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The church music of Victorian England has always retained a secure foothold; not so the secular part-songs recorded here. Written to complement the Elizabethan madrigals which were then being rediscovered and performed, an unjustly neglected corner of the English vocal repertoire is revitalized by Rupert Gough and Royal Holloway Choir.
This high point in the madrigal’s history waned after the death of Elizabeth I, but a revival of interest began with the foundation of the Madrigal Society in London in 1741. A small, select society at first, with only sixteen members, met at the Twelve Bells in Bride Lane to sing madrigals, catches, rounds, canons and glees, but, by degrees, membership increased as the Society became better established. The domestic element of madrigal-singing was preserved and combined with a strong social component of festival dinners, monthly supper meetings and convivial fraternization lubricated with plenty of wine. In 1811, for the first time, the Society offered a prize for a new madrigal in no fewer than four parts and no more than six which drew its manner from the madrigals of the Elizabethan era (which also included the ballet with its distinctive ‘fa la la’ refrain). Out of the fourteen entrants, who included Samuel Wesley (and his striking I sing unto my roundelay), William Linley (Ah me, quoth Venus) and William Hawes (Philomela), the winner was William Beale for his madrigal Awake, sweet muse of 1813. During the eighteenth century the Society attracted many distinguished musicians to its ranks, including the historian John Hawkins and Thomas Arne, and in the nineteenth century, as the Society flourished, members such as Vincent Novello, George Cooper, John Hullah, John Stainer, Otto Goldschmidt, J Frederick Bridge and Arthur Sullivan could be counted among its members and practitioners.
While the Madrigal Society in London was the most time-honoured standard-bearer of the madrigal, other parts of England steadily began to take an interest in what the genre might offer them, both musically and socially. Probably the most important of these was the Bristol Madrigal Society, which was founded in 1837. Its best-known founding member was Robert Lucas Pearsall (1795–1856), who was born in Bristol but spent most of his life in Germany and Switzerland. Pearsall began to take an interest in music comparatively late, when he was thirty, but a combination of his musical studies in strict counterpoint, the Cecilian Movement (a Roman Catholic movement devoted to the promotion of sixteenth-century church music) and his zeal for antiquarianism fuelled his musical development. In 1836 he returned to England, having inherited the family home at Willsbridge, and it was at this time, during the sale of the house, that he joined with others to form the Bristol Madrigal Society, who performed many of his pieces. In the years directly afterwards he wrote most of his madrigals in which he was able to develop and extend his advanced understanding of dissonance (to lengths, as Nicholas Temperley has pointed out, ‘undreamt of by Wilbye or Monteverdi’) and of vocal sonority. Indeed, Pearsall must have learned much from the eighteenth-century examples of stile severo in Lotti and Caldara, but his six-part settings Light of my soul from Bulwer-Lytton’s Siege of Granada (1838), Great god of love (1839), and Beaumont and Fletcher’s Lay a garland (1840) in eight parts reveal a handling of suspensions which still seems altogether modern in its boldness and scope. The ballet Sing we and chaunt it, for double choir, dates from 1840 and was written in tribute to the setting by Thomas Morley (which itself was a translation of Gastoldi’s A lieta vieta) of 1595. His realization of the thirteenth-century medieval English rota Summer is y’ coming in, in six parts, probably dates from the 1840s. The original version clearly did not appeal to Pearsall’s ears, for in his six-part arrangement, where (as stated in the copy) he ‘attempted to make it acceptable to modern taste’, the canonic idiom was subsumed into a more madrigalian texture of sixteenth-century counterpoint.
The name of Henry Leslie (1822–1896) is little known today, but during the nineteenth century he was well known as a choral conductor. In particular he had a high reputation as a choral trainer derived from the concerts of madrigals and other unaccompanied choral repertoire he gave in London’s Hanover Square Rooms and St James’s Hall with his own choir (‘Henry Leslie’s Choir’) of around thirty voices, which he founded in 1856. His six-part setting of Thomas Watson’s Thine eyes so bright was entered for the Bristol Madrigal Society’s prize of 1865, and took first prize with a winning sum of £25 (now worth around £3,000). A fluent and skilful essay, Leslie’s work clearly impressed the judges with its smooth and well-calculated imitation and dissonance (very much modelled on Pearsall) and with its subtle structure (in which the opening ‘point’ returns at the end); it was first performed in Bristol on 18 January 1866. The five-part My love is fair took its text from George Peele’s pastoral comedy The Arraignment of Paris (1584) and is a buoyant miniature in two verses. Full of florid counterpoint, occasional moments of chromaticism (such as ‘with Cupid’s curse’) reveal its romantic origins; it was first sung by Leslie’s choir in London on 31 January 1867.
It was while John Stainer (1840–1901) was informator choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford, during the 1860s that he published his set of Eight Madrigals by subscription in or around 1865. Stainer almost certainly gained his love of madrigals and the singing of them from his mentor Frederick Ouseley while he was organist at St Michael’s College, Tenbury, between 1857 and 1859. At Magdalen Stainer inherited the conductorship of the Magdalen Madrigal Society which gave charitable concerts in the college and around the city; there were also other opportunities to sing madrigals with the ‘Magdalen Vagabonds’, a group which gave concerts during the university vacations at college livings around the country. The Eight Madrigals were written expressly for these vocal groups who, judging by the demands of the pieces, must have been accomplished singers. By the time Stainer was composing these works, the term ‘madrigal’ was beginning to merge with the more contemporary genre of the part-song, in which the harmonic colour and homophony (as opposed to the polyphony of the madrigal) was strongly accentuated. (Stainer’s interest in modern harmony was substantial, as was his knowledge of the music of Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Brahms, and one that informed his much-neglected but entirely novel Theory of Harmony of 1871.)
Most madrigalian of the three works that feature on this recording (edited here by Jeremy Dibble and Alasdair Jamieson), Disappointment, for six voices, is a setting from Part IV of A Pastoral Ballad by the eighteenth-century poet William Shenstone. Imitation and word-painting dominate the two verses, but in the anguished refrains (‘She was faithless, and I am undone’) Stainer’s nineteenth-century credentials are plain to hear. Even more experimental is the eight-part setting of Herrick’s Dry your sweet cheek, where sumptuous diatonic textures occur alongside chromatic progressions of an entirely contemporary character. The castle by the sea, for two five-part choirs, is even more extraordinary. Longfellow’s translation of Ludwig Uhland’s Das Schloss am Meere forms the basis of this part-song ballad in which choral antiphony and the full panoply of Stainer’s chromatic vocabulary are used to evoke the wondrous splendour of the medieval castle and coastal landscape; yet all is not well. Weeping is heard and, when the two choirs come together to form an opulent, ten-part threnody, a darkness descends as we realize, with Heine-esque irony, that the old king and queen mourn the death of their beautiful daughter.
The eight-part setting of Spenser’s Sonnet XXXIV from Amoretti and Epithalamion, Like as a ship was entered for the Bristol Madrigal Society prize of 1865, but was not among the winning applicants, perhaps because its content was not madrigalian enough, or because its arresting harmonic language was too much for the judges. Whatever the reason, Stainer’s tour de force manipulates the problematic sonnet form to perfection. After a turbulent ‘octave’ (the first eight lines) in which the composer’s chromatic palette reaches new levels of daring and bravado, the emotional ‘turn’ (‘Yet hope I will’) has an intense passion whose fervour is quelled by a ‘secret sorrow and sad pensiveness’, the harmonic enterprise of which looks forward to the early twentieth century. Like as a ship remains unpublished and is performed here in an edition by Jeremy Dibble from the autograph manuscript in the Stainer Archive at Durham University.
In 1899, Walter Parratt, Master of the Queen’s Musick, and Arthur Benson, a housemaster at Eton College, conceived the idea of a collection of ‘choral songs’ in emulation of The Triumphs of Oriana to mark Queen Victoria’s eightieth birthday. As the preface to the collection enunciated:
It was the custom of bygone days for sovereigns to require and for subjects to express respect and devotion in terms of unmeasured hyperbole; such conventional homage added little lustre to the monarch for whose honour it was designed; the current coin of compliment rang hollow. Your Majesty has taught your subjects to value sincerity above praise, and genuine affections above indiscriminate adulation; the auspicious year in which your Majesty attains in health and vigour a patriarchal age, gives your Majesty’s servants a natural opportunity for expressing the devotion to your Throne and Person which lies at the heart of all your subjects.
In these works the spirit of part-song was now predominant, but it did not prevent some of the thirteen composers from deferring to the madrigal style. Stainer’s setting of his son’s poem Flora’s Queen is a thoroughly entertaining essay in Renaissance modal harmony and imitation, Handelian grandeur (replete with quasi cantus firmus acclamations of ‘Long live Victoria!’) and a coda ‘poached’, as Stainer wryly admitted, from Gibbons. Parratt sent Elgar a poem of Frederic Myers in 1898, To her beneath whose steadfast star, asking if he might also contribute, though stating categorically that there was no imperative to use antique forms. Tinged with yearning, Elgar’s offering has an introspective quality in its mingling of modal and unusual diatonic harmonies. The inventive opening progressions of Parry’s pensive setting of Austin Dobson’s Who can dwell with greatness! are also so typical of that composer as is the masterly manipulation of the five-part texture. For Edmund Gosse’s Lady on the silver throne, Parratt turned to another Eton housemaster, Arthur Murray Goodhart (1866–1941), who, clearly influenced by the harmonic language of Parry, produced a rich, lyrical setting full of harmonic surprises and luscious dissonances.
In 1897, as Set I of his six Songs of Faith, Op 97, Stanford selected Tennyson’s late poem God and the universe (from The death of Œnone, and other poems of 1892) which he later chose to recast for eight-part choir in 1906. In this choral version, its spacious, questioning sentiment is magnificently portrayed by a rich array of exploratory harmonies revealing the composer’s consummate handling of the modern chromatic apparatus. Stanford’s setting of Milton’s On Time, Op 142, and Parry’s setting of Keats’s ballad La belle dame sans merci were both composed in 1914 for the Bristol Madrigal Society, as commemorative pieces for the Jubilee of the Society’s conductor, Daniel Wilberforce Rootham. Sung by the Society in a ‘Ladies’ Night’ programme given on 14 January 1915 in the Victoria Rooms, Bristol, under Rootham’s direction, both works made considerable demands on the Society’s singers. As Parry (who was present along with Stanford) wrote, in a letter to the Society: ‘I dare say it is difficult, but I thought it might give a choir such as yours something to tackle.’
Stanford’s brilliant canvas for double choir powerfully communicates Milton’s contempt for Time, which may consume all before it, but man, touched by the divine, is more fortunate in his inheritance of eternal life. The overwhelming mood of Stanford’s choral song is one of haste and urgency in both the opening paragraph (‘Fly envious Time’) and the impatience of the rousing coda (‘Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit’), but perhaps most striking of all is the expression of hope and aspiration of the central exultation (‘Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss’). Although Parry assigned the title of ‘madrigal’ to La belle dame sans merci, its style and technique belong unquestionably to the part-song. But in contrast to the miniature conception of part-song design, Parry’s work looks to a more developed process of variation to illustrate the narrative form of Keats’s twelve verses. Indeed, it is compelling to observe the composer’s expansion of the opening material in verses 2 and 3; likewise, the forward-motion of the narrative necessitates subtle changes in verses 5, 6 and 7 which are all grounded in the relative major. As a contrast to the tonal stability of verses 1–3 (F minor) and 4–7 (A flat major), the ghastly phantasm of the ‘pale kings and princes’, with ‘their starved lips in the gloam’, is couched in passages of tonal dissolution which is only solemnly resolved by a recapitulation of the opening material. This time, however, the reiteration of the words and music has a more sinister and frightening connotation.
Jeremy Dibble © 2016