DESCRIBED as “an ensemble of young British singers, now established as one of the most original and exciting voices in its field,” Stile Antico is at Sheffield Cathedral this Friday, courtesy of Music in the Round.
The 12-member ensemble’s ‘field’ is primarily Renaissance music and it has built up a considerable reputation in a relatively short time, being particularly popular in North America.
It makes frequent trips across the Atlantic, but also sings regularly at prestigious venues throughout Europe and an extensive tour with Sting took it to Australia and the Far East as part of his John Dowland project, Songs from the Labyrinth.
Stile Antico (literally, ‘ancient style’), comprising three sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, tenors and basses, work without a conductor, rehearsing and performing as chamber musicians with each member adding his or her artistic input to the finished result.
The group’s repertoire is largely focused on English Tudor to Jacobean composers and Friday’s concert, Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart, is of a capella religious music written, during the reign of Henry VIII through that of James I, for domestic or private devotion, rather than in church.
A period of religious turmoil, most of it is neglected or unknown disguising the fact that much of it is of an exceptional nature, and programme falls into six sections.
The opening piece is Jesu, mercy, how may this be? by John Browne (flourished circa 1490) about whom nothing is known, his very existence resting on ten contributions in the Eton Choirbook, compiled 1500-05.
Browne’s piece occupies the concert’s first section, Domestic music from the reign of Henry VIII, which gives way to ‘With apt notes to sing’: Music of the new Protestant religion, four pieces beginning with It is a Thing both Good and Meet by Thomas Causton (d1570).
A fraction more is known about him: Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal and composer of church music (seemingly not a lot), unlike the two Thomas’s that follow, Morley and Tallis, both well-known and composers of large amounts of music.
Morley (c1557-1602), the foremost English composer of madrigals, is represented by a piece attributed to him, Nolo mortem peccatoris, and Tallis (1505-85) by Purge Me, O Lord.
John Sheppard (c1515-58) was regarded as the equal of Tallis as a composer of church music, especially the Catholic variety stemming from the reign of Mary I, but The Lord’s Prayer by him here was clearly penned in the previous, equally short reign of Edward VI.
Music of the Recusant Catholics is dominated by three pieces by the most famous Elizabethan closet Catholic, William Byrd (c1540-1623), Domine praestolamur, Why do I use my Paper Ink and Pen? and Exsurge Domine.
The central item is a setting of the first of the 30-odd-verse epitaph for the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, executed by Elizabeth I, penned by Henry Walpole.
Robert Ramsey (d1644) – How are the mighty fallen, and the much more famous Thomas Tomkins (1572-1655) – When David Heard, are called upon for 1612: Prince Henry’s Death – James I’s eldest son who died that year.
1614: Leighton’s Teares and Lamentations, extracts three pieces from the book of poet William Leighton comprising 55 consort songs by 21 composers one of whom was John Milton (c1563-1647), father of the celebrated poet.
O Had I Wings Like to a Dove by him here is followed by O let me at thy Footstool fall by the virtually unknown Martin Peerson (1571-1651) who was held in considerable Anglican esteem in his day, despite Catholic leanings.
I Shame at my Unworthiness by John Dowland (1563-1626) provides a link to the first composer in the final, five-item section, ‘Sing my Soul’: Jacobean chamber music, an unknown Italian, Giovanni Croce (1557-1609), who never set foot on these shores.
Dowland visited him in Venice and his music, From Profound Centre of my Heart being the sampling here, was popular in England and the biggest influence on Morley’s madrigal writing.
Never Weather Beat’n Sail from the considerable corpus of works by the poet and composer Thomas Campion (1567-1620) is followed A Stranger Here by the much lesser known John Amner (1579-1641), born in the shadow of Ely Cathedral where he lived and worked all his life.
Proceedings end with further William Byrd – Retire my Soul, and Thomas Tomkins – O Praise the Lord.