October 2018

The Lady Oriana – music from the Golden Age of English polyphony

st matthew’s, Westminster

Byrd                O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth
Morley            Hard by a crystal fountain
Byrd                Kyrie from Mass for Four Voices
Tallis               Salvator mundi
Byrd                Gloria
Wilbye            The Lady Oriana
Byrd                Credo

Bull                  Fantasia                                

Gibbons          O clap your hands
Byrd                 Sanctus and Benedictus
Weelkes          O Jonathan, woe is me
Byrd                 Agnus Dei
Tomkins          Music divine
Byrd                 This sweet and merry month of May

Gilly French, Helen Prentice, Kevin Walsh, Iain Butler
Fiona Sharp, Catharine Robertson, Nick Dykes, William Nicholson

William Nicholson

William Byrd (1539-1623), a pupil of Thomas Tallis, was the most prodigiously talented and prolific English composer of his time. His earliest-known employment was as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, where he produced English works for Anglican services. In 1572 he moved to the Chapel Royal in London, where he worked jointly with Tallis, securing in 1575 a royal patent for the printing and distribution of part-music. During the 1580s and 1590s Byrd’s Catholicism became the driving force for his music; he wrote and openly published motets and masses, almost certainly composed for small chapel gatherings. Daringly, he openly published this music; unsurprisingly, it is deeply expressive.

The Mass for Four Voices, dating from 1592 or 1593, is the first and perhaps most personal of his three masses. It retains some techniques from the distant past, such as blurring the boundaries between the tenor and alto parts, yet there are moments of intensity as well. A central tenet of Elizabethan catholicism was its historical legitimacy, and Byrd makes an explicit homage in referencing, especially in the Sanctus, the pre-Reformation composer John Taverner’s ‘Mean’ Mass. A plaintive Kyrie and Gloria lead into a lengthy tapestry that is the Credo, while the Sanctus and Benedictus lean back in a delicate humility towards an exquisite Agnus Dei.

O Lord, let thy servant Elizabeth was written during Byrd’s time at the Chapel Royal. Its text comes from Psalm 21, customized to address the queen by name. A relatively sober composition for SAATTB, it ends in an expansive Amen. The six-part This sweet and merry month of May is one of very few of his compositions that might rightly be called a madrigal. The piece begins with a brief canonic duet for the two sopranos, with an upward flourish on ‘merry’ and gently arched quavers depicting the singing of the birds. A brief section in triple meter sees homophonic groups of three, four, and five voices. The ‘beauteous Queen of second Troy’ (Queen Elizabeth and the British realm) is saluted in C major; the final line, ‘take well in worth a simple toy’, is a false modesty: the poet’s accomplished offering to a mighty monarch being presented as a mere trifle. Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543 and remained there until his death. His output encompasses early and late sixteenth-century English styles and his career reflects the religious upheaval and political change that affected church music of this period. Salvator mundi, a setting of the antiphon for Matins on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, is the first of his two settings of the text. It begins imitatively, with soprano and alto 2 in canon at the octave, but quickly moves into a freer and more expressive style, with insistent pitch repetition at ‘auxiliare nobis’, an affecting pathos of the descending ‘te deprecamur’, and dissonant intervals creating a sense of magnificence and piquancy.

Thomas Morley, having been granted by Queen Elizabeth in 1598 a monopoly to print music, set out not only to charm and flatter her in return but to add lustre to her reign. Taking as his model the Venetian collection Il trionfo di Dori, he commissioned a collection of madrigals entitled The Triumphs of Oriana. The words depict a pastoral idyll but their message is clear: an extravagant musical compliment. Hard by a crystal fountain, Morley’s own contribution to the collection, is a clever re-writing of the Italian composer Giovanni Croce’s Ove tra l’herbe e fiori. There are numerous examples of word-painting, for example at ‘sleeping’ and ‘stilled’, and in the long note values and a dominant pedal at the refrain, ‘Long (live fair Oriana)’. Another contributor to the collection was John Wilbye (1574-1638), with The Lady Oriana. Wilbye’s style is characterized by delicate voice-writing, acute sensitivity to text and language, a seriousness of approach and a subtlety of musical ideas. He spent much of his life employed as resident musician for a wealthy family of arts patrons in Suffolk, and most of his compositional output is madrigalian.

John Bull (1563-1628) was an English composer, musician and organ builder. He led a colourful life which eventually led to fleeing England for Antwerp in 1633. He was one of the most famous composers of keyboard music of his time, succeeded only by Sweelinck and Byrd.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) is acknowledged as one of the foremost composers of his period. O clap your hands dates from 1622 and might have formed the composer’s DMus submission to Oxford University. Written in eight parts, it is a dramatic and majestic setting of Psalm 47 and is one of the most impressive anthems of a composer noted for his Anglican church compositions. He became organist of Westminster Abbey in 1623. Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) was organist at Chichester Cathedral, where he gained a reputation for drunkenness and bad language, often during services.  The text to O Jonathan, woe is me, attributed to King David, is from the Book of Jasher, a standard collection of formal dirges and elegies for public mourning; it has been suggested that it was written as part of a national response by England’s men of arts to the premature death in 1612 of the young Prince Henry, son of James I. Thomas Tomkins (1572- 1656) succeeded Byrd as England’s last great composer of Renaissance polyphony. Music divine displays command of madrigalian techniques: expressive dissonance, sudden shifts of harmony and rhythmic density, free alternation between homophony and polyphony, speech-like text settings and word-painting. The text highlights the exclusivity of love and lust.