For this year’s choral pilgrimage, a grand concert tour of Britain’s greatest church buildings, The Sixteen chose music by three Tudor composers that went back to their own origins, and back to the institutional roots of the English choral tradition. John Sheppard and Richard Davy were both choirmasters at Magdalen College, Oxford, writing music a chapel that was not much changed by the time Harry Christophers and other members of The Sixteen were choral scholars there, whilst William Mundy spent his career in Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Chapel Royal.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen © MolinaVisuals
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen
© MolinaVisuals

Of the three, John Sheppard is probably the best known, and the concert opened with his Gaude, Gaude Gaude Maria; the text is for Candlemas, but the men launched into the opening plainchant with such zest that it felt like Christmas music, before the full choir came in with their trademark silky sound and ethereally high, pure sopranos. The superlative quality of their singing barely needs to be mentioned again – it’s simply what they do, consistently well, but what really came across to me this time was the strong underlying pulse, beating on at the heart of the music, keeping it alive and moving. It could be too easy, on a Friday night at the end of a long week, to sink into oblivion and let the polyphony wash over, but even in the longest pieces of the concert, the singing held my attention completely.

Sheppard’s music for Magdalen College returned in the second half, with his two settings of Libera Nos, and three of In Manus Tuas. Harry Christophers gave his singers plenty of space in the Libera Nos to relish Sheppard’s distinctively colourful harmony, with its biting false relations, whilst the first two In Manus Tuas settings, performed by a smaller group of singers, were infused with a quiet sense of wonder. A brief diversion to the stark, open harmonies of Davy’s English sacred song Ah mine heart, remember thee well, didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the programme, but it ensured that the return to Sheppard for the third In Manus Tuas felt deliciously rich.

Richard Davy was the earliest composer on the programme, and much of his music known today comes from that treasure of early polyphony, the Eton Choirbook. O Domine caeli terraeque creator was the first of two large-scale works in the Sixteen’s programme – some 15 minutes of polyphonic glory, meandering from a meditation on the nature of God and the Trinity to a devotional prayer to Mary and, according to a note on the manuscript, it was written at Magdalen in a single day. The music echoed the theological complexities of the text, as Davy depicts the unfathomable mysteries of the Holy Trinity with complex winding rhythms, followed by elaborately decorated high soprano lines as the music turns to the Virign Mary. Harry Christophers and his singers bring a depth of understanding and sympathy to this music, such that as a listener, I can feel that for those 15 minutes, I am actually a fervent 15th century Catholic, for whom this text and music becomes spiritual nourishment.

An even grander work ended the evening, and took The Sixteen back to their own origins, for William Mundy’s Vox patris caelistis was on the programme of their first ever concert. Mundy worked through the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor and for most of Elizabeth I’s reign too; his importance at the time is suggested a corny pun from a writer in the 1580s that Mundy was the moon to William Byrd’s sun. His wistful Adolescentulus sum ego, a very intimate reflection on human frailties was one of the loveliest things on the programme; it began with an expressive sigh falling through the parts, and a hypnotic pulse giving urgency and purpose to the very quiet singing.

The programme notes explained that the origins of the monumental Vox patris celestis are obscure, but the favoured theory seems to be that it was performed outside St Paul’s Cathedral as part of the procession for Mary I’s coronation. The words mix praise for the virgin purity of Mary with the sensual imagery from the Song of Songs. A brisk beginning conjured up happy devotion before building to great flowerings of texture and volume, piling on the glory, to a final blaze of majestic light. In his programme introduction, Harry Christophers quotes a reviewer of that first concert, for whom this piece was “a revelation”. Even today, when, thanks to choirs such as The Sixteen, this musically and spiritually demanding music is much more familiar to us, and audiences turn out in their thousands to hear it, the sublime skills of the composers and the singers mean that pieces like this still have the power to stun and enchant.

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