The Flower of all Virginity

Author: 
Tess Knighton

The Flower of all Virginity

  • Gaude flore virginali
  • Magnificat
  • Most clere of colour
  • O Maria Salvatoris mater
  • Salve regina
  • Ah, my dear son

''The Flower of all Virginity'', the title of the fourth recording by The Sixteen of music from the Eton Choirbook belies its theme: the Virgin Mary, mother of God and intercessor for mankind. We know a good deal about the context for which the Marian music in the Choirbook was composed: each evening members of the College choir were to gather before an image of the Virgin and sing an antiphon in her honour (the College was itself dedicated to Mary). During Lent they were to perform the Salve regina, and throughout the rest of the year 'an antiphon of the Blessed Virgin' is all that is stipulated in the College statutes. This accounts for the large number of Marian antiphons (more than 40 were originally copied in the original) found in the Choirbook, together with 15 settings of the Salve regina, and this is the repertory represented on this disc, together with a Magnificat and three songs with texts that can be loosely described as Marian.
It is (it almost goes without saying after the first three volumes—4/92 and 7/93) magnificent music: the sheer scale of the two Marian motets and the monumental approach of their composers Kellyk and Browne, is quite staggering. It is not difficult to imagine these works being sung on a major Marian feast with the chapel singers before the lectern in a supreme act of Marian piety. It is much harder, perhaps, to gauge the manner of performance. Boys instead of women, of course, but the pure tone of the sopranos in The Sixteen should not give undue cause for worry. As John Milsom says in his insert-notes, this was not music that could have been ''undertaken lightly, even by the most proficient of singers''. How much did the College choir rehearse? The Sixteen, of course, are now well sung in in this repertory and they perform it wonderfully, with an instinctive feel for the contrasts of sonority that so often define its structure.
Harry Christophers seems to judge tempos well (the fastest notes are rendered ornamental, as surely was intended), and the music flows unimpeded. It all seems quite natural to modern ears, but is it possible it all went considerably slower than this? Did the singers respond more or still less to the words they sang? The highly charged setting of the anonymous song Afraid, alas is treated in a slightly more intense way in this respect—but that is a rather different repertory. We shall never know the answers to these questions, and I only raise them because with performances as good as these it would be all too easy to allow them to become the only way of hearing this marvellous music. This is not intended as criticism, more as an encouragement to future groups (and recording companies) who might regard this corner of the repertory as 'done' and steer away from it—which would be a shame.'

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