Music from The Eton Choirbook has received glowing reviews from the press:
“The 15th-century collection of sacred music known as the Eton Choirbook is regularly extolled but far less often performed. So three cheers to Antony Pitts’s subtly expressive choir TONUS PEREGRINUS for resuscitating half a dozen numbers. They include Richard Davy’s St Matthew Passion, a sonorous and symbolic 13-part canon by Robert Wylkynson, and pieces by Walter Lambe and Hugh Kellyk so harmonically fascinating that one feels ashamed to ask ‘who they?’. These ravishing melismas seem to lead the ear on and on towards eternity – as, probably, they were intended to do.” – The Times
“… This new collection from the 14 mixed voices of TONUS PEREGRINUS is exceptionally successful and sonorous, and includes a five-part Magnificat by Hugh Kellyk, previously unrecorded… for sheer contrapuntal virtuosity you cannot beat the oddest piece, the final 13-part canon by Robert Wylkynson.” – The Observer
“…Immaculately performed by TONUS PEREGRINUS, this gorgeously recorded release is an essential purchase.” – Yorkshire Post
The Eton Choirbook is a giant 500 year-old manuscript from Eton College Chapel, and one of the greatest surviving glories of pre-Reformation England. This recording features the earliest polyphonic Passion by a named composer, two heartrending motets for five and six voices, two thrilling settings of the Magnificat, and an extraordinary canon in 13 parts, Jesus autem transiens.
Music from THE ETON CHOIRBOOK
Walter Lambe: Nesciens mater a 5
William, Monk of Stratford: Magnificat a 4
Plainchant: Nesciens mater
Richard Davy: St Matthew Passion [27:11-56] a 4
John Browne: Stabat mater a 6
Hugh Kellyk: Magnificat a 5 (First recording)
Robert Wylkynson: Jesus autem transiens /
Credo in Deum canon a 13 TONUS PEREGRINUS 8.572840
Listen to an excerpt from Hugh Kellyk’s breathtaking Magnificat:
“Founded along with King’s College, Cambridge in the early 1440s by Henry VI, Eton College was to be a haven of education, devotion, and charity in the middle of political turbulence—the final stages of the Hundred Years’ War with France, the so-called ‘Wars of the Roses’, and the religious reforms and counter-reforms of Henry VIII and his children. That turbulence devastated many libraries (including the Chapel Royal library) and makes the surviving 126 of the original 224 leaves in Eton College Manuscript 178 all the more precious, for it is just one of a few representatives of several generations of English music in a period of rapid and impressive development. Eton’s chapel library itself had survived a forced removal in 1465 to Edward IV’s St George’s Chapel—a stone’s throw away in Windsor—during a temporary fall from royal favour. It was under the rule of Henry VII, who had claimed the monarchy for the Tudors in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, that the repertoire of the Eton Choirbook particularly flourished, and the Choirbook itself was put together around 1500—described in a 1531 inventory as “a grete ledger of prick song secundo folio tum cuncta”.
“Out of the 25 composers represented in the Eton Choirbook, several had strong links with Eton College itself. We can imagine these composers and their fellow-singers grouped around the huge choirbook on a lectern—seven or so men, and in front, ten boys who with eyesight still undimmed could read from the top of the very large pages. The size of the pages meant they had to be parchment and, in order to be legible in the uncertain candlelight, the music was solidly inscribed on staves 2cm high. Each voice-part is written out by itself (without barlines) on one part of the open double-page spread: unlike a modern score there is no vertical alignment between the parts and there is little to show the existence of the tactus—or beat—apart from the groupings of the noteheads. The noteheads used practically throughout are in “black-full” notation (i.e. filledin semibreves and minims) which survived later in England than on the Continent, rather than the more familiar “black-void” notation (which is more-or-less what we still use today). Red ink, too, provided a way of conveying further instructions to the performers: red text is used in sections for reduced numbers of voices, while red noteheads introduce the notion of binary ‘imperfection’ into a mensural world of rhythmic proportions grounded on the Trinitarian foundation of the mediaeval theorists—three against two: triplets and hemiolas, as musicians call them today.
