Three Choirs Festival 2011 (3) – English Composers-in-exile turn up for the Festival

10/08/2011

 English Exiles – Peter Philips, Richard Dering, John Bull Royal Holloway College Chapel Choir, English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, Rupert Gough (conductor & organ), Tewkesbury Abbey, 8.8.2011.  (RJ)

 When attending this 284th Three Choirs Festival, I was tempted to speculate how often the composers Peter Philips and Richard Dering have been performed in its concerts over the years. Although English by birth, their religious allegiances compelled them to flee to the Continent where they practised their craft and came under the influence of European composers.

Philips was represented in this concert by four of his eight part motets starting with Gaudent gaudebo in domino (I will rejoice greatly in the Lord), in which the choir produced a joyous sound accompanied by sackbuts, and concluding with the Christmas motet Hodie nobis de caelo (Today true peace has come down from heaven). The St Cecilia motet (Caecila virgo) differed from the others by having a higher choir set against a lower choir, which produced a stunning effect reminiscent of the Venetian school.

Philips’ five part Ave Maria was crafted with loving care, and despite its comparative brevity made a strong impact. So did the fervent alleluias in his Ascension Day motet Ascendit deus in which the choir was supported by four instruments. It was interesting to compare his secular instrumental music, the Dolorosa Pavan and Galliard which remained popular for much of the seventeenth century. The “dolorosa” element refers to the fact that he was in prison when he composed it having been accused of plotting against Queen Elizabeth I.

While the fervently Catholic Philips left England in his early twenties, Richard Dering didn’t convert to Catholicism until he was into his thirties and became organist to a community of Benedictine nuns in Brussels. However he returned to England eventually to become organist to Charles I’s wife. His soprano duet Duo seraphim (Two seraphim) was beautifully sung to organ accompaniment.

His six part Factum est silentium (There was silence in heaven) portrayed dramatically the battle between the archangel Michael and the dragon while heaven watches in awe. In the majestic climax the words Salus, honor et virtus (Salutation, honour and virtue) were clearly enunciated. The choir also sang, the motet And the King was moved, believed to have been inspired by the death of James I’s son, Prince Henry, and all the more sublime and meaningful because of this event.

Unlike the others, John Bull needs no introduction – certainly to keyboard players, since his work figures prominently in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. With a name like his it is difficult to imagine him as an exile; indeed he started off well, becoming a Child of the Chapel Royal and later attracting the admiration of Queen Elizabeth I.  But in King James’ reign he fell foul of the authorities not on theological grounds, but because he was charged with adultery and had to beat a hasty exit. Eventually he became organist of Antwerp Cathedral where he earned a reputation for organ music second only to his contemporary Sweelinck.

Rupert Gough, himself a former Child of the Chapel Royal, demonstrated Bull’s mastery of organ composition with his Gloria tibi Trinitatis, the lively Bull Masque and an enchanting prelude and variations on the Dutch carol  Laet ons met herten reijne. Unfortunately, very few of his choral works are extant, one exception being his Lenten motet In the departure of the Lord which was sung with due solemnity and anguish by the choir.

This was a fascinating and unusually varied afternoon of high quality music making, enhanced by Rupert Gough’s lucid, informative and enthusiastic introductions. He clearly communicates his enthusiasm very effectively to his excellent singers, who displayed a remarkable feeling for music of this by-gone age. It was a particular treat to hear choral music from around 1600 with accompaniment – a tradition common on the Continent at the time, less so in England where sackbuts and cornetts were used more for secular music.

Incidentally the Royal Holloway Chapel Choir will soon be off to be choir-in-residence at the Presteigne Festival (www.presteignefestival.com). The Three Choirs Festival (centred on Worcester this year) runs until Saturday 13th August. (http://www.3choirs.org).

Roger Jones

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