Thursday, July 24, 2008

John Browne from the Eton Choir Book

I wish I knew more about the compositions of John Browne and how they happened to appear in the late 15th century and early 16th century, before the Reformation. These motets were sung in English cathedrals, and I've wonder why his work seems to be completely unknown to most everyone but a handful of specialists.

I wonder these things because as you listen, the temptation is to place the music perhaps a century later, to the period of Vitoria and Tallis. They seem more sophisticated than other music from this period. The textures are astonishingly rich and varied, and the lines are long and luxurious, while the harmonies themselves seem oddly advanced. When I first put this CD in my player probably six months ago, I almost couldn't believe my ears. It is so beautiful and so surprising, and I truly cannot imagine that there is a single person who wouldn't agree that this music is fantastic. What a remarkable artist he must have been.

The Wikipedia entry also seems a bit thin, since very little is known. Apparently he was among the first composers of the Eton Choir book for use at Eton College. He contributed Salve Regina, Stabat Juxta, Stabat Mater, O Regina Mundi Clara, and O Maria Salvatoris. Each one is scored for a different set of voices, so as you listen, each new composition and even each new set of phrases provides a different texture from the last. The musical lines are incredibly long and flowing, so much so that I can't really imagine an amateur choir handling this material well.

This is why we must be grateful that Peter Phillips went to the trouble of putting all this together and making it available. I'm not sure we would otherwise here this. You can listen to samples on Amazon. It provides a musical picture of a world forgotten. But impressively, however, it is timeless music that it is not the slightest bit dated after half a millennium.

I would recommend this recording for anyone who is interested in Renaissance music but wants to venture outside the standard fare. It provides a wonderful demonstration of the highest form of art that the faith inspired, even before the counterreformation.

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