The choir books of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance - soon
to be superseded by part-books - are, in the words of Philippe de
Montebello, long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“one of the great legacies of Western culture”(quoted from Barbara
Drake Boehm, Choirs of Angels: Painting in Italian Choir Books,
1300-1500, 2008). The claim is justified by more than merely
the music they preserve. The best of the Choir Books are sophisticated
works of art in terms of all the skills of book production, especially
in relation to the wonderful illuminations they often contain. They
marry the aesthetic interests of eyes and ears in a thoroughly distinctive
fashion. In some future multimedia world it will surely be possible
to look at digital images of the relevant pages as we listen to the
music. Yet even such an experience would not fully prepare one for
the real thing, for the delightfully shocking physical presence of
these books. Designed to be visible simultaneously to twenty or more
members of a choir, these are huge creations. I remember very well
my first startled encounter with a collection of such choir books,
in the Piccolomini Library of Siena Cathedral. Many of these books
are a yard high and more than a yard wide when opened. To my eyes
at least, no digital system of reproduction has yet proved able to
do full justice to the intensity of colour in the finest of their
The religious switchback ride of sixteenth century England led to
the destruction of many of its choir books. One of the most important
and earliest surviving exemplars is the Eton Choir Book. It was compiled
at the very beginning of the sixteenth century, probably before 1505.
As it now stands, in a binding some fifty years younger, it consists
of 134 folios. When complete it was made up of 224 folios; an original
index tells us that it contained 93 compositions. Some 29 of those
have been lost and a number of others are incomplete. Each page is
about two feet high and each opening is almost a yard across. Some
page images can be seen at the website
of the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music, publishers of a slightly
size-reduced facsimile of the manuscript. There is little or no exaggeration
involved in saying that this manuscript is one of the greatest of
English cultural treasures. Leaving aside for the moment, the beauty
of the manuscript, this is, after all our only source of knowledge
for many fine pieces of music; indeed, some composers (such as Hugh
Kellyk) would effectively have vanished from the record but for its
survival. It is a major source for knowledge of important figures
such as John Browne (represented by 10 pieces), Richard Davy (9 works)
and Walter Lambe 8).
Music from the Eton Choir Book has been fairly extensively recorded
in recent years, most notably by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen
in an outstanding series of 5 Coro CDs. This sampler by Tonus Peregrinus
is on a par with the best of previous recordings and, by accident
or design, involves relatively little duplication with those previous
recordings. Unless you insist on boys’ voices rather than those of
women, this mixed-voice choir deserves your surely delighted attention.
We get to hear such fascinating works as Davy’s St. Matthew Passion
- or what remains of it, the opening pages being amongst the material
lost. Its treatment of its text is subtle and expressive. The sheer
beauty of much of its polyphonic writing is notable. Wylkynson’s extraordinary
13-part canonic setting of the Apostle’s Creed is also memorable.
Other rare delights include Browne’s powerfully expressive Stabat
mater, simultaneously redolent of the affective spirituality
of the middle ages and, at moments seeming to anticipate a kind of
madrigalesque word-painting. Kellyk’s beautiful Magnificat
isone of the 24 Magnificats included in this particular choir book.
It makes one wonder how much more lovely and profound music by this
composer we have lost. There are reminiscences of Dunstable in the
setting. In this performance the alternation of choirs of high and
low voices works very well.
At every turn these are fine performances, excellently recorded by
Geoff Miles using new, experimental microphones with happy results.
The neums of medieval manuscripts are not without their difficulties
and ambiguities of interpretation to put it mildly. Almost without
exception the choices made by Pitts and his choir are thoroughly satisfying.
Their translations of the manuscript notes into sound repeatedly merits
- if I may be allowed a ponderous pun - the epithet ‘neuminous’.
review by Johan van Veen