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Old Music Wednesday: Music from the Eton Choirbook

The Choir of Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford, have just released a new album from their exploration of the Eton Choirbook. One of the most famous liturgical manuscripts in England, the Eton Choirbook is a manuscript dating from the very early 16th century. It is one of the best examples of early English Renaissance sacred music that we have today. It contains an index showing that it originally contained 93 works, but only 64 remain, and of those some are incomplete.

It’s thanks to the Eton Choirbook that we know of musicians like Hugh Kellyk, whose only compositions are in the choirbook. Sometimes I wonder about these composers – how prolific they were, and how they were known in their lives, and now, five hundred years later, to be remembered simply by these two pieces.

There are a few other choirbooks from this period that survived the Reformation, and they show England on the cusp of the huge changes that would take place in the 16th century. England in the 15th century was isolated, consumed by civil war, not really reaching out to the world. Of course that’s a simplification, but the example of the navy is a good one – when Henry VII won the throne at Bosworth, the English navy consisted of less than ten ships. Henry VIII would build dozens. And by Elizabeth’s time England was able to defeat the Spanish Armada. Similarly, in the early 16th century England didn’t have much in the way of exploration going on, with the Cabot brothers alone trying to lead the way. By the end of the century England would have dozens of explorers forging trade routes and relationships with places like Russia, and the Americas, and Francis Drake would sail around the world.

This is reflected in the music, and a microcosm of that is in the Eton choirbook. Even though the choirbook doesn’t have music of the latter half of the century, we already start to see changes in the music. The earlier works do not show any sort of influence of continental Europe, specifically with the use of imitation, which was so popular in the Flemish musical circles. But by the end of the choirbook, that starts to change, and we see more of a continental flavor.

The Choir of Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford, have been going through the Eton choirbook recording pieces in volumes. This volume contains five pieces from five different composers. I particularly am loving the Walter Lambe Gaude Flore virginali. It’s a great album for an introduction to this kind of music – ethereal and haunting, it floats around in your head, and lodges itself there.

View original images of the Eton Choirbook:

More about the Eton Choirbook