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Worth the Price of the Record

The MHS Review 371 Vol. 10, No. 11 1986

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David M. Greene


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The Stabat mater poem has been a popular choice for musical settings but has had a somewhat checkered history liturgical­ly. Incorporated in the late 15th century in the Mass of the Compassion of the B.V.M., it was rejected, in the interest of purifying worship, by the Council of Trent less than a century later. In 1727, however, it was

reinstated, this time for the Feast of the Seven Dolors of the B.V.M. There followed a flood of musical settings that has continued into the 20th century. Some of them, such as those by Pergolesi, Rossini, Dvorak, Ver­di, and Poulenc, have become quite famous.

In England, where the Mass of the Compassion was not used, the Stabat mater had an earlier musical history as a votive antiphon -one of the hymns to the Virgin at the end of the compline service (the last of the liturgical day). At least four such settings are known; besides the two included here by John Browne and Richard Davy,

there is a version by William Cornyshe in the same manuscript. (John Caldwell, in Grove, lists one by Robert Hunt, but that reference work does not include such a composer, nor does any other likely one that I consulted.)

The manuscript of which I speak is, of course, the Eton Choirbook, from which this record represents a second volume of selections.(Salve regina, MHC 9228H/MHS 7228F, represents the first.)

This collection of English polyphonic church music was copied out around 1500 for the choir of Eton College, the famous "public" (i.e. private) school founded in 1440 by Henry IV, a devout and feeble monarch of 19 who was particularly insistent that sacred music be emphasized there. Though there is overwhelming evidence that

England was a fountainhead of such music in the high Middle Ages and early Renaissance, only a handful of such collections have survived. (Apropos of another, the Old Hall MS., let me correct my own error of an issue or so ago: that manuscript did not come from a town called Old Hall, but was kept in a building of that name at

St. Edmund's College, in Ware, the townjust north of London, where John Gilpin's fractious steed insisted his rider should spend his wedding anniversary.)

I recall the enormous thrill I got the first time I ever heard a piece of what passed for really old music 50 years ago. Bach was about as old as they came then, though there was talk of Palestrina. Here (allegedly) were sounds that had been heard more than 500 years before. Never mind that they were not very lovely or very authentic sounds. Now, it appears, we are likely to have on record virtually the whole remaining body of such music.

And one has to ask: are we, particularly with the Englishmen, getting the output of the great masters of the day? Or were these nearly anonymous composers the equivalents of all those little Kapellmeister of the 19th century-or the myriad academic composers of today? If so, their level of skill must have been very high. To be sure, writing such polyphony was almost as systematized as writing 12-tone or serial music. But the results are often breathtaking.

We know nothing for certain about John Browne except his birthdate ( 1453) and his arrival at Eton in 1467, yet he is numerically the chief composer in the Choirbook, and there is no question that his Stabat is a masterpiece. (One scholar has called it the greatest work in the collection -and this even though Browne has added to the usual exigencies of polyphonic writing a complex numerical symbolism.) His setting of Stabat iuxta Christi crucem, another poem in the same mold on the same subject is almost as lovely.

Davy's setting of the Stabat mater is less interesting, and the Cornyshe piece is a short Marian prayer, otherwise unrelated to the others. But the Browne works are worth the price of the record.

Review of Stabat mater--more music from the Eton Choirbook page 47

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