Bringing Old Music to Life: Recording Christopher Tye’s The Actes of the Apostles

September 02, 2017
Anne Heminger

This summer, I had the opportunity (thanks to a bit of extra research funding) to have the music of sixteenth-century English composer Christopher Tye’s The Actes of the Apostles professionally recorded. This publication is one of the central musical sources for my dissertation, which investigates, among other things, the role printed music played during the English Reformation.

First, some background on the work: in 1553, at the end of the reign of King Edward VI, the Chapel Royal composer Christopher Tye set the first fourteen chapters of the Book of Acts in metrical verse, writing a new musical setting for each chapter. These are short, strophic pieces, probably originally designed for court performance, but Tye did something quite unusual for an English composer at this time: he had his settings printed in a small volume clearly meant for domestic use. The settings range in style from fairly homophonic to quite imitative; the final setting is a double canon at the fourth. Although Tye was an important figure in the history of English music, this collection remains quite under-studied in the scholarly literature, and there are no recordings available.

This project was one I’d been hoping to undertake for quite some time, and July provided the perfect opportunity as my archival research wound down. Although each setting has many, many verses, in the interests of time (and to cut down on the amount of recording needed) we recorded only the first verse of each setting—perhaps not ideal from a listening perspective, but it still offers a sense of what each piece would have sounded like.

Though all of the settings are interesting in their own right, the one I find most striking is the one for Chapter 13, whose text describes the evangelizing work of Barnabas and Paul in Asia Minor. The music is hauntingly beautiful—Tye’s masterful grasp of suspensions and dissonance are particularly apparent here—and the cadence at the end is quite surprising. If you’d like to hear the first verse of Chapter 13, do so here:

The recording was made with Christine Buras, soprano; Rebekah Jones, alto; David Condry, tenor; Ben Rowarth, bass; and Patrick Allies, conductor. Recording by Alex Barnes (Apple and Biscuit Recordings LTD).

—Anne Heminger

Anne Heminger is a sixth-year PhD candidate in Historical Musicology working with Stefano Mengozzi. Her dissertation, “Confession Carried Aloft: Music, Sound, and Religious Identity in London, 1540–1560,” investigates the intersections between music, officially sanctioned orthodoxy, and the religious heterodoxy that marked English life under Edward VI and then Mary I.