this repertory is the amount of parallel harmony—not merely the 6–3 chords which are regarded as typical of English music of the time, but also parallel fifths and octaves which suggest a more archaic style. These are particularly obvious in the conductus-like Ave mundi rosa, even though this is probably later than the previous two pieces. The text is divided in six paired verses, each pair set to the same music, a format which might suggest a parallel with the sequence.
Ave mundi rosa
Salvatoris mater pia / O Georgi Deo care / [Benedictus Mariae Filius] by Damett (?1389/90–1436/7) carries, in its top voice, a Marian text into which has been interpolated an intercession for Henry and, in its middle voice, a call on St George to pray for the protection of the English people. This fits well with what we know of the composer, whose name appears in royal household accounts during the campaign against the French.
Salvatoris mater pia
To complete this anthology, we return to the main part of the Old Hall Manuscript (though supplemented, because of a lost page, from a source associated with Fountains Abbey) for another anonymous Credo setting. On the most obvious level, this is an invigorating setting full of the sort of jaunty rhythms found in Excetre’s Credo; however, after a brief canonic opening for the two high voices, the bulk of the piece is built around an intriguing structural device based on the Latin inscription attached to the tenor part. Essentially, this decrees that its three sets of six notes are to be sung first as they stand, then in reverse, and finally again as written. Since the piece is isorhythmic, the entire process is repeated but with the note-values halved. If this all sounds rather cerebral and not the sort of thing that the average listener would hear, we might remember that the unknown composer would have expected an all-knowing deity to approve his ingenuity. As would be true with the rest of this collection, he would surely have regarded his artifice as part of the process of glorifying God.
Anon., Credo a 4
The Orlando Consort is an ensemble that throughout their more than two decade career has consistently performed early music of the highest quality. This recording is no exception.
Dunstable: Dies dignus / Demon dolens / Iste confessor