back to news

Chapel Royal, release Pelham Humfrey: Sacred Choral Music

Friday, 26 February 2021

The choristers of HM Chapel Royal James’s Palace, who are all educated at CLS, have released 'Pelham Humfrey: Sacred Choral Music'. Here, Joseph McHardy, Director of Music, HM Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, explains in details how the recording came about, along with its history:

"Pelham Humfrey (1647–1674) was one of the pupils’ and one of my predecessors, being first a Child (as it's known) and then Director of the Chapel Royal in the reign of Charles II. He was also the first of the post-Restoration (the Chapel was revived in 1660) choristers to mature into a composer. He was given money to travel to France to absorb the style of Chapel music there – Charles II wanted a court that could rival in the splendour that of his cousin Louis XIV. Humfrey returned (quite arrogant, according to Pepys’s diary) from France and set about writing music for the Chapel services. What was really obviously French about it all was that there were string instruments playing in the pieces, as well as voices. Humfrey was not the first Chapel Royal composer to do this, but he was the first one to do it well, blazing a trail for Purcell and Handel in later generations. What’s exciting about this repertoire is that the notes on the page are just the start – you have to do loads of detective work.

We wanted to explore how the music might have sounded if you fill in the blanks a bit. To explain that, you need to accept that European classical music until the mid 19th Century expected and relied on the performers to add their own improvised ornaments to the written score. If you look at 17th and 18th C scores, they’re really light on detail – almost skeletons really. So we wanted to know what kind of vocal decorations the Chapel Royal might have added to this music when it was fresh on the page in front of them. We looked at, and practised vocal ornaments from the singing instructionals produced around the time that we knew were around in London and/or Paris and used them to inform our approach.

We also gathered an amazing group of string players, who are experts in this kind of music and are playing on instruments from the time or close copies of them. The viola we used is the earliest surviving viola to be made in England (c 1640) and had only just come out of restoration in time for the recording. Previously, it had been hanging in a barn in Canada! The sessions took place between 27-29 Jan last year.

We chose three big anthems with strings, almost cantatas, and put between them some of the more reserved music Humfrey wrote, albeit with lots of improvisatory ornaments!"

The piece has been reviewed in various papers with glowing comments such as: "we bring a new sense of style to the music of this period" and The Times saying they were "luxuriously ornamented". Congratulations! 

We chose three big anthems with strings, almost cantatas, and put between them some of the more reserved music Humfrey wrote.
back to news