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Elizabeth Kenny and Theatre of the Ayre revel in some of the most extraordinary music of the seventeenth century. Focusing on the ayre—the central part of a masque—The Masque of Moments offers a fascinating glimpse into a world of audacious and experimental virtuosity.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Opinions on the significance of this expensive form of art-entertainment differed. Jonson saw them as a way to ‘lay hold on more remov’d mysteries’ beyond everyday experience, a Renaissance idealist‘s view that art could create an echo of the music of the spheres and an ordered, harmonious society. But he became disillusioned when the rise of Jones brought with it an emphasis on stage effects and spectacle: it became mere entertainment, with no lasting effects beyond the occasional hangover.
This recording homes in on some of the most extraordinary music—the ‘ayre’—at the centre of masque performances in the first part of the seventeenth century. By the 1630s they blazed defiantly and perhaps foolishly against a backdrop of resentment and unease at the extravagance of the Caroline Court, which would coalesce around religious and civic tensions and erupt into civil war.
Despite its fragmentary form and topical texts, from a musician’s perspective, the Stuart and Caroline masque is irresistible: the songs and dances—sometimes only a tune and bass—from manuscripts and printed books (such as Adson’s ever-popular Courtly Masquing Ayres) offer a fascinating glimpse of audacious and experimental virtuosity that is often absent from our image of English music of this time.
Three groups of musicians were mustered with some consistency between around 1606 and 1638: brass and winds for ceremonial or anti-masque effects, strings (five-part violin band) for dancing, and the inner core that became the lutes and voices, and sometimes the lutes, viols and voices. Rather than attempt a reconstruction of a particular show, we chose this last group to use as a prism through which to view operatic imaginations at work.
The lutes and voices (whose makeup inspired the formation of Theatre of the Ayre) was the nerve centre of innovation in vocal and plucked string music, melding improvisation, virtuosity and a directness of emotive speech, with a gift for tunefulness and an intimate knowledge of the exact voices at their disposal. Prolific song and masque writer Henry Lawes, would became ‘Composer in ye Private Musick for Lutes and Voices’ after 1660, as sole survivor of the pre-war group providing a direct link with the masque-operas of the Restoration.
These practices have been obscured by the publishing habits of the early seventeenth century, which privileged the simpler format of lute song, or of tunes and bass lines, over attempts to notate what was actually done in professional performance. For example, the wild ecstasy of the ornaments in ‘Why stays the bridegroom to invade’ (track 5) from The Haddington Masque were taken from Mus. 439 in Christ Church Library, Oxford. The song appeared, a year later in Alfonso Ferrabosco’s Ayres with not a black note in sight. The ‘performed’ version draws the ear to the sheer sound of the music liberated from the text, looking towards the joy and beauty of transformation beyond the weddingspecific occasion. Perhaps this was sung by the same ‘loud tenor’ who appeared in Jonson’s The Masque of Beauty (1608). Ferrabosco II (his Italian father was a viol player and madrigalist at Queen Elizabeth’s court) was officially appointed as one of Charles I’s musicians ‘for the lutes and voices’ in 1631, though by this point he had been an integral part of many masques, and one of the rare composers to be acknowledged in the wordbooks by name: Jonson credited him with inventing ‘stylo recitativo’ in The Vision of Delight (1617). Writers as diverse as Jonson, William Davenant and John Dryden all sought to trace the lineage of recitative in English, rarely agreeing on its origins or effectiveness, but it is clear that the declamatory freedom of these masque songs evolved as much from the availability of singers to deliver them dramatically and well, as from the ideals of imitating the Italian manner with which Ferrabosco and his colleague, the much-travelled Nicholas Lanier, were familiar (such as ‘I was not wearier’ [track 26]). What the Italian influence did was to provide a language for the kinds of ‘descant’ singing already cultivated for a generation in the theatre: famously, in 1602 the Duke of Stettin-Pomerania had been impressed with a boy singing at the Blackfriars theatre ‘cum voce tremula’. Training methods to learn how to do this were already in place in the choir schools and the London Waits, as well as at court.
Delicate cascades of coloratura were the aural equivalent of the glittering jewels and silks worn by the audience as well as the participants. The Venetian ambassador Orazio Busino, wrote home in 1618: ‘… the splendour of their diamonds and other jewels so was brilliant that they looked like so many stars …’ Anticipating John Lennon by a few hundred years, there were no cheap seats in the Banqueting House, but plenty of jewellery to rattle instead of clapping. It also carried the exotic: ‘There came a chitarrone player, in a gown, who sang with some strange effects from his throat …’
Highly skilled candidates—not all of them Italians—were not hard to find in this milieu. Henry Lawes sang his own creation, Thyrsis the attendant spirit or daemon in Comus. Lawes took his court-centred training methods to the provinces, tutoring Lady Alice Egerton who was the only one of the Egerton children, around whom Comus was created, to be given a singing role. Though women were not professionals for reasons of social propriety (even the non-speaking participation of Queen Anne and her dancing ladies-in-waiting attracted the ire of Puritan pamphleteers such as William Prynne), professional standards were required. The role of Sabrina in Comus was re-scoped as a speaking part, presumably when Alice’s sister Penelope was not quite up to the singing job. ‘Sweet Echo’ (track 20), written for fifteen year old Alice, has a similar range and tessitura to other songs by Lawes for female pupils: his protégé Mary Knight would go on to star in Restoration shows when women were finally allowed to sing on stage. Fifteen years old at the time of recording, Rosanna Wicks is the first singer to record this song with the teenage sound that hovers between innocence and insight just as does her character, The Lady. The identity of ‘Madam Coniack’ (‘Steer hither’ [track 8] from Browne’s Ulysses and Circe, 1615) is more of a mystery, but again the female voice is the expression of the song, a siren from of distraction to Ulysses.
Court masques could also draw on the resources of the Chapel Royal. Turning to William Lawes’ music for The Triumph of Peace from 1634 (track 22), we find lists of trebles, apprentices who would go on to sing and compose as adults. Both William and his brother Henry started their singing careers as choristers at Salisbury Cathedral, following in the footsteps of their father Thomas, so it was particularly satisfying to enlist the services of a group of lay clerks and choristers from the same cathedral to sing their music. The Greek goddess of Peace, known as Irene, despite being female was sung as befits a hero by tenor John Lanier, brother to Nicholas. Eunomia, goddess of Order, was played by a boy treble apprenticed to Walter Porter, Monteverdi’s enthusiastic English student. A French male soprano added another form of improvisation, and choreographers and lutenists, influenced by French dance forms, another.
Though there is documentary evidence of performances, this can be misleading: wordbooks tend to overstate the importance of the text, as well as recounting what should have happened rather than what did. On the other hand, ‘eyewitness’ accounts such as the Venetian ambassador’s, aimed to provide an amusing and sardonic, rather than an accurate, story. Thomas Campion gives the best accounts of music, not surprisingly as he worked both as poet and musician in the masque arena. He freely adapted masque material for use in other circumstances. The three-part version of ‘Now hath Flora robb’d her bow’rs’ (track 3) fulfilled the idea he puts forth in his Two Books of Ayres (1613) of filling the ‘gaping’ between the top and the bottom parts which would have been arranged by the team in place, and honed in rehearsal. Campion’s friend Philip Rosseter published versions of tunes from the 1607 Lord Hay’s Masque in his Lessons for Consort (1609) which gives ideas of the kinds of instrumental embellishments in use. Campion’s masque style is tuneful and measured rather than declamatory; the lines between song and dