These were compilations of works of Renaissance polyphony, including pieces by the great Elizabethan composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, transcribed in partbooks by John Sadler, a schoolmaster and antiquarian in Fotheringhay and Oundle from the 1540s to the 1570s, and the first headmaster of Oundle School.
The anthology that Sadler compiled in the 16th century, suggests a close association with the recusant community – those who refused to attend Anglican services. In part because it includes so many of Byrd’s works with Latin texts, but also because it contains many references to the point in the Catholic liturgy where the texts occur.
Sadler was outwardly an Anglican priest. But one is nevertheless justified in calling these works one of the last outputs in England of Catholic motets – that is, music that is set to a specific text in the liturgy, rather than the Anglican anthems, which is music that fits into a convenient gap in the liturgy.
Partbooks came in a set of five, and each book of the set would contain the score of one part. This meant that each part would have only that available to it as a score, and one would have to synchronise their part with the others, without the benefit of a complete score.
The musical abilities of those who used them must indeed have been remarkable. But the merit of the partbooks does not merely lie in the opportunity to wonder at the abilities of those who used them when they were written. Nor are they only important because they preserve some compositions by these masters that might otherwise have been lost. There are plenty of other lesser-known composers in the partbooks, who need the publicity. There is some of the juvenilia of Thomas Morley, who is not regarded as a recusant composer.
The Oundle International Festival this year will be very privileged to host Stile Antico to perform many of these pieces, and to demonstrate how partbooks work. This is a quite exceptional ensemble, twelve in number, but still without a conductor, just like the King’s Singers. But unlike that vocal group, Stile Antico is focused solely on performing Renaissance polyphony.
The absence of any conductor leads them towards a particularly collaborative, consultative style of execution, comparable to the method of a small chamber orchestra. What they require of themselves is very like what was required of cathedral, collegiate, and even parish choirs during the English Renaissance. They are thus very well placed to give a performance from the Partbooks (not the originals, of course).
The first set of Partbooks is at the Bodleian Library, complete, but is not available to be viewed. Of the second set, only the altus and tenor parts remain, and are in the Bodleian and a private collection respectively. The originals of Sadler’s Partbooks have now deteriorated to near illegibility, owing to the acidity of the ink in which they are written. That Stile Antico will be able to perform music from these scores this summer only is by the grace of modern, digital technology, which is able to recreate the original text.
Newcastle and Oxford Universities are collaborating on the project of restoring them in this way, and Dr Magnus Williamson of Newcastle will be present on 16 July as a collaborator in the historically-informed performance of Stile Antico.
Photo Credit: Bodleian Library: GB-Ob: MS. Mus. e. 1, fol.35v