Old Music Monday: Tudor Anthems from the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

One of the things I love about Spotify is that when you ‘follow’ an artist (ie click ‘follow’ on their artist page), you get a notification whenever a new album from that artist is added to the database of music.  I adore that.  I don’t have the time to keep up with the releases of every artist I love, so it makes a huge difference for me to see the notifications all in one place without having to remember to check in with their individual websites to see when new albums are released.

TudorAnthemsLast week I got a notification that there was a new album from the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Tudor Anthems from the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems.  Turns out this is an album that was originally released in 2008, but it’s a gorgeous production of mostly Protestant church music, with some Marian Latin pieces thrown in.  It spans the church year with music ranging from joyful, to two separate settings of the tragic “When David Heard” which retells the story from 2 Samuel with the text “When David heard the Absalom was slain, he went up to his chamber over the gate and wept, and thus he said, ‘Oh my Son! Absalom my Son. would God I had died for thee'”  In 1612 King James’s son and heir, Henry, died of typhoid fever at age 18, and several composers set this text to music in honor of the prince.  More recently, Eric Whitacre composed a poignant setting of the text as well for a commission from the BYU Choir.   It is difficult to listen with its dissonances and longing, but it so clearly portrays the unknowable and unspeakable loss of that kind of tragedy.

Anyway, I digress.  Back to the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems.  Music in the Tudor period was known for the development of the metric psalm and the anthem.  As copies of the English Bible were printed and disseminated throughout England, the language of the psalms in the translation to English became standard, and it made rhyming that much easier.  By the Elizabethan period, composers had a few decades of writing in English under their belts, and they were able to start to do complicated polyphony with the language.

This had rankled the Catholics.  In 1545 Henry VIII himself complained that the word of God was being, “rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern.”  But the Protestants encouraged the singing of the psalms (ie like the Parker Psalter I wrote about a few months ago).  And so, a whole new type of musical expression was created.

The anthem was a form that was developing.  In the early Tudor period it largely consisted of a verse with instrumental accompaniment alternating with an unaccompanied choral refrain.  Elizabethan practice was to sing an anthem at the end of both matins and evensong.  The Tudor anthem itself culminated in the works of Thomas Weelkes as well as Byrd’s pupils Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Thompkins, who all explored the more dramatic contrasts of texture while finding ways to unify the form.  It almost sounds baroque, yet still very distinctly English.

The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems from which the music on the Clare College album is pulled, is a collection of 34 of the best Tudor anthems, published in 1978 and selected for their usefulness for 20th century church choirs, with highlights from all the biggies.  Anyone who is familiar with choral music of the 16th century will know some of these like Byrd’s, “Sing Joyfully” or Tallis’ “If ye love me” but it’s also a good introduction for those who are new to this kind of music.  It’s easy on the ears and doesn’t require a lot of deep concentration and thought early on the way some more historic choral albums do.  You can easily put this on while you’re cooking or cleaning and your chores become a meditation, and you can easily hum along as well, which is really what an anthem is all about.

To listen to this, and other great early English choral music, you can subscribe to my Spotify playlist.

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