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Hyperion Records

CDH55259 - Weelkes: Anthems
Photograph by Matthew Stevens.
OpusImage
CDH55259
(Originally issued on CDA66477)

Recording details: January 1991
Winchester Cathedral, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: January 2008
Total duration: 63 minutes 33 seconds

'Hyperion's recording is excellent and the booklet, with all texts and good notes, is a model' (Classic CD)

'What a feast is here! Superb, radiant, colourful singing of a perfect selection of Weelkes' music. A finer selection more persuasively sung would be hard to imagine. Buy it' (Organists' Review)

The English Orpheus
Anthems
O Jonathan  [2'43] English
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
By the end of the sixteenth century the musical forms employed in setting texts for liturgical use in the Church of England over the previous half-century had evolved into mature styles. The opportunities offered by the principal services of the Book of Common Prayer—Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer—consisted in the main of settings of the canticles from each service, and by far the largest proportion of these were for the Evening service canticles, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, drawn from the Offices of Vespers and Compline respectively. Although some festal settings of Psalms survive, and there are some few settings of the Preces and Responses before the Psalms and after the Creed, it would seem that, in the main, Psalms were chanted in a simple manner. There was no direct provision within the Prayer Book for music at first. No allowance was made for ‘propers’, those texts which relate specifically to a particular feast day or season of the Church’s year, apart from the Collects or Prayers for the day, but a musical setting of an appropriate text, in English, might have been sung after the third Collect; in other words, at the end of the main part of the Office. Such ‘anthems’ quickly became the focus of musical repertoire for the Church of England, in that, unlike the never-varying texts of Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, the scope for selection of anthem texts and their musical treatment enabled a composer to provide something which might be entirely personal rather than merely dutiful, and which might also be a subtle reflection of the Latin proper texts ‘lost’ from the reformed Anglican liturgy.

There were two main styles of musical treatment: ‘full’ settings which, as the word implies, were sung by the whole choir, or possibly alternatim between the two facing sides of the choir (Decani and Cantoris) as well as both together; and ‘verse’ settings, which relied on solo voices with organ, or, later, viol accompaniments, and which could employ any number of solo voices simultaneously, the verse sections sometimes being interspersed with full passages for the whole choir. Either of these types of treatment could be used for settings of the canticles as well as for anthems.

History has not left any wealth of detail about the life of Thomas Weelkes. By 1598 he was employed as Organist of Winchester College, his appointment coinciding roughly with the revitalizing of the music in the College Chapel after a period of silence following the Visitation of the puritanical Bishop Horne in 1570. By 1602, possibly even in the autumn of 1601, Weelkes had moved to Chichester Cathedral where he was to remain until his death in 1623. It is not known whether his time at Winchester College allowed any fruitful connection with the neighbouring Cathedral, where John Holmes was Organist, since many of the Cathedral’s documents for this period did not survive the depredations of Cromwell’s agents during the Commonwealth, and a similar fate must have befallen the music books used by the choir up to that time. If one can judge from printed evidence, this early period of Weelkes’s musical career was spent in the creation of several marvellously rich and varied collections of madrigals, which were not presumably the type of music which his employers or other ecclesiastical establishments were particularly interested in. The publications of 1597, 1598 and 1600 show Weelkes to have assimilated with ease many features of the fashionable Italian style, and to have imbued it with an essential Englishness. He displays frequent harmonic ingenuity, textural turbulence, and assured command of his resources. It may have been that he had an eye to making his way in London musical circles; he might even have been expecting to be involved in the Chapel Royal, when he described himself in his 1608 Ayres or fantastic sprites as a ‘Gentleman’—one of the choir members—of the establishment, but, as far as one can tell, this was never to be. Whether the security of a Cathedral post beckoned, or whether a conflict of interests arose between his aspirations and the manner in which the Warden and Fellows of Winchester College were prepared to regard him, having actually downgraded his status and remuneration, Weelkes became closely involved in Chichester affairs, and was married there to Elizabeth Sandham in February 1603, having become Organist during the year to October 1602.

Chichester’s musical establishment, if viewed through the surviving evidence there of the Acts of the Dean and Chapter, was a rather unruly one, with a need frequently for the various members to be admonished, some even dismissed, for dissolute and scandalous behaviour. It has been cautioned by John Shepherd that we ought not to regard the tales of drunken brawls and dereliction of duty in which Weelkes seems to have become embroiled as an entirely unbiased representation of the facts. There are grounds for thinking that the nature of the Chichester foundation made requirements for a type of collegiate cohabitation of the Cathedral’s employees which was even then out of date and unreasonably medieval, and it seems that there was a tradition of severity and retribution in the manner in which the different strata of Lay Vicars, Sherburne Clerks and Lay Clerks (who made up the adult choral foundation) were treated going back some thirty years before Weelkes reached the establishment. Indeed, in ecclesiastical records it is not uncommon to find that what were merely enabling acts—like those which were perhaps laying the ground for better provision for the music—were fashioned under the hand of the Chapter Clerk, possibly on higher authority, to sound as though they were correcting severe abuses, and, in this respect, Chichester’s admonitory tone is matched in other capitular sources and at various other dates. It is quite likely that there should have been some fire giving rise to the smoke of evidence in the Act Books, and it seems that there were frequent personal differences between members of the foundation, as well as a general light regard for daily attendance to duty, which was not restricted to the Choir. Undoubtably correction was required, and the Dean and Chapter and, particularly, the Bishop at Visitations desired a better standard of organization and efficiency in the Choir than they were experiencing; but whether it can be said with certainty that Weelkes’s time in Chichester was one of slow moral decline into a state of permanent drunkenness resulting in his temporary dismissal is less obvious.

Whatever Thomas Weelkes’s personal problems, and whether his final years at Chichester were fallow musically, there is no doubt that the majority of his compositions for the Church must come from that period, and that they show the same fertile and even quixotic mind at work as do the secular publications. It is not possible to date any of Weelkes’s sacred musical output. The one Latin piece, Laboravi in gemitu meo may have been the six-part test piece composed for the Bachelor of Music degree which Weelkes supplicated for in Oxford and was awarded in 1602. It is an exercise in traditional imitative counterpoint but, as befits the composer of some of the most exquisite secular music, it has considerable emotional force, and seems calculated to build steadily through the developing arching lines and paired imitative phrases to the climax, where smaller note-values, giving the impression of faster movement in the last twelve bars, drive the piece forward.

The other choral items on this recording are divided between examples of the full and verse styles, and yet, within each, there are differing compositional approaches. Many of the full anthems are in six parts, with both treble and alto parts doubled. This often gives a bright bloom to the sound, and the relatively high tessitura of treble parts and the almost relentless exuberance of Gloria in excelsis Deo, Hosanna to the Son of David (where it is basses who divide with the trebles, anchoring the wide sonority) and Alleluia! I heard a voice show Weelkes to be expecting a standard of excellence from his choral forces which it is hard to imagine could have been obtained in Chichester.

Whilst Alleluia is in only five parts, it makes considerable demands on the performers, for there seems never to be a moment of respite. In fact, there seem to be at least two traditions of performance for this piece, and sources in Durham Cathedral, where the music was often rendered more elaborate, show an intricacy of verse parts derived from the continuous texture, whereas the other suggested tradition, according to John Parkinson, would have been to perform the music full throughout. If a large choir of expert soloists might have sung a verse version, whereas Chichester’s more modest forces might have sung full, there seems no reason why a middle way might not have provided for an alternatim Decani and Cantoris version, combining with great effect for the full, homophonic sections, and it is in this form that the anthem is here presented. This has the advantages of contrast, but without tiring the singers with the unyielding, high lines, nor the implied fussiness of the filigree of verse half-phrases of the Durham version.

When David heard that Absalom was slain and O Jonathan have no direct liturgical usage and are preserved in manuscript sources which transmit only secular and madrigalian music. Deriving from a tradition of public as well as private mourning in Old Testament times, the words of the short Absalom lament in the Second Book of Samuel probably come from the pen of the same scribe whose main purpose was to explain King Solomon’s accession to the throne, and are deeply personal by nature. By contrast, the Saul and Jonathan text may be taken from a standard collection of formal dirges and elegies for public mourning, the Book of the Upright, although its ascription to King David has generally been supported. These musical settings are among many which, it has been suggested, were 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.

The remaining two full anthems are essays in seamless counterpoint in a slightly older-fashioned style. O Lord arise is in seven parts, the tenor being the only single voice-part, and is reminiscent of Thomas Tomkins’s similarly large-scale anthem, O sing unto the Lord, as well as having a parallel with Laboravi. O how amiable, at first sight perhaps a more workaday composition is nevertheless a work of great craftsmanship. The contrast between both of these and the arresting drama of Hosanna to the Son of David or the brilliance of Gloria in excelsis Deo, both with their clearly defined structures, highlights the talents of this multi-faceted man whose music, seemingly despite the backwater that Chichester must have represented, could achieve a quality worthy of the best of his more widely fêted contemporaries.

The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘for trebles’ probably take their description from the use of two boys’ voice-parts of differing ranges. The lower-ranged part had often been called a ‘mean’, with the word ‘treble’ reserved for a voice with a tessitura about a fourth higher. Although there are passages (reconstructed from the organ parts of this otherwise incomplete setting) which clearly require the top voice to be placed high, and this feature is to be seen in other of the anthems such as Alleluia, in many sections the top two parts are treated more equally in strict canon—for example ‘He remembering his mercy’ and at the opening of the Nunc dimittis. The link with Alleluia! I heard a voice is more than just that of tessitura and at the words ‘and ever shall be’ in the ‘Gloria Patri’ of the Nunc dimittis Weelkes actually quotes directly from the anthem. Self-borrowing, or conscious borrowing of any form was not a common facet of Anglican church music at this time.

Very little keyboard music by Weelkes survives, if, indeed, he had occasion or inclination to contribute much to that genre. There is no way of knowing whether the titles of the three pieces here included actually signify the composer’s intentions, but the two Voluntaries, in particular, are very effective miniatures which may have had no connection at all with the role we now attach to organ pieces of that name. In both of them the imitative points are confined to three- or four-note motifs, worked in quick succession in what becomes a false counterpoint—no part maintaining its discrete identity through the piece—and rhythmic ornamentation is supplied by the interpolation of triple-time sections in a tripla (3:1) or sesquialtera (3:2) relationship to the overall duple metre, some lasting for only two beats. The Pavan, which from its dance-title may be a secular piece, nevertheless exhibits sonorities which make it well suited to the organ. It has two main sections: the first, largely homophonic, is followed by a more imitative and extended cadential passage, closer in style to Weelkes’s writing for organ and voices in the verse anthems or canticles.

Weelkes’s will and inventory, which came to light in the early 1970s, show him to have died in straitened circumstances. His daughter Alice received just two shillings for the residue of his estate which had amounted to £7.0s.11d, with the debts and funeral expenses, paid by his friend Henry Drinkwater, coming to £8.3s.2d. Yet if Weelkes’s end was rather inglorious, his real legacy, that of his music, shows him to have been capable of tremendous invention and ingenuity. The sheer colourfulness of his harmonic writing combined with the extensive word-painting in his madrigals proves his responsiveness to texts, and, to a lesser extent, the same traits are to be observed in the church music. Of course the choice of texts for church use was more limited, yet in the anthems represented on this recording can be seen the breadth of selection from Psalms (both Book of Common Prayer and metrical, adapted if necessary) through other biblical extracts to the poems of Hunnis and Southwell. If Weelkes possibly harboured a regret that he did not have the opportunity to become fêted as a London-based musician, while he seemed little appreciated in Chichester, there is nothing apparently introspective in his church music, and all of it bears the unmistakable mark of his great musicianship.

Andrew Parker © 1992


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