Early Music Choir

• Founded 2010


The small British choir Contrapunctus, featuring between nine and 12 members, offers a rare blend of music and scholarship, crafting adventurous programming that includes rarely performed music and situates it convincingly in its cultural context. There is a strong research-oriented component to Contrapunctus' work, given impetus by the academic background of director Owen Rees, but that is balanced by crack vocal work from the group's mixed-gender adult membership, and Contrapunctus can be listened to with enjoyment by general audiences.

Contrapunctus was founded in 2010 and quickly gained attention with festival appearances not only in England but in the Low Countries and in Iberia, both areas of specialization in its repertoire. The choir has appeared at leading festivals around northwestern and southwestern Europe, including the Utrecht Early Music Festival, the AMUZ Festival in Antwerp, and the Festival van Vlaanderen in Mechelen, Belgium. Contrapunctus performs mostly a cappella but has also appeared with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The group holds the position of vocal consort in residence at Oxford University.

The choir's areas of specialization led to a place on the choral-heavy roster of the Signum label and the release of Contrapunctus' first album, Libera nos: The Cry of the Oppressed, in 2013. The music on the album was not particularly obscure, but the group's way of presenting it was entirely novel. Using texts related to biblical narratives of oppression, Rees explored the resonances of sacred texts in secular situations, specifically relating to Protestant suppression of Catholicism in England and Spanish rule over Portugal at about the same time. At the center of the program was William Byrd, not an unusual choice for a small British vocal ensemble, but rarely has he been surrounded with music, not all of it English, that casts so much light on what he was about. Contrapunctus went on to record two albums of music from the Baldwin Partbooks, incomplete manuscripts (the tenor parts are missing) copied out in Oxford in 1575. A description less likely to propel a group to the best-seller charts might be hard to imagine, yet the albums have brought the sweep of early English Renaissance music to their many listeners. The group's first Baldwin Partbooks album, In the Midst of Life, touched on themes of mortality; released in 2015, it was honored with several newspaper and magazine features and shortlisted for the Gramophone Early Music Award. The second Baldwin Partbooks release, Virgin and Child, featured Marian pieces and was issued in 2017. Albums devoted to John Taverner and Josquin Desprez appeared on Signum before a third Baldwin Partbooks album was released in 2021.