Early Music 33.3 (2005) 523-524
One of Tudor England's most eminent composers, Robert Fayrfax (1464–1521), is at last fully emerging from the shadows, thanks to a variety of recent enterprises. First came a series of recordings of his complete works, sung by The Cardinall's Musick and issued on the ASV label during the later 1990s. In 2003 the Roxburghe Club published a luxurious full-colour ... [Show full abstract] facsimile of The Arundel Choirbook (better known as the 'Lambeth Choirbook'; London, Lambeth Palace Library, Ms.1), in which most of Fayrfax's sacred music is to be found. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Roger Bray has long been at work on these same pieces, editing them for the series Early English Church Music. Volume 1 of his edition was welcomed in this journal last year (see Roger Bowers's review in EM, xxxii/3 (Aug 2004), pp.471–3), and volume 2 must now be greeted with equal warmth—not only for its own sake, but also for the way it complements the other enterprises. With recordings, facsimile and editions all now readily to hand, the resources needed to explore Fayrfax's music could hardly be bettered.
There are two Masses in Bray's second volume: the Christmastide Missa Tecum principium, and the Missa O quam glorifica, which Fayrfax submitted to Oxford University in 1511 as his exercise for the degree of Doctor of Music. Tecum principium, which is superficially the more attractive and accessible work of the two, needs only passing mention here, since the issues that arise in it barely differ from those faced by Bray when editing Fayrfax volume 1. O quam glorifica is quite another matter. Indeed, this Mass probably makes greater demands on the editor, on the typesetter of the volume, on the silent reader of the book, and on the singer, than any other work that has ever been published or will ever appear in the pages of Early English Church Music. By its very nature, the piece virtually defies representation in a notated score, and compromises are inevitable. The following remarks set out to explain (1) why this situation arises, (2) how Bray's edition tackles the problem, and (3) what might still be done to communicate the essence of this strange and elusive work.
First, a few words of context. In Fayrfax's day, composers supplicating for a music degree from the universities of Cambridge and Oxford were required to submit a notated composition that showed off their skills, not only through the invention of sound itself, but also through the handling of more arcane matters, such as mathematical plans underpinning the music, demonstration of the less-trodden notational byways of the mensural system, and the use of erudite verbal instructions (or 'canons'), through which riddles in the written notes might be solved. Only one of these exercises survives in its original notated state, the anonymous Missa O quam suavis (Cambridge, University Library, Ms. Nn. vi. 46), and it is certainly a fine display of notational learnedness, no matter how tedious the music itself may be to the listening ear. Roger Bray now convincingly shows that Fayrfax's Missa O quam glorifica—a much more satisfying piece in sound—also once existed in 'academic' garb as a dazzling display of notational trickery, held together by a clever mathematical plan. But the notation and canons of the original degree-submission state of the work are lost, and instead the piece survives only in 16th-century copies that 'translate' its arcane notation and canonic instructions into a simplified form that any competent musician could read. Hence Bray's dilemma. On the one hand, he has to imagine a lost archetype that was full of puzzles and (literally) multicoloured notation. On the other hand, he has to convey the sense of the work in a form that will communicate to readers today.
Compromises are legion. According to Bray's hypothesis, the copy of the Mass submitted to Oxford by Fayrfax, in choirbook format, probably used...