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  41:1 (09-10 /2017)
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Reviewer: James A. Altena


The somewhat unusual topic for this selection of sacred motets and lute songs is the first of Queen Mary of England’s two false pregnancies, this one occurring from November 1554 through July 1555. (The second one, in 1558, was probably related to the uterine cancer that took her life at the end of that year.) The supposed pregnancy was a matter of the greatest import for both England and international affairs. When Mary came to the throne in 1553, England had passed through a quarter-century of extreme religious tumult. Following unsuccessful efforts to obtain a papal annulment of his first marriage to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII through Parliament had imposed an idiosyncrati-cally conservative version of the Reformation in England. It recognized his divorce of Catherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn, rejected papal authority in the realm, and confiscated a good deal of church property, but otherwise still adhered to traditional Catholic doctrine. Following his death in 1547, the Protestant guardians of the boy king Edward VI (Henry’s son by his third wife, Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth) had advanced a thoroughly Protestant agenda through promulgation of the newly created Book of Common Prayer, a text that ranks alongside the 1611 Authorized (King James) translation of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare as one of the three seminal formative influences upon the modern English language.

However, Edward’s premature death at age 15 brought his older sister Mary, daughter of the disowned Catherine and a devout Catholic, to the throne. Although she initially announced a policy of religious tolerance, she quickly moved to resubmit the church in England to papal authority and undertook a bloody campaign of religious persecution that sent 283 Protestant martyrs to the stake within five years. In July 1554, in another move both to secure England to papal obedience again and to stabilize the royal succession by producing an heir, Mary also married Prince Philip of Spain (subsequently Philip II of Spanish Armada notoriety). While she was deeply enamored of her husband—a factor that may have contributed to the false pregnancy—he regarded her far more cooly in terms of a political alliance. Since Mary’s health was known to be frail, Philip repeatedly made efforts to negotiate an agreement to preserve his status as regent of England such that, if Mary died in pregnancy, he would then marry her half-sister and immediate successor Elisabeth, Henry’s daughter by the disgraced and executed Anne Boleyn. Hence the prospective birth of an heir to the throne by Mary was fraught with extraordinary political significance for cementing England’s renewed religious allegiance to Rome and political alliance to Spain. False rumors of the birth of a son on April 30, 1555, triggered premature celebrations in England among Catholics and a spreading of rumors to the Continent. Ultimately, Mary would die without producing an heir, Elizabeth would succeed her instead, and England would be secured for Protestantism thereafter.

Of the works featured in this release, one—the Sarum Litany of Thomas Tallis—is directly connected to Mary’s pregnancy, as surviving manuscripts have handwritten interpolations of intercessions for Mary and Philip. Unfortunately only two partbooks, for the medius and bassus, have survived; however, the tenor part is based on the traditional plainsong tone for the litany, and this allows for a plausible reconstruction of the two contratenor parts. Some of the other pieces—e.g., the Lassus motet, written to honor the newly appointed Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole—have associations with surrounding events or Mary’s court more generally. The inclusion of a Latin motet by Christopher Tye raises an eyebrow, since he was an ardent Protestant who was Edward VI’s music teacher.

Back in 33:6 I gave a rave review to the debut recording of Gallicantus, a disc of motets by Robert White, and J. F. Weber accorded a successor disc of works by Byrd and Monte a similarly enthusiastic greeting. While this new disc also deserves a welcome for its repertoire, my enthusiasm in this case is a bit muted due to some occasionally rough singing and patches of slightly off intonation—not many or serious, but just enough to be noticed. One hopes that next time out, more time and resources will be available for this ensemble to lend its efforts that last degree of polish which characterized its previous outings. That said, this disc still definitely warrants a recommendation. Full texts and translations are included, along with detailed booklet notes, illustrations, artist bios, and a table showing which members of Gallicantus sing in which pieces, all showing thoughtful care.

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