Contrapunctus: A Brief History of Mass

St Gregory’s Centre for Music, Friday 21st October
Concert: 13:00-14:00; Masterclass: 15:00-16:30

Canterbury Festival 2022


Dum Transisset Sabbatum – John Taverner
Kyrie – Alastair Borthwick
Vigilate – William Byrd
Gloria – Alastair Borthwick
Ne Irascaris, Domine & Civitas Sancti Tui – William Byrd
In Jejunio et Fletu – Thomas Tallis
Credo – Alastair Borthwick
Emendemus in Melius – William Byrd
Sanctus – Alastair Borthwick
Quemadmodum – John Taverner
Agnus Dei – Alastair Borthwick
Ad Dominum Cum Tribularer – William Byrd

This concert places a new Missa Brevis by Alastair Borthwick in the context of 16th-century English sacred music, with works by John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, and William Byrd. Music both ancient and modern is interspersed with readings in Old and Middle English that relate to the Latin text of the Mass, painting a broader picture of the world out of which musical Mass settings emerged.

The Swan Consort

is an elite vocal ensemble specialising in presenting the music of the European Renaissance alongside new music by diverse voices in the present day. Recent engagements include a tour of Spain (2022), Brighton Early Music Festival (Young Artists 2021-2022), Ryedale Festival (2020, 2021), and The Royal Opera House, Mumbai (2020).

Natalie Houlston, Rosa Sparks (Soprano)
Lewis Cullen, Matthew Farrell (Countertenor)
Robin Datta, Dominic Wallis (Tenor)
Jonathan Hill, Lucas Maunder (Bass)
Anita Datta (Artistic Director)

Follow us on social media @theswanconsort

Alastair Borthwick

Alastair Borthwick is a composer and musicologist based at the Canterbury Christ Church University (UK), where he is a professor and Head of the School of Creative Arts and Industries. He originally trained as a physicist at Imperial College London while studying composition privately with John Lambert at the Royal College of Music. Music soon became the main focus of his activity, and a PhD in music (funded by the British Academy) from King’s College London followed.

His compositions include music for soloists, instrumental ensembles, choirs and orchestras, which have been performed across the UK and Continental Europe, Turkey, China, Hong Kong and the USA. Commissions have been funded by organizations including Arts Council England, Performing Rights Society, and Beijing Modern Music Festival. They have ranged from concert to liturgical and film music. His liturgical music has been performed in the USA and in various churches across the UK. His published musicological work includes writing on music theory and analysis, music and theology, and British music since 1945.

Anita Datta

Anita Datta is a conductor, organist, and soprano particularly known for her work with voices. She is founder and Artistic Director of The Swan Consort. A former Organ Scholar of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, she has held various liturgical and educational positions across the UK. She is an alumna of the Women Conductors programmes of the Royal Philharmonic Society and the Royal Opera House, and currently holds a scholarship in Orchestral Conducting at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Born in East Yorkshire into a multi-faith and multicultural household, Anita is a champion for cultural change in the Western Classical Music sector at large. She sits on the board of English Touring Opera and the National Centre for Early Music, and is a Doctoral Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Durham.

Note from the Artistic Director

Contrapunctus” is not a word that would have been familiar to vernacular speakers in Ancient Rome; it was invented at a much later point of time to refer to the art of layered melodies creating polyphonic or fugal textures, particularly in a sacred music context. In a similar way, Alastair Borthwick’s Missa Brevis is not the High Latin Mass of 16th century Europe, but rather emerges from the context of the motet writing of that era. We are delighted to present this new work alongside some of the most wonderful works of the Tudor English sacred music repertoire.

We begin the programme with Taverner’s setting of the Third Responsory for Easter Sunday, Dum Transisset Sabbatum. The text describes Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome’s coming to Jesus’ tomb at sunrise to anoint him with sweet spices. Taverner’s rising intervals and golden harmonies paint the dawn: his retention of the plainsong between iterations of the “Alleluia” foreshadow Borthwick’s use of plainsong-like motifs as a melodic device in the Missa Brevis.

