Saturday, April 19, 2014

William Cornysh and Our Sorrowful Mother

That's not William Cornysh on the cover of The Tallis Scholars CD of music by William Cornysh: that's King Henry VII. Cornysh the younger's music--and possibly that of his father of the same name, who died in 1502--is one of the highlights of what remains of the Eton Choirbook. The  younger Cornysh was employed by Henry VII and continued to serve as musician and composer for Henry VIII. According to the notes for this 1988 CD:

William Cornysh (d.1523) lived at a crucial moment in the development of English music. On the one hand he contributed to the last and most florid style to be found in the Eton Choirbook; and on the other he must have realised that this style could go no further, beginning to simplify his music and thus setting a technique for the future. There is therefore considerable variety in his small output and this recording, which contains all the sacred music by him which may be reconstructed and a selection of his secular compositions, reflects it: from the unparalleled complexities of the last phrases of the Magnificat to the naive directness of Ah, Robin.

Cornysh was an early and rare example of what is now called the Renaissance artist. A man of remarkable intelligence, he was well-known in his lifetime not only as an outstanding musician, but also as a poet, dramatist and actor. Unfortunately none of his dramatic writings has survived, though there is a poem by him in the British Library entitled A Treatise bitwene Trouth and Enformacion which was written while serving a jail sentence in the Fleet prison. In this he claimed that he had been convicted by false information and thus wrongfully accused, though it is not known exactly what the accusation was. As an actor he took part in many plays at court, some of which have survived, including The Golden Arbour (1511) and the Triumph of Love and Beauty (1514). But it was within the activities of the court masque that he would have had the ideal opportunity to show off his many talents. In 1501 he is reported as having devised the pageants and 'disguysings' for the marriage festivities of Arthur, Prince of Wales and Katherine of Aragon. More importantly, in June 1520 he led the Chapel Royal's ceremonies at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, which included not only singing but a full-scale pageant. In 1522 the Emperor Charles V visited England to negotiate with Henry VIII and on June 15 the court was entertained with a play by Cornysh which outlined in simple allegory the progress of the discussions and their expected outcome.

This BBC page holds that the father may have written the works in the Eton Choirbook, since the son was better known for Courtly masques and entertainments--but he was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal for many years. On this Holy Saturday, however, what I am most interested in is the Stabat Mater, the title of the CD and the last work on the CD:

The Stabat mater is a masterpiece which contains frequent contrasts between ornate and simpler passages: these juxtapositions are something of a speciality of Cornysh's. That this setting is less well-known might be because the opening sections survive incomplete, though these have been magnificently reconstructed by Professor Frank Harrison. In general Cornysh's style is less introverted than that of his greatest contemporary John Browne. Cornysh always seemed to be striving for the most brilliant effect, or the most pathetic tone, a way of thinking which would have made him perfectly suited to the madrigal a hundred years later, and makes him reminiscent of Thomas Weelkes.

Cornysh is also the composer of Woefully Arrayed, performed here by Stile Antico, from their 2012 CD Passion and Resurrection:

Gimell Records even has a vinyl recording of the Tallis Scholars' CD of Cornysh music available--carefully preserved from the 20th century.

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