The Eton Choirbook is a rarity among English musical manuscripts. Its compositions trace the growth of English polyphony in the fifteenth century — from scant imitation and reliance upon already-existing tenor lines called cantus firmi, to lots of imitation, and the use of slightly more dissonant sounds. The compositions also preserve England’s distinct polyphonic style, which featured the sweet-sounding intervals of thirds and sixths. This style was developed by the twenty-five English composers whose names are included within the manuscript. In fact, a number of these composers are known to us today only because of their inclusion in the Eton Choirbook.
One of these composers is Robert Fayrfax. Little is known about Fayrfax’s upbringing or musical training. However, records show that he was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and a composer for King Henry VII. Fayrfax’s Magnificat “Regale” is a work that attests to great skill and stature. The Magnificat setting is divided into sections for two, three, four, and five different voices. Each section demands an impressive range and vocal flexibility from all singers.
For over two decades the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4 has made wildly popular recordings of medieval music and helped set the standard for a cappella singing worldwide. It all began in the summer of 1986, when singers Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Johanna Maria Rose gathered to sing music from the Middle Ages. Ruth Cunningham joined, and in 1988 the quartet Anonymous 4 was born, with the intent to tackle a diverse array of chant and polyphony through the 15th century. Much medieval polyphonic music is for equal voices, making for a perfect fit.
Named for the music theorist who first identified the masters of Notre Dame polyphony, composers Leonin and Perotin, Anonymous 4 has toured throughout Europe and North America, filling churches and concert halls with their ethereal voices. Critics praised the ensemble for their ability to sound as a single instrument. Another member of Anonymous 4, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, stepped in for Ruth Cunningham in 1998. Anonymous 4 continued as a full-time recording and touring ensemble until the end of their 2003-2004 season. Ruth returned in 2007. Since then, the performers have devoted their time to special projects, such as a return to the repertoire of the Codex Las Huelgas and explorations of Traditional American folk music.
We’ve featured music by Anonymous 4 many times over the years on Harmonia. In one particular episode in 1997, I had the pleasure to speak with ensemble members about their recording 11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St Ursula. In that interview, Ruth Cunningham and Marsha Genensky talk about their preparation for that program.
The legend of Saint Ursula tells of a pilgrimage undertaken by the Romano-British princess Ursula and her retinue of 11,000 virgins. After setting sail for her betrothed, the ship was swept away by a violent sea storm. This ironic occurrence supposedly inspired her to travel to some of the Western world’s holiest sites before her marriage. Ursula first made her way to Rome, and then to Cologne, where tragically she and all 11,000 virgins were killed by the Huns.
Featured recording: Psalms of David
Our featured release is by ensemble La Fenice, which takes its name from the mythical phoenix, the bird that rose from the ashes. Directed by Jean Tubéry, La Fenice seeks to rediscover and revitalize the sumptuous style of Venetian music. Among the ensemble’s motley array of wind and bass instruments, cornetto holds a special place.
The cornetto finds itself at home in the music of the early 16th century as well as in the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Marin Mersenne, a 17th-century French music theorist, described the cornetto as “a ray of sunlight shining through shadows or through the darkness when it is heard among the voices in churches, cathedrals or chapels . . .”
La Fenice’s 2011 recording Psalms of David showcases the artistic achievements of northern Germany following the Thirty Years War. Due to the prosperity of the Hanseatic League, an alliance of Northern Europe’s trading cities, the efforts of composers throughout the region received great attention and encouragement. As a result, the careers of composers like Samuel Scheidt, Nikolaus Bruhns, and Johann Sommer flourished as never before.