Byrd’s Vigilate is a masterclass in the construction of sonic landscape, traversing the emotional and atmospheric range of the text and demanding virtuosity of the performers as it does so. Notice the tender settling harmonies of “sero, in media nocte” (“in the evening, in the middle of the night”), contrasted with the almost comically proud “an gallicantu” (“at the crowing of the cockerel”) and the haughty insistence of “quod autem dico vobis, omnibus dico” (“and what I say to you, I say to all”).

After Borthwick’s Gloria, the sequence enters a more meditative mode. In Ieiunio et fletu,
Tallis makes striking usage of repeated notes and tones, as if in an intonation, both invoking the
priests in the narrative of the text and creating a sobbing effect within the harmonic resonances. Prayers or text intoned on a single note, as in the very earliest Christian and Jewish plainsong traditions, creates the musical effect of a drone, with the words throbbing in a measured adaptation of the natural speech rhythm. The legacy of this ancient musical tradition appears prominently in Borthwick’s setting of the Credo, while the shorter Sanctus and Agnus Dei are anchored around more familiar chordal harmonies than the earlier expositions. We finish with the Byrd’s explosive setting of Psalm 120, Ad Dominum cum tribularer. It exemplifies in glorious eightpart polyphony the power of a style of writing that showcases the individuality of outstanding voices, whilst raising them further to a level that is greater than the sum of their parts.

Note from the Composer

A characteristic of much of my music involves shifting between styles, usually signified harmonically, but in a manner that is contained within a range of techniques that provide an overarching coherence. For instance, triads such as C, F, B – which obviously fall within a tonal or modal space – are also central to a lot of atonal harmonies. I often use such chords as a way of mediating between harmonic worlds. Similarly, the idea of voice exchange, so important in tonal music, is used in a very generalised way so that similar voice-leading patterns can be present in very different harmonic contexts. You will often hear a note sounding against another note that, in tonal common practice, would be the note of resolution. And when the note resolves linearly, it swaps places with the note of resolution against which it was sounded in the first place (usually at a different octave register). These false resolutions are mostly combined with linear patterns in the music and in this sense harmony arises out of the individual lines, rather than being chordal in a way that can be isolated from the linear context. Such techniques find parallels in some of the Renaissance music within which the new Missa Brevis is immersed (e.g. false relations arising out of linear patterns), albeit in a more generalised way. But the techniques used also reference earlier musical styles too. While Renaissance composers distanced themselves from the organum style of earlier generations, for instance, for me parallel movement of any interval arising from lines that are independent in other respects is normal, as long as they are part of a general intervallic mix.

Writing with reference to the English choral tradition (and that of its roots) appeals to me in a number of ways. The texts set can be responded to in a wide range of expressive and technical modes that cover over 600 years of music, a kind of musical time machine. Indeed, in the shadow of so much polyphonic perfection the range of expressive signifiers available now is probably the main reason for writing music of this kind. But other reasons include re-thinking the emphasis given to particular words, which can inflect the meaning of the text overall. Consider how different settings over the centuries have responded to the word Gloria in comparison with the word Deo: this was certainly something I reflected on in my setting of the Gloria. Another reason for engaging with these texts might be their re-structuring in a setting to suggest a particular interpretation, as evinced by the texture used in the Credo. Just how this works is something best listened out for, rather than described.

Note on the Texts

The texts chosen in support of this programme reflect the harmonic union of the music. When we speak of “referencing the past” we acknowledge its ongoing presence: as the techniques in the Missa Brevis absorb and rearticulate those found in early music, the texts show a similar mediation between worlds. Rather than rejecting in their entirety the pagan art forms dominating pre-Christian Europe, we witness a fascinating interplay between the two cultures.

In almost any medieval church you need only turn your head upwards to discern little Green Men peering out through the stone foliage. The glorious motets composed for Christian worship abound with strains of Late Medieval European folk music: they can be especially heard in Byrd’s Vigilate with the ascending “cock crow” motif at “an galli cantu”. Yet nowhere is this union better exemplified than in the literature of the High and Late Middle Ages. By absorbing the vivid tales of the Celtic Britons, even the most chivalric Romances sing out in celebration of the life and fertility at the heart of our most primal forms of worship.

