The Peterhouse Partbooks : music at Cambridge in the early seventeenth century

Peterhouse. A view of the chapel across Old Court. Photo by Richard Andrewes

Peterhouse. A view of the chapel across Old Court.
Copyright Richard Andrewes.

The survival of 18 manuscript choir partbooks in the library of Peterhouse is an extraordinary historical and musicological tale. What they are, where they came from, and how they survived was the subject of a fascinating conference at the beginning of September, which will soon be published as a book. There are three sets of partbooks, alas all missing at least one book.

The oldest, known as the Henrician set, comprises four of five parts, which, as Professor Sandon revealed in his paper, was most probably copied circa 1541 for the newly established choir of Canterbury Cathedral subsequent to the abolition of its monastic foundation. It contains music by Tye, Tavener, Tallis, Ludford, Fayrfax, Aston and others. How this set came to be at Peterhouse is a mystery, but it most probably came via John Cosin.

The other two sets are closely associated with Matthew Wren’s newly built Peterhouse chapel (consecrated in 1633), and John Cosin’s development of high Laudian liturgy within its precincts. Cosin came from Durham to be Master in 1635 and immediately appointed as organist Thomas Wilson, a young protégé also from Durham. For the next few years Wilson acquired music from Durham, other composers, and composed pieces himself for the new chapel, and had these two sets handsomely bound with the college arms emblazoned on the front. But then the civil war came, and with the triumph of the puritans all that had been built up was destroyed. Though the college successfully hid the organ, music, stained glass, and altar furnishings from Cromwell’s iconoclast commissioner William Dowsing, Cosin’s puritan successor as Master, Lazarus Seaman, subsequently discovered and sold off the organ and furnishings. Amazingly the music manuscripts were not sold or destroyed, and were left in the Library.

In the 1850’s they were rediscovered and described and catalogued by John Jebb, and were unfortunately rebound. Then in 1926 three further volumes were discovered behind some panelling still in their original bindings and a new catalogue by Anselm Hughes published. By the 1960’s both these bindings and the 19th-century bindings were no longer in good condition, and for the last forty years most work on the manuscripts has been done only using photocopies in the Cambridge University Library made from a microfilm.

Now they have all been both rebound and digitised and the latter images are available through the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM). This is a free online digital image archive of European sources of medieval polyphonic music, which though it is primarily concerned with pre-1550 manuscripts, has extended its remit to include these manuscripts.

The exhibition mounted especially for the conference is still on show in the Ward Library until the 31st October 31st.

Open: Monday to Friday between 9 am and 5 pm. Outside these hours by appointment only. The Library entrance is off Little St Mary’s Lane, facing the back of Little St Mary’s Churchyard. Press the intercom buzzer for access.

You are strongly recommended to visit the Ward Library to see the original manuscripts and many documents relating to the building of the chapel and its early flowering as a Laudian centre.

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1 Response to The Peterhouse Partbooks : music at Cambridge in the early seventeenth century

  1. Pingback: Cambridge, oh musical city | MusiCB3 Blog

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