LeStrange Viols: Æternum - Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390


LeStrange Viols presents a second disc for Olde Focus Recordings: an exploration of a "Booke of In Nomines and Other Solfainge Songs," known by its shelfmark in the British Library as Add. MS 31390. From the 135-piece collection LeStrange has selected twenty-six compositions, many of which are recorded here for the first time. Some of these works reflect the "hottest new releases" of 1578 (when the manuscript was copied) while others are "golden oldies" from the first half of the 16th century.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Performer(s) Time
Total Time 65:57
01In Æternum a6
In Æternum a6
02In nomine a5
In nomine a5
03Quemadmodum a6
Quemadmodum a6
04A Phancy a5
A Phancy a5
05In nomine a6
In nomine a6
06Esperants a5
Esperants a5
07In nomine #1 a7
In nomine #1 a7
08In nomine #2 a7
In nomine #2 a7
09In nomine 'Crye' a5
In nomine 'Crye' a5
10O salutaris hostia a6
O salutaris hostia a6
11Yf man in care a6
Yf man in care a6
12Lawdes Deo a5
Lawdes Deo a5
13In nomine #1 a5
In nomine #1 a5
14Qual iniqua mia sorte a5
Qual iniqua mia sorte a5
15In nomine a4
In nomine a4
16O lux beata Trinitas a5
O lux beata Trinitas a5
17Or vien ca, vien, m'amye a5
Or vien ca, vien, m'amye a5
18Spes nostra a5
Spes nostra a5
19Dum transisset Sabbatum a6
Dum transisset Sabbatum a6
20Browning my dere a5
Browning my dere a5
21In nomine a5
In nomine a5
22Frisque et gaillard a5
Frisque et gaillard a5
23O sacrum convivium a5
O sacrum convivium a5
24In nomine #3 a5
In nomine #3 a5
25Si de beaucoup a5
Si de beaucoup a5
26Meli Bavari a6
Meli Bavari a6

During the reign of Elizabeth I, there was no way to record music other than by inscribing musical notation onto paper. In creating our audio recording of a notational record, we aim, as does the portrait painter, to capture not merely the likeness but the liveness of our subject. A musical manuscript is like a mix-tape or a playlist in that it gathers together items for later hearing, for posterity. In terms of 16th-century music books, these two functions were best served by two different formats. For ease of use, a set of part-books was ideal, you could simply hand them out to your friends, sit right down and get playing. But lose one part-book and you’d lost that part forever and rendered the rest of the set useless. A score format, with the parts aligned vertically over a number of pages, is the safest way to store polyphonic music but is impossible for five viol players to play from. The manuscript from which the pieces on this album are drawn attempts to find a middle ground by using “table-book” format. Each opening (the two pages that lie next to each other) contains all the parts for a single piece. However, the parts are not aligned in the manner of a score — rather they are oriented in the four cardinal directions, so that with the book in the center of a table, players can gather around it in a circle and all see their parts. While this format did not gain in popularity (Dowland’s Lachrimae of 1604 is another famous and rare example) it is a perfect materialization of the joys of playing consort music: to be gathered in a circle with friends around a piece of notation, instruments at the ready to make sonorous the lines of polyphony.

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The Elizabethan manuscript table-book from which this album is drawn is known by its British Library shelf-mark: Additional Manuscript 31390. Add. MS 31390 contains 135 pieces, which capture a snapshot of musical life in the 1570s. Some of the pieces reflect the “hottest new releases” of 1578 (when the bulk of the manuscript was copied), selections by the up-and-coming William Byrd, who had just replaced Robert Parsons (also represented in the manuscript) at the Chapel Royal. Other pieces are “golden oldies” from the first half of the 16th century, classics by Taverner and Sheppard. Some reflect popular foreign trends, Italian madrigals, chansons from France as well as those written in England by Philip Van Wilder in the French style. Equally as various are the instrumental genres represented in the collection. The title page of Add. MS 31390 describes the volume as “A booke of in nomines and other solfainge songes . . . for voyces or instrumentes.” and though none of the pieces contains lyrics, the repertory does contain both vocal and instrumental genres. Devout motets rub elbows with lovesick chansons and lighthearted madrigals. Harmonically and rhythmically complex instrumental works involving canons, the use of cantus firmus, and metrical proportions juxtapose with works that are less learned, built on popular tunes or short, repeating harmonic patterns. As we’ve tried to capture with this recording, Add. MS 31390 is a marvelous smörgåsbord of musical textures and styles, an array of sonorities reflecting the international and cosmopolitan diversity of Elizabethan English society.

