English Renaissance polyphony

by Simon Collings

Latin sacred works by composers such as Taverner, Sheppard, Parson, Tallis and Byrd are among the glories of English Renaissance music. That we can still hear them today is a minor miracle. Much of this music lost its liturgical significance with the Reformation, and it survives in just a few manuscript collections.

The rich polyphony of these Latin settings is in stark contrast to the simpler style demanded by the Protestant liturgy, in which the text is paramount. On Saturday evening I heard the Oxford-based vocal group Contrapunctus performing a selection of pieces concerned with mortality: the fear of death and eternal torment, anticipation of the day of judgement, and the soul’s longing to meet God. The concert, in the chapel of Queen’s College, was exquisite and the music is available on a newly released CD by the group – In the midst of life. It is worth buying if only for Sheppard’s superb Media vita.

The repertoire is drawn from the Baldwin partbooks, now in the library of Christ Church College, Oxford, the most important single source of this music. It was copied by John Baldwin, a lay clerk in the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, between about 1575 and 1581. The partbooks are particularly valuable as they contain works which survive in no other source – including many pieces by Taverner and Sheppard.

Contrapunctus will be releasing further recordings as part of a project to bring this music to a wider audience.