The Peterhouse Partbooks: Lesser Composers

In the early sixteenth century choirbooks gradually passed out of use in favor of partbooks. (At least for a time some choirs seem to have preferred one type of manuscript, some the other, for in 1524 all the polyphonic music at Magdalen College, Oxford was contained in choirbooks, nine of which had been bought between 1518 and 1524, while in 1529 King's College, Cambridge relied almost entirely on partbooks). Partbooks with small paper leaves were undoubtedly cheaper to produce than large elaborately bound choirbooks of parchment. They were also easier to handle, and probably more convenient for a large number of singers to read from. The choir would no longer gather round a lectern, but would presumably sing from the choir-stalls, except in votive antiphons performed before images, where, unless singing from memory was the practice, each book must have been held by one or more singers for all of those on that part to see.

The number of partbooks surviving is quite considerable, but complete sets are very few. These few include the important Forrest-Heyther and Gyffard sets and the source of Ludford's Lady Masses, British Museum Royal Appendix MSS. 45-48. The Peterhouse and Christ Church sets both lack their tenor books; reconstruction is easy where proper plainsongs in equal notes are involved, but at other times it is an awkward task.

Despite the loss of the tenor, the Peterhouse partbooks (Cambridge University Library, Peterhouse MSS. 40, 41, 31, 32) are a most important and informative source. They contain five-part music by Fayrfax, Ludford, Taverner, Tye and Tallis, and various minor contemporaries, some of whom are known only from this source. A date of 1540-7 is generally accepted, and certainly nothing later could reasonably stand, because the reference to Henry VIII in Taverner's Christe Jesu has not been modernised. Paul Doe sees the partbooks, with their large body of votive antiphons and festal Masses at so late a date, as 'a provincial and slightly retrospective anthology, perhaps compiled by a former monastic musician living in retirement just after the dissolution, and . . . not representative of musical composition in and around London during the last ten or twelve years of Henry VIII's reign.' This would account for the manuscript's obvious lack of use: uncorrected copyist's errors are common; and would make it the earliest one surviving to have been compiled for musical or antiquarian reasons, rather than for actual liturgical usage.

The Peterhouse Partbooks: Lesser Composers

Three lesser composers from Forrest-Heyther, John Merbecke, John Norman and William Rasor, are represented by single works in Peterhouse. Each of the following also has a single work there: William Alen, Thomas Appleby, Richard Bramston, Catcott, Arthur Chamberlayne, John Dark, Edwards, Walter Erley, Robert Jones, Thomas Knyght, Edward Martyn, John Northbrooke, Hugh Sturmys and William Whytbrook. Richard Hunt, William Pasche and Richard Pygott have two works each, John Mason four.

There are also two Continental pieces which stand very much on their own in the collection-one wonders how the scribe came across them, and what he thought of them. One is a Mass modelled on an early sixteenth-century motet Surrexit pastor bonus by Andreas de Silva. It is ascribed to 'Lupus Italus', but it is not certain which of several composers this is. The motet Aspice Domine, although not so ascribed, is by Jaquet de Mantua.

The works by Mason include a setting of O rex gloriose, an antiphon with three verses used at Nunc dimittis in the last part of Lent and on the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Mason provides for a full liturgical performance, with repeats of various parts of the antiphon after each verse, and it is clear that he incorporated the proper plainsong as an equal-note cantus firmus, although the tenor is now lost; but it is possible that the work was sung in a votive context as well, because there are so many votive antiphons in Peterhouse but only one other ritual piece, an anonymous Vidi aquam egredientem; moreover O rex gloriose is included in the prayers and devotions in several early sixteenth-century Primers.

William Pasche has an antiphon and a Magnificat to his name; both of them, like the Mass Christus resurgens,have the cantus firmus in the mean. The antiphon Sancta Maria mater Dei ora pro nobis, which begins as a kind of Marian litany, has its full sections based on repetitions of the phrase f' g' a' b' flat a'; all notes are breves, except where the presence of many syllables demands sub-division. The five-note motif may possibly have been attached in some prior context to the five-syllable phrase 'Sancta Maria' or to 'ora pro nobis'; but it is probably just an 'abstract' figure, because two other composers use it in works with quite different texts. In William Alen's Gaude virgo mater Christi for 9 men's voices it comes a fourth lower again in the second highest part. Richard Alwood, who on stylistic grounds one assumes to be of the Tallis-Sheppard generation, bases his six-part Mass Praise Him Praiseworthy (Forrest-Heyther) on it.

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