If so much of the music which originally surrounded John Browne had not been lost over the course of time, his style might seem less extraordinary today. As it is his writing is extreme in ways which apparently have no parallel, either in England or abroad. Compared with the ebullient William Cornysh, Browne is subtle, almost mystical, despite his colossal textures; compared with him Robert Fayrfax and Nicholas Ludford seem pedestrian. Where Jacob Obrecht made compositional history by writing in six parts in his glorious Salve regina, Browne wrote in eight in O Maria salvatoris. And although this piece would soon be rivalled by Robert Wylkynson in his nine-voice Salve, it is known that Wylkynson only tried this because the Browne was there to beat.
All the evidence suggests that Browne simply set out to make more expressive than before all the elements of composition which he had inherited: harmony, melody and sonority. Sonority is the one which will strike the modern listener most forcefully, not only in the eight-voice textures of O Maria salvatoris, but in the way every piece on this disc is scored for a different grouping. O Maria salvatoris (TrMAATTBB) may seem remarkable, but so in a different way are Stabat iuxta (TTTTBB), O regina mundi clara (ATTTBarB), not to mention the more ‘normal' Stabat mater (TrMAATB) and Salve regina I (TrMATB). Every piece represents a new sound-world within which Browne was able to deploy his incomparable grasp of sustained melody. This is another extreme: the sheer length of Browne's lines gave him rare opportunities for graceful contours, arabesques and embellishments - never have vocal lines been so seductive. And underneath, as with any composer of sustained melody, there is a completely reliable use of harmony, relatively simple compared with later composers with this talent, but always fitting the melodies like a glove, whether shaping cadences or adding a chromatic inflection to heighten the mood. It is those chromaticisms which represent the third extreme.
All the music on this disc is to be found uniquely in the earlier folios of the Eton Choirbook, dating from about 1490 to 1500, whose index tells us that originally there were ten more pieces by Browne in the collection. Of these five are completely lost, two more are incomplete, and the remaining three were too substantial to include on this disc. The five which we have recorded are all quite similar in one respect: their overall length and division into two clearly delineated parts, the first in triple time, the second in duple. The architecture of these halves is also similar: each building slowly to its final cadence through reduced voice sections, leading to the full choir at full throttle - this is even true in the gentle Stabat mater. With the Salve regina, for example, Browne was careful to convey the reflective nature of the text for most of its length, but eventually allowed the final ‘Salve' full reign, building through thirty-five bars of melisma to a trumpet-like open fifth on the last chord.
The Salve regina and the Stabat mater are the pieces which for years have maintained Browne's reputation as a composer. They are both highly expressive, though for many commentators the Stabat mater is the supreme masterpiece of the period, contrasting dramatic writing with contemplative passages in an emotional world of contrasts thought to have surfaced first with Monteverdi. Certainly there is nothing so wide-ranging in a single work by Palestrina. The drama breaks through the surface at the word ‘Crucifige', which Browne hammers into place before turning inwards again with the phrases which follow: ‘O quam gravis' (‘O how bitter was your anguish'). This quartet, at such a sensitive moment in the text, is one of the most perfect examples of Browne's art: at fifty bars in length its melodies are able to unwind as if time has stopped, an effect heightened by the use of slow triplets.
But perhaps the piece which sums Browne up most perfectly is the Stabat iuxta. Its scoring (TTTTBB) has probably militated against frequent performances, but it is just that scoring which makes such an impact. With six voices operating within a compass of less than two octaves the opportunities for dense, almost cluster chords are unrivalled. The use of low thirds in chordal spacing is not encouraged by text-books of correct polyphonic procedure, but Browne simply could not avoid them with this scoring, and they are thrilling. Density of sonority leads to other delights, like false relations and other dissonances, which characterize much of the piece and culminate in the final bars. John Caldwell, in Grove's Dictionary, does not overstate the case when he writes: ‘In the penultimate bar a particularly harsh form of false relation between the first, third and fourth voices is notated quite explicitly and insisted upon in a way which was most unusual in this period.' And this is in addition to the power of the melodies themselves.
O regina mundi clara has a very similar effect to Stabat iuxta, the sonority adjusted a little by adding an alto voice to the array of lower sounds, but with no decrease in the intensity of the writing. The coup de grace is once again delivered on the final chord by adding a chromatic note - F sharp - which has scarcely been heard before in the whole piece. Perhaps coup de theatre would be a better expression.
Finally we come to the biggest antiphon of them all - O Maria salvatoris - which was held in Browne's lifetime to be so remarkable an achievement that it was given pride of place in the Eton Choirbook, as the opening item. Since there was no precedent for eight-part polyphony it must in some measure have been experimental, though one looks in vain for signs of immaturity. In general the eight-voice sections are shorter than the full sections to be heard elsewhere on this disc, but for fluency of utterance one need listen no further than to the opening phrase, which just sets the two words ‘O Maria'. The wonder contained in those first bars sets the emotional scene for music which can rival anything to come from Europe at that time.
© 2005 Peter Phillips