Old Hall - English polyphony 1415–1419

Project Weeks
2015-05-14 18:00
An der Johanneskirche, 06110 Halle (Saale), Germany
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In late 14th-century England, the Church faced a persistent and popular heresy called ‘Lollardy’. One of the Lollards’ principal demands was that the Church focus on pastoral care and on saving souls. Chant and liturgy were seen as tools of the devil and polyphony was condemned— deschaunt and contre note “stiriϸ veyn men to daunsynge more ϸan to mornynge”—as well as the cost of the choirs who performed it. The oppositon of the lay and ecclesiastical establishment was almost unanimous, and lead to a burgeoning of musical activity in England at the start of the fifteenth century.

The chief witness of this activity is the Old Hall Manuscript, a snapshot of music sung around 1415–1419 by the chapel of Thomas, Duke of Clarence, heir to the throne of England from 1413, when his brother became Henry V.

In just two years, the young King had pardoned his enemies at home, forged alliances with Burgundy and Brittany, and devastated the French nobility at the Battle of Agincourt. On return to London after the battle, Henry was hailed as Christi miles, thus endowing him with the attributes of St. George. In the same year, Archbishop Chichele elevated the feast of the saint to the highest rank, and no-one was allowed to work.

Clarence, though, had been excluded from Henry’s trusted inner circle. He was hot-headed, quarrelsome, lacking in judgement, and moreover had in his youth openly sworn allegiance to Charles d’Orléans, chief defender of the French dauphin. There had even been rumours that he would seize the throne while his brother was away in France. Nevertheless the next few years saw him fighting— in the end fatally—for England in France, leaving his household with his wife, Lady Margaret Holland, at her own palace at Woking, which had two chapel buildings.

It seems that Clarence was a connoisseur of music, for he was presented with the magnificent manuscript ‘Machaut E’ by the foremost bibliophile of the age, Jean, Duc de Berry, in 1412. With twice as many clerks as chaplains in November 1419, Clarence’s chapel was clearly more musical

than sacerdotal. Second on the list of the 16 clerks, and instructor of the four choristers, was Leonel Power, who had probably therefore joined the chapel around 1412. His works are the most numerous of any composer in Old Hall.

A single scribe was responsible for the design and execution of the original manuscript and penned the text and the music with great accuracy and elegance, taking unusual care with text placement. He included attributions for nearly all the works in choirbook notation, and 1200 accidentals, which, though by no means exhaustive, give a good indication of the English sound palette. Before he had finished, he passed the manuscript to an illuminator, who made gold and blue initials for both the completed pieces and those that were planned. But the main scribe would never continue his work.

By July 1419, the manuscript had instead made its way to the Chapel Royal, where Damett, Sturgeon, Cooke and Burell added, corrected and changed their own compositions, including three motets that had been sung at the Agincourt celebrations. As they were not professional scribes, their calligraphy is noticeably less neat. In the early 1420s, parts of the manuscript were copied into a new royal choirbook. On the other hand, the homophonic and virtuoso repertoire has scarcely been found in continental sources, unlike the suave style of Dunstaple’s generation, which was to become standard throughout Europe.

The manuscript had served its day. For the next four centuries it passed through unknown hands. By the time it was bought at auction in 1813 by the composer John Stafford Smith, it had lost any Kyries it may have had and 25 of the remaining 137 leaves. Unfortunately, Stafford Smith left his library to his daughter Gertrude, who went insane and cut out 19 illuminated initials, along with music to the side and on the reverse. Someone replaced the initials later, obscuring more notes underneath the patches, and painted in 21 new initials where there had been none. Stafford Smith’s great grandson Edward Wolferstan Tordiffe gave the manuscript to St Edmund’s

College, near the village of Old Hall, in 1893, as rumour has it in lieu of his sons’ school fees. The college promptly had the treasure rebound—the binder discarding the old binding and flyleaves with any information about its interim provenance, and trimming the book block—before showing it to the musicologist Barclay Squire in 1898. The choirbook was bought by the British Library in 1973, after it had, luckily, failed to sell at auction.

Old Hall is extraordinary in many ways, being the first substantial surviving source of English polyphony for 180 years (though we have fragments of hundreds of other books), having autograph compositions at such an early date, originating in such a short time span, yet including simple and mundane works alongside the almost unperformably virtuosic.

For this ‘Hall in Halle’ week we have selected music that exemplifies the broad technical and stylistic scope of this beautiful—and readable—choirbook. We have placed our choices within an appropriate liturgical cadre, the mass of the Feast of the Greek soldier–martyr St. George, celebrated on 23 April, who had been recognised as patron saint of England only at the end of the 14th century. As Old Hall contains no mass propers, these will be taken from a Sarum gradual, alongside the three Agincourt motets.

PS & RS 



As participants are expected to be well prepared, material needed for preparation (the ‘Singer’ and ‘Reader’) will be sent out towards the end of April.

Location: Johanneskirche, 06110 Halle (Saale), Germany.
The course will begin on Thursday 14 May 2015, at 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

From 15 May: Daily instruction roughly from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2.30 to 6.30 p.m.. Individual lessons in the evenings.

Final concert for all participants: Wednesday 20 May, 6 p.m., Johanneskirche, Halle.

Languages of instruction: German and English.

Course fee: €160 (copy costs included), to be paid in cash during the week.

Accommodation: free sleeping accommodation is possible for up to 8 persons who are prepared to sleep in one large room, at An der Johanneskirche 2, across the street from the church. A kitchen and shower are available. Please bring your own (air) mattress and bed linen or sleeping-bag. Everyone else will be offered single or two-bed rooms in guest apartments close to the church for about €20 per night.

Babysitting is available at a small fee.

Application deadline: 16 April 2015.

Application and contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 


All Dates

  • 2015-05-14 18:00
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