From all the Elizabethan injunctions issued to regulate the composition and use of music in the Reformed English church, a phrase that particularly resonates is That the same may be as plainly understanded as if it were read without singing. That’s a pretty radical requirement. Just what did that mean to the listener then? What might it imply for how we should perform Gibbons’ verse anthems now? Many Reformists clearly didn’t have any time for music in worship and viewed it as a distraction, viz Erasmus (The choristers themselves do not understand what they are singing, yet according to priests and monks it constitutes the whole of religion. ......In college or monastery it is still the same: music nothing but music….), Thomas Becon, Chaplain to Cranmer (There have been … which have not spared to spend much riches in nourishing many idle singing men to bleat in their chapels, thinking so to do God on high sacrifice … music is not so excellent a thing, that a Christian ought earnestly to rejoice in it …) and many other leading figures in the reformed English church (all well documented in Peter le Huray’s superb study ‘Music in the Reformation in England 1549-1660’). Yet it is against this background that the verse anthem form emerges in the last decades of the 16thC and rapidly becomes hugely successful. In a Chapel Royal wordbook of 1635 (that is the register of texts of pieces in repertoire) there are recorded 65 ‘full’ (i.e. fully texted) anthems as against 152 ‘single’ (i.e. verse) anthems. What was it about this new musical form (there is nothing really like it in pre-Reformation music) that, so to speak, ticked the Reformist boxes? One answer must surely be that the verse anthem is supremely functional, designed not as a background to prayerful contemplation but as a highly focussed means of transmitting its text and its message. And its whole style of delivery, drawing partly on the dramatic tradition of the Elizabethan stage consort song, would surely have been very different from that which was cultivated for the old choral polyphony. Obviously, the requirements that the text should from now on be in English, not Latin, and that the setting should be syllabic, rather than melismatic (decreed in further injunctions) were designed to make it readily understood. But it goes much further than that. In the phrase as if it were read without singing the word read refers not to the listener but to the performer *, and implies a command of rhetorical declamation, the art of which was thoroughly taught in the reformed grammar schools. What we are dealing with must be a style of ‘speaking in song’ that is probably much closer to the ‘recitar cantando’ advocated by contemporary Italian theorists than the traditional Anglican way of presenting this music has led us to expect. As Caccini advises in his ‘Nuove Musiche', … la musica altro non essere che la favella e’l rithmo, & il suono per ultimo, e non per lo contrario. We are convinced that the all-purpose, blended choral style which has to fit Palestrina motets, Stainer anthems and romantic psalm-settings into the same choral evensong as a piece such as Gibbons’ highly dramatised ‘See, see, the Word is incarnate’ simply misses the point. As for whether we achieve something more successful in our recording, that will be for others to judge, but we’re certainly aiming for something very different.
* for a very interesting discussion of the implications of ‘reading aloud’ in this period, go to this presentation from @Richard Wistreich’s recent AHRC project ‘Voices and Books 1500-1800’