Brussels 5557: Masses by Frye and Plummer


Masses by Frye and Plummer from the Brussels 5557 manuscript.

The manuscript Brussels 5557 was probably compiled for the marriage of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Margaret of York in July 1468. A number of illuminations, including one at the start of Missa Flos Regalis, develop a theme of chastity and fidelity which accords with the nuptial spirit.

However, the music itself belongs to the 1450s or even earlier. These masses are the late-bottled vintage of a style which, in a poem of circa 1440, Martin le Franc refers to as ‘la contenance angloise’. They are harmonically rich and fruity, but built to last.

The two masses on this recording are complemented by motets by a thiurd English composer, John Bedyngham.


The Clerks’ Group
directed by Edward Wickham

Release date:4th Nov 1999
Order code:SIGCD015
Barcode: 635212001523

Classics Today

Scholars poking around in old manuscripts are always finding interesting things to share with eager performers and listeners. Often these gems are fragments and snippets that must be reconstructed or supplemented with texts and/or music presumed to be appropriate, based on contemporary practice and other authenticated evidence. There’s some of that here in this program that features two masses taken from the famous 15th century manuscript known as Brussels 5557, interspersed with several three-part songs from other sources of the same period. A Kyrie had to be supplied to the Walter Frye Missa Flos Regalis and confusing questions of text-setting had to be worked out for John Plummer’s Missa sine nomine; for some of the songs–by John Bedyngham, Frye, and anonymous–performance directions missing from the manuscripts had to be surmised. For experienced listeners to early vocal music, the masses will reveal their composers’ innovative and often bold and surprising techniques in both structure and harmony. The songs are interesting as representatives of pieces that were popular both in England and in continental Europe and as such were subjected to different text adaptations. Frye’s "Alas, alas, alas" is popular enough even today to merit inclusion on several recorded early music compilations already in the catalog.

The Clerks’ Group, which includes a total of seven singers used in various combinations, takes some time to warm up to its chosen program. The opening Frye mass lacks the convincing ensemble, decisive tempos, and confident vocal interplay demonstrated by the Hilliard Ensemble in its own rendition for ECM. The Clerks do hit their stride with the last two songs in a group of three by Bedyngham, "Fortune alas" (performed with male alto and two tenors) and "Mi verry joy" (female alto and two tenors); and the singers really come together in Plummer’s delightful and sometimes quirky mass, with its five almost exactly equal sections. Perhaps this agreeable music is just better-suited to the voices and sensibilities of these particular performers; perhaps it’s also the middle-to-lower register setting that makes it fall so well on our ears. Mike Clements’ excellent engineering also helps create a complementary listening environment for these pieces, which adequately fill several of the many holes in the early music discography.

David Vernier

American Record Guide – November/December 2000

By most standards, this belongs in the collections section, as an anthology with a very specific focus: a manuscript in the Bibliotheque Royale Albert I of Brussels, No. 5557. So you will thus find this release titled simply "Brussels 5557", and doubtless filed in the anthology bins. Digging in to that manuscript, Wickham has extracted two Masses by English composers active or known on the Continent in the third quarter of the 15th century. One is the four-voice Flos Regalis Mass by Walter Frye (14??-1475), its absent Kyrie replaced by a troped specimen (‘Deus creator omnium’) found in Sarum Chant. The other is the Sine Nomine Mass by one Plummer (14??-c.1487).

To these two major works Wickham has added (drawn from other sources) six three-voice English-language songs whose attributions have varied between Frye, John Bedyngham (1422-60), and Anonymous. The program thus extends much beyond the professed focus on the Brussels manuscript and gives us a cross-section of music by mid-15th-century English composers important beyond their own homeland in their day.

Little is known about the life of Plummer – not even his first name – though he must have been an interesting personality, judging from the strikingly experimental character of his three-voice Mass. Only a bit more is known about Bedyngham, and hardly much ore about Frye. We do know that Frye in particular was held in high esteem by his French colleagues, regarded as the pre-eminent exponent of what was called la contenance angloise or "the English personality" as a stylistic influence in music. Collectors will find that the contributions of Frye are the important elements in this program, and for that reason I have headed it under his name.

For all its importance, the music of Walter Frye has not often been recorded: very rare representation in anthologies and only two full records all to himself. In 19782 the enterprising if unsubtle Alejandro Planchart recorded a full LP of Frye’s music for Lyrichord: a different Mass and seven shorter pieces, including three of the English ballads recorded by Wickham. In 1992 four members of the post-Hillier Hilliard Ensemble made a Frye program for ECM. That release offered the same Flos Regalis Mass as here, its four preserved movements interspersed with Frye’s five surviving three-voice Latin motets, plus a French rondeau and the same three English songs Planchart treated. Planchart’s recording is long gone and presumably beyond recovery now, but the Hilliard program is the clear competition. In the directly duplicated material, the Hilliards and Wickham’s group are fairly well matched: if anything, the former are just a tad more interested in flowing lines, whereas the latter give a slightly more inflected texture to their singing. Wickham’s pool of seven singers (two females, five males) allows him in the Mass just a bit more sonority than the four Hilliards muster – thought not much.

