To be an English composer in the 16th century was a risky business. Monarchs came and went, changing the state religion every time the Crown passed on. And if you valued your head, you kept it down: as seems to have been the case with Nicholas Ludford, one of the less famous Tudor composers whose life – from about 1490 to 1557 – saw him through the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. A rollercoaster ride of princes if there ever was one.
We don’t know much about Ludford’s life, and until fairly recently we didn’t know too much about his music either: it was overshadowed by the more familiar names that followed him such as Tavener, Tallis and Byrd. But two decades ago the Cambridge academic David Skinner took Ludford on as a cause. There was a batch of recordings from the ensemble Skinner co-founded, The Cardinall’s Musick, that kick-started some interest. And a brand new Ludford disc has just been released by the choir of Westminster Abbey under their director James O’Donnell – prompted by the fact that, as he says, “this was what you could call a local boy, based in Westminster and writing music for the various institutions, governmental and ecclesiastical, that functioned here in the 1500s”.
To the best of everybody’s knowledge, Ludford was never employed by the abbey itself, but he had connections with St Margaret’s Church next door (ending up buried in its vaults). And for some years he bore the office of Virger (which seems to have involved musical duties) at St Stephen’s Chapel: a part of the old Palace of Westminster that had its own substantial religious foundation comprising a dean,
12 canons, 13 vicars choral, four “singing men” and six boy choristers.
“As a building,” says O’Donnell, “St Stephen’s was not unlike the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, with an upper and a lower chamber. Upstairs you’d get the grand royal services. But underneath was the Lady Chapel – which survives and is still loosely called St Stephen’s, though its proper designation is the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. And we assume it was for there that Ludford wrote a complete cycle of Lady Mass settings for every day of the week: a uniquely interesting thing because it’s probably the only cycle of its kind that survives.”
Many Catholics today will know about the concept of the Lady Mass. But in pre-Reformation times it had a greater currency. Medieval England acquired a particular devotion to the Virgin; large monastic and collegiate establishments usually had a separate Lady Chapel in which a daily votive Mass to the Virgin would be sung. And “sung” was the word – because the Lady Chapel, as opposed to the rest of the building, was where the real development of liturgical music took place.
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