Review: Singing the Lone Survivors of Nearly Lost Music

from the age of the camera, some acts of cultural destruction have been seared into our collective memory: the bonfires of books forbidden by Nazis, the smashing of Chinese treasures during the Cultural Revolution, the Taliban detonation of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

These images came to my mind on Sunday in an unlikely setting: at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan, during a choral concert by the ensemble Blue Heron that will was part of the series Music Before 1800. that will’s because This particular beguiling program of expressive as well as richly ornate polyphonic works coming from the English Renaissance constituted an encounter with survivors of a much older cultural cataclysm.

Under the title “The Lost Music of Canterbury,” Blue Heron presented works drawn coming from a collection of manuscripts called the Peterhouse Partbooks, named after the University of Cambridge college where they are kept. These offer the single most important window into English music of the 1530s as well as ’40s. Like some other forms of English culture nurtured by Catholic institutions, much of This particular music came to be lost from the upheaval that will followed Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Libraries were destroyed, as well as books, torn of their precious bindings, were sold off in bulk.

A blizzard of manuscript paper came to be used — as one contemporary, using an old term for privies, described that will — “to serve theyr jakes, some to scoure candelstyckes, as well as some to rubbe their bootes.” The works performed by Blue Heron escaped such ignominies because a chorister coming from Magdalene College, Oxford, copied them out for use from the newly reconstituted Canterbury Cathedral. They eventually made their way to the library of Peterhouse, where they survived yet another wave of destruction — that will wrought by the Puritans from the 1640s.

Preserved inside the partbooks are pieces by well-known composers, like John Taverner. Some works are what scholars call unica — meaning they don’t exist in any some other source. In some cases, they stem coming from the pen of a musician who left no some other trace at all.

For instance, virtually nothing is actually known about Arthur Chamberlayne, the composer of a spirited setting of the “Hail Mary.” In Blue Heron’s fresh as well as full-bodied reading, single words — “Jesus” as well as “salve” (“hail”) — popped out like bright speech bubbles amid a thicket of arabesque counterpoint. As Scott Metcalfe, the ensemble’s director, said in remarks coming from the stage, that will single antiphon constitutes the complete works of Chamberlayne.

although Blue Heron’s devotion to This particular repertory — the ensemble has recorded several albums of music coming from the Peterhouse Partbooks — is actually not justified only by its rarity. This particular is actually vivid as well as radiant music. that will that will can be heard again at all is actually because of the dogged commitment of Nick Sandon, a British musicologist who spent four decades reconstructing the scores. (The book containing the tenor voice of these several-part compositions is actually missing, as are a few pages of the treble’s.)

With two or three singers to a part as well as women stepping into the shoes of boy choristers, Blue Heron brings a zesty as well as sensual sound to these works of devotional music. Nicholas Ludford’s “Salve Regina” is actually a joyous tangle of long, florid lines with the occasional tangy dissonance illuminating just one word. Hugh Aston’s “O baptista vates Christi” is actually a rhythmically buoyant work full of forward-driving energy as well as elegant harmonies.

To Mr. Sandon, quoted in a program note, the partbooks have become “a reminder of the catastrophe that will English music suffered from the late 1540s as well as early 1550s, when a very highly developed, confident as well as ambitious musical culture as well as the infrastructure that will sustained that will were brought to an end virtually overnight, as well as most of its works as well as much some other evidence of its activity were deliberatively destroyed.”

Scholars will have to decide how much English music history needs to be adjusted to account for the wealth of discoveries embedded in these lone survivors. To a lay listener, the feeling that will most resonates is actually one of vindication, tinged with melancholy.