In truth, of course, the ECM record and this admirable new Signum release are complementary and anyone willing to probe into the less-familiar byways of late-medieval-early- renaissance music will find Wickham’s program – part of a series for Signum exploring the contents of important manuscripts 0 a fascinating new treasure chest.


Goldberg, Winter 2000

Unless you are a musicologist, you are probably going to be confused by the title of this disc. Brussels 5557 refers to a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels that contains music by Busnois, Ockeghem, Dufay, Regis and masses by the English composers: Plummer, Cox and Frye. At the time of their composition, the English masses in the manuscript were daunting works and the centuries have done little to dilute their power.

To my knowledge there haven’t been many recordings of masses by either Frye or Plummer, so this is a particularly welcome release. Walter Frye’s (d.1474) four-part Missa Flos Regalis keeps the listener and the performers on their toes. The mass is colored by its thick sonorities and an indifference for highlighting key textual passages – quite unconventional for its time. Frye also spins some interesting harmonic twists, especially in the Sanctus. John Plummer’s (d. c. 1487) Missa Sine nomine is equally forward-looking, a three-part work that features some challenging counterpoint. Songs by John Bedyngham (1422-60) and Frye round out the program, but the songs are not nearly as compelling as the sacred works.

The clerks’ Group score big points wit this recording. I am always impressed with the way they balance precision and polished vocal blend in the most difficult music. I’m sure Edward Wickham would say otherwise, but unlike other groups singing this music, the Clerks’ Group don’t seem to break a sweat.

Craig Zeichner – August 2000 

English composers can rather rarely be said to have dictated the course of music history, yet the works on this disc are part of the chapter in which they contributed vitally to the flowering of a new and international style in two important respects, the contenance angloise in which a new euphonious texture based on the triad dominates, and the move towards unifying the separate movements of the Mass through the use of cyclic procedures. Early fruition of both may be witnessed in the anonymous English Missa Caput, the fullest realisation of their potential reached in the third quarter of the fifteenth century by one of its greatest composers, Guillaume Dufay. Arguably, by this time, that signal English contribution had been thoroughly assimilated and neither mass recorded here has the controlled sense of pace or architectural cohesion of Dufay’s mature cantus firmus masses. Some six years ago, The Clerks’ Group made its recording debut on ASV with the first of several award-winning discs centred on the work of the slightly later fifteenth-century composer, Ockeghem. Those are discs to treasure, but this new issue on Signum is in all respects less convincing. The singing rarely rises above the routine, though is at its most inspired and expressive in the Agnus Dei movements. Reduced-voice sections of the four-voice Mass by Frye, and rather too many occasions in the six songs, expose surprisingly insecure tuning. The treble-dominated texture of the three-part songs has encouraged two performance options, either to add text to the lower voices, as in Frye’s particularly fine ballade Alas, alas, alas, or to vocalise them. Christopher Page’s group Gothic Voices has lately successfully championed the latter, where the right (albeit empirical) choice of syllable serves not to mask the projection of the text by the upper voice. Its use fails to balance so well here, and further comparison with Gothic Voices must be made. It is they who recorded the Missa Caput in 1996 for Hyperion (CDA66857): their tempi were fast, the performances bordering on the mechanical, whereas Wickham at least allows parts of the Masses here to breathe more expansively. This serves the music well, even if the recording does not. Interestingly, the same location was used as in the first of the Ockeghem recordings (ASV CD GAU 139), but whereas there it bestowed enormous vibrancy and depth to the sound, here the acoustic sounds curiously constricted, giving the Masses neither appropriate bloom nor the songs the advantages of greater clarity. In sum, this is a disappointing release. On paper, it looks promising, a programme admirably researched and imaginatively constructed around items from a single manuscript source, opening a window on an important and rather neglected musical phase, performed by a group with a proven track record for its skill and commitment. In the event, it rather misses the mark.

  1. Kyrie Deus creator omnium Sarum Chant – – [2:20]
  2. Missa Flos Regalis – Gloria – Walter Frye (d. 1475) – [6:28]
  3. – Credo – – [7:01]
  4. – Sanctus – – [7:16]
  5. – Agnus Dei – – [6:06]
  6. Myn hertis lust – John Bedyngham (1422-60) – [2:16]
  7. Fortune alas – – [1:55]
  8. Mi verry joy – – [3:43]
  9. Alas, alas, alas – Walter Frye – [3:22]
  10. So ys emprentid – Frye?/Bedyngham? – [2:49]
  11. Pryncesse of youthe – Anon – [2:27]
  12. Missa Sine nomine – Kyrie Omnipotens pater – Plummer (d. c.1487) – [4:32]
  13. – Gloria – – [4:28]
  14. – Credo – – [4:35]
  15. – Sanctus – – [4:41]
  16. – Agnus Dei – – [4:35]