Dr Edward Wickham

Choral Director Edward Wickham

Cambridge Choral Academy Artistic Director, Dr Edward Wickham, shares insights on Cambridge music education in the 16th century from manuscripts in the University Library.


One of the most impressive musical artefacts in the Cambridge University Library is a large, thin volume containing around two dozen parchment bi-folia. Viewing the unpromisingly titled MS Nn. vi. 46 in the flesh (and remember that parchment really is flesh) was the climax of my lecture series to second-year music students studying the history of musical notation; but it conveys so much more than musical information. In particular, this manuscript is an early example of a practice in music education that continues to this day: the tradition of the ‘portfolio of compositions’.

The mass and motet transmitted in MS Nn. vi. 46 is likely to be by a composer called Flude or possibly Lloyd. We can’t be sure, because he conceals so much information in impenetrable riddles. Similarly the music is presented with complex canons, such as ‘sing the black notes first, then go back to the start and sing the red notes’, which means that the singers will have had to do their homework before singing it. Flude is clearly showing off. He is demonstrating – quite possibly to an examiner – that he is worthy of being awarded the degree of MusB or DMus.

Another, more notable, composer of the period who was awarded a Cambridge degree was Christopher Tye. It is thought that his Mass ‘Euge bone’ may have been intended to impress the examiners; and on our Cambridge Choral Academy Retreat in September we will be singing one of Tye’s most exuberant motets, Omnes gentes plaudite, composed in what was at the time the cutting-edge style of imitative polyphony. And undergraduate music students in the 21st century continue the tradition of Flude and Tye: producing portfolios of compositions for examination.

Nowadays, students may present either pastiches of earlier styles – a venerable tradition of ‘homage’ to the great composers of the past – or works in their own voice. While they might not aspire to the same elegance as Flude’s portfolio, they are often innovative and challenging. I am reliably informed by a former Professor of Composition that back in the rebellious ‘70s a student submitted as part of their composition portfolio a dead fish. You will be relieved to hear that this singular work is not on the repertoire list for the September course.

John Lloyd (also Floyd or Flude) (c1475-1523)

We know little about John Flude (or Floyd or Lloyd), but he was part of the Chapel Royal, court musicians to English royalty, in the 16th century around the reign of Henry VIII. Lloyd was either English or Welsh, and he was a priest. He served the parish of Munslow in Shropshire from 1508, and not long afterward, in 1510 or so, he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and went to court.

If you’d enjoy a weekend Singing Retreat exploring choral music with us and staying in a Cambridge college, simply apply to Cambridge Choral Academy using our online form.

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