Political music in the shadow of plague

I am working on Sinfonia, a piece for large ensemble inspired by the sound of English music from c.1400-1600. Performance by the New Music Players at the Warehouse, London on Fri 28 Sept. http://nmp28sept.eventbrite.com

Have stumbled across Stella celi attributed to John Cooke, which is a 'three-voice descant motet' in the Old Hall Manuscript. Initially I heard this on youtube in a short but elegant performance by three male voices and enjoyed the characteristic parallel shapes and curious cadences of the period - with delicate touches of third based harmonies in the middle of phrases rather than at the end. So fitting in to my aesthetic preoccupation with early English polyphonic music which is genuine, yet perhaps at times a little too abstract. But now I read that this Latin text was a fervent prayer to the mother of God to save the population from the terrible effects of the plague. It was a monophonic chant in various versions before it became the subject of composition for several 15th century composers, Cooke amongst the first. A fascinating article by Christopher Macklin reflects on the story of this text and its associated chants and compositions and suggests that it is through these manuscripts we can glimpse the shadow of the plague under which so many lived. Further, Cooke was a member of Henry V's household chapel in 1413. Macklin states that Cooke travelled to Agincourt with the king and was present at the historic victory over the French in 1415.


Being interested in early English music is much more than just abstract appreciation of beautiful polyphonic sounds in Gothic cathedrals. It leads you to histories that are messy, compromised, painful, vivid and political.


So here I have two connections - one within this project and one outside this project: on the one hand, I have just completed a turbulent overlay or recomposition of the Agincourt carol, which Cooke might have sung and who knows maybe even helped to write; on the other hand, the notion that the experience of plague was expressed through performance and so that historical experience is transmitted and can be understood through art is one that is completely relevant to the work of my colleague Prof Jackie Cassell.


Now I've started work on my own Stella celi movement - just beginning. I began by transcribing the original into notation that I can handle.


Realising rapidly this is the underlying structure for the composition. Probably needs to be slowed down (the original composition takes less than 2 minutes to perform). This will create space for things to happen between the notes. Gradual accretions and ornamentations that almost take over and begin to occlude or even transform the original, perhaps. But it's early days. I like generating or perhaps enriching the found material by creating a series - in this case a chromatic series which is unexpectedly implied by chromaticism in bar 1 of Cooke's tenor. I used this turning idea as the basis for my series which follows the shape of Cooke's tune but expands it to give the beginnings of fluid and fantastical flow:


The series then begins to inhabit the original, initially as decoration.

Ed Hughes