Peter Philips (1560/1–1628) has long existed on the margins of English music. Resident in England until 1582, Philips spent the rest of his life in exile in the Netherlands. It is presumed that Philips’s Catholicism motivated this move, as Catholics were not permitted to openly practice their faith in England at the time.
As many scholars have observed, the long-term neglect of Philips’s music has been partly due to his separation from England’s choral tradition. Byrd, also a Catholic, did not suffer the same fate: unlike Philips, Byrd also composed English- language madrigals and Anglican church music in addition to his many Latin motets. Byrd remained linked to the English musical establishment, despite his faith. Besides keyboard music, Philips remained little-known in England. In recent years, he has begun to enjoy the acclaim he deserves as choirs rediscover his glorious motets. The present disc is part of this rediscovery.
After leaving England Philips secured the position of organist at the English College in Rome, and whilst in the city, it is likely that he would have had some contact with composers such as Palestrina, Marenzio, Anerio and Victoria. Philips’s vocal music is indebted to this ‘Italian’ style of composition, and has little in common with his English contemporaries – a further reason for its neglect.
Philips resided in Rome from 1582 until 1585, when he left in the retinue of Thomas Lord Paget (another exiled English Catholic). He settled in Antwerp in 1590, teaching the keyboard and composing instrumental music. In 1597, Philips moved to Brussels to take up the position of organist at the Archducal Court of Albert and Isabella, where he remained until his death. All of his sacred vocal music was published during this period: indeed the scholar David Smith has noted that Philips’s compositional career was carefully tailored to suit his patron’s needs. Read more
The majority of his compositions on the present recording are drawn from the collection Cantiones Sacrae Quinis Vocibus 1612, which contains some of Philips’s greatest music. Within this collection, Philips displays both his natural ability to write in a conservative contrapuntal style, and with experimentation of texture and rhythm which places him more rmly within the mainstream of early 17th- Century composition.
The motets Viae Sion lugent and Pater Noster are excellent examples of the former approach, avoiding sharp contrasts in texture, metre and rhythm in favour of smooth, owing lines. Pater Noster uses the ancient technique of composition based upon a cantus firmus (a plain-chant melody which runs through the entire motet) and is a serenely detached setting of the Lord’s Prayer. Viae Sion lugent displays a canonic texture, but its long plangent melodies also reflect the darkness of the text, taken from the Lamentations for Maundy Thursday. The final bars are particularly moving, as each voice enters to sing the words ‘and she is in bitterness.’
Similar in emotional intensity is Mulieres sedentes, one of Philips’s most beautiful creations. Its striking opening consists of a single major triad, held for five bars, from which the rest of the piece seems to emerge. The two soprano parts intertwine through-out in a heartfelt lament to the entombed Christ. Mulieres sedentes displays Philips’s mastery of the vocal medium, as he uses economy of means to achieve its effect: a mesmerising harmonic progression circles through the final stages of the motet, which ends in tranquility.
Beatus vir qui inventus est, is a complex piece which tackles a long and varied text. Philips responds with a wide variety of textures and rhythmic devices; his love of lively syncopated figures and dancing motifs is evident here! The highly intricate ‘Alleluia’ which ends the motet is a fine moment, as is the contrapuntal (ars perfecta) setting of ‘et perfectus est.’
Similar in approach is Cum jucunditate, which begins with a characteristic section in triple time. A clear sense of structure is in evidence in this motet, as the thoughtful setting of ‘devotissime’ alternates with the virtuosic ‘celebremus.’ More dancing syncopations return in the final section, which affirms the hope that the Virgin Mary will ‘intercede for us.’
