The Seattle Compline Choir and its English roots

Eton Choirbook

Opening of the O Maria salvatoris mater, by John Browne, in the Eton Choirbook (c. 1490)

Before I begin today, I wanted to announce that my new web site is up and running: www.complinereflections.com To get on my mailing list to receive notifications of this blog posting, just go to the “Contact me” page and fill in your email address.  Tell your friends!

I’m posting this on Sunday, March 6.  It’s the last Sunday of Epiphany, but also the first Sunday of the month, and the Renaissance Singers of Seattle are singing Compline tonight at 7:00 p.m., via a live video stream (hope you can watch!).  It was partly a concert of the Renaissance Singers that I attended last week, as well as the arrival of a CD that I had ordered, that prompted me to write about the origins of the Seattle Compline service today.

The Renaissance Singers concert featured music of the Eton Choirbook, a manuscript preserving the repertory of large English churches and collegiate chapels from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  The English had a special musical genre called the “votive antiphon”, a substantial piece of music that was sung in pure devotion, usually dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and sung in the Lady Chapel right after Compline.  Listen to the beginning of a typical composition from the Eton Choirbook, a “Salve Regina” by William Cornysh.  Pieces like this are substantial, lasting between 12 – 14 minutes, and are extremely elaborate, with long “athletic” phrases.  I can imagine the whole community of the collegiate church or chapel going off afterward, observing the “great silence”, with this offering of great beauty resounding in their heads, lulling them to sleep.

The CD that arrived in the mail was by the Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron, and consisted of five pieces from the Peterhouse Partbooks, which preserve the English repertory from a little later, up to 1540, but the votive antiphon was still a large part of the collection.  It’s probable that the partbooks were copied for Canterbury in 1539-40, when it was being converted from a monastery to a Cathedral.  It was during the time of Reformation that the uniquely English service of Evensong was created; this combined Vespers and Compline, and the tradition of singing a beautiful anthem at the end was maintained at Evensong until today.

The founder of the Compline Choir, Peter Hallock, studied in 1949-50 at the Royal School of Church Music, which at the time was housed in Canterbury.  In order to learn plainchant, the students sang Compline from a little booklet published by the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, and they would periodically go down to the resonant crypt of Canterbury Cathedral and sing Compline.  When Peter started the Compline Service in Seattle in 1956, he used the same booklet, and this is what we have been singing from ever since.  And we always do an anthem at the end of the service, out of this English “ethos”.  It is a time when we offer something of great beauty, and something that lingers in my mind as I drive home, go to sleep, and prepare for another work-week.

In 2000, the Compline Choir traveled to Canterbury Cathedral to sing Compline there, and go down to the crypt, where it all started, and sing an anthem.  But that’s another story.

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  1. #1 by Gregg M. Carder on March 6, 2011 - 5:45 pm

    Ken – During the St.Thomas Choir tour of England two years ago, we stayed at Windsor Castle for a few days and sang at St. George’s. While we were there, John Scott arranged for the men of the choir to tour Eton College. While we were at Eton, we had the great privilege of viewing one of the volumes of the Eton Choirbook in Eton’s incredible and vast library of ancient, priceless volumes. What a masterpiece of caligraphic art it is; beautifully crafted with ornate illustrations, and in pristine condition. I hope to come out to Seattle sometime in the next several months, and I hope that I’ll be able to sing Compline with you all while I’m there. Best wishes, Gregg…

  2. #2 by Ken Peterson on March 7, 2011 - 9:10 am

    Nice to hear from you, Gregg. Look forward to your visit to Seattle. How would you like to do a guest blog on the Compline scene in NYC?

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