The Peterhouse Partbooks
From Peterhouse Chapel Choir
The Peterhouse Partbooks consist of some seventeen books and transmit English sacred choral music. The music for individual voices is presented in separate volumes: a practice common throughout the Renaissance when voices gained individual characteristics after the fall in the popularity in the so-called Notre Dame school, which began in the late twelfth century, and before the early Baroque, when the score format with which we are today familiar, was renewed. The partbook format is a logical extension to the practice employed by as diverse composers as Ockeghem and Machaut, whereby separate voices are presented in separated areas of a manuscript opening. The practice is more founded on practical principles than artistic: it takes less time to copy one part per partbook than four, five, six, eight or, in some cases, even more; less paper is used and the books produced are easier for a chorister to handle than the bulkier scored books. Of the seventeen surviving books, four (of an original five, a tenor book is missing) transmit music which sets texts entirely in Latin; the rest are predominately in English, though with some exceptions, and fall into two subcategories: namely, the ‘Former’ and the ‘Latter’ sets. Though, as we shall discover, the titles are little more than taxonomic labels pinned to the sets to facilitate our identification of any given book in the broader context of the collection. The two broad categories (i.e. the exclusively Latin-texted partbooks and those that also include English texts) are called the ‘Henrician’ and ‘Caroline’ sets respectively.
As Hughes has convincingly argued, the Henrician set is likely to date from c.1540-2. He bases this claim on a number of arguments which leave little room for manoeuvre. First, one should consider the dates of the composers transmitted in the set and their periods of most activity. Amongst them are Christopher Tye (1497-1572), Thomas Tallis (1505-85) and John Merbeck (1510-85) which, coupled with the absence of William Byrd (1545-1623), suggests a date in the first half (or at least two thirds) of the sixteenth century and at least later than c.1535. Further, the absence of any post-Reformation influences anywhere in the sources lends weight to the argument for a date in latter part of the reign of Henry VIII (b.1491-1547). More, the use of ‘black full’ notation rather than ‘black void’ suggests a pre-mid century dating when black void superseded black full on the largely practical grounds of economy of time, ink and avoiding the ‘see-through’ common with the larger quantities of ink used for black full. Finally, by c.1543 it is unlikely that such a collection of books would have been produced because of the increasingly obvious impending political situation would have made such a move imprudent. Thus a date in the early fourth decade of the sixteenth century seems most likely for these books. Significantly, these books antedate the building of the College Chapel and thus have been assumed to be related to the church of Little St Mary’s (then St Peter’s Without), which served as the college chapel. What is more, it seems that these books, in sharp contrast to those of the Caroline set, have not been used extensively. This is discernable thanks to the pristine condition of the books and various mistakes that remain uncorrected, highly unlikely in a ‘performance’ copy.
A detailed study of the music transmitted in the Henrician set is beyond the boundaries of this essay and, in any case, it predates the time of Wren and Cosin when the Peterhouse Chapel Choir was founded.
The Caroline sets, however, are highly pertinent. They are fourteen in number, though a further four are presumed missing. Of the Former set Tenor Decani , Contratenor I Cantoris and Tenor Cantoris are lost. Similarly, Contratenor Cantoris of the Latter set is also missing. Between them, some 41 services are transmitted, 125 anthems and three motets, though imperfectly in some cases as the quantity of missing books attests.
The nomenclature adopted by scholars in ‘Former’ and ‘Latter’ is at best misleading. In truth only a few years, if any time at all, could separate these manuscripts. The foundation on which the decision to name the books in this manner is self-admittedly shaky. ‘For want of better terms,’ writes Hughes ‘they are distinguished throughout this catalogue as the Former and the Latter sets, though there is really little difference in their dates, if any’ . The key difference between the sets that can help us to date them is the preponderance of the music of Thomas Wilson in the Latter set and its opacity in the Former. Thomas Wilson, though his dates are unknown, was the first organist in the newly consecrated chapel at Peterhouse and, it seems, something of a composer . The larger body of works clearly required time to compose and it is assumed (though not proved) that Wilson’s output was directed at the Peterhouse chapel: thus suggesting a later date for the Latter set. The organist’s position at Peterhouse was created in November 1635 to train ‘pauperes scholares’ in sacred music and to play on feast days and at evensongs.
The Caroline Partbooks are constituted, unlike the Henrician set, of diverse fascicles of different sizes, hands and qualities. It is clear that not all of the music was copied with Peterhouse in mind. The Taverner Missa Sine Nomine, for instance, is written in a hand dating from the mid-sixteenth century. Moreover, some pieces appear to have been copied by the hands of students and some by the composers themselves: for example, the signature of Henry Loosemore (c.1600-70) organist of King’s College 1627, appears at 123v in MS475. It is, however, clear when these books were purchased and therefore likely to have begun to be used: in 1635, the year of the chapel’s consecration, £40 is registered in the college accounts for ‘Libri Chorales’ . Tantalisingly, this figure seems extraordinarily large for the eighteen or so books that have come down to us. It hints at a larger collection of books, now lost, that was once in the possession of the College.
