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Music from the Chapel Royal

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Chapel. Royal. Two words that independently conjure up all sorts of instant assumptions – the religious, the pious, the pageantry, the monarchy….

Whilst I hope sincerely that the programme we have put together for the upcoming concert is musically exciting, eclectic, informative, and most importantly, enjoyable, I have to admit that the starting point behind the programming is a personal one. Back in 2010, I was lucky enough to be given my first regular ‘gig’ as Director of Music of the wonderful Choir of St Thomas’ Church up in the beautiful village of Mellor, where I had the good fortune of working with and knowing the legendary Janet Wilson, who headed the pastoral care of the choir. Every Christmas, Janet would urge me to programme What Child is This? by Andrew Gant, whom I studied with at Oxford. Sadly, Janet passed away suddenly earlier this year, and I never had the chance to programme the piece.

This became the springboard for this MCC concert, knowing Andrew’s connections with the Chapel Royal. There will be music written for the pageantry – as in the coronation anthem I Was Glad by Henry Purcell, which was sung at the 1685 coronation of James II as a processional introit as the choir (of which the young Jeremiah Clarke was a part) and the royal party processed down Westminster Abbey or the moving As the Father Hath Loved Me written for the Royal Maundy held in Manchester Cathedral in 2009.

However, it is important to remember, I think, that the Chapel Royal is primarily a private institution: its existence is to serve the ‘spiritual needs of the monarch’. The public nature of its reputation exists only through its royal happenstance. Consider, for example, the music that was heard in the Chapel Royal of Elizabeth I, whose religious convictions are much debated. The well-maintained professional choir would sing beautifully elaborate Latin motets with polyphonic melismas written by her favoured Byrd and Tallis, much to the despair of the Bishop of London, who went as far as to suggest that her liturgy was ‘popish’ in one of his sermons. Indeed, it has been suggested that Tallis’ 40-part Spem in Alium was premiered on the occasion of Elizabeth I’s 40th birthday in 1573 – whatever happened to the Lincoln Cathedral Injunctions decreeing that ‘[the choir] shall from henceforth sing or say… not in Latin… a plain and distinct note for every syllable one’?

I think there is a parallel to be drawn here in the duality of the public and the private between the Chapel Royal and music making. Performing is by nature a public act. Yet it would be easy to forget – especially in an age where we are still living in the wake of the 19th century concept of ‘the musical work’ – how much private input individual performers would have had on the pieces they were performing. There would have been little distinction between a ‘singer’ and a ‘composer’ in the courts of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I – singers were composers. This is a point that we have been exploring, especially in our rehearsals for William Cornysh’s Salve Regina, which opens the programme, working to recapture the sense of spontaneity and fantasy in the extensive imitative counterpoints.

Indeed, private musical taste played an important part in the patronage by Britain’s elites, and the performing of these works was a crucial social activity in the household of these music loving nobles. As John Milsom wrote, ‘Elizabethan England was far from unique in providing a chamber context for the performance of motets… the boundaries that separate authentic chamber music from church repertoires may no longer be immediately obvious to us’. Polyphonic choral music with a religious text mustn’t be the preserve of church choirs. We know from the private part books surviving of the period that motets were printed, without their texts, alongside polyphonic music for viols as well as madrigals, suggesting that musicians – both amateur and professional – would have got together to play and/or sing these pieces for the love of it. This, I believe, is the heart of what music making should be at whatever level, and by doing so, encourages a sense of engagement among the performers that, in turn, breeds a more spontaneous and exciting performance.

Ceiling of the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace

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