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London 31390


From PRI, Public Radio International, welcome to Harmonia. I’m Angela Mariani. This week we set our time-travelling flux capacitor back to the year 1578, with instrumental part-music associated with the town of Chichester but kept in a manuscript now in London’s British Library. It contains the only copy we have of some of its pieces, the complete works of at least one composer, and a group of pieces called “sol-fa-ing songs.” We’ll find out what that is, and discover music from some little-known composers and their slightly more famous contemporaries, as today’s performers breathe new life into a manuscript dating from the late 16th century. Plus, music from that same collection on our featured release by LeStrange Viols called Aeternum: Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde.

"In Aeternum," music by 16th-century English composer William Mundy, from a CD called Aeternum: Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Additional Manuscript 31390, performed by LeStrange Viols.

British Library Additional Manuscript 31390

British Library Additional Manuscript 31390, to give it its formal name, has no pictures, nor even any colored ink. But the eye is caught by it at first sight. A typical page contains music facing in all directions, which suggests that the people participating in the music making were gathered around a table. The book is in fact technically described as a “table book.”

The manuscript’s title page reads 'A booke of In nomines & other solfainge songes of 5,6,7,and 8 parts for voyces or Instrumentes.'  Well. How should we refer to this manuscript? The manuscript is associated with Chichester, a cathedral town on the south coast of England, but it lives in London. British Library Additional 31390 sounds a bit academic, and that official title is a little long. The title says it’s music for 5, 6, 7, and 8 parts. So let’s borrow a technique from those pop music telephone songs and, for this hour anyway, let’s call this nameless manuscript London 31390.

The London 31390 manuscript contains over 125 individual pieces by composers as famous as William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and the ubiquitous Anonymous; and as unknown as Osbert Parsley, Thomas Mudd, and Clement Woodcock. Well-known foreign composers are represented, too, Nicolas Gombert, Thomas Crequillon, and Orlande de Lasso, for instance.

Why is this book important? By this time, there are a fair number of both manuscript and printed part books of instrumental music, but table books themselves are rare, and table books of purely instrumental music virtually unknown. Also, a good many of the pieces in London 31390 are what scholars call “unica," that is, not found elsewhere. Unique, as it were. There is now, and has always been, only one copy of this book, so until the magical age of digital reproductions, very few people got to see it.

To acclimate the ears to the Elizabethan instrumental world of c. 1578, let’s listen to a song by Robert Parsons. Right at the outset, you’ll hear the unapologetic dissonance in which at least some Elizabethans seemed to revel.

We heard the viol consort Phantasm play “A Song of Mr. Robert Parsons” on their 2005 Avie CD The Four Temperaments. Another piece of Mr. Robert Parsons that is found only in our book is this one, in five parts.

That was another track from Phantasm’s 2005 Avie CD The Four Temperaments. Did you hear the long notes that began the piece and kept going at a slower pace from the other 4 voices? That part was playing a chant tune that unites nearly half the pieces in our manuscript. All the pieces called “In nomine” are built around that chant, Gloria tibi Trinitas. That explains why the book’s title refers to “A booke of In nomines and other sol-fa-ing songs.” Incidentally, the “Sol-fa-ing” part of the title refers to the practice of teaching singing using the early equivalent of “do re mi,” as in "do re mi fa sol la.” In a book that contains no lyrics, maybe sol-fa-ing is the way to go, say, for a young student at, say, Chichester Cathedral school.

There is an incredible variety in the pieces titled ”In nomine” in London 31390. About 20 of them are by the same composer, Christopher Tye, with suggestive subtitles of various sorts. These pieces are most often tackled by consorts of viols, but the title page does, after all, just say “Instruments.” Here’s a recording of Tye’s In nomine "Crye” on recorders and viols.

We heard Frans Brüggen leading the Brüggen Consort on the 1968 Telefunken recording English music for recorders and consort of viols in the 16th and 17th centuries.

It’s interesting to consider what the word "Crye" might mean in this context. Composers just after this time set the sounds of everyday life as art in their Cries of London, Country Cries, and so on, where the street cries of merchants become the melody. But the opening intervals of this "In nomine" could indeed suggest the overtones of brass instruments, and it sounds like the players are imagining a battle cry and helter-skelter situation more than a young lass singing out about her “ripe cherries, ripe.”

