The White Rose and The Red
sleeve notes

"We will unite the white rose and the red,” proclaims the Earl of Richmond
– shortly to be crowned Henry VII – at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Richard III, bringing to a symbolic conclusion the conflict that came to be known (much later) as the Wars of the Roses. It was the death of Richard, at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, that enabled the new Tudor dynasty to succeed the feuding Houses of York and Lancaster. For all the shortness of his reign – a little over two years – Richard III remains one of the most controversial of English monarchs, and, according to his many supporters, one of the most badly traduced. When Richard’s skeleton was recently unearthed, the level of worldwide interest and the vexed arguments about the location of his tomb illustrated the passions still roused by the last Plantagenet king.

The York Waits – who originated as a recreation of their home city’s municipal band as it was in the Plantagenet and Tudor periods – have a longstanding connection with Richard III and his age. This recording complements an earlier disc, Music from the Time of Richard III (Saydisc Records), and offers new pieces, new interpretations and new instrumental combinations, plus vocal music of the period.

Richard had significant connections with York and Yorkshire, which could be described as his power base, and there are records which indicate that he had a cultivated taste for music, but for today’s York Waits, Richard’s great value is that he helps us to open a window on the musical culture of mid-to-late 15th century England. We draw music from throughout Richard’s lifetime (and a little earlier) in order to illustrate some of the musical currents of the 15th century.

In particular, the recording demonstrates the two most important instrumental categorisations of the period – les hauts and les bas, or the loud and the soft.

The loud band, sometimes called the alta ensemble, had been standardised by the 1480s. It consisted of soprano and alto or tenor shawms – loud reed instruments - with a trombone (or sackbut), which had probably evolved from a form of slide trumpet.

The alta was the principal dance band of the age, but its players – whether employed by city, nobleman or royal court – would also have adapted vocal music, sacred and secular. In several urban centres they were contractually required to give public performances on a daily basis and they participated in official festivities and, occasionally, church ceremonies.

The dance music played by the alta was probably improvised around a set tenor, such as one of the single line basse dance melodies from the Burgundian court that are preserved in a manuscript at the Brussels Bibliotheque Royale. A present-day analogy might be the sound of a jazz band, producing elaborate polyphony from collective improvisation around a tune or chord sequence. But in the absence of 15th century sound recordings, a clue to the sound of the alta can perhaps be found in a piece such as Portugaler (track 7).

The bas or soft ensemble was more varied, and several possible combinations are heard on this recording. The lute emerged as the principal plucked instrument, but the harp was widely heard and the disc features the distinctive sound of the bray harp, fitted with pins that make the strings buzz, the standard sonority of the instrument at this period.

The gittern, a bowl-backed, fretted instrument played with a plectrum, had a long career as an instrument for popular music making, but could also serve as a treble voice in plucked instrument ensembles.

Among bowed instruments, the fiddle, in its various forms, would have been equipped with a flat bridge, so that it could be played chordally. The rebec, with its dry, nasal tone, was a useful solo string voice as part of mixed ensembles as well as a dance instrument.

Popular instruments of the period, such as gittern, bagpipes, pipe and tabor and hurdy gurdy, are heard in various combinations. They might increasingly have belonged to the street, the tavern or the fair, but would still have been heard in a more courtly context.

The 15th century was a great age of song and this recording includes some of the best examples from the period. We can be reasonably certain that songs and pieces such as O Rosabella, Le Souvenir, Mi Very Joye and My Woeful Herte would have been familiar to the cultivated ears of Yorkists and Lancastrians alike.

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