Nicholas LUDFORD (c.1490-1557)
Deo gracias Anglia
Missa Sabato: Kyrie
Missa Sabato: Gloria
Sequentia: Hodierne lux diei
Glose sur ‘Edi beo thu hevene quene’
Missa Sabato: Credo
Missa Sabato: Sanctus
Missa Sabato: Agnus Dei
Ite missa est
Glose sur ‘There is no rose’
Abide I hope [2:35]
Christophe Deslignes (portative organ)
La Quintina/Jérémie Couleau (tenor)
rec. April 2019, Abbaye de Loc-Dieu. DDD.
First recording of Missa sabato.
Texts and translations included.
Regular readers may be aware that I consider Nicholas Ludford to be
seriously under-rated. When I wrote my survey of his music in 2014, there was nothing generally available
on disc, there was nothing generally available on disc, though there
were the various downloads that featured in that survey, listed below
as See Survey. There have been other recordings of his music
in recent years, and I have welcomed several of these, including one
directed by Jérémie Couleau (see foot of the review):
Now, with La Quintina, he turns his attention to Ludford’s Missa
Sabato, a votive Lady Mass for the Virgin Mary, intended to be
sung on Saturdays in the Lower Chapel of St Stephen’s Westminster, now
St Mary’s Undercroft, the parliamentary chapel, where Ludford was verger
and choirmaster in the late 1520s and 1530s, though it’s possible that
much of the music was written before 1530. Unlike his festal works,
this Mass is scored fairly modestly, for treble, mean (alto) and contratenor
(tenor), with an added bass voice in the Sequentia (sequence).
The three-part setting may be modest, but the music is often highly
florid in the early sixteenth-century manner.
I asked Jérémie Couleau how they had managed to cope with the mean –
tenor – bass requirement in the Sequentia; had they simply
transposed the music, as we assume that Vivaldi did with his music for
the girls of the Pietà? He replied that ‘we played the music in G (as
in the manuscript) but we shared the chant between the four of us (sometimes
an 8th higher...)’. The result is certainly a convincing way round the
problem of needing a bass for just this one section.
A pdf score in modern notation is available online here and some sections are printed in the Paraty booklet in the older
square notation. Let me say at once that I enjoyed the singing on this
new recording more than that on the older album, which I thought too
influenced by Marcel Pérès and his Ensemble Organum. (Actually, though
the sound of La Quintina is notably lighter and brighter, sung at the
correct pitch, instead of transposed down by the all-male ensemble on
the older recording, listening again to that earlier version in better
sound quality makes me think that I was too harsh in comparing Ensemble
Scandicus with Ensemble Organum.)
So far Ludford’s ferial (weekday) Lady Masses have mostly been neglected
on record, though four excerpts were included on Chorus vel Organa;
that recording of ‘Music from the lost Palace of Westminster’
(see footnote) includes an Alleluia – Salve virgo
(cycle VI),Kyrie (cycle III), Agnus Dei (cycle V)
and Gloria (cycle II).
Ludford’s music is very much of its time, harking back to the great
English composers of the fifteenth century rather than forward to the
future. He died in 1557, towards the end of the brief reign of Mary
I when Lady Masses were back in fashion. Had he lived into the reign
of Elizabeth I, it’s interesting to speculate whether he would have
been able to compromise with the new style, as Tallis and Byrd did,
continuing to set Latin texts for occasions when they could be used,
but adapting the polyphonic style to English words, and generally following
the ‘one note per syllable’ rule.
The Hyperion recording listed below also includes weekday settings of
Kyrie (cycle III) and Hoc clara die turma (cycle V).
As I wrote in reviewing that recording – link below – if this is a fair
sample of what ferial settings sounded like in the early sixteenth century,
what a wealth of wonderful music we have lost, with just a few choirbooks
saved from puritan destruction. If anything, the new recording from
La Quintina makes an even stronger case for this ‘ordinary’ music, in
this instance for the complete Saturday (Feria VI) Lady Mass setting.
