Blue Heron is engaged in a long-term project of performing and recording music from the Peterhouse partbooks, a set of manuscripts now belonging to Peterhouse, Cambridge, which contain an extensive and mostly neglected repertoire of pre-Reformation English polyphony, much of it of superlative quality, by the most famous composers of the day as well as a host of unknown masters.1 The Peterhouse partbooks contain forty unica (works surviving in one unique source) and about a dozen other works whose concordant sources are imperfect. Because the tenor partbook and several pages of the treble book of the Peterhouse set are lost, these more than fifty works—masses, magnificats, and antiphons on a grand, late-medieval scale—have gone virtually unstudied and unperformed in modern times. For providing a remedy to this situation, we are indebted to Nick Sandon, retired from the University of Exeter in England, who has devoted his career to the music in the partbooks. Professor Sandon’s dissertation2 is the standard work on the subject and his brilliant and idiomatic reconstructions of the incomplete Peterhouse music are published by Antico Edition. He was interviewed, along with Scott Metcalfe, by WGBH radio about the partbooks and the process of reconstructing missing parts. Click below to listen to that interview now.
The Peterhouse partbooks were copied around 1540. Sandon shows that they were most likely prepared by a scribe at Magdalen College, Oxford, for use at Canterbury Cathedral, which was refounded in 1541 as a secular cathedral following its dissolution in 1540 as a monastic institution. The repertoire of the partbooks has long posed a challenge to those writing the musical history of England in the years just prior to the Reformation, for Peterhouse’s lengthy Marian antiphons and festal masses are written in a florid, highly melismatic style that scholars have claimed was obsolete in these later years of Henry VIII’s reign. Sandon argues in his dissertation that the content of the Peterhouse partbooks, which constitute the single most important source of polyphony from the decades before Reformation, must force scholars to reconsider their view of what sort of music and texts were then in use.
Because so much of the Peterhouse repertoire is incomplete, however, scholars have largely avoided serious study of the music; performers have likewise been unable to engage with it. Sandon’s reconstructions make performances of this repertoire possible for the first time since the tenor partbook disappeared centuries ago. Professor Sandon has commented about Blue Heron’s project, “The idea of a highly skilled choir recording a lot or all of the [Peterhouse] music is extremely attractive; it would make possible a quite radical re-interpretation of the achievement of English composers during the period 1500-40.” Indeed, hearing this gorgeous music sung is certain to catalyse interest among both scholars and performers in a way that no dissertation or edition can ever do.
Blue Heron’s involvement with the Peterhouse repertoire dates back to our debut concert in 1999, a program featuring several works from the partbooks, including the votive antiphon Ave Maria dive matris Anne by Hugh Aston. This astonishingly beautiful piece particularly caught our fancy and we subsequently devoted a good part of our inital activity to Aston’s sacred music. Aston’s music was a wonderful place to start: his is a highly distinctive, skilled, and expressive voice which has scarcely been heard since the sixteenth century. Professor Sandon describes him as “an outstandingly gifted composer” on a level with better-known figures like Taverner and Ludford.
Even more obscure than Aston is the composer Robert Jones, for his two major works, one Mass and one Magnificat, survive nowhere but in Peterhouse. History may have entirely neglected Jones, who was a singer in the Royal Household chapel in the 1510s and 1520s, but his music proves him to have been a composer entirely worthy of comparison with contemporaries such as Tallis and Taverner and one possessed of an inexhaustible melodic gift.
In the company of Aston and Jones we find famous composers such as Robert Fayrfax, John Taverner, and Thomas Tallis; composers, like Nicholas Ludford and Richard Pygott, who were highly successful and well-known in at the time but are mostly unknown nowadays; and virtually unknown but highly accomplished musicians such as John Mason, Robert Hunt, and more. There are also two anonymous works among the 72 in the partbooks. One of these, a mass without name, is a very compelling piece that, like so much of the Peterhouse repertoire, richly rewards its 21st-century singers and hearers.
Blue Heron’s Peterhouse project will result in a 5-CD set devoted to music from the Peterhouse partbooks. Almost every piece receives its world premiere recording in this series.
Vol. 1 (2010)
Hugh Aston: Ave Maria ancilla trinitatis, Ave Maria dive matris Anne, Gaude virgo matris Christi
Robert Jones: Magnificat
John Mason: Quales sumus O miseri
Vol. 2 (2012)
Nicholas Ludford: Missa Regnum mundi
Richard Pygott: Salve regina
Vol. 3. (2013)
Nicholas Ludford: Missa Inclina cor meum
John Mason: Ave fuit prima salus
Vol. 4 (2015)
Robert Jones: Missa Spes nostra
Robert Hunt: Stabat mater
Nicholas Ludford: Ave cujus conceptio
Vol. 5 (2017)
Anonymous: Missa sine nomine
John Mason: Ve nobis miseris
Robert Hunt: Ave Maria mater dei
Hugh Sturmy: Exultet in hac die
Listen to an introduction to music from the Peterhouse partbooks in a podcast from WGBH’s Classical Connections, featuring interviews with Scott Metcalfe and Nick Sandon.
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1 There are actually three sets of vocal partbooks in the Peterhouse library, all of them presently lacking one or more books. The set that concerns us here is the earliest or “Henrician” set, copied in the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII; the other two were compiled in the late 1630s and are known as the “Caroline” sets.
2 The Henrician partbooks belonging to Peterhouse, Cambridge (Cambridge, University Library, Peterhouse manuscripts 471-474): a study, with restorations of the incomplete compositions contained in them. Ph.D. diss., University of Exeter, 1983.