“In this interpretation of music from the Eton Choirbook we have attempted to bring these black and red dots on the page to life, and to recover some of their vibrant harmonic colour. Our main tool for this restoration is the considered addition of momentary sharps and flats, over and above those scattered throughout the manuscript. Here we draw on three resources: the writings of contemporary theorists on musica ficta and other practices, an editor’s ear for consistency and harmonic direction (i.e. when “beauty” should triumph over “necessity”), and years of rehearsal with the ensemble trying out different possibilities for each part’s vocal line. The result, we can be sure, is never going to be one hundred per cent the same as 500 years ago, but we can be equally positive that these “wrong notes” (as some critics might term them) are on the right track, as once-pallid polyphony bursts into resonant combinations of tones that match the vivid blues, golds, and greens of the Choirbook itself.”
– Antony Pitts (conductor)
Snapshots from the Recording Session
About the Recording Technique
In this album, the performances of TONUS PEREGRINUS have been recorded using a revolutionary new technique which captures the live sound of the choir as never before.
“Elephant Ears” designed by Geoff Miles
“The main pair of microphones on this recording are indeed unorthodox, and this will be the first commercial release that has used them. They are an attempt to provide the listener with a new approach to the idea of high resolution sound. “High resolution” in audio is generally taken to mean extending frequency range, and providing the widest dynamic possibilities across that range. This would seem like a good idea; however, producing microphones that operate well across such an extended range without making certain trade-offs is impossible. One side effect of extended frequency in many microphones is an increase in a form of distortion called “intermodulation”. This is a non-harmonic distortion which is perceptible as a “glassy”, “metallic” or “hard” quality, most obvious when recording high sound levels.
“Unlike most modern microphones, these experimental microphones are designed to provide enhanced dynamic resolution within the region that our own ears are most sensitive. Research into the neurology of hearing suggests that the way in which harmonics interact within this region provides crucial information to the brain about pitch, timbre, dynamics and timing. Clouding this important area with non-harmonic distortion makes a recording more difficult for the brain to process, and therefore more tiring to listen to. The result of removing the distortion is in many ways unremarkable. Lines (as in this beautiful polyphony) should be easier to follow, individual voices should be clearer and easier to place, and the timbre of each voice should be more easily distinguishable.”
– Geoff Miles (recording engineer)
About the Performers
TONUS PEREGRINUS was founded by the composer Antony Pitts in 1990, during his studies with Edward Higginbottom at New College, Oxford, and today is an established ensemble in Britain and abroad with a significant discography. At the core of TONUS PEREGRINUS are a dozen singers who combine their diverse expertise to interpret a repertoire ranging from the end of the Dark Ages to scores where the ink is still wet; together they have achieved major successes in both new music and early music, including a Cannes Classical Award for the ensemble’s chart-topping début release of Arvo Pärt’s Passio, and The Naxos Book of Carols – circulated to millions of homes in Britain and available as a printed carol-book from Faber Music (www.naxoscarols.com). TONUS PEREGRINUS was honoured to perform at the memorials for Alexander Litvinenko.
Antony Pitts sang as a treble in the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace; he was an Academic Scholar and later an Honorary Senior Scholar at New College, Oxford where he founded TONUS PEREGRINUS. In 2004 their radical interpretation of Arvo Pärt’s Passio (Naxos 8.555860) won a Cannes Classical Award. He has been both a Senior Producer at BBC Radio 3 and a Senior Lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music; he is currently a patron of the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music and an honorary Fellow of the Faculty of Church Music. His compositions have been given their premières in Wigmore Hall and Westminster Cathedral in London, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the Philharmonie Kammermusiksaal in Berlin, and published by Faber Music – notably the 40-part motet XL and The Naxos Book of Carols – and released on Naxos, Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi, Signum, and Unknown Public.