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The Phoenix Takes Wing

4 October, 2013

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As usual, we’ll be taking two different programmes with us on tour to the US.  Alongside Treasures of the Renaissance, which we performed and wrote about back in April (see A Tasting Menu), we’ll be singing our newest programme, The Phoenix Rising, which shares its title and repertoire with our most recent recording on Harmonia Mundi.  

The Phoenix has been a fascinating project for us, and is very close to our hearts.   It grew out of discussions with the Carnegie UK Trust (yes, that Carnegie), whose centenary falls this year.  The Trust, a major philanthropic organisation, was keen to mark its centenary by celebrating some of its marquee achievements.  Amongst those achievements was the extraordinarily prescient decision, made in the dark days of 1916, to fund the publication of a huge and neglected body of English Renaissance sacred polyphony.

These volumes, issued from 1922 under the title of Tudor Church Music, were hugely important in placing music which had hitherto mouldered in cathedral libraries and manuscripts into the hands of modern musicians.  Alongside the larger volumes, the Trust also issued single-work prints, some of which were runaway successes: the Byrd Ave Verum, for example, sold over 16,000 copies and has a good claim to being the first Renaissance ‘hit’!  It’s fair to say that Tudor Church Music was a major catalyst for the twentieth-century early music revival – a true phoenix rising from the ashes.

The Carnegie UK Trust’s idea was to mark the importance of the TCM edition by supporting a recording by Stile Antico, and a series of concerts around the United Kingdom.  Since groups like us owe our existence to the legacy of projects like TCM, we were thrilled to be involved.  Creating a programme drawn from the ten volumes wasn’t difficult – in fact, the hardest thing was to work out what to omit, since the edition is a veritable compendium of the high points of the English Tudor repertoire!

We chose to base our programme around one of the finest works of the whole period, the glorious five-part Mass by William Byrd.  You can watch us singing the Agnus Dei from the Mass, and discussing its significance, in this lovely video thanks to our friends at Sinfini Music.

Although written under the Protestant rule of Elizabeth I, Byrd’s Mass is a work of daringly Catholic outlook, written in Latin at a time when the Latin Mass was illegal and those caught officiating at such services might well end up as martyrs.   Elsewhere our programme, like the TCM edition, explores both Protestant and Catholic music.  The former includes superb motets by Orlando Gibbons and gems by Weelkes and Morley; the latter, fascinating and unusual music by Robert White, and an epic votive antiphon by the grandfather of Tudor music, John Taverner.  You can hear a few excerpts on our website (where UK-based readers can also buy a copy of the disc); otherwise you can download the whole programme from iTunes.

And if you’re within reach of Cleveland or Pittsburgh, we hope you’ll be able to come and share this wonderful music with us live, and in doing so pay tribute to the remarkable forward thinking of the Carnegie UK Trust!