Dr Edward Wickham

Artistic Director Edward Wickham

Artistic Director Dr Edward Wickham wrangles with notational challenges as he celebrates the 550th birthday of St Catharine’s College with performances of works from the time the College was founded in 1473.

Greetings from St Catharine’s College; and – if you are reading this on November 25th – Happy St Catharine’s Day! This year’s is a special celebration because it is the 550th anniversary of the College’s foundation in 1473; and St Catharine’s Day is deemed to be the birthday of the College. In those days it was St Katherine Hall, and was the pet project of Robert Woodlarke, the Provost of neighbouring King’s College. It is said that Woodlarke covertly appropriated funds from King’s to pay for the new establishment – which was to cater entirely for senior academics, without undergraduate students; but nothing has ever been proven.

As a scholar of this period of music, I’ve been interested to find out more of the music which was current at the time of the College’s foundation; and – most importantly – to have it performed again. There was no polyphonic choir at St Katherine Hall when it was founded – we assume services in the small chapel were sung to chant. But there was plenty of music in honour of St Catharine around at that time; after all, she was a popular saint in Renaissance Europe, famed for her scholarship and defiance of pagan tyranny.

One such piece is a mass by Walter Frye, which is based on a plainchant ‘Nobilis et pulchra’, which is part of the monastic liturgy for the feast-day of St Catharine. But the one that is closest to home is a huge motet by an otherwise unknown composer – Fawkyner – which appears in the famous ‘Eton Choirbook’.

Compiled for King’s College’s sister institution, the Eton Choirbook contains examples of the most elaborate and sophisticated polyphony of the later 15th century. We know that much of the repertoire was also sung at King’s, and we know also that Fawkyner was based at King’s during the 1480s, shortly after the foundation of St Catharine’s. This motet – entitled Gaude rose sine spina – is, on the face of it, a tribute to the Virgin Mary; but Magnus Williamson, whose work on the Eton Choirbook has done so much to advance our understanding of the manuscript, has identified the melody of the tenor part as being another St Catharine chant. So this is a motet for Mary, customised and re-appropriated for Catharine. I would like to think that Fawkyner, in composing it, had in his mind a tribute to the smaller college recently built on his doorstep.

I have got together a group of singers to perform the Frye mass and the Fawkyner motet in services this week, as part of our anniversary celebrations. One problem remains. About a third of the way into this huge motet, we get an extraordinary passage of rhythmic turbulence, where – in modern notation – everything is off the beat. The cause is pictured: the tenor part contains a series of notes which are half white, half black; and the time signatures (those Cs and the circle with the dot in it) go haywire. It’s a real head-scratcher, because the composer could easily have got the same effect with more conventional notation. As so often in this music, the way the music is expressed on paper (or parchment in this case) goes beyond the mere conveying of musical information. There is something symbolic going on, and I’m determined to find out what.

Wish me luck!

Dr Edward Wickham

Director of Music, St Catharine’s College
Artistic Director, Cambridge Choral Academy




Cambridge Choral Academy