Pro Cantione Antiqua is among the most honored and long-established vocal groups in the early music movement.
The 1960s were a period when pioneering singers followed the lead of instrumentalists (primarily in Britain, Austria and Germany, and Holland) to create ensembles devoted to researching and performing the long-forgotten treasure of Western music composed before the time of Bach and Handel, and it was in the middle of that decade that three British musicians and scholars founded Pro Cantione Antiqua in the mid-1960s. They were tenor James Griffett, countertenor Paul Esswood, and conductor Mark Brown, who were joined by conductor and musicologist Bruno Turner early on. The intent from the beginning was to make the group an ensemble of soloists, not just in the meaning that each singer took his own individual line in performance, but in the sense that they all had careers as professional solo singers. This blend of strength and beauty of each singer's tone, and the individuality each member brings to his part is responsible for the special quality of the PCA.
Their primary era of emphasis is the Renaissance era, the time of the richest outpouring of polyphonic composition in history. Since polyphony is an interplay of truly independent lines, the individuality of the singers on each part enhances the performance and helps guide the listener through the complex part-writing. Gramophone magazine wrote of its recording of motets of Francisco de Peñalosa (ca. 1470-1528), "Careful listening will teach you much about the essence of early sixteenth century polyphony."
In addition to its Renaissance repertory, the PCA also sing considerable amounts of Medieval music and, as a number of Early Music groups have done, developed an interest in recent trends in contemporary music. PCA have commissioned works from composers including Sir Lennox Berkeley, Ian Parrott, Colin Mawby, and Ivan Moody, and regularly include other contemporary music on their programs.
The PCA have toured extensively through Europe, the Far East, and Latin America. They have made over eighty CD albums and won several major disc awards. Film-goers have heard them singing an Arthur Sullivan part-song, "The Long Day Closes," as the title music of Terence Davies' 1992 film. The group have become particularly associated with the Monteverdi 1601 Vespers through performances with the early music groups Pro Cantione Antiqua, the Orchestra and Choir of the Golden Age, and His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornettes.
As well as being pioneers for the appreciation of Portuguese, Polish, Croatian and Jewish polyphony Pro Cantione Antiqua have taken a particular interest in Iberian Renaissance music. In 1999 they participated in concerts in Madrid and Seville honoring the 400th anniversary of Francisco Guerrero, scheduling concerts in Spain and Portugal in 2000 for creatively-planned programs linking and contrasting the Sixteenth Century music of Spain, Portugal, and England.
At that time the group comprised the following soloists, all, of them prominent soloists in recital and opera: Paul Esswood, Robin Tyson, James Bowman, Timothy Penrose, and Robert Harre Jones (countertenors), James Griffett, Ian Partridge, Joseph Cornwell, and Andrew King (tenors), and Stephen Roberts, Michael George, Adrian Peacock, and David Beavan (basses/baritones). ~ Joseph Stevenson