English Church Polyphony: Singers and Sources from the 14th to the 17th Century

By Brett, Philip | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2002 | Go to article overview

English Church Polyphony: Singers and Sources from the 14th to the 17th Century


Brett, Philip, Anglican and Episcopal History


ROGER BOWERS. English Church Polyphony: Singers and Sources from the 14th to the 17th Century. Variorum Collected Studies Series. Aldershot. UK: Ashgate, 1999. Pp. xii + 354, indices. $105.95.

A feature of the Ashgate Variorum Collected Studies series is the collecting together of essays and articles originally published in journals and elsewhere. This volume represents the major contribution of a Cambridge archival scholar who has notably enriched our knowledge of English church music (and other fields).

Few may realize that the first three essays are a polemical (and passionate) response to a modern orthodoxy in British performing tradition. Recall the brilliant choral style of the Tallis Scholars and other English groups. Among their characteristics are the thrillingly high range explored in some of their performances and their cultivation of a vocal type-what might be called the female boy treble-to accomplish this in a manner quite different from that of the traditional "Anglican cathedral" style. Their inspiration is the work of David Wulstan, who solved the intricacies of pitch problems in Anglican church music of the Jacobean period by means of a theory of transposition linked to a "clef code," a theory he then proceeded to extend backwards through the entire Tudor era.

Roger Bowers was instantly skeptical of Wulstan's solution-oriented projections. In order to correct the picture he worked (a) from within the music and (b) from the records of the institutions where it was sung. Noting that fixed pitch was chimerical, and that the relation of different sets (or "lattices") of clefs could be considered relative (singers looked to clefs to find where the semitones lay, not to determine pitch), Bowers was able to show that from about 1450 two "new" voices were added at each end of the medieval duo of men's voices (consisting of cantus or superius on the one hand, and tenor or contratenor on the other). These new timbres were the bassus and triplex (treble), which gave the ensemble (making its transition at this time from solo voices to a choral complex) four fundamental vocal timbres, each pitched a fifth away from its neighbor. Still to be further explored is how, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the contratenor voice expanded upward from its previous confinement as a "tenor," becoming the "countertenor" voice of later music, perhaps involving falsetto, perhaps a kind of haute-contre in the French manner (we shall never know how it sounded). The total range of three octaves (as opposed to the basic two-octave range of earlier polyphony) provided a special stimulus to the imagination of Tudor composers. But Bowers's research indicated that it needed no further exaggeration of pitch. …

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