We know a great deal more now about performing the music of this period
than when David Munrow and his Early Music Consort made their ground-breaking
recordings nearly sixty years ago, yet there still isn’t, and probably
never will be, an agreed ‘right’ way to perform it. Had David Munrow
recorded this Ludford Mass back then, he might well have added instrumental
accompanimemnt, and the results would have been very entertaining. Even
now, I find myself missing his panache when listening to more authentic
accounts of Prætorius’ Terpsichore; the super-budget 2-CD Early
Music Consort Renaissance Dance set remains my go-to for that
and the other music there, by Susato, Morley and others (Warner Erato
Veritas 3500032). But I also enjoy the many very fine recordings which
Gothic Voices made for Hyperion, performed with no instrumental accompaniment
or very little.
La Quintina employ just one voice to a part. We can’t know how this
Mass would have been performed at the time. I suspect with rather more
than one voice per part, but the minimal approach pays off really well,
bringing clarity to the performance. That’s certainly preferable to
overwhelming the music: like Johan van Veen, reviewing the Delphian
Chorus vel Organa (above), I would have preferred a rather
smaller ensemble even on that fine recording. Couleau and his small
team achieve multum in parvo.
La Quintina also sound different from Caius College Choir on Delphian
and different again from the Westminster Choir on Hyperion. O’Donnell’s
singers are based geographically closer to the site of St Stephen’s
Chapel – almost next door, though the recording was made in All Hallows,
Gospel Oak – yet I suspect that La Quintina are stylistically closer
to what Ludford would have heard. We can’t know, of course, but it may
well be that he reserved his full forces, especially the trebles, for
the big Sunday and festal celebrations. Not that there is any suggestion
of needing to rest the soprano, Esther Labourdette, who takes the top
line on the Paraty recording.
Westminster Abbey Choir give the Tuesday Kyrie the full works
and, while the result is impressive, the organ in particular, recorded
separately in St Mary Undercroft, sounds like a modern instrument trying
to emulate the sound of an English renaissance organetto. Until
recently it was believed that none of these small organs have survived,
except in depictions, but the simple portative organ used on the new
Paraty recording and pictured in the booklet sounds more like how we
assume it sounded. To quote Couleau’s email to me again, ‘The organetto,
quite high, takes part in the global atmosphere’.
The Delphian recording, however, goes one better, using a modern reproduction
of a renaissance organ, parts of which were discovered in Suffolk. Both
that and the instrument used on the new Paraty recording are much more
apt than the organ of St Mary Undercroft on the Westminster Abbey recording.
All three, however, are preferable to the handbells which for me spoil
the Rondeau recording of Missa Dominica.
An unusual feature of Ludford’s Masses is the use of alternatim
sections, referred to as ‘square’ passages. As the name implies, the
music alternates between monophonic and polyphonic sections, the former
designated for the tenor. That probably originates in the practice which
still exists to the present time in churches with a choral tradition
whereby the celebrant intones the opening words of, for example, Gloria
in excelsis Deo in plainsong, and the choir enters at the words
et in terra pax … What Ludford does is rather different: the
tenor intones the opening words and the subsequent section et in
terra pax … bonæ voluntatis is still set for the tenor, but marked
as a ‘square’ section to be used as the basis for organ improvisation.
Several sections in later parts of the Gloria are also marked
as ‘square’ for a short organ improvisation before the next choral section;
you can find these indicated on the online score mentioned above.
There are several ways of performing these sections: with the tenor
simply singing what is laid out in the score, with the organ improvising
a solo at these points, as in Couperin’s Organ Masses, or with a combination
of both. La Quintina choose the third option; they also have the organ
lightly underpinning much of the choral music, and that seems to me
just right. O’Donnell on his recording of the Kyries for the
Tuesday (Feria III) Lady Mass chooses to perform the square sections
on the organ solo, as does Geoffrey Webber on Delphian, though, as already
noted, the organ parts improvised on the latter, played by Magnus Williamson,
sound much more in keeping than the St Mary Undercroft organ in the
hands of O’Donnell, much as I continue to enjoy his Hyperion recording.
Sound arguments, with scholarly sources, are given in the Paraty booklet
for this treatment of the square sections. If, as Johan van Veen wrote
in reviewing the Delphian recording, the use of alternatim
there was ground-breaking, the new recording even more ‘deserves the
attention of every lover of renaissance polyphony’. I need not go into
great detail on the subject; not only is it discussed convincingly in
the Paraty booklet, which also indicates the editorial decisions made
at various points, it’s also analysed in the booklet for the Hyperion
recording, available free to all comers from
Ludford’s use of squares is not to be confused with an earlier practice,
which continued in continental sacred music of this period, of another
kind of alternatim, with one verse of a psalm or canticle sung
in chant, the next in polyphony. It seems likely to me, though I have
never seen it suggested, that Ludford’s use of this alternatim
practice gave rise to the peculiarly English form of the Verse Anthem
in which a solo voice or voices alternates with the full choir.
