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Westminster Abbey organist James O’Donnell and a Nicholas Ludford revival

New recording seeks to open up melodies and soaring vocals to wider audience

09 March, 2018 — By The Xtra Diary

James O’Donnell

WAS it his love of polyphonic harmony, deemed to be roguishly Popish by Protestants worried about the dastardly and insidious influence of Rome, which meant Tudor composer Nicholas Ludford’s beautiful work has never been quite as well known as others of his ilk?

This is the question Diary raises after hearing a new recording of his Mass Videte miraculum has been made by the choir of Westminster Abbey and its organist James O’Donnell.

It’s just one of a handful of recordings you can hear of works by Ludford (c1485-c1557) and gives further insight into the genius of this musician who worked at the abbey and was born as Henry VII starting his reign.

Ludford was at the centre of Tudor choral music composition but his work has not been celebrated in the same way contemporaries such as Robert Fayrfax and John Taverner have been.

In the Oxford History of English Music, by John Caldwell, Ludford’s six-part Masses and Magnificat benedicta is noted, with the sentence that “…it is more a matter of astonishment that such mastery should be displayed by a composer of whom virtually nothing was known until modern times”.

Detective work, focusing on looking at various church records such as the accounts of St Stephen’s Chapel, has mapped out a vague biography.

Music scholars know he lived in King Street, Pimlico, in 1517 and four years later joined the Fraternity of St Nicholas, a guild that membership of was key to London-based musicians.

When the chapel was dissolved in 1547 Ludford was appointed a verger, but not in the modern sense of being a caretaker for a religious building. Namely he was a well-paid, full-time, musician in the church. We know in 1533 he wrote a choir book for St Margaret’s, which included his own compositions.

Music scholars say he did not seem to adapt his style of composing to the demands of the English Reformation and nothing has been found under his name since 1535 – a sign that perhaps, due to his devout Catholic faith, he did not want to change his polyphonic style, which was considered to be too Roman for the new Protestant services.

But his music is noted for its melodies and soaring vocals and now this new recording seeks to open his works up to a wider audience.

And it deserves attention according to James O’Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers, who conducted the abbey choir. “This is wonderful music,” he said. “Rich, opulent and inventive. Making the disc was a challenging but extremely rewarding project for the abbey choir and I am very proud of the resulting recording.”

Now, thanks to O’Donnell and the choristers, Ludford’s words and music will echo down the centuries like a conversation with another age.

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