The Shrines of Waltham

Threats come which no submission may assuage,
No sacrifice avert, no power dispute;
The tapers shall be quenched, the belfries mute,
And, ‘mid their choirs un-roofed by selfish rage,
The warbling wren shall find a leafy cage;
The gadding bramble hang her purple fruit;
And the green lizard and the gilded newt
Lead unmolested lives, and die of age.


Stef was introduced to the Renaissance Singers through the Sound and Music/Making Music/PRSF Adopt-a-Composer scheme in 2012. Over the following year, she worked with the group, and their director David Allinson, to come up with an unusual programme that reflected their shared love of early music and renaissance history, as well as ambitious ideas about creating atmospheric new ways for people to experience music.

David came up with the idea of performing incomplete and fragmentary pieces alongside new works based on material from or sharing thematic links with the fragments. Because of the destruction of manuscripts during the reformation, there are a great number of  pieces that are never performed and deserve very much to be heard!  Stef and David agreed that great music should be treated the same way as great art and architecture – freed from dusty manuscripts and kept alive through performance.

Imagine if no-one ever looked at Venus de Milo just because her arms were missing?

Rather than simply completing fragmentary pieces or using renaissance music as material, Stef wanted to create something that expressed feelings about the destruction of people’s artistic achievements, which would complement the incomplete pieces in the programme. Thus, she set Wordsworth’s poem The Dissolution of the Monasteries, which is reflective and beautiful, expressing sadness about the destruction of great buildings like Waltham Abbey, but with a tone of hope and faith in the power of nature to endure and adapt. Parts of text from this and several other poems were combined with fragments of renaissance pieces that complemented the imagery and meanings of the poems, in their textual content as well as their musical style. New music was woven into the old in a fluid way, with blurred boundaries, so that the renaissance pieces melted into the new compositions. Waltham Abbey was the perfect venue in which to present the programme, having been partially destroyed during the reformation and subsequently rebuilt. Wordsworth’s poem, which describes how the ruins at Waltham are filled with plant and animal life, provided a perfect analogy for the musical project. Like ivy climbing over ancient ruins, creating new art inspired by old manuscripts breathes new life into them, inspiring people to appreciate and connect with them, perhaps for the first time in centuries.

You can listen to a BBC Radio 3 feature on the project below:

“As the piece unfolds is turns into a kind of memory of the architecture – in one corner you have a chant being sung and in another some fragments of polyphony, as if the building is sighing back its memories from the past” (David Allinson, Director of the Renaissance Singers).


Excerpt from the concert programme:

“There could hardly be a more appropriate setting for our concert tonight than the beautiful former abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham. This magnificent stump, the nave of the once far larger church of the Augustinian abbey, was salvaged for continuing worship after the abbey’s dissolution in 1540 by the people of the town who had so long prayed beneath its massive Norman arcades.  Our music tonight follows a related theme – of continuity and innovation growing out of a shattered, fragmented past. In the first half of the concert we present some of the music which survived intact from the period immediately before the convulsions of the English Reformation. In the second part we are delighted to present the first performance of three new works by Stef Conner composed for the Renaissance Singers as part of the 2013 Making Music “Adopt a Composer” scheme, in which amateur music groups are teamed up with a composer who works with the group on a new composition taking account of the group’s ethos and strengths and culminating in a première performance. Her evocative and elegiac works emerge from fragments of sixteenth century music which modern performers have ignored on account of their incompleteness, despite their evident beauty. She has given them new life.”

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) Audivi vocem . Sancte Deus . In je junio et fletu
John Taverner (c.1490-1545) Benedictus from the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas
John Browne (fl. c.1490) O Maria Salvatoris Mater


Stef Conner (b.1983) /Christopher Tye (c.1505-c.1572) /Stef Conner Walsingham farewell part I . Ad te clamamus . Walsingham farewell part II
Christopher Tye / Stef Conner In quo corrigit . Circa regna tonat
Anon /Stef Conner /Stef Conner /Stef Conner /Richard Davy (c1465-1507) 15th century Resurrexio Christi . The shrines of Waltham Part I . The shrines of Waltham Part II . The Shrines of Waltham Part III . Gaude flore virginali
The Music

Walsingham Farewell / Ad Te Clamamus

The central section of this cluster of pieces is a setting of words from the Salve Regina by Christopher Tye (1505-1572) . It survives as a curiously truncated piece in the Dow Partbooks now in the library at Christchurch Oxford. Robert Dow, a lawyer and fellow of All Souls College, compiled the books for domestic music making amongst recusant catholics in the reign of Elizabeth I and this beautiful miniature, shorn of its plainsong verses and outer sections would have been a sad reminder for those gathered around the table to sing of the suppressed Roman liturgy. It is enclosed within new settings of verses from the anonymous sixteenth century poem Lament for Our Lady’s Shrine at Walsingham, which lamented the destruction of the shrine to Mary at Walsingham, which was a place of pilgrimage before it was torn down during the dissolution of the monasteries.

In Quo Corrigit / Circa Regna Tonat

In this cluster, the surviving remnants of a setting of Psalm 118 by Christopherr Tye are woven together with Stef’s setting of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei, which was said to have been written from his cell in the Tower of London, after watching the execution of Anne Boleyn, who he was accused of having an affair with. The poem is critical of King Henry VIII and expresses regret for corruption among the powerful; the text is paired with extracts from Pslam 118, which contains the words “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans. / It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” (ll. 8 – 9). Parts of the poem were set to music, along with fragments from several of the reniassance pieces in the programme, which were performed by groups of singers dispersed around the space, behind and in front of the audience; some visible and some out of sight. The complete poem was declaimed by guest narrator David Peace.

Waltham ground plan 2

Resurrexio Christi / The Shrines of Waltham / Gaude flore virginali

Stef’s composition The Shrines of Waltham emerges from a fragment of an anonymous setting of Resurrexio Christi, an invocatory antiphon addressed to Jesus which is found in the early sixteenth century Lambeth Choirbook. The central section is a setting of Wordsworth’s poem The Dissolution of the Monasteries, around which are suspended fragments from the Salve Regina, as well as the Resurrexio Christi. The piece finally dissolves into the surviving later section of Richard Davy’s Gaude Flore Virginali, the unique source for which is the Eton Choirbook, where the first three pages are missing.