Programme note by Dr Amy Albudri

Thank you for joining us today. Please keep in touch with us by following us on social media, and signing up to our mailing list to receive information about future performances.



Dum transisset Sabbatum,

Maria Magdalene et Maria Jacobi et Salome

emerunt aromata ut venientes

ungerent Jesum. Alleluia.

Et valde mane una sabbatorum

veniunt ad monumentum orto iam sole.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto

And when the sabbath was past,

Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome,

had bought sweet spices, that they might come

and anoint him. Alleluia.

And very early in the morning the first day of the week,

they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.


nescitis enim quando dominus domus veniat,

sero, an media nocte, an gallicantu, an mane.

Vigilate ergo, ne cum venerit repente,

inveniat vos dormientes.

Quod autem dico vobis, omnibus dico:


Watch ye therefore

for you know not when the lord of the house cometh,

at evening, or at midnight, or at the cock crowing, or in the morning:

Watch therefore, lest coming on a sudden,

he find you sleeping.

And what I say to you, I say to all:


Ne irascaris Domine satis,

et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.

Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.


Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.

Sion deserta facta est,

Jerusalem desolata est.

Be not angry, O Lord,

and remember our iniquity no more.

Behold, we are all your people.


Your holy city has become a wilderness.

Zion has become a wilderness,

Jerusalem has been made desolate.

In jejunio et fletu orabant sacerdotes:

Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo, et ne des hereditatem tuam in perditionem.

Inter vestibulum et altare plorabant sacerdotes, dicentes: Parce populo tuo.

In fasting and weeping the priests prayed:

Spare, O Lord, spare thy people, and give not thine inheritance to perdition.

Between the porch and the altar the priests wept, saying: Spare thy people.

Emendemus in melius quae ignoranter peccavimus;

ne subito praeoccupati die mortis,

quaeramus spatium poenitentiae, et invenire non possimus.

Attende, Domine, et miserere;

quia peccavimus tibi.


Adjuva nos, Deus salutaris noster, et propter honorem nominis tui libera nos.

Let us amend for the better in those things in which we have sinned through ignorance;

lest suddenly overtaken by the day of death,

we seek space for repentance, and be not able to find it.

Hearken, O Lord, and have mercy: for we have sinned against thee.


Help us, O God of our salvation, and for the honour of thy name deliver us.

Ad Dominum cum tribularer clamavi,

et exaudivit me.

Domine, libera animam meam a labiis iniquis et a lingua dolosa.

Quid detur tibi, aut quid apponatur tibi ad linguam dolosam?

Sagittae potentis acutae, cum carbonibus desolatoriis.

Heu mihi, quia incolatus meus prolongatus est! habitavi cum habitantibus


multum incola fuit anima mea.

Cum his qui oderunt pacem eram pacificus; cum loquebar illis, impugnabant me gratis.

When I was in trouble I called upon the Lord: and he heard me.

Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips: and from a deceitful tongue.

What reward shall be given or done unto thee, thou false tongue:

even mighty and sharp arrows, with hot burning coals.

Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell with Mesech: and to have my habitation among the tents of Kedar.

My soul hath long dwelt among them:

that are enemies unto peace.

I labour for peace, but when I speak unto them thereof: they make them ready to battle.




Confessio Amantis (1386-1390)
John Gower

Incipit Prologus


Of hem þat writen ous tofore

Þe bokes duelle, and we þerfore

Ben tawht of that was write þo:

Forþi good is þat we also

In oure tyme among ous hiere

Do wryte of newe som matiere,

Essampled of þese olde wyse,

So þat it myhte in such a wyse,

Whan we ben dede and elleswhere,

Beleve to þe worldes eere

In tyme comende after þis.