And now, as they say, for something completely different, even though it is still both an "In nomine" and by Christopher Tye.

That was the Kronos Quartet, from their 1997 Nonesuch Album Early Music (lacrymae antiquae), performing Christopher Tye’s In nomine “Rachel’s Weeping.” (Go on---did you think they were viols for a minute there?) Whatever you thought, it seems that the Kronos were thinking of violas da gamba when they recorded this piece this way. Let’s hear a viol response to the piece we just heard with Tye’s In nomine “Weep no more Rachel.”

We heard Phantasm play Tye’s “Weep no more Rachel” from their 2018 Linn release Complete Consort Music of Christopher Tye. 

Let’s explore Christopher Tye’s In nomines a bit further. We’ll hear two pieces; the first is subtitled “Report,” presumably in the sense of voices “reporting,” or imitating, what they’ve just heard. After that, we’ll hear Tye’s In nomine "Trust,” in which you’ll hear the tune played in equal units of 4+1 that have little apparent relationship to the other parts, but just kind of hold things together in a song that, unusually for this period, sounds like it’s in five. The player of that line has to concentrate and just “trust” that all will come out well, and everyone must share that trust.

We began that set with the Rose Consort of Viols on the first piece, Tye’s "In nomine" subtitled “Report,” from their 2004 CD Elizabethan Songs and Consort Music on Naxos. The other In nomine, “Trust”, was played by Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XX on their 1989 Astrée CD Lawdes deo: Consort musicke for viols.

There are two In nomines by the renowned William Byrd in London 31390 that are found nowhere else. Let’s hear one of them, played by the viol consort Concordia.

That was Concordia, playing one of William Byrd’s five In nomines, from their 1993 Meridian CD Songs and sonnets: music for voice and viols.

London 31390, Part 2

The complete works – one piece –  by one Picforth, about whom I have just told you absolutely everything we know, is contained only in London 31390. It, too, is an In nomine, but it’s different from all others and might be described as a 16th-century minimalist piece: every part remains in the same note values throughout the piece – so the top is all quarter notes, another part all half notes, etc. The tune has obviously captured the imagination of players. Here is Fretwork’s take on the piece, recorded in 2001 for their album The Hidden Face.

That was the complete works of Picforth – one piece – done three times, the second time twice the speed of the first, and the third time with all the parts plucked except for the Gloria tibi Trinitas tune. It comes from Fretwork’s 2001 Virgin CD The Hidden Face.

To round out our look at our table book manuscript, let’s hear some music in it that also exists elsewhere. Thomas Tallis contributes a lovely Sol-fa-ing Song that is only found in one other place, and we’ll follow it with his very well-known "O Sacrum convivium."

Tallis’ Solfing Song was played by Phantasm from their Avie CD The Four Temperaments, followed by his "O sacrum convivium" from LeStrange Viols 2018 Olde Focus Recordings CD Aeternum: Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390.

And what a perfect opportunity to hear William Byrd’s beloved “The Leaves be Green,” or “Browning,” played here by Fretwork.

Let’s conclude our journey back to the year 1578, and the manuscript we’ve dubbed London 31390, with a lively rendition of Robert Parsons’ “The Song called Trumpetts,” on early instruments. Okay, so there are no actual trumpets, but we had recorders playing trumpets earlier, and this is cornetti, which were the ensemble trumpets of the seventeenth century, playing with sackbuts, the forerunner of the trombone. All’s fair if the title page just says instruments.

That was the ensemble Oltremontano, playing Robert Parsons’ "The Songe called Trumpetts, Lusti gallant and Cante cantata," from their Accent recording Coronation Music for Charles II.

Aeternum: Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390

For our featured recording this week, we’re going to play a little more from this 2018 CD by LeStrange Viols called Aeternum: Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390. In case you haven’t had your fill of “In Nomine” settings yet, here is one by Robert Parsons.

"Frisque et Gaillard," music of Jacobus Clemens non papa, and before that, Robert Parsons’ In nomine in 7 parts, both from the CD Aeternum: Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde, by LeStrange Viols, a 2018 release on the label Olde Focus Recordings.

Break and theme music

:60, Aeternum: Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390, LeStrange Viols, Olde Focus Recordings 2018, Tr. 18 Parsley: Spes nostra a 5

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia was Wendy Gillespie.

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