Paul Johnson. Sacred Choral Music and Solo Songs
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The Prioress in Spring


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Two groups of solo songs complete the CD. Soprano Adey Grummet gave the first performance of The Prioress in Spring, as did Countertenor Charles Humphries with Exposures, three settings of poems by W.H. Auden. Nigel Kerry provided the organ accompaniment on each occasion.

The spiritual and the earthly come happily together in the five Prioress songs, with Chaucerʼs Canterbury pilgrim, Madam Eglentyne, providing the starting point for the set. The poet casts an amused eye on her petty foibles; the double entendre of the motto on her brooch, ʻAmor vincit omniaʼ is reflected in her Tango with its quotation from Wagner, the Love motiv from The Ring cycle.
Chaucer also provides the text for the Waltz for St. Valentine. The sun has driven away ʻthe long nightʼs blackʻ and Madam Eglentyneʼs passionate invocation to the saint reveals more than a touch of envy at the chirruping birds as they welcome the warmer days.
The prioress gets back on her righteous track for A Hymn to Jesus. The lyric is by the Norfolk priest-poet Richard of Caister (fl. c.1400), rector of Sedgeford who, when serving at St. Stephenʼs in Norwich, attempted to dismiss the mystical Margery Kempe when she called on him for an hour of spiritual converse. “Whatever can a woman know of theology that can take an hour?” she records in her famous Booke. He very soon found out!
An Ostinato for the Queen of Heaven takes its text from two of the many poems written by Charles, Duc dʼOrleans during the twenty-four years he spent in captivity in England, a royal prisoner taken by Henry V at Agincourt.
The Hundred Years War raged throughout the fictional life of Madam Eglentyne, “Cease these wars and send us peace”, wrote Richard in the previous song; echoed here, Charles writes, “Priez pour paix, le vrai tresor de joie”. In the end England lost almost all its French gains. The song is built over a recurring bass. The middle section is a rustic interlude, with Eglentyne welcoming the outriders of Summer (“Allez-vous-en Hiver! Les fourriers dʼEste sont venus” - “Begone Winter! The forerunners of Summer have arrived”.
Sumer is icomen in has survived from the late Twelfth century right up to modern times as a four-part round over a two-part bass - the earliest piece of six-part writing. It was among the great collection of manuscripts from Reading Abbey. John of Forncett a Norfolk monk who was the abbeyʼs ʻlibrarianʼ, has been attributed with its composition, but there is no evidence to support this claim. The prioress yields to the lyricʼs exuberant and sometimes earthy bluntness to bring her songs to a gloriously high ending.