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Woodley Ensemble at the National Cathedral

I was at Washington National Cathedral on Saturday night for the last concert in the performing season of the Woodley Ensemble, one of the elite choral groups in the nation's capital. The singers were led by guest conductor Peter Philips of the Tallis Scholars, who has been appearing regularly with the group over the past several years, leaving director Frank Albinder to join the bass section for the evening. For this event, the audience was seated in the choir stalls of the cathedral's Great Choir and in seats between them, facing the choir, who stood in two semicircles directly in front of the normally hidden High Altar.

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John Sheppard, "Cantate" Mass, The Sixteen with Harry Christophers (1997)
The program featured most importantly the complete "Cantate" Mass of John Sheppard (c. 1515–1559), which has been edited by Nicholas Sandon in the collection Early English Church Music (vol. 18) and recorded by the Sixteen with Harry Christophers (shown at left). Like most of Sheppard's work, this Mass setting was composed for the Sarum rite, which means that there is no polyphony for the Kyrie and that significant parts of the ordinary text for the Gloria and Credo are omitted, all sections that were chanted in the Sarum use. The Mass requires six vocal parts, which spread out the Woodley Ensemble's 22 singers listed in the program in a challenging way. In the copious program notes, contributed by different authors and making the program into a large pamphlet, Sally Dunkley writes that "it follows the well-established technique of drawing some material—notably the cantus firmus that appears from time to time in the tenor part, and the opening bars of each movement—from another work, presumably entitled 'Cantate' and apparently no longer extant."

The Gloria was the first piece on the program, and it was a glorious introduction, showing off that full-bodied sound that Sheppard did so well, dividing his vocal parts over three octaves, thickly voiced. I was also impressed by those examples of reduced textures, especially when Sheppard moved the piece into a smaller group of all lower voices, as in the "Domine fili" and "Suscipe" sections, where the sound became dark and rich. By the end of the first half of the concert, when the group performed the Credo from this Mass, some tuning problems had crept in, especially in the opening measures of sections when only one or two parts were beginning imitatively. In spite of these few minor problems, the Credo was a perfect conclusion to the first half, as Peter Phillips led the ensemble toward the faster final section ("Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.") and its vast sonorities. A few of those tuning inconsistencies were still noticeable in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, which began the second half. The "Benedictus" section of the Sanctus is an exquisite piece of music that was performed admirably. Again, the contrast of high voices and low voices was featured in the Agnus Dei, as the first invocation was begun by the treble voices and the second by the lower voices. Sheppard's favored technique of dissonant cross-relations was heard prominently in the "Dona nobis pacem," that prayer for peace that we should be singing around the clock at this point in history.

There was a single piece by Sheppard's Franco-Flemish contemporary Thomas Crecquillon (c. 1505-1555) on the program, the 8-part motet Pater peccavi. (Although I looked for local Crecquillon expert Laura Youens, professor of musicology at George Washington University, I did not see her. She is editor of the composer's secular chansons for his collected works, published in Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae, vol. 63.) The program notes (without a clearly indicated author at this point) describe the piece as a "motet in two sections, telling the story of the return of the Prodigal Son" (Luke 15: 17-18), with a homophonic section on the words "fac me sicut unum ex mercenariis tuis" that "appears in each of the two parts of the motet." What is not said in these notes is that this piece is a responsory, found in most manuscripts on Monday in the first week of Lent. (If you feel a burning desire to search through manuscripts of the Divine Office, you can do so at the Web site of Project CANTUS, a research project that began here in Washington at Catholic University, where I worked on it for several years as a graduate student, and is now at the University of Western Ontario.) When polyphonic motets were intended to replace Gregorian chants in the Mass or Divine Office, they generally reproduce their texts exactly. In this case, the respond ("Pater peccavi") is sung first, then the verse ("Quanti mercenarii") is sung, and then the last phrase of the respond ("Fac me sicut") is repeated, just as it is indicated in chant manuscripts. Whereas most of the tuning problems in the Sheppard Mass were in the soprano parts, here there was a problem in the tenor section, after a rough opening in the sopranos. A similar use of cross-relations was heard in both the Sheppard pieces and the Crecquillon.

The high point of the program, in my opinion, were two laments: the 6-part Musae Iovis ter maximi, a lament for the death of famous composer Josquin Desprez by Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495–1560), in the first half; and Lugebat David Absalon, depicting the mourning of David for his son Absalon, a piece attributed to Gombert, in the second half. (As Gombert was such an admirer of Josquin, I assume that the latter piece was inspired by Josquin's motet on a similar text Absalon fili mi.) I had never heard either of these pieces performed before, and the Woodley Ensemble turned in excellent renditions of both of them. The complete works of Gombert were edited by Joseph Schmidt-Görg, as vol. 6 of Corpus mensurabilis musicae.

On the basis of these two pieces, I think that more of his music in those twelve volumes deserves to be heard. Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars have made a good start. One of the Magnificat settings on the first of the recordings I just listed was the conclusion of this program, Magnificat 3, an alternatim setting of this most important canticle sung at the end of Vespers (see the text below). It is remarkable to consider the sheer number of musical settings of this single text, which was so familiar to Christian men and women for so long. Gombert composed polyphony for every other verse, starting with three voices and increasing the texture by one voice until he reached eight in the last verse. This piece was not as gorgeous as the two laments, but it was a nice way to end this beautiful concert of music perfectly suited to this remarkable setting.

Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
Et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae;
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen ejus.
Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles.
Esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae.
Sicut locutus est ad Patres nostros, Abraham et semini ejus in saecula.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto!
Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
My soul magnifies the lord,
and my spirit exults in God, my salvation.
For he has regarded the humility of his handmaiden:
and behold because of this all generations will call me blessed.
For he who is mighty does great things for me, and his name is holy.
And his mercy is on those who fear him, from one generation to the next.
He has shown power with his arm and scattered the proud in the thought of his heart.
He has deposed the powerful from their seat and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungering with good things and sent the rich away empty.
He received Israel his son, having remembered his mercy,
as it was spoken to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever.
Glory to the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, and now, and ever in all ages. Amen.

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