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Old Music Tuesday: The Baldwin Partbooks

John Baldwin was a singer in St George’s Chapel Windsor in the late 16th century. He also sang in the Chapel Royal. A man of many talents, Baldwin was also a composer, and copied manuscripts. He is the source of many of the manuscripts we have of music from this time period, including most of William Byrd’s keyboard music. His manuscripts are called the Baldwin Partbooks, and they are a popular source for early music groups to record. One of those recordings is a recent album from Owen Rees and Contrapunctus.

The partbooks are available in the Christ Church Library, and you can even view them online. In the 16th century music was written out not with all parts together as it is today. Each part had its own book, and was copied separately. This saved the expense of copying and paper. The Baldwin Partbooks were originally a set of six books, but the tenor one has gone missing. Some of the tenor parts can be constructed by comparing the pieces to other songs available in other books, but about 60 pieces are unique to Baldwin, and so they remain a mystery. There are over 170 pieces total.

The pieces on this album from Contrapunctus takes pieces relating to fear of Judgment Day and spiritual survival. The director, Owen Rees, worked to reconstruct the Tenor parts. The listening is sublime. It’s peaceful and gentle, but there’s the spiritual longing making it all the more poignant.

The Baldwin partbooks are a major source for Tudor Church Music from not only the reign of Elizabeth (when Baldwin was copying), but also from earlier periods stretching back before the Reformation. They are bound with a copy of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis’s Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (1575), one of the earliest collections of polyphonic music printed in England. – TudorPartbook.ac

It’s a rainy day here in Spain, and this music is perfect for the autumnal feel in the air.