Generally when we think of the first great flowering of English church music, our minds go to the giants of the Tudor age – Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons and their contemporaries. But as we learned this evening in the company of the Orlando Consort, the rich tradition of English choral music has even earlier origins, back in the priories of the Middle Ages.

The Orlando Consort
The Orlando Consort

Most of the early works that the quartet sang came from the 15th century, but, we were told, the tradition of innovative polyphonic writing was already well-established in England by then and English composers and singers were the envy of Europe. All four members of the group took turns throughout the evening to speak a little about the music and all were informative and amusing (who knew that in the 15th century the English were envied by the French for both their music and their cooking!)
The concert opened with a setting by John Dunstaple of words from the Song of Songs, Descendi in ortum meum and immediately we were immersed in the strange and beautiful tonal sounds of the middle ages, all those bleak open fourths and fifths that leave the head buzzing and the ears begging for a chord with a third.

Alien though the sound may be, the infectious rhythms and snatches of the melodies brought to mind medieval dance music, and undoubtedly there were, as ever, borrowings between secular and sacred. It was often hard to believe that this was all church music, written by devout monks. The gig-like Credo written by an anonymous monk at Fountains Abbey was probably the most joyous setting of the creed that I’ve ever heard – the relentless good spirits not even letting up for the Crucifixus section – and, as with everything else in this concert, the Orlando Consort looked as if they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Much of this early English music was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries, and has had to be painstakingly reconstructed by scholars from the fragments that survived. Taking a different approach to reviving the spirit of this lost music, the Orlando Consort has invited contemporary composers to take these fragments as inspiration for their own compositions, and some of these works were performed tonight, giving the concert its very apt title “Call of the Phoenix”

The programme notes gave a sense that some of these modern pieces were going to be very dry and academic, full of clever references to the source material, but in fact they were all glorious to listen to, and the spirit of the early music that inspired them was obvious even to the non-expert. Terry Mann’s Kyrie Fragments were just that – the text disjointed, and opening with just a vowel pattern, which was passed between the parts. Giles Swayne’s Magnificat III was full of jazzy rhythms and fun word-painting, with punchy staccato syllables underpinning the melody.

Matthew Venner had several opportunities to show off his lovely counter-tenor voice, and it was particularly beautiful in Tarik O’Reagan’s St Andrews Responsories. Of all the contemporary works, this was clearly the most challenging, both to sing and to listen to, full of grating dissonances, but effective and surprisingly enjoyable.

There was one piece that didn’t really seem to fit in with the rest of the programme, and perhaps not surprisingly as it was the only non-English. Arvo Pärt’s Summa, another setting of the creed, is a sublime piece, with Pärt’s distinctive sound marking it out as his from the opening chord. It stood in marked contrast to the cheerful Fountains Abbey Credo, but it was just too different from all the other pieces.

The concert closed with Walter Lambe’s Stella Celi written at the end of the 15th century, and was the newest of the old pieces. I had already been struck by the realisation that all of our dearly loved English church music can be traced back to the pieces we heard this evening, that this is where it all started, and Lambe’s piece gave a sense of development towards the later style. Already the harmony was richer (chords with thirds in them!) and left us with a sense that we had heard the first chapter of a long story.

****1