Ymaginacions – Mass upon John Dunstable’s square
La Quintana/Jérémie Couleau
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download from La Quintana
rec. 2022, Abbaye de Loc-Dieu, Martiel, France
Paraty 1123291 [62]

Nicholas Ludford is one of those composers of the English Renaissance who is a little overshadowed by his contemporaries, especially John Taverner. However, as David Skinner states in New Grove, “[he] is considered to be one of the most important and innovative composers in early Tudor England”. It is possible that Ludford was born in London; there he joined the Fraternity of St Nicholas (the London guild of parish clerks) in 1521. For most of his life he worked at the royal chapel of St Stephen in the Palace of Westminster. It was his duty to play the organ, and he may also have had the supervision of music in the chapel. He experienced the tribulations of the breakaway from the church of Rome, the Protestant reforms under Edward VI and the restoration of Catholicism under Mary Tudor. It seems that Ludford remained faithful to his Catholic convictions.

Ludford’s extant oeuvre is modest: seven masses (one of them incomplete), seven Lady Masses, a Magnificat and six motets, all of which are incomplete. In recent times Ludford’s works have received some interest, and the disc under review here is the third that Jérémie Couleau has devoted to him. The recording of the Missa Sabato was reviewed on this site by Brian Wilson.

The Lady Masses – written for each day of the week of the Feast of the Assumption – have four common features. First, all of them are scored for three voices, which is rather unusual at the time. All Ludford’s other masses are for four to six voices. Second, they are all based on fragments taken from earlier compositions, so-called squares. Third, in addition to the Ordinary chants, they include Alleluias and Sequences. Fourth, all Lady Masses have an alternatim structure, meaning that verses in polyphony alternate with monophonic passages.

New Grove defines the square thus: “The evidence suggests that a square is a bottom part derived from a polyphonic composition of the late 14th century onwards in order to be used (usually via monophonic storage) in a later composition.” It is interesting that Couleau, in his liner-notes to the recording of the Missa Sabato, states that the use of the squares seems to be not arbitrary. “Observation of the melodic correspondences in the Credo leads one to believe that the citations of the square were not left to chance, but conformed to a clear rhetorical process in the composer’s mind. It was sometimes customary during the Renaissance to associate the divine praise of the Kyrie with the three persons of the Trinity. In this specific case, the prayer is addressed as much to God the Father (Kyrie eleison), as to God the Son (Christe eleison) and the Holy Spirit (Kyrie 2). Nicholas Ludford invites the listener to a reinterpretation of the mass which recalls this Trinitarian division, and introduces intertextuality in the Credo by systematically associating the melody of the Christe with texts that refer to the birth of Jesus or of God made man.”

The present disc refers to an older English composer on its title page: “Mass upon John Dunstable’s square”. This Missa Feria II is based upon three fragments from Dunstable’s pen found in the manuscript Lansdowne 462, which dates from around 1400. It is remarkable that music from about 150 years old was still known. Couleau writes: “These little-known musical sources are evidence of a musical continuity that argues against our progressist conception of history.” These fragments are a common thread in the first three sections of the mass: Kyrie, Gloria and Credo.

One of the issues as far as the interpretation of the Lady Masses is concerned, is the way the monophonic passages are to be performed. Rather than singing them as they are written, Couleau opted for a different approach, based on a widespread historical practice that is seldom applied these days: the improvisation of polyphony over a notated phrase. “[A] number of squares were performed on the plainsong or other mensural monodies, notably for training young singers. The latter were – from a very young age – trained in the technique of sight-seeing. This system which enabled them to visualise improvised counterpoints on the staff of the pre-existing melody was also known in England by the term ‘imaginacions’. Leonel Power, in his treatise on discant, mentions this method for making simple polyphonies impromptu, such as faburdens, gymels or discants. During the Renaissance, theoretical sources in the British Isles and on the continent are not lacking in references to these improvisation practices. Guilelmus Monachus, in his De preceptis artis musicae, does not forget to stress the talent of the English in this area.” This is the way the Missa Feria II is performed here.

Faburden – comparable with falsobordone or fauxbourdon – is the “technique of polyphonic vocal improvisation that enabled a group of soloists or a choir to sing at sight a three-part harmonization of plainchant, derived from the notes of the chant itself”. Gymel denotes “the counterpoint that results from the temporary splitting of one voice part in a polyphonic composition into two voices of equal range”. Discant is “a type of medieval polyphony having a plainchant tenor, characterized by essentially note-against-note, contrary movement between the voices and the interchange of the consonances octave, 5th and 4th.” (All the definitions are taken from New Grove).

These techniques are applied in this recording. The technique of faburden is used in the Kyrie; in the Gloria and the Credo the other two techniques are applied. It is notable that for the Ite missa est the performers have also turned to another mass based on squares, by Ludford’s contemporary William Whitbroke; the fragments from his mass are used in the way of a contrafactum.

The participation of an organetto in these performances may seem a little odd, as this was basically a medieval instrument, which one may think to have become obsolete in Ludford’s time. However, Couleau – referring to authors on this matter – states that ” the portatives would still resound at the time of the Anglican reformation to accompany, inside large churches, the polyphonies sung in the chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Nicholas Ludford’s Lady Masses could have been composed for these decentralised offices during which the organetto still played a leading role.”

This description of the music and the performance practice may have convinced the reader that this recording is highly interesting from a historical point of view and also offers a new perspective on the way the music of the English Renaissance can be performed. Improvisation has played a major role in music history, but is best-known as the activity of a single player, especially on a keyboard. This art is a fixed part of the education of organists. Interestingly, that comes to the fore here as well, as Christophe Deslignes plays glose – diminutions – on what is written down. Obviously, vocal improvisation in an ensemble is a different matter. I don’t know whether La Quintina has actually improvised in live performances. I am pretty sure that what we have here are prepared improvisations – that is the restriction of a recording (which is basically unnatural anyway). However, it is fascinating to listen to the application of improvisation techniques that we only know from books, as mentioned above. Moreover, the ensemble decided to use historical pronunciation, which is still rather rare, and cannot be appreciated enough. These features make this disc unique. To that, I add that the performances could not be any better. The singing and playing are outstanding, and Christophe Deslignes’s diminutions are a nice bonus.

The booklet offers much information about the music and the performance practice, originally written in French, and with an excellent translation in English. I urge any lover of Renaissance polyphony to investigate this disc and add it (and the one mentioned above) to his collection. I am sure you will return to it more than once.

Johan van Veen

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Nowel syng we bothe al and som
Nicholas Ludford (c1490-1557)
Missa Feria II:
Alleluya. Post partum Virgo
Sequentia. Post partum Virgo
Afferentur regi virgines (glose)
Nicholas Ludford
Missa Feria II:
Agnus Dei
William Whitbroke (c1501-1569)
Mass upon the square: 
[Ite missa est]
Bryd one brere (glose)
An Hevenly Songe