Chapelle du Roi: The Marriage of England and Spain

The Marriage of England and Spain
Chapelle du Roi, Alistair Dixon
St John’s Smith Square, 12 December 2015

WP_20151212_20_22_14_Pro.jpgThe marriage between the Queen Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain only lasted from 1554 to Mary’s death in 1558, but the resulting musical influence lasted for many years, as demonstrated in this concert from the vocal group Chapelle du Roi. Amongst the musicians that Philip brought with him to England was Philippe de Monte, director of the Spanish Chapel Royal. He seems to have met the young William Byrd during his few months in England. Many years later, after the 1583 execution of Mary Queen of Scots and the crushing of a Catholic revolt, de Monte wrote his motet Super flumina Babylonis (‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’) and sent it to Byrd. De Monte set four verses from the Psalm (137), and Byrd’s response was to write his own setting of de Monte’s final verse, adding a further three verses, and sending this motet, Quomodo Cantabimus, to de Monte.  These two pieces formed the centre piece of the concert, spaced either side of the interval which, rather nicely, gave the impression of the time-lapse between the original gift and Byrd’s musical response.

Another key piece in the programme was Terrenum Sitiens Regnum, ascribed only to ‘Edward’, but who is likely to have been Edward Hedley, a lay-clerk of Magdalen College Oxford. This comes from the Peterhouse Partbooks and has been reconstructed by Nick Sandon, a long-time researcher into the music from the partbooks. One of the five Peterhouse partbooks is missing, and the tenor part has been restored by Sandon. This was billed as the first modern performance. Possibly intended for performance at a celebration of Holy Innocents in the 1530s, the piece depicts the Massacre of the Innocents, a story not usually part of the Christmas musical scene. It is a fascinating piece, set in refrain rather than the expected votive antiphon form. Passages for reduced voices are followed by the refrain Vindica domine sanguinen sanctorum tuorum (Avenge, O Lord, the blood of your Saints). The distinctive passages of dotted rhythms perhaps reflect the horrors of the event.

The whole point of the marriage was to produce a Catholic male heir to the English throne. In practice, it only produced a false pregnancy in 1554, an event that may have been the stimulus for Tallis’s Christmas Mass Peur Natus Est (‘Unto us is born a son’). The Spanish Capilla Flamenca were still in London at the time, and the seven part structure of the Tallis Mass, with low and high treble lines suggests that it might have been written for performance by the joint choirs of the English and Spanish Chapels Royal. As the programme note pointed out, Spanish boys sang in low chest voices, unlike the English trebles who sang in higher head voices. The concert ended with the Agnus Dei from the Mass. After the opening carol, evening had started with Tallis’s Beati immaculate, a reconstruction of what was probably originally a Latin motet from a later version given an English text.  It was followed by Mundy’s setting of further verses from the same Psalm (119) with his Adolescentulus sum ego, an example of the survival of devotional Latin motets under Elizabeth’s reign.

Chapelle du Roi first came to public prominence with their influential complete Tallis recordings in the 1990s. Although their activities have been less hectic in recent years, they have kept going with their annual Christmas and Easter St John’s, Smith Square concerts. The personal may change from year to year, but the consort sound is always impressive. It is perhaps invidious to pick out individual choir members, but I usually feel that the success of small-scale choral singing depends to a large extent on the ability of the sopranos and basses. One this occasion, sopranos Kate Ashby and Rachel Ambrose Evans (the latter a late substitution for an indisposed singer) excelled both in the many exposed solo and duet roles, but also produced a fine consort sound. Bass Nicholas Perfect was just what his name implies.

I was less convinced by the other bass. He didn’t seem comfortable as a consort singer, either visually or musically. He spent a lot of time gazing intently at other singers (far more than the usual brief ‘check a combined entry’ glance) which was clearly disconcerting for them. He also frequently looked directly at the audience (with the occasional grin to somebody he knew) and very rarely at the conductor. I generally think that either all a choir should address the audience, or none of them. Having one person do it seems designed to attract attention. Musically, I felt that he over-emphasised his entries and almost consistently sang that bit louder than anybody else. Perhaps because of this, his voice type didn’t seem to fit with the rest.

That said, this was another successful concert, conducted with restraint by Alistair Dixon.

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