Matthew Wren; John Cosin; the building of the chapel; its furniture &c.
In 1626, Matthew Wren, uncle of the famed Christopher Wren, became master of Peterhouse. A position he held for the next eight years to 1634 when he was called to Hereford to take up the bishophood there. Over his tenure as master, he was able to raise funds for the new College Chapel and have it built, the dedication service being held on March 17, 1632. Up to that point, the adjoining church of St Peter’s Without had served the College since its foundation as its Chapel, but by the early seventeenth century the time was felt apt for the College to have its own chapel. Amongst the reasons for the need for a new chapel was listed ‘the inconveniences arising from the use of the neighbouring church; the irksomeness of being obliged to go beyond the College precincts in winter before sunrise, and after sunset in the evening; and finally, the facilities offered, under such conditions, to more disorderly members of the college of extending their rambles through the town during the rest of the evening’ .
After Wren’s departure, he was succeeded by his friend and supporter John Cosin (1594-1672), who remained master for ten years until 1644. His Laudian sympathies were well documented at the time and a number of accounts have come down to us now, offering a glimpse into Peterhouse services in Cosin’s time. ‘In Peterhouse Chappel there was a glorious new Altar set up, and mounted on steps, to which the Master, Fellowes, Schollers bowed, and were enjoyned to bow by Doctor Cosins, the Master, who set it up … There were basins, candlesticks, tapers standing on it, and a great crucifix hanging over it … There was likewise a carved cross at the end of every seat, and on the Altar a pot, which they usually called the incense pot; the Master, Fellowes, and Schollers of that House, at their entering into and going out of the Chappell, made a low obeisance to the Altar, being enjoyned by Doctor Cosins under a penalty (as they reported) to doe it; and none of them might turne their backs towards the Altar going in nor out of the Chappel’ (spellings have been retained from the source). Significantly, a paper in Cosin’s hand is preserved, according to Walker, in the College Treasury, which records the donations made to the Chapel Fund between 1626 and 1649 and how the money was spent. Between Cosin and his wife, some £680 was donated, an enormous sum for the day. The money was spent on a number of things, Cosin notes, ranging from the ‘wider structure’ [ampliorem structuram], a ‘pneumatic organ’ [organum Pneumaticum] (£140) and ‘choir books’ [Libros chorales] (£40). Finally, it is noted that some £130 was spent on ¬chori subsellia (choir stalls). These stalls remain in the College Chapel to this day, though with some additions. Ackermann’s History of Cambridge (1815) reproduces the College Chapel in print and shows at that time there to be no ‘horsebox’ stalls in front of the main stalls running the length of the chapel, nor were the stalls mounted on the alter steps in situ at this time. The choir therefore must have stood in two single rows on the floor level stalls, allowing the congregation to sit above and behind in the raised stalls. Little is known of the organ donated by Mrs Cosin except that it seems to have been relatively plain in design (Cosin notes that the decoration of the pneumatic organ [Ornatus organi pneumatici] is yet to be completed as he wrote in 1639). This aspect of the chapel’s history is likewise in need of serious study before firm conclusions can be drawn. At best, we can merely conjecture that an organ of maybe two or three stops was fitted in the gallery where the current organ (1765 with later additions) stands, though it would have taken significantly less space than the present model.
The manuscripts Medius Decani, Contratenor II Decani and Contratenor I Cantoris are unique in the collection in that they are unnumbered in the mid-nineteenth century numbering system that the rest of the collection are numbered under. This is because at that date they were counted as lost and remained so until 1926, when a college servant, George Witt, discovered a space behind the panelling of the Perne library that had been used as a cupboard of storage space at some point in the distant past. Professor Butterfield, the contemporary Perne Librarian, investigated the space and over a prolonged period of a number of months, the three books were uncovered. The length of time this took to find is a testament to amount of dust that had evidently been building up there since 1642. The books were hidden, like much of the College’s precious possessions, to protect them from the advances of the puritans. The pipes and ‘great bellowes’ of the organ were similarly hidden in the Perne Library, Hughes reports. Much of the remaining panelling of the Perne Library, Chapel and the current Dean’s set (then John Cosin’s set) has remained to my knowledge unexplored. It is certainly possible, though perhaps not probable, that the lost books may still be hidden about College, waiting to be unearthed.
Matthew Dunn Senior Organ Scholar 2006-2010
The Partbooks can now be viewed online at the Digital Image Archive of Mediaeval Music  under the Perne Library, Peterhouse section.