The insertion of two instrumental ‘glosses’, or improvisations, on Middle
English poems in honour of the Virgin Mary is entirely appropriate in
a Mass intended in her honour, just as the use of organ improvisation
throughout the music seems to be in accord with the practice of the
time. Edi beo þu heuene quene, ‘blessed art thou, Queen of
Heaven’, dating from the thirteenth century, is one of the earliest
Middle English lyrics for which we know the tune, in the form of a gymel,
an early form of polyphony from which the record label of the Tallis
Scholars, Gimell, is derived in a variant spelling. The more familiar
Ther is no rose of swich vertu, often sung at Christmas, is
rather later (fifteenth century). I wonder if anyone c.1530 would even
have understood the Middle English of Edi beo þu, much less
known the music, but it makes a good subject for one of two tasteful
There’s one bizarre translation in the booklet: Gloria in excelsis
Deo is rendered ‘Glory in the heights of god’ instead of ‘Glory
to god in the highest’; the French translation gets it right. Otherwise,
the English translations generally follow those currently used in English
Roman Catholic and Anglican services.
It has taken a French ensemble to bring us nearer to an ideal recording
of this music by a still underrated English Tudor composer. Overcoming
national prejudices, they even begin their programme with the late fifteenth
century jingoistic Agincourt Song, bragging how ‘our king went forth’
– and whacked the French. It’s good to know that a degree of entente
cordiale still reigns, even after the turmoil of Brexit. Typically,
we Anglophones can’t even get right the name of the place where the
battle took place – it’s actually Azincourt. (Just to prove it, Word
has rejected the correct name and underlined it in red.) By contrast,
the Middle English texts are pronounced perfectly by these French performers,
though, incidentally, the language is not ‘Ancient English’, as the
booklet has it, translating l'anglais ancien.
I shall certainly want to revisit the recordings of the multi-part festal
masses of Ludford listed below but if you wish to become acquainted
with what the more modest three-part regular daily Masses at St Stephen’s
sounded like at the time of the great flowering of pre-reformation church
music, the Delphian and, above all, the new Paraty recordings require
your attention. Considering that the project was crowd-funded, the subscribers
named in the booklet deserve our thanks along with the performers.
At the time of writing this recording was available as a download only,
with pdf booklet, or for streaming from Naxos Music Library, the CD
release having been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but it should
be available by the time that you read this. Johan van Veen has also
included a short review of this recording in Second Thoughts and
Short Reviews Summer 2020, which will be online by the time that
you read this.
- Missa Benedicta and votive antiphons – Choir of New College,
Oxford/Edward Higginbottom K617 K617206 (download only) or
Pan Classics PC10403 (CD). See Survey
- Missa Videte miraculum and Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitatis – Westminster Abbey Choir/James
O’Donnell Hyperion CDA68192 –
(CD and download).
- Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum; Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitatis – Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood
Presto special Gaudeaumus CD CDGAU140. Other
ground-breaking Ludford recordings by this group are begging to be
- Missa Regnum mundi with Pygot Salve Regna – Blue Heron BHCD1003 See Survey
(link above). (CD and download).
- Missa Inclina cor meum Deus with Mason Ave fuit prima salus – Blue Heron BHCD1004 See
Survey (link above). (CD and download).
- Missa Dominica – Trinity Boys Choir, Handbell Choir Gotha/David
Swinson RONDEAU-HORIZON ROP8001: Recording of the Month –
. (CD and download). Despite my colleague's accolade, the handbells spoil
this for me.
- Ave cuius conceptio – Oxford Girls’ Choir in Heavenly Voices CCLCDG1181. Download only. See
Survey (link above). (Download only).
- Chorus vel Organa: Music from the lost Palace of Westminster -
Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge Delphian DCD34158 (CD and download –
Jérémie Couleau has previously recorded Ludford’s Sunday Lady Mass,Missa Dominica, with Ensemble Scandicus on Arion/Pierre Verany PV713111 - see Survey (Link above). That’s available from
on a rather expensive CD and as a download or for streaming elsewhere.