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John Ward (c1589-1638)

Fantasies & Verse Anthems

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Recording details: May 2013
Chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: October 2014
Total duration: 59 minutes 46 seconds

Cover artwork: Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.
Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford

The four-part viol fantasies complement Phantasm's previous recording of Ward's five- and six-part works and show an equally fluent and skilful style exemplifying Jacobean consort fantasy at its best. The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, directed by Daniel Hyde, joins Phantasm to perform Ward's verse anthems which contain an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of textures and generous word painting amidst a polyphonic swirl of viols.

Phantasm's illustrious recording career has resulted in the viol consort being repeatedly recognized at the Gramophone Awards with two Awards and several ‘Finalist' nods to its name.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'The current Magdalen choir has a range of marvellous voices used for the solos, with particularly admirable diction, especially from the trebles' (Gramophone)
In his ambitious and accomplished music for voices and viols, John Ward (c1589–1638) offers a privileged glimpse of a special moment in English music history. Composed perhaps during the years 1609–16, these verse anthems and viol fantasies were penned by a young ‘gentleman’ composer attached to the household of a highly cultivated Italianophile, Sir Henry Fanshawe of Warwick Lane, London and Ware Hall, Hertfordshire. Fanshawe was an avid collector of musical instruments and works of art, an aristocrat linked (through his position as Remembrancer of the Exchequer) to the most aspirational and culturally alert member of the British royal family, the young Henry Frederick Stuart (1593–1612), Prince of Wales. Ward came to the Fanshawe family in 1607 after serving as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral before being admitted to its grammar school. Not only were consorts of viols cultivated in the prince’s entourage, but verse anthems—an inspired fusion of the polyphonic liturgical anthem, the anglicized Italian madrigal style and the native viol fantasy—were especially connected to the prince’s musical establishment.

Had Prince Henry not died suddenly at the age of 18 in 1612, Fanshawe (it was later reported) would have succeeded to high office in the royal court, perhaps with John Ward in tow. Rejecting the fastidious and ever-changing vagaries of French fashion, he led his own lustrous court, complete with a separate musical entourage of leading composers, including Thomas Ford, John Bull, Robert Johnson and Thomas Lupo; the prince was even reputed to have been taught the viol by Alfonso Ferrabosco II. According to a posthumous memoir from 1634 by William Haydon, a former Groom of the Bedchamber, Henry especially ‘loved Musicke, and namely good consorts of Instruments and voices joined together’.

How striking, then, that this fondness is recorded in Ward’s anthem This is a joyful, happy holy day, composed most likely for the lavish Whitehall entertainments celebrating Henry’s investiture in 1610 as Prince of Wales. (Though scholars seem unsure whether the piece was written for Henry in 1610 or his younger brother Charles in 1616, Fanshawe forged connections with Prince Henry’s entourage, and in fact died in 1616 several months before Charles’s investiture. Fanshawe’s son Thomas was apparently little interested in music, so it would seem odd that a piece by the gentleman John Ward, not otherwise attached to a royal household, would make its way to a court entertainment after Henry Fanshawe’s death.) On this festive day, all are invited ‘to sing in consort with sweet harmony of instruments and voices’ melody’. In its mention of a ‘consort’ and the combination of ‘instruments and voices’ the text alludes to its own setting. Listening to the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of textures in these anthems, one hears in each section how the viols foreshadow the sung melodies that introduce highlighted vocal solos in a serious and Italianesque madrigal style, full of generous word-painting. Finally the chorus enters, doubled by the consorts of viols, the assembled unity confirming and elaborating both text and melody.

The mention of musical harmony in the context of Henry’s investiture as Prince of Wales might seem just a banal metaphor, but the documentary evidence suggests a tremendous expectation attached to Henry’s future: that view is retrospectively confirmed by the extraordinary outpourings of poetic and musical laments following his untimely death. William Byrd’s consort song on Henry’s death, Fair Britain Isle, for example, asserts that with the prince’s death there ‘died the hope of age of gold’. Moving backwards in time to 1610, one can reasonably guess that polyphonic music offered an idealized reflection of the wildly optimistic prediction that Henry’s future reign as king would usher in a golden age of contentment and prosperity. Indeed, in a 1605 song by Thomas Ford dedicated to the 12-year-old Prince Henry, for example, the text defines a ‘commonwealth’ as ‘a well-tuned song where all parties do agree’.

Coincidentally, 1605 was the same year in which Henry’s educational aspirations—not, apparently, supported by his hunt-loving father—brought the prince to Oxford, where he matriculated at Magdalen College and was assigned the tutor in Hebrew to look after him. (Henry went up to Magdalen rather than to Christ Church because his influential tutor, Sir Thomas Chaloner, who had set up an academy of aristocratic youths around Henry in 1603–4, was a Magdalen man.) He does not seem, however, to have stayed very long at Magdalen, though the college’s choir director (then as now the ‘Informator Choristarum’), Richard Nicolson, like Ward composed verse anthems with viols, some of which seemed to have been performed in chapel. It would be unthinkable that an Oxford college with a connection to a member of the royal family would not have performed music connected to its illustrious junior member. What is more, the considerable number of manuscripts of viol fantasies and verse anthems copied in Oxford attests to a lively interest in these genres during the years leading to 1627, when Nicolson was appointed the first Music Master in the university by the endowment of William Heyther (or Heather), with a collection of 40 music books and a chest of viols to be played at least once weekly in the university’s Music School.

These considerations only bear on the final piece on this recording. But in addition to the celebratory work for the princely investiture, Ward’s verse anthems for voices and viols embrace psalm settings and devotional pieces with a decidedly Protestant bent, and in doing so reflect Prince Henry’s special interests. Ward’s verse anthems are remarkable for the clarity of their text-setting: these works—more than, say, those by Orlando Gibbons—show a love of roving solos and duets which keep up the interest as ever new voices enunciate the words amidst the polyphonic swirl of the viols before choral repetitions hammer home highlighted lines of verse. The tone is decidedly serious, and what is astonishing is that the madrigalisms—or musical word-painting—create an effortless poetic effect and never raise ironic eyebrows in the way that secular English madrigals prompt a twinkling of the eye through their love of frivolity. Like Ward’s own serious collection of published madrigals (1613), which is dedicated to Fanshawe and notes its composer’s disdain for ‘Time-sicke humourists’, the anthems strike a sombre tone of piety; but it is one that revels in warmly lyrical outbursts, and never succumbs to puritanical restraint or censorious anxiety about music’s expressive gifts.

The six-part Praise the Lord, O my soul (here reconstructed by Ian Payne) sets Psalm 104 (less its final verse) and is a song reimagining the story of Creation in Genesis. Ward’s madrigalian instincts seem to await such obvious musical tone-painting as ‘They go up, as high as the hills, and down to the valleys beneath’, with musical contours that aptly ascend and descend. But even here the composer does far more than just craft melodic shapes. The miraculous act of God that commands the inchoate waters of the earth to rise does so in image-laden stages in the music: first the waters ‘go up’ on their own, as if it is enough to admire that marvel; only thereafter do the musical waters climb ‘as high as the hills’, and then, as in a choreographed bodily gesture, move ‘down to the valleys beneath’. The imitative reiterations of clearly stated snippets of text act therefore almost as gestured incantations, which illustrate by constant rehearing the most salient poetic images. The literary voice is not merely that of the singular psalmist but of an angelic consort of musical praise. In fact, Ward’s frequent repetition of musical ‘points’ or motives with their accompanying snippets of text has a way of inducing (mantra-like?) a mildly hypnotic state that both extends and enriches the listener’s experience.

Ward also underscores passages of text by memorable instances of rhythmic declamation; that is, by forging melodic and rhythmic identities for the given words. So, for example, the opening lines of Psalm 104 are clearly anticipated by the wordless viols, who have already accented ‘Praise’, ‘Lord’ and ‘soul’ in naturalistic English without the words’ having yet been heard. When the duo of treble voices enters, the ear accepts—and the mind trusts—the wordsetting because the anticipatory imitation in the instruments has already seeped into semi-consciousness. Yet not every line is set naturalistically: note the exciting octave leap upwards on the words ‘thou art’: here the artifice of an ‘incorrect’ declamatory leap effects a musical experience of surprise and awe that projects attention on to the words that follow—‘exceeding glorious’—since it is semantically incongruous to accent the verb here: ‘thou art become exceeding glorious’.

The grand poetic journey of creation that begins in high heaven and ends on the earth below is also mirrored by the fall in the vocal range of the paired duets: first trebles, then tenors, then basses, the last best suited to frighten us with their deep ‘rebuke’ and subterranean vision of dark ‘thunder’. Ward even has the singers exhibit the fear of the anthropomorphized waters, who are ‘afraid’ of the Lord in the midst of his magisterial acts of creation. In a similar fashion, the composer affirms the affective safety of the earth’s immutable ‘foundation’ by his agogic emphasis on the first syllable of ‘never [should move at any time]’: no doubt, here, that both psalmist and listening believer stand on the most secure ground of terra firma!

Verses with solo voices invariably give way to a ‘chorus’, labelled as such in the surviving sources. Here the frequent use of homorhythmic declamation advances a different musical argument, that of iterative unanimity: were there some difficulty in deciphering words in the verses—though which good Anglican would not know the psalms by heart?—then the opening of these choral entries reveals a host of angels who speak with one synchronized voice.

The viols not only adumbrate the text but also give space and time for the establishment of what Jacobeans referred to as the ‘air’: the setting of a mood as well as a meditation on the words just sung. In the paired anthems that begin with the very Italianate descending utterance Down, caitiff wretch, the viols begin as if playing an independent viol fantasy, thereby occluding the point of melodic imitation which follows. Their presence also encourages some serious word-play: in the line ‘whilst heav’nly thoughts do Discant on the ground’, Ward alludes to the improvisatory genre of instrumental music—treble variations or ‘divisions’ on a bass theme or ‘ground’—by having the bass hold a long one-note ‘ground’ while two trebles sing lithe ‘descants’ in close canon above. He also alternates madrigalisms with musical illuminations or heightenings of individual words. Ward the madrigal composer sets three voices for the ‘blessed Trinity’, low notes for ‘lowly creep’, fluttering quavers on ‘winged faith’ and a unison accent on ‘one accord’; Ward the rhetorical musician-interpreter also accents the setting of ‘angels’, which rips the word from its context so as to celebrate an awestruck and sudden intrusion of a seraphic choir who offer praise in song, vision and gesture.

The four-part viol fantasies complement Phantasm’s recording of the five- and six-part works (Linn CKD 339) and show Ward composing in an equally fluent and skilful vein. Composed for one treble, two tenors and one bass viol, these six pieces exemplify the Jacobean consort fantasy at its best: experimental in its love of angular, even unsingable themes stated in double counterpoint; of demarcated sections set off by full cadences and rests; of forays into neighbouring keys; and of moments of madrigalian harmony to which conventionally melancholic, even Italian, words might be supplied by the literary imagination. As a group, the works seem to become ever more complex from Fantasy 1 to Fantasy 6.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that for the final work, Fantasy 6, we possess the only seventeenth-century description of a piece of English consort music. In a letter from 1658, Dudley, Baron North of Kirtling, writes to one of his employees about Ward, and refers to the C major Fantasy’s ‘brisk, lusty, yet mellifluent vein … that stirs our bloud, and raises our spirits, with liveliness and activity, to satisfie both quickness of heart and hand’. The work stands out (even for Ward) in its extended range—it makes use of a top C (c‴) in the treble and a bottom C in the bass—as well as for a brief passage in triple time, which perhaps borrows an idea from Gibbons’s most modish four-part works. But what is fascinating in Dudley North’s characterization is that the quick tempo of the piece—nowhere marked as such but implicit in the note values—was heard as full-blooded and lusty yet at the same time flowing smoothly like honey (‘mellifluent’).

Whereas so many of Ward’s works are sombre and in the minor mode, Fantasy 6, in the sunniest key of C, not only stimulates players—the composer focuses on executants rather than listeners in mentioning their ‘hand’—but dispels melancholy. By way of its sanguine temperament, the ‘liveliness and activity’ of the fantasy ‘raise spirits’ and provide ludic satisfaction. It is as if the viol fantasy, which of its nature requires multiple participants, supplies a miraculous tonic that rejuvenates the spirit by embodying a hopeful ‘activity’ emblematic of the ideal human condition. In mastering the environment by the skilful use of one’s hands and engaging one’s heart as well, the consort exudes an equable temperament and a sympathy for humankind. Having played this piece himself, North experienced his world as ‘well-tuned’: quite a compliment to pay a remnant of a composer’s imagination lasting less than three minutes. This lovely encomium for a mostly forgotten piece of music from the second decade of the seventeenth century is brief, but a fitting tribute to John Ward, whose efforts have been rediscovered in our own time and whose mellifluous music deserves a closer look.

Laurence Dreyfus © 2014

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