Bot for men sein, and soþ it is,

Þat who þat al of wisdom writ

It dulleþ ofte a mannes wit

To him þat schal it aldai rede,

For þilke cause, if þat ye rede,

I wolde go þe middel weie

And wryte a bok betwen þe tweie…

…So woll I now þis werk embrace

With hol trust and wiþ hol believe

God grante I mot it wel achieve.





Of those that wrote before us,

The books remain. And we therefore

Are taught from that which was written.

Therefore it is also good that we also

In our time among us here

Do write of some new matter,

Exemplified by these wise books,

So that it might in such a manner,

When we be dead and elsewhere,

Be left behind for the world’s ear

In time coming after this.

But since men say, and true it is,

That they who write only words of wisdom,

Often dull a man’s wit

Especially one who reads it all day.

For that same cause, if you agree,

I will go the middle way,

And write a book between the two… (1-18)

…So will I now this work embrace

 With whole trust and with whole belief

 God grant I might it well achieve. (90-92)


Caedmon’s hymn (658 – 680 CE)



Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard,

metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc,

uerc Uuldurfadur, suē hē uundra gihwaes,

ēci dryctin ōr āstelidæ

hē ǣrist scōp aelda barnum

heben til hrōfe, hāleg scepen.

Thā middungeard moncynnæs Uard,

eci Dryctin, æfter tīadæ

firum foldu, Frēa allmectig





Now we ought to praise the Guardian of the heavenly kingdom,

The might of the Creator and his conception,

The work of the glorious Father, as he of each of the wonders,

Eternal Lord, established the beginning.

He first created for the sons of men

Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;

Then the middle-earth, the Guardian of mankind,

The eternal Lord, afterwards made

The earth for men, the Lord almighty.


Sumer is Icumen in (c.1250) Anon.


Sumer is icumen in

Lhude sing cuccu

Groweþ sed

and bloweþ med

and springþ þe wde nu

Sing cuccu


Awe bleteþ after lomb

lhouþ after calue cu

Bulluc sterteþ

bucke uerteþ

murie sing cuccu


Cuccu cuccu

Wel singes þu cuccu

ne swik þu nauer nu


Sing cuccu nu • Sing cuccu.

Sing cuccu • Sing cuccu nu




Summer has arrived,

Loudly sing, cuckoo!

The seed is growing

And the meadow is blooming,

And the wood is coming into leaf now,

Sing, cuckoo


The ewe is bleating after her lamb,

The cow is lowing after her calf;

The bullock is prancing,

The billy-goat farting

Sing merrily, cuckoo!


Cuckoo, cuckoo,

You sing well, cuckoo,

Never stop now.


Sing, cuckoo, now; sing, cuckoo;

Sing, cuckoo; sing, cuckoo, now!


The Tales of Caunterbury


And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blissful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen whan that they they were seeke.




And specially, from every shire’s end

Of England, down to Canterbury they wend

To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick

To give his help to them when they were sick


9)         Pearl (c.1400) Anon


A blysful lyf þou says I lede;

Þou woldes knaw þerof þe stage.

Þow wost wel when þy perle con schede

I watz ful ȝong and tender of age,

Bot my Lorde þe Lombe, þurȝ Hys Godhede

He toke myself to Hys maryage,

Corounde me quene in blysse to brede

In lenghe of dayes þat ever schal wage.

And sesed in alle Hys herytage

Hys lef is; I am holy Hysse –

Hys pyese, Hys prys; and Hys parage

Is rote and grounde of alle my blysse.



Thou sayest a blissful life I know,

And thou wouldst learn of its degree.

Thou rememberest when thy pearl fell low

In earth, I was but young to see;

But my Lord the Lamb, as if to show

His grace, took me His bride to be,

Crowned me a queen in bliss to go

Through length of days eternally;

And dowered with all His wealth is she

Who is His love, and I am His;

His worthiness and royalty

Are root and ground of all my bliss. (409-420)


Reading: from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1390)



Now þat bere þe croun of þorne,

He bring vs to his blysse!       









And now may He who wore the crown of thorns bring us to His bliss!    AMEN.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *