'This is good singing, and many choirs would envy the tight ensemble, impeccable intonation and crystal-clear diction, not to mention the unfailingly excellent solo voices drawn from the ranks of the choir' (International Record Review)
'At the heart of the sequence lie Tomkins's deeply expressive When David heard and Then David mourned, pieces in which the tension of the dissonances is relished by James O'Donnell's Westminster Abbey singers more fully than is often the case with English Choirs' (The Irish Times)
Westminster Abbey has been the focus of British royal occasions for centuries, and the early seventeenth century saw the most dazzling musicians of the age writing music for the Court in all its various incarnations. This fascinating disc presents a selection of works from the reign of King James I.
The most celebrated name on this disc is that of Orlando Gibbons, and some of his most masterly works are presented here including the gloriously contrapuntal O clap your hands and the startlingly original verse anthem See, see, the Word is incarnate, setting an extraordinary text which covers the whole of the liturgical year.
The most eloquent and emotionally intense music recorded here was most likely never intended for performance in the Abbey, or any other church, but has a particularly Royal relevance. The laments of King David were set by many composers of this period. These moving texts have no place in the liturgy, being neither part of the Ordinary of Psalms and canticles, nor able to furnish a seasonally appropriate or devotional anthem. Their composition seems therefore to have been a response to the death in November 1612 of the Prince of Wales, Prince Henry. These are courtly laments, in which the composers give voice – and perhaps vied to give voice most eloquently – to the grief of the King (in the settings of David’s lament for his son Absalom) and Prince Charles (in the ‘Jonathan’ pieces, in which the king describes his friend as ‘my brother’). Included is the best known of all the ‘Absalom’ pieces, Tomkins’s When David heard, together with his equally moving ‘Jonathan’ setting, Then David mourned.
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The court of James I, like that of all British monarchs from the late thirteenth until the eighteenth century, was served by a Chapel Royal comprising the most distinguished musicians of the land. In the early seventeenth century members of the Chapel Royal were not employed exclusively by the Household: many had connections with other institutions, including Westminster Abbey. By virtue both of its location and of its status as royal mausoleum and coronation church, the Abbey was closely associated with the court. Not all the music on this disc was sung there, but much of it must have been performed by Abbey musicians in one context or another. At the appointment of Orlando Gibbons as Organist of the Abbey in 1623, almost half of the adult singers of the Abbey Choir were also Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal. Gibbons himself was intimately connected with the court, having been a Gentleman since 1605 at the latest, and seems to have been associated in particular with the court of the Prince of Wales—it was shortly after Charles’s accession in 1625 that Gibbons died suddenly while at Canterbury, waiting with the court for the arrival of the new Queen, Henrietta Maria.
Had Gibbons lived a few months longer, he might well have contributed some splendid music for Charles’s coronation. Twenty-two years previously, Thomas Tomkins provided Be strong and of a good courage for James’s coronation on 25 July 1603. It sets a prayer for the monarch derived rather tenuously from Deuteronomy and Joshua, that, as the Latin antiphon Confortare et esto vir (later translated as ‘Be strong, and play the man’), was used in medieval coronations. Its preservation, like much of Tomkins’s music, is due to its inclusion in Musica Deo Sacra (1668), a far from perfect source that is bedevilled by haphazard text underlay. In the case of Be strong and of a good courage, a more serious problem is the incoherence of the vocal parts after the words ‘whithersoever thou goest’; fortunately the Pars Organica gives a clear enough indication of the main points of imitation that reconstruction is possible.
The anthems that follow Tomkins’s coronation piece are completely un-liturgical, though they are quite often heard in Anglican choral services to texts by H R Bramley. Great king of gods and O all true faithful hearts are ‘tribute’ anthems, composed to mark or celebrate some event of the King’s reign. They can thus be dated more accurately than is usual for the period: Great king of gods was probably first performed as a send-off for the King before his visit to Scotland in 1617 (hence, presumably, the reference to ‘the place where all our bliss was bred’); O all true faithful hearts celebrated James’s deliverance ‘from the snares of Death’, after a serious illness in 1619. The awful texts—‘His life is worth ten thousand, therefore give / Each soul, ten thousand thanks that he doth live’—deserve much less careful treatment than they receive from Gibbons; it is telling that the most expressive passage in both anthems is the closing ‘Amen’.
If Gibbons could transform a fawning doggerel like O all true faithful hearts into a gracious tribute anthem, how much more could he achieve with a great text such as O Lord, in thy wrath rebuke me not. Gibbons’s anthems and services represent a relatively small contribution to the Anglican choral repertoire, but their influence cannot be underestimated. At the Restoration of the monarchy and established Church in 1660, Gibbons was the model for much new music, including services by William Child and John Blow, who based the Nunc dimittis of his Service in F on that of Gibbons’s Short Service. Ever since, Gibbons has been a mainstay of the repertoire, and has enjoyed a particularly high reputation as a setter of vernacular texts. The five anthems recorded here include his grandest extant work, O clap your hands, a contrapuntal tour de force in eight parts. This exuberant setting of Psalm 47 is untypical of Gibbons in that it eschews the subtle relationship between text and music that characterizes most of his work, preferring dramatic contrasts between groups of voices and an almost motoric rhythmic drive. Elsewhere, with fewer voice parts, Gibbons displays even greater fluency as a writer of counterpoint, engineering subtle shifts between long imitative lines and affective homophony. Hosanna to the Son of David and O Lord, in thy wrath rebuke me not are both in their different ways madrigalian; by contrast, Almighty and everlasting God—a setting of a collect from the Book of Common Prayer—is a suave development of the Edwardine anthem style of Tallis, Mundy and Sheppard. Quite different from these ‘full’ anthems, all of which are perfectly suited to grand liturgical spaces, is the intimate verse anthem See, see, the Word is incarnate. It is more closely related to the tribute anthems, with obbligato accompaniment for a consort of viols rather than the colla parte organ parts of the full anthems; and its text is neither scriptural nor liturgical, but original—a colourful portmanteau of the liturgical year by another figure closely associated with the court, Godfrey Goodman, a Catholic-leaning chaplain to Queen Anne and a nephew of Gabriel Goodman, a former Dean of Westminster.
At his death, Gibbons was not only Organist of Westminster Abbey, but also Senior Organist of the Chapel Royal. Junior Organist at this time was Thomas Tomkins—eleven years Gibbons’s senior, and to outlive him by a remarkable thirty-one years. Tomkins’s later years, spent in Worcester where he was Organist of the cathedral, were overshadowed by the growing unrest of Charles’s reign, culminating in the Civil Wars; ‘these distracted times’ (as Tomkins described them) must have seemed a far cry from the apparently secure hierarchy of court in the 1610s. The world had changed in musical terms, too, but Tomkins seems consciously to have preserved the style of his ‘ancient, & much reverenced Master, William Byrd’ and other Great Elizabethans, particularly in his 1622 collection of madrigals. Tomkins’s sacred choral music transmitted in Musica Deo Sacra comprises five services and almost one hundred anthems, several of which have also been preserved in manuscript form. O sing unto the Lord a new song, like Be strong and of a good courage, is in seven parts, with all voices divided save for the tenors (who seem to have been the least expert singers of the period, with the narrowest range and least incidence of divided parts).
Like Gibbons, Edmund Hooper was appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal shortly after James’s accession, and became Senior Organist (jointly, it seems, with Gibbons) in the mid-1610s. His association with Westminster Abbey was much longer than Gibbons’s, however: Hooper was a member of the Abbey Choir by 1582, and became Master of the Choristers in December 1588. On present evidence at least, he was considerably less prolific than Tomkins or Gibbons, though he did leave a setting of the evening canticles in each of the three prevailing genres: a ‘short’ service, in which the text is sung mostly homophonically and with little repetition, in a consistent four- or five-part texture; a ‘verse’ setting, in which sections for solo voice(s) and obbligato accompaniment alternate with full writing; and, recorded here, a large-scale setting described variously as Mr Hooper’s Long Service, Mr Hooper’s Full Service, and Mr Hooper’s Great Service. As Richard Turbet has made clear, there was no established genre called ‘Great Service’, so any piece described as such is arguably all the more remarkable for being considered worthy of this description—the only other services described as ‘Great’ by contemporaries are by Byrd and Tomkins (the latter’s Third Service). The characteristics shared by these three settings include the large dimensions (Hooper’s is in fact the shortest of the three); ‘verse’ passages scored not for soloists but for groups of voices; and the division of all four voice parts into two, one on either side of the choir (Decani and Cantoris), allowing for antiphonal exchanges—in fact Hooper introduces further division of the upper voices in the Gloria to the Magnificat. Hooper’s musical language, in this piece at least, is perhaps even more archaic than Tomkins’s: 6–5 harmony, the characteristic sound of English polyphony two generations before Hooper, litters both canticles; and he rarely flattens the sixth degree of the scale, lending the whole piece an antique, modal air.
The most eloquent and emotionally intense music recorded here was most likely never intended for performance in the Abbey, or any other church. No fewer than twenty-two settings are extant, by composers working in the 1610s, of the laments of King David: 2 Samuel 1: 17–27 (the lament over Saul and Jonathan), and 2 Samuel 18: 33 (the lament over Absalom). These moving texts have no place in the liturgy, being neither part of the Ordinary of Psalms and canticles, nor able to furnish a seasonally appropriate or devotional anthem. Their composition seems therefore to have been a response to the death in November 1612 of the Prince of Wales, Prince Henry. These are courtly laments, in which the composers give voice—and perhaps vied to give voice most eloquently—to the grief of the King (in the settings of David’s lament for his son Absalom) and Prince Charles (in the ‘Jonathan’ pieces, in which the king describes his friend as ‘my brother’). We have included the best known of all the ‘Absalom’ pieces, Tomkins’s When David heard, together with his equally moving ‘Jonathan’ setting, Then David mourned. This latter sets just the prefatory first verse of 2 Samuel 1, and it is tempting to imagine that a secunda pars setting the actual lament was written by Tomkins, or perhaps by a collaborator. That space is filled here by How are the mighty fallen by Robert Ramsey, who also contributed two explicitly dedicated Dialogues of Sorrow upon the Death of the Late Prince Henrie. Ramsey, influenced by the emergent seconda prattica music of contemporary Italy, treats the text in a gestural, highly affective manner; while How are the mighty fallen looks more-or-less like an English anthem on the page, its sound world is far removed from the classicism of sacred liturgical music such as Gibbons’s Almighty and everlasting God. Ramsey enlists an archaic detail of the English style—the false relation—to modern expressive ends, such as the astonishingly sensuous ‘my brother Jonathan’.
In 1624 the French ambassador paid an official visit to Westminster Abbey; in the course of the visit, a contemporary account relates, ‘the organ was touched by the best finger of that age, Mr. Orlando Gibbons … The Lords ambassadors and their great train took up all the stalls, where they continued half an hour while the choirmen, vested in their rich copes, with their choristers, sang three several anthems, with most exquisite voices before them’. The keyboard music recorded here—three fancies, including the majestic Fantazia of foure parts, and a short, brilliant Preludium—certainly tallies with this description of Gibbons’s virtuosity.
Robert Quinney © 2011
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