The ‘St Teilo’ Tudor organ at Romsey Abbey

Romsey Abbey
Tuesday 10 October, 1:10

Music for a Tudor Organ
played on the ‘St Teilo’ Tudor organ, by
Andrew Benson-Wilson

St Teilo organ Romsey.jpg

Organ information here

Programme Notes

John Redford (1500-1547)

Anon, c1530 (Roy 56)
Felix Namque

Anon / Thomas Preston (d1563)
Uppon la mi re

Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585)
Alleluia : Per te genitrix

John Blitheman (c1525-1591)
Gloria Tibi Trintas

Byrd (c1540-1623)
Callino Casturame
Prelude to ye Fancie : Fantasia

The ‘St Teilo’ organ is a reconstruction of a Tudor organ based on a fragment found in East Anglia, dated to around 1530. Today’s programme features English music from the Tudor period dating from that date to around 1590.

John Redford’s four part Glorificamus is an early example of a piece in a true keyboard style, rather than merely imitating a vocal idiom. It is found in the Mulliner Book (compiled around 1560) and is probably an extract from larger mass setting. It has four voices, with the occasionally ornamented chant in the alto. Redford is mentioned in a poem as being at St Paul’s around 1635. He was also a poet and dramatist – a morality play Wyt and Science survives.

The Felix Namque was an offertory chant from the Mass to the Virgin, and was the basis for many English organ compositions during the Tudor period, including two enormous examples by Tallis. This rhythmically complex example comes from one of the earliest 16th century English keyboard sources, dating to around 1530, and in the Royal collection,. Starting out in 5/4 time, it then switches to triple time, later combining triple time in the upper voice against 4 and 8 beat rhythms in the lower two voices.

Uppon la mi re is a curious piece. A seemingly anarchic (but actually well structured) melody using a series of repeating phrases meanders along above two slow bass voices that overlap the three notes La, Mi, Re from the medieval scale. It was probably written by Thomas Preston, one of the finest organ composers of the early to mid 16th century. Eight of his Felix Namque settings survive. He worked at Magdalen College Oxford, Trinity College Cambridge and Windsor Castle.

Thomas Tallis is one of the greatest English composers of all time. Although active as an organist throughout his life, very few organ pieces survive apart from isolated versets extracted from alternatim settings and two extended and virtuosic Felix Namque’s, the most advanced examples of the tradition of Offertory pieces based on that chant. Alleluia : Per te genitrix is found in an isolated manuscript written on paper dated to c1530, and is possibly the earliest known of Tallis’s surviving keyboard works. It has no title and until recently was known as a Fantasy, before the chant upon which is based was identified. Like the Felix Namque, it is a chant from the Mass to the Virgin. It is in two sections, the first repeated in ABA form. It would have been performed with sung plainchant in between and after the organ sections.

John Blitheman’s Gloria Tibi Trintas is found in the Mulliner Book. The chant is the same as the well-known In Nomine chant, which formed the basis for many instrumental pieces. Blitheman worked at Christ Church Oxford and succeeded Tallis at the Chapel Royal. He was the teacher of John Bull, one of the composers who helped the transfer the English keyboard style to The Netherlands and composers like Sweelinck in Amsterdam.

William Byrd closely matches Tallis, his teacher, in musical stature, although he is a more important composer for keyboard, not least because far more of his music survives. He worked at Lincoln Cathedral and the Chapel Royal. He and Tallis were friends, and cooperated on a publishing venture. Callino Casturame is a set of variations on a Galliard. The related song seems to have come from a line in Shakespeare’s Henry V when the English soldier Pistol, thinking his French captive is talking gibberish, responds to him in mock-Latin. It could also be based on an Irish song about an inconsistent young girl who led the protagonist astray

The grand Fantasia (from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) shows some similarity to the larger of Tallis’s Felix Namques, not least in its rhythmic complexity. Byrd’s pupil, Thomas Morley, described the Fantasia form as “The most principall and chiefest kind of music which is made without a dittie is the fantasie, that is when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth it and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shal seem best in his own conceit”. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book also includes this Prelude to ye Fancie referring to the Fantasia, although the two pieces are not adjoining.

* * *

Andrew Benson-Wilson specialises in the performance of early organ music, ranging from 14th century manuscripts to the late Classical period. His playing is informed by experience of historic organs, understanding of period performance techniques and several internationally renowned teachers. The first of his two CDs of the complete Tallis organ works (with Chapelle du Roi) was Gramophone Magazine ‘Record of the Month’. The Organists’ Review commented that his “understanding of the historic English organ and its idiom is thorough, and the beautifully articulated, contoured result here is sufficient reason for hearing this disk. He is a player of authority in this period of keyboard music”.

Andrew’s concerts have ranged from the enormous 1642 Festorgel organ in Klosterneburg Abbey, Austria to a tiny 1668 chamber organ in a medieval castle in Croatia – via St John’s, Smith Square. According to one reviewer, his St John’s, Smith Square recital was “one of the most rewarding organ recitals heard in London in years – an enthralling experience”. More recent concerts include the 1723 Hildebrandt organ in Störmthal, Leipzig (where Bach gave the opening recital) and the famous 1558 Ebert organ in Innsbruck’s Hofkirche. A review of his 2016 performance of Weckmann’s monumental ‘Es is das Heil’ at St George’s, Hanover Sq praised theconfident and assured touch of someone who understood the musical style. His clarity of counterpoint allied to the programme notes helped the listener to identify the processes and individual lines of the music”.

Andrew is a regular writer on early music and organ topics. His little book, “The Performance of Early Organ Music” is used as a required text in a number of Universities. After 20 years as the principal organ CD and concert reviewer for Early Music Review magazine, Andrew now writes on his own review website Andrew’s next two UK recitals continue his exploration of 17th century North German organ composers, with music by pupils of Sweelinck, the famous ‘Orpheus of Amsterdam’. Scheidemann and Jacob Praetorius in the Grosvenor Chapel, London (Tuesday 17 October, 1:10), and Melchior Schildt (The Queen’s College Chapel, Oxford, Wednesday 29 November, 1:10). See for future UK recitals.

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