In the age of the camera, some acts of cultural destruction have been seared into our collective memory: the bonfires of books forbidden by Nazis, the smashing of Chinese treasures during the Cultural Revolution, the Taliban detonation of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
These images came to my mind on Sunday in an unlikely setting: at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan, during a choral concert by the ensemble Blue Heron that was part of the series Music Before 1800. That’s because this beguiling program of expressive and richly ornate polyphonic works from the English Renaissance constituted an encounter with survivors of a much older cultural cataclysm.
Under the title “The Lost Music of Canterbury,” Blue Heron presented works drawn from a collection of manuscripts called the Peterhouse Partbooks, named after the University of Cambridge college where they are kept. These offer the single most important window into English music of the 1530s and ’40s. Like other forms of English culture nurtured by Catholic institutions, much of this music came to be lost in the upheaval that followed Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Libraries were destroyed, and books, torn of their precious bindings, were sold off in bulk.
A blizzard of manuscript paper came to be used — as one contemporary, using an old term for privies, described it — “to serve theyr jakes, some to scoure candelstyckes, and some to rubbe their bootes.” The works performed by Blue Heron escaped such ignominies because a chorister from Magdalene College, Oxford, copied them out for use in the newly reconstituted Canterbury Cathedral. They eventually made their way to the library of Peterhouse, where they survived yet another wave of destruction — that wrought by the Puritans in the 1640s.
Preserved inside the partbooks are pieces by well-known composers, like John Taverner. Some works are what scholars call unica — meaning they don’t exist in any other source. In some cases, they stem from the pen of a musician who left no other trace at all.
For instance, virtually nothing is known about Arthur Chamberlayne, the composer of a spirited setting of the “Hail Mary.” In Blue Heron’s fresh and full-bodied reading, single words — “Jesus” and “salve” (“hail”) — popped out like bright speech bubbles amid a thicket of arabesque counterpoint. As Scott Metcalfe, the ensemble’s director, said in remarks from the stage, that single antiphon constitutes the complete works of Chamberlayne.
But Blue Heron’s devotion to this repertory — the ensemble has recorded five albums of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks — is not justified only by its rarity. This is vivid and radiant music. That it can be heard again at all is because of the dogged commitment of Nick Sandon, a British musicologist who spent four decades reconstructing the scores. (The book containing the tenor voice of these five-part compositions is missing, as are a few pages of the treble’s.)
With two or three singers to a part and women stepping into the shoes of boy choristers, Blue Heron brings a zesty and sensual sound to these works of devotional music. Nicholas Ludford’s “Salve Regina” is a joyous tangle of long, florid lines with the occasional tangy dissonance illuminating a single word. Hugh Aston’s “O baptista vates Christi” is a rhythmically buoyant work full of forward-driving energy and elegant harmonies.
To Mr. Sandon, quoted in a program note, the partbooks have become “a reminder of the catastrophe that English music suffered in the late 1540s and early 1550s, when a very highly developed, confident and ambitious musical culture and the infrastructure that sustained it were brought to an end virtually overnight, and most of its works and much other evidence of its activity were deliberatively destroyed.”
Scholars will have to decide how much English music history needs to be adjusted to account for the wealth of discoveries embedded in these lone survivors. To a lay listener, the feeling that most resonates is one of vindication, tinged with melancholy.