While listening to my beloved Millennium of Music radio program recently, I discovered the Peterhouse Partbooks. Yes, I say discovered, because I had never heard of this treasure trove of choral music before. And for that I feel a teeny bit embarrassed, though grateful that I’ve found them when I have.
Blue Heron, one of the best early music ensembles currently performing, is working on a project where they record extensive sets of this set of manuscripts in Peterhouse, Cambridge.
One of the things that makes it special, in addition to the fact that it is several volumes of pre-Reformation English liturgical music, it is also a source of compositions for several mostly unknown artists. Those unknown masters sit alongside Tallis, Byrd, Taverner, Fayrfax, and others, equally beautiful and intense.
One of those is Robert Hunt, a composer we know nothing about.
He is only known for the Stabat Mater in the Peterhouse partbooks (track number 7 on the album). This is one of the most haunting and intense settings of this particular piece of liturgy, dating from the 13th century. Especially poignant as it tells the story of Mary’s suffering as Christ’s mother as he was crucified. What a joy to be able to listen to this piece of music by this unknown composer after almost 500 years of it sitting there, just waiting to be rediscovered!
Another unknown Robert is Robert Jones.
His two major works, one Mass and one Magnificat, survive nowhere but in Peterhouse. “History may have entirely neglected Jones, who was a singer in the Royal Household chapel in the 1510s and 1520s, but his music proves him to have been a composer entirely worthy of comparison with contemporaries such as Tallis and Taverner and one possessed of an inexhaustible melodic gift.” – Blue Heron notes
Partbooks were created in the same way that scripts for actors only had their own lines, and not the entire cast. It was easier for singers to hold a book with just their part. And it would be cheaper to create four books with an individual part, for example, rather than four books with each part. In the case of Peterhouse, there are some parts that are missing from each work. So musicologists and scholars have had to piece them together. The recordings from Blue Heron filled with world premieres of almost every piece.
A scribe at Magdalen College, Oxford, copied the books around 1540 for use at Canterbury Cathedral.
Canterbury had been refounded as a secular cathedral in 1541 after it was dissolved as a monastic institution in 1541. The manuscripts are available to view online at the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music, though you need to register before viewing the larger sized images. To go to the Peterhouse books, use the basic search to scroll down to GB-Cambridge. Then choose the titles from the Perne Library. It is truly worth the effort to register in order to view these masterpieces.
Blue Heron’s involvement with the Peterhouse repertoire dates back to their debut concert in 1999. This included a program featuring several works from the Partbooks, including the votive antiphon Ave Maria dive matris Anne by Hugh Aston. They became even more interested in that work, and began to devote much of their early research and recording works to his sacred music. Volume One of the music from the Peterhouse Partbooks begins with this work.
You can buy the album on Amazon using my affiliate links, or listen in the embedded Spotify player below. Take the time to sit with this music with headphones as well. I think you’ll love it. Tell me what you think in the comments below. Is it not simply divine?