Corona aurea and Veni, Sponsa Christi illustrate the heavenly coronation of martyrs with sumptuous music. The text of Veni, Sponsa Christi uses a passage from The Song of Songs to compare the Virgin Martyr being accepted as the ‘Bride of Christ’ with the earthly union described in the Biblical love poem. The opening, set for upper voices, seems to suggest the Bride, whilst the overlapping cantus parts of ‘in paradisum’ create a radiant texture. This motet exhibits a clear structure, with well-defined sections and repetition of material. A similar radiance is felt in Corona aurea, where Philips adds an imitative ‘alleluia.’ More widely known is Ave verum corpus; we have included it on this recording because of the work’s outstanding quality.
Only two pieces from Cantiones Sacrae Octonis vocibus 1613 have been included here. It is believed that Ecce tu pulchra was written for the marriage of Albert, Duke of Austria to Isabella of Spain. Both set texts based upon the Songs of Songs and exhibit a similar use of scalic, fanfare-like guration and chordal exchanges between the two four-part choirs. They are also similar in style to the madrigal Qui sott’ombrosi mirti, which was written in celebration of the marriage. Paratum cor meum, Domine probasti me and O Maria domina nostra are all taken from Philips’s last and largest collection Paradisus Sacris Cantionibus. This was the culmination of his extensive exploration of the solo/ ensemble motet (the previous collections being Gemmulae Sacrae and Deliciae Sacrae).
It has been suggested that these pieces may have been written because of a shortage of singers in the Netherlands and the necessary funds to pay them. Much of this music is unknown, and only a little has been published. The melodic style of Domine probasti me is simple but neat, full of rhetorical gestures and word-painting. In Domine probasti me Philips illustrates the words ‘If I climb up to heaven, thou art there: if I go down to hell, thou art there also’ with aptly rising and falling phrases, whilst ‘extremis’ is given the highest note of the piece.
O maria domina nostra is also harmonically straightforward; much of the melodic and harmonic material is repeated in sequence (rising or falling by step), giving the soloist the opportunity to characterise each individual phrase. It features three dance-like sections in triple time, including a beautiful ‘Alleluia.’ Paratum cor meum is one of Philips’s most adventurous and ‘progressive’ motets, scored for three tenors often singing in close imitation. There are sections in which each voice has a separate ‘solo,’ and the motet ends with a rousing ‘Exultare super caelos.’
Aspects of performance
Contemporary sources reveal that the Chapel Choir available to Philips in Brussels consisted of twelve chaplains, six boy choristers and two or three organists. It is possible that the organists would have sung with the choir. It seems likely (taking evidence such as the Galle Engraving into account) that extra singers and instrumentalists were used at least for important occasions.
In 1617, Philips’s publisher Phalèse issued editions of the 1612 and 1613 collections with organ continuo parts. It has been argued that because the original manuscripts did not contain an organ part, and owing to the number of errors in the 1617 part, continuo accompaniment was not viewed as essential to performance. We may assume that any organist accompanying Philips’s motets would already be familiar with the music, using their memory and ear as much as the written-out part! On the present recording, we felt that, in the absence of brass instruments, the organ accompaniment adds weight and grandeur to the two eight-part motets performed.
Motets from the 1612 collection have been left unaccompanied; their beauty and intimacy is such that instrumental accompaniment seems superfluous. Corona aurea has been recorded with smaller forces to illustrate the adaptability of this repertoire to differing ensembles.
It is my Belief that there is no ‘definitive’ way to perform 16th- and 17th-Century vocal music and that attempts to recreate ‘authentic’ choral sounds are problematic. Contemporary sources suggest that musicians of Philips’s day were flexible, practical and imaginative in performance. The present recording unashamedly uses a mixed-voice choir; using the resources available to us, we aimed to capture the spirit of Philips’s music, rather than an ‘authentic’ sound. The disc was compiled from two separate recording sessions; in both cases the numbers of singers per part range from 1 to 6.
It has been a privilege to explore Philips’s music this year and a wonderful journey for Convivium Singers; we have discovered much about ourselves as musicians through this exceptional music. We hope that our commitment to and enthusiasm for Philips’s music will inspire more performers to explore his rewarding repertoire.
(Alexander Norman, 2011)