Sacred Music and St Stephen’s: Listening to Ludford

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Created on Friday 7th July 2017 by:
Dr John Cooper

As a historian of sixteenth-century England, I have always been interested in the relationship between church, state and art. It would be hard to imagine a... Read more

Looking back on the St Stephen’s Project, there have been numerous high points during our four years of research. That first tour of the Palace of Westminster, threading our way through endlessly fascinating corridors of art and power; standing on a desk (don’t tell) to get a closer look at the Tudor royal iconography in St Stephen’s cloister; eating lunch in the Terrace cafeteria, with George Scharf’s 1834 painting of the fire-ravaged Palace hanging incongruously above the sauce bottles. But for me, a lasting memory will be the day in June 2015 when we brought the sacred music of Nicholas Ludford back to the site of St Stephen’s Chapel for the first time since the Reformation, sung by the choir of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge. Thanks to a grant from the University of York’s Strategic Initiative Fund, we were able to employ a professional film crew to record this unique event. You can watch and listen here.

Nicholas Ludford was among the last generation of musicians to know St Stephen’s as a functioning royal chapel, before it was closed and cleared to become the meeting place of the House of Commons. The sung (as distinct from chanted) liturgy had defined the collective life at St Stephen’s since Edward III’s foundation of the College in 1348, and sacred music continued to flourish there in the early sixteenth century. The twelve canons and thirteen vicars choral were supplemented by four lay clerks and seven choristers, enabling a sophisticated musical repertoire. Ludford was appointed verger and organist in 1527, making him effectively the chief musician in the chapel. He would have sung as well as playing the organ, and he might well have led the feast-day processions which connected the upper and lower chapels. Elizabeth Biggs has argued that St Stephen’s was the working home of the Chapel Royal, overlapping with it in function and personnel. Ludford contributed to the rich mixture of liturgy, sound and ceremony advertising the piety of the English monarchy. And yet he is barely remembered outside specialist academic and musical circles, which made it all the more satisfying to be able to bring his music back to Westminster.

Major research projects demand a lot of planning, but luck can sometimes also play a role. A chance meeting at a conference (in Hull, with musicologist Magnus Williamson) led to a meeting at another conference (in Tours, with director of the Caius College Choir Geoffrey Webber) and the idea of a joint event at the Palace of Westminster. The upper chapel of St Stephen was destroyed in the Palace fire of 1834, but the lower chapel survived sufficiently intact to be restored as a place of worship in the nineteenth century. Now known as St Mary Undercroft, its richly opulent decoration was the work of Edward Barry, son of architect of the new Palace of Westminster Sir Charles Barry. As a Royal Peculiar, St Mary Undercroft comes under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch. For our concert to go ahead, that meant an application to the monarch’s representative in the Palace, Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. Fortunately the current holder of that honour, David Leakey, is a keen member of the Parliament Choir. Access was granted, the Speaker’s Chaplain gave her own blessing, and an eclectic mixture of academics, Members of Parliament and Westminster staff were treated to a wave of sound which at times was almost overwhelming.

That the concert should be sung by the choir of Gonville and Caius was particularly apt. The manuscript now known as the Caius Choirbook, one of our principal sources of Ludford’s music, was commissioned by canon of St Stephen’s Edward Higgons and may have been presented to the chapel to mark Ludford’s appointment as chief musician. Caius choir was already planning a CD featuring Ludford and other music connected to the Palace of Westminster dating from Henry VIII’s reign, now available from Delphian Records. We were able to use the St Mary Undercroft concert as a research exercise in itself, testing out the relationship between the organ and the choir in liturgical music of this period – a feat requiring impressive improvisation skills from Magnus Williamson. In the language of the Research Excellence Framework, this was a piece of practical academic research and an impact event rolled into one.

What did Nicholas Ludford think about the conversion of St Stephen’s, where he sang and played the organ for more than twenty years, to become the meeting place of the House of Commons? Any hopes that the Catholic Queen Mary might reinstate St Stephen’s College on her accession in 1553 were soon dashed. The temporary restoration of Westminster Abbey did not extend across the road to its old rival St Stephen’s, and plans for the 1554 Parliament to meet at Oxford were changed back to Westminster at the last minute. Burgesses and knights of the shire flocked back into the upper chapel of St Stephen’s, as they would continue to do until the destruction of the medieval Palace of Westminster in 1834.

Ludford had a good pension, owned property, took the opportunity to marry. He remained physically close to his former place of work, taking a house next to New Palace Yard and serving as churchwarden of St Margaret’s Westminster. Whether he continued composing or singing is not known, although it might be relevant that (according to David Skinner, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) the texture of Ludford’s music had already been losing touch with the latest developments in polyphony in the 1530s and 40s. Following his death in 1557, his mass settings were soon forgotten. Modern performers and musicologists gravitate more to the great Elizabethans Tallis and Byrd, who sustained devotional music in both the Chapel Royal and the households of recusant Catholic gentry.

But for a historian, Ludford’s musical reputation (or lack thereof) isn’t really the point. To listen to Ludford is to eavesdrop on the authentic sound of the English church on the eve of the Reformation: alternately intimate and soaring in scale, with a warmth of feeling that draws the congregation into the liturgy rather than distancing them from it. To have brought the music of Nicholas Ludford back to a chapel which he might have recognised, nearly five hundred years since he began his singing career in St Stephen’s, was a moment of connection that I will not forget.