OBERT FAYRFAX, composer of some of the finest pre-Reformation English polyphony, died on 24 October 1521, making today a significant anniversary. My schola marked the date by singing parts of Fayrfax’s Missa Regali at Mass today. While Fayrfax composed several wonderful Mass settings and motets, the music’s length and complexity makes it fairly impractical for parish use, which is why we sang only excerpts. One exception to the massive scale of his music is the hymn I have included here, which I have adapted from the music examples of an anonymous, sixteenth-century composition treatise. This text is the old form (i.e., before Urban VIII) of the hymn for Saturday Vespers.
* PDF Download • “O Lux Beata Trinitas”
—Underlay and Arrangement for liturgical performance by Charles Weaver.
More on this hymn in a moment. First, I want to reflect on why Fayrfax is so little known. This has to do primarily with the history of the faith in England. It is instructive to reflect on how differently Fayrfax’s music and reputation fared from that of Josquin des Prez, who also died in 1521. Josquin’s music spread throughout Europe thanks to the rise of movable-type music printing in sixteenth-century Venice. Fayrfax’s music remained entirely in manuscript and circulated only in Britain. Josquin stands near the beginning of what we might call the golden age of Franco-Flemish polyphony, especially if we include the Spanish and Italian composers belonging to the succeeding generations. On the other hand, Fayrfax represents not a beginning but an end—the end of a long and continuous culture in England tied to medieval plainchant and piety. For a broad look at English Catholic culture in this period, I recommend Eamon Duffy’s classic The Stripping of the Altars. For a thorough treatment of the musical culture that came to a close with the English reformation, I recommend Frank Llewelyn Harrison’s excellent Music in Medieval Britain.
Fayrfax remained well-regarded long after his death and long after the religious culture surrounding his music had been utterly transformed by the Reformation. In a way, it is a miracle that, thanks to this reputation, we have any of his sacred music left at all, after all the iconoclastic destruction of the sixteenth century. If you haven’t listened to any of his sacred music, you should do so! You are in for a special experience. The complete works have been recorded by The Cardinall’s Musick, and the recordings are easy enough to find online. What makes me particularly enthusiastic about Fayrfax’s music is that the melodies are not tonally directed; they don’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. Consider how Palestrina’s melodies seem to have a logic and a purpose. Fayrfax’s lines are different. They remind me strongly of the way Dom Mocquereau, in his best passages, describes the spirit of plainchant. Fayrfax has the same sense of meandering; there is a logic but it is one that is immaterial and spiritual.
This hymn setting I’m sharing today shows this. I am posting this edition because the other editions available online do not really facilitate a liturgical performance. This makes sense, since this is not really a piece at all. Rather, this music comes from a set of instructions for making faburden, which is a sort of instant polyphony that was a widespread improvisatory practice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The first verse is a classic example of faburden; it represents the way a choir might have improvised polyphony when singing a hymn together. The chant melody (altered slightly) is in the third line from the top. The two upper parts double the chant at a third and a sixth above, matching the rhythm of the melody except at the cadences. The bottom voice sings alternately in thirds and unisons with the chant melody. In this way, a rather convincing polyphonic texture results. I could imagine learning to improvise this way as a choir, if everyone were versed enough in the style (the bass is the hardest but not impossible).
In the manuscript, the third verse set here is attributed to Dr. Fayrfax, as an example of more free faburden-like composition. It gives a clear example of his polyphonic style, but on a smaller scale than the Masses and large motets. I have underlaid the words; the original has none but the opening phrase “O lux beata Trinitas.” Notice that the tenor here is a free mix of the tenor and bass of the first verse, with some elaboration. In fact, the chant melody all but disappears! Still, I contend that this music is steeped in the ethos of chant, which will be apparent if you sing through it.
I hope that more parishes can be exposed to this lovely music in our sacred liturgy. Apart from this short hymn setting, I think more parish choirs should consider singing excerpts of larger works. Fayrfax’s motets, whose scores are mostly available online, are often of forbidding length, lasting a quarter of an hour or so. The good thing is that they are sectional. I have found evidence in sixteenth-century manuscripts (and in printed sources as well) that larger works like motets and Masses were frequently excerpted in manuscript sources. Perhaps singing one verse from a magnificat or a large motet could bring this wonderful music to more choirs today. Five hundred years after Fayrfax’s death, his music still can have a place in the same context for which it was composed.