To read the full program notes, please purchase this release.

  • Produced by Zoe Weiss and LeStrange Viols
  • Recorded on the Caldwell Collection of Viols in Oberlin, OH August 3-6, 2017
  • Recorded, engineered, mixed and mastered by Ryan Streber of Oktaven Audio
  • Images from the 15th or 16th-century Voynich Manuscript held by Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University and Additional MS 31390 held by the British Library.
  • LeStrange Viols photo by Brian Hall
  • Design: Marc Wolf (marcjwolf.com)

LeStrange Viols

LeStrange Viols was formed in 2014 to record the modern premiere of William Cranford’s consort music, a CD that made The New Yorker’s list of notable recordings of 2015 and was hailed as “one of the most strikingly original and exciting early-music debut albums in years” by Early Music America. Since then LeStrange has continued to distinguish itself through its original programming and distinctive, acclaimed performances of music for viol consort. The ensemble is named for British Library Additional Manuscripts 39550-4, an important collection of consort music assembled by the 17th-century English nobleman Nicholas Lestrange.



Early Music Review

In 2015 the excellent LeStrange Viols, from New York, placed us all in their debt with a fine debut disc of rewarding music composed by the neglected but estimable William Cranford (FCR905). Now they compound our debt by offering this selection from a manuscript in the British Library which is one of the most important of Elizabethan musical sources.

Why open the disc with the premiere on disc of In aeternum? It is a neglected work by the similarly neglected William Mundy, which survives only in this source, one of several with a Latin title but no text (like his O mater mundi recorded by Hesperion XX) so it could be an instrumental fantasia or a choral motet. So why the sudden prominence? Probably because LeStrange Viols want listeners to discover that this is a work of surpassing beauty, and they play it accordingly. This is followed by the famous, or perhaps infamous, In nomine by the otherwise unknown Picforth. It is his only known work, but even his Christian name has not survived. Each of the five parts plays a single unchanging rhythmic value different from all other parts, yet this literally timeless work hangs together convincingly and mesmerizingly, sounding in many places like a cross between the famous Lento of Howard Skempton and the studies for player piano by Conlon Nancarrow. In other recordings the “alto” part, which is in triple time and gives rise to more syncopations than the rest, is not always audible under the more active “treble”, but here the LeStranges play every part except the cantus firmus itself pizzicato. This could emerge as a mere gimmick, but it successfully points up what Picforth is up to here, and although it sacrifices some of the sonorousness of his part- writing, it achieves a scintillating clarity. Other interpretations are available.

Altogether there are 26 pieces on this recording, but before moving on to summarize the rest of the contents, I will mention the third work, partly to emphasize that the disc gets off to such a stunning start. This is John Taverner’s Quemadmodum, another work with a Latin title but for which no text survives in any source. Like Mundy’s In aeternum it has been editorially fitted out in more than one edition with a convincing Latin text for vocal performance. If it is indeed by Taverner, it must be a late work judging by its stylistic debt to the Franco-Flemish school, and whether instrumental or vocal, it is one of the composer’s finest, and one of the best works of the Tudor period. Previous recordings by viols have all failed to do justice to Taverner’s wonderfully expressive part-writing in relation to the sonorities that he creates, but LeStrange’s interpretation is on a level with the best of those choral versions recorded by Contrapunctus, Magnificat and the Taverner Choir. The descending phrase that begins its second part “Sitivit anima mea” seems to have been borrowed by Byrd to begin the second part “Eheu mihi” of his eight-part psalm setting Ad Dominum cum tribularer.

I want to digress here briefly to discuss the attribution of Quemadmodum to Taverner, in the light of the work’s proximity on this disc to Mundy’s In aeternum and their being in the same manuscript. There are many similarities between the two pieces, the most striking being the recurrence in both pieces, especially in In aeternum, of the short phrase a b c a (at whichever pitch, the second note sometimes flattened, the third sometimes sharp, though obviously not in the same phrase) which often proceeds again to b, hence a b c a b. Doubts have been expressed over the attribution of Quemadmodum to Taverner, not least by Hugh Benham in his book about the composer (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003, p. 249) who notes that one source (WB MCG) attributes it to Tye. It is in fact anonymous in 31390 itself. This leaves two other sources, in both of which it is attributed to Taverner (Benham, p. 57). Mundy’s In aeternum survives only in 31390. Other pieces by Mundy and works by Tye also appear in 31390, as well as the original In nomine, here correctly attributed to Taverner and with a fifth part added. Quemadmodum which as we have seen is anonymous in 31390, is Taverner’s most uncharacteristic work, if it is indeed by him. Tye is an even less likely composer, and nobody yet has proposed Mundy, but Quemadmodum seems a little too old-fashioned to be by the same composer as In aeternum. Perhaps Mundy, younger by three decades, was impressed by Quemadmodum – a cutting edge composition by English standards if by Taverner – and was inspired to incorporate some of its features, particularly melodies and sonorities, into his own work, while still imposing his own more modern stamp upon the latter.

The rest of the disc consists of either mainstream consort works, such as In nomines (highlights are the two pieces in seven parts by Parsons, the first of which has an alternative but discredited attribution to Byrd), and textless pieces that are known, or presumed, to have been composed for voices. One of the many charms of this disc is that several of the composers, like Picforth, are quite obscure, yet their music is most enjoyable. Edward Blankes, Clement Woodcock, Nicholas Strogers, Osbert Parsley, Mallorie and Brewster all receive their well-deserved day in the sun with some delightful consort music, and there are also appearances by prominent European composers such as Clemens, Croce, Wilder (albeit he was based in England) and Janequin, besides the less familiar Flemish composer Jacquet de Berchem – not to be confused with the now better-known older French contemporary Jacquet of Mantua. The majority of the Europeans’ works represented here are instrumental versions of songs.

It remains to mention three motets by major English composers which survive with their Latin texts but which appear in 31390 in an ostensibly instrumental garb. Sheppard’s Dum transisset a6 is a Respond of surpassing beauty. The repeats are not included, neither is the intervening plainsong, but this still makes for a satisfying musical entity. Byrd is represented by two pieces. His first In nomine in five parts (an attribution to Mundy in one source is scored out) might originally have been composed for only four, with a fifth added possibly by the composer himself. The performance here is strikingly rustic compared with the urbanity of Fretwork’s version on their complete recording of Byrd’s consort music; interestingly Phantasm eschew the work altogether both on their own complete recording, and on their earlier disc which Byrd shares with Richard Mico, perhaps favouring the deleted attribution to Mundy. O salutaris hostia is by a country mile Byrd’s – and indeed most other Tudor composers’ – most discordant piece, as the young musician – perhaps playfully, perhaps satirically, certainly determinedly – bulldozes a three-part canon through the work. More peacefully, Tallis’s O sacrum convivium is the most familiar of such pieces on the recording, but still disconcerting in this version not just for the ironed-out word-setting, but for some strikingly different accidentals, both present and absent in 31390, compared with the more familiar vocal version from his Cantiones sacrae published jointly with Byrd in 1575.

LeStrange Viols’ performances are all that one could desire. This really is a delightful disc from beginning to end – the exuberant Me li Bavari by Croce. Tempi are judicious, and balance such that all the parts can be heard clearly in both the prevailing polyphony and in the more occasional homophony. Nearly all the viols played are from the Caldwell Collection of Viols (in Oberlin, OH), instruments of the 16-18th centuries from England, Germany, France and Brabant. This recording is easy to obtain on the internet, and well worth purchasing.

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