Queen Mary’s Big Belly

Queen Mary’s Big Belly
Hope for an heir in Catholic England
Gallicantus, Elizabeth Kenny, Gabriel Crouch
Signum Classics SIGCD464. 77’42

Music by van Wilder, Mundy, Tye, Lassus, Tallis, Newman, Sheppard

The catchy title of this recording (which quotes a 1688 pamphlet) is based a brief, but curious, incident during the turbulent Tudor times when, in April 1555, it was announced that Queen Mary had given birth to a son. The following day this was revealed to be the 16th century version of fake news. The complex history and importance of this event is beyond the scope of this review, but is easily obtainable and is covered in the detailed CD notes. Curiously, no author is credited for these notes, although I think it was Magnus Williamson, whose ‘insight and guidance’ is a credited elsewhere.

The 18 pieces are divided into six sections, musically depicting Expectation, Mary at Court, Prayers for the Quickening, Feast Days, Lying-in at Hampton court, and A bitter cup. The first piece is by Philip van Wilder, a composer who had died before Mary became Queen, but one that she would have known in her earlier years. He was one of Henry VIII’s leading musicians, directing the singers of the Privy Chamber. He also taught Mary the lute. It is followed by music more directly associated with Mary’s reign. Mundy’s compositions were performed at Mary’s coronation in 1553. His Exsurge Christe reflects the ending of schism and revival of the ‘apostolic faith’ after six years of the boy King Edward VI’s Protestant reign and his unsuccessful attempt to put the tragic young Lady Jane Grey on the throne.

There are three large-scale works, Christopher Tye’s Peccavimus cum patribus, Sarum Litany based on Thomas Tallis, and John Sheppard’s Deus miseratur. The Sarum Litany is a reconstruction from extracts of a polyphonic Latin litany that was noted on the endpapers of two service books from what the notes describe (without explanation) as Westminster Cathedral, a title that Westminster Abbey briefly held between 1540 and 1556. Only two parts survive, but they are very similar to Tallis’s five-part litany. The tenor part was based on the plainchant and the two contratenor parts have been reconstructed by Jason Smart. The sources include petitions for ‘Mary our pregnant Queen’ and her husband, the Hapsburg Philip of Spain. It is believed that this Litany, together with Tallis’s motet O sacrum convivium (which follows it on the CD), were performed in a procession on 27 January 1555 from Westminster to Temple Bar, passing Whitehall Palace, where Mary was staying.

John Sheppard’s psalm Deus miseratur is interspersed with the antiphon Maria unxit ergo pedes to reflect the Maundy Thursday rite of pedilavium undertaken by Mary at Greenwich in 1555 just before her confinement. The remaining pieces reflect the final months of the story, with powerful pieces of Catholic music reflecting the importance of producing a Catholic heir. The inclusion of pieces for the secular chamber, and two lute solos by Elizabeth Kenny, balance the otherwise religious music, making for an unusual musical combination.

Gallicantus expand their usual six-strong all-male line-up to a team of nine singers, using up to seven at a time. They usually have two countertenors on top but, on this recording, use soprano Zoë Brookshaw on four tracks. Her clear and stable voice blends particularly well with the group, her sparing use of controlled vibrato adding occasional ornamental colour.

A BBC recording of a live recital of extracts from the CD programme can cuurently be heard here.

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