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8.555056 - PHILIPS: Cantiones Sacrae / Quinis Vocibus
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Peter Philips (1561-1628)

Cantiones Sacrae Quinis Vocibus

Peter Philips stands with William Byrd (1543-1623) among the greatest composers of the Counter Reformation. These two English Catholic recusants composed sacred polyphony which is unsurpassed in sophistication and interest. Unlike Byrd, who remained in England, protected from serious legal harassment for his beliefs largely by official recognition of his remarkable gifts as a musician, Philips chose to live in exile on the continent.

Philips’ career was determined by his religious convictions. He is first heard of as a fourteen-year-old choirboy at St Paul’s in London. The person responsible for him there was Samuel Westcote, who was frequently in trouble with the authorities for his recusancy. In 1582, shortly after Westcote’s death, Philips fled England - and we are told that he did so "pour la foy Catholique". He went first to the English College at Douai where, at that very time, the Catholic English translation of the Bible, an answer to Protestant translations, was under way. (The Douai/Rheims New Testament appeared in 1582; the Old Testament was to follow in 1609). He then went on to the English College in Rome, which at that time provided refuge for a number of religious exiles. Philips remained at the English College for three years and was appointed organist. He was, therefore, in Rome at the height of Palestrina’s fame. Moreover, in 1585 Felice Anerio, Palestrina’s successor at the Papal Chapel, was appointed maestro di cappella at the English College, and so worked with Philips. Philips included music by Palestrina and Anerio in some of his own publications. In other words, he was thoroughly conversant with the riches of late-sixteenth-century Roman polyphony.

In 1585 Philips left Rome in the service of another English Catholic, Lord Thomas Paget. Together they travelled through Spain, France, and present-day Belgium. Paget died early in 1590, and Philips settled in Antwerp, where he married and "mainteyned him self by teachinge of children of the virginals being very cunning thereon". In 1593 he visited Amsterdam "to sie and heare an excellent man of his faculties" (Sweelinck). On his way back from Amsterdam, he was taken to The Hague for interrogation, on suspicion of plotting against Queen Elizabeth.

Four years later, he became a member of the household of the Archduke Albert, the regent of the Spanish Netherlands, and there he spent the rest of his working life. Thus, in this final and longest stage of his career, he illustrates quite literally the charge, made in 1630, that ‘Though all our Recusants be the King of Englands subjects, yet too many of them be the King of Spaines servants’.

The five-part Cantiones Sacrae, from which the motets on this recording are taken, were published in Antwerp by Pierre Phalèse in 1612. They were followed a year later by a companion collection of double-choir eight-part motets. Interestingly, one of Philips’ favourite devices in the five-part motets is to create an illusion of a double choir by juxtaposing sections with two different groupings of singers. We hear this in the filia Sion section of Gaude Maria Virgo, for example. Both collections were retrospective, with some of the motets written more than twenty years before publication. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the Cantiones Sacrae were published two years later than the Monteverdi Vespro della Beata Vergine. With Philips, there is no hint of the stile moderno, though when the Cantiones were reprinted in 1617, Philips added a basso continuo part, probably only to compensate for the weakness of some choirs.

The title page of the 1612 Cantiones tells us that they are intended "for the principal feasts of the whole year and the common of the saints". The motets in the Cantiones sacrae are, in fact, organized according to the liturgical calendar. Their editor, John Steele comments, "In all his sacred collections, Philips showed a marked propensity for strictly liturgical texts (particularly antiphons, Marian antiphons, and responds). He seldom set freely chosen texts such as psalm verses (as earlier Renaissance composers did). Nothing could make his post-Tridentine, Counter-Reformation attitude more plain."

The publication is dedicated to the Virgin Mary ‘for the consolation and salvation of Christian people, the confirmation and amplification of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman faith, and the extirpation and confusion of Heresy and Heretics’. Even without reading this or knowing anything of Peter Philips’ life, it would be obvious from his music that he was driven by Counter-Reformation fervour. The texts he chooses to set are so often ones which have a special resonance for Catholics whose devotion to the Virgin Mary and whose commitment to a sacramental liturgy was under attack. More than that, however, his response to the detail in those texts underlines the point, and he does this through an extraordinary range of devices, from suave counterpoint, to precise word or image painting, to homophonic declamation, as in the opening of Ave gratia plena. Time and time again he comes up with extremely beautiful, emotionally-charged settings which are strongly related to Catholic spirituality. The Salve Regina is graphically and emotionally treated. The word clamamus, the exiled children of Eve crying out, appears as the climax of a series of imitative entries while suspiramus (we sigh) is punctuated by rests in an almost madrigalian depiction of the idea. The closing acclamations in the second part of the motet, O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria, are given loving treatment.

There are some other striking instances of word painting. In Iste est Johannes, Fluenta (streams) is set in running and descending short notes. The ‘new song’ of Cantabant sancti is a virtuoso contrapuntal display, while the illusion of a double-choir for et resonabat terra in voces eorum is appropriate for the idea of this echoing around the world. A delightful instance of word-painting occurs in Stella, quam viderant Magi, where Philips uses descending step-wise movement for the image of the Magi rather gingerly entering the dwelling in which they find the Christ child with Mary, his mother.

The opening of Mulieres sedentes depicts the numbed stillness of the women at the tomb through totally static harmony spanning nearly five bars before moving on to give expression to their grief in exquisitely beautiful polyphony which emphasises the passing of ideas between the two soprano lines. The sense of awe in the slow-paced homophonic movement of the opening of O nomen Jesu gives way to light imitative movement at nomen confortans.

Sometimes the illustration of an idea is intellectually conceived. In Tibi laus, tibi gloria, Philips uses the phrase O beata Trinitas as a refrain and the whole motet is a celebration of the Trinity, three persons in one God. His treatment of the line ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one substance’ is remarkable. On Pater et Filius the cantus and alto lines begin on a unison E flat and then move away from each other to arrive on a B flat an octave apart, a perfect demonstration of the two persons beginning as one and having a separate but fused identity. The tenors in introducing the third person of the Trinity (et Spiritus Sanctus) begin on the B flat, overlapping with the cantus and alto lines.

Philips’s treatment of direct speech in his texts is always interesting. The first part of Hodie beata Virgo Maria deals with the narrative of the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple. The second part consists of a beautiful setting of the words of the aged Simeon ‘Now you may let your servant depart in peace’. Something similar happens in O Maria Mater where, after the description of Mary and John at the foot of the cross, Philips dramatises the words of the dying Christ, expanding, as if in awe, the words to John, ‘Behold your mother’. In Surgens Jesus Dominus the words of the risen Christ, ‘Peace be with you’ are set homophonically in long notes, but they inspire a very active set of alleluias. These, in turn, give way to joyful homophonic triple writing, something he uses in a number of other motets, such as Stella quam viderant Magi and Conceptio tua.

These, however, are all rather incidental beauties. It is the total conception of a motet and the sense of an inexhaustible originality in moving from one setting to the next that is so satisfying. Philips was, of course, known for more than his sacred music, but these beautiful five-part motets would in themselves justify Henry Peacham’s praise of him in The Compleat Gentleman (1622): ‘Nor must I here forget our rare countryman, Peter Philips, organist to their altezzas at Brussels and now one of the greatest masters of music in Europe. He hath sent us over many excellent songs, as well motets as madrigals.’


Peter Walls

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