Here we have what I believe to be one of the finest recordings of early music of any kind. White was a Tudor-era composer who wrote some of the most beautiful and ethereal music for voices. I think many of you will agree once (or during) the hour plus is up. The quality of this Signum disc is overall flawless I think, and rather astonishingly so. The ensemble is perfect. The sound quality couldn't be any better for this music..
Robert White (c.1538-1574) was arguably the leading figure in that lost generation of English composers which came to maturity between Tallis and Byrd, in the middle of the 16th century. Along with Robert Parsons and William Mundy, White formed a school within a school, whose musical instinct was to look back to the Catholic style of Tallis's youth (a style they had all but missed) while putting it to the service of Elizabeth I's Protestant Church. The result is an idiom which is rare in Tallis, who showed himself prepared to jettison the old ways, and unknown in Byrd. To us it has a particular, almost nostalgic appeal: the polyphonic lines still unwind slowly, the scoring is still spacious, the cadences archaic; yet the phrases themselves are more highly organized than in music from the 1520s and '30s, their expression more direct and poignant.
Like every composer active in England in the early years of Elizabeth's reign, White was forced to make stylistic compromises as a result of the Reformation; and it is in the ingredients of these compromises that his individuality lay. Unlike Tallis, Sheppard and Tye, and although he was younger than them, he rarely wrote music with English words. The little Anglican music he did write was, like much of that by Parsons and Mundy, protracted and thoroughly polyphonic, coming close at times to sounding like exercises in Franco-Flemish imitation. His Latin motets, by contrast, are at once more modern and more old-fashioned: the five-voice Lamentations, which show White's Latin style at its most advanced, contain little free polyphony, but rather expansive, often non-aligned homophony - yet are scored for the almost defunct choir of treble, mean, countertenor, tenor and bass. Even in his settings of the Hebrew letters which precede each verse and were traditionally written in abstract counterpoint (a method followed by both Tallis and Byrd in their settings of the Lamentations), White's melodies seem to have been conceived in organised blocks, often repeating at the unison or octave instead of the fifth; often moving in parallel thirds, sixths or tenths: a half-way, individual style, neither exactly old nor new.
One can only guess for whom he wrote these potentially contentious and vocally demanding pieces. He seems never to have been formally attached to the Chapel Royal, the obvious recipient of them, though it remains highly probable that he was asked to contribute to their work, especially after 1569 or 1570 when he became Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey. Before that, in his brief career, he was a chorister and later one of the cantores at Trinity College, Cambridge (1555-1562); Master of the Choristers at Ely Cathedral - where he succeeded his father-in-law Christopher Tye (1562-1566); and probably Master of the Choristers at Chester Cathedral (c.1566-c.1569) before moving to London, where he died of the plague in the disastrous epidemic of 1574. Although White seems to have spent much of his life working to the north of the capital, his Will states that he left property of some substance in Sussex. This kind of biographical non sequitur should make us cautious of concluding that he never worked at court: it is perfectly possible that, from his Cambridge days, he regularly visited London and always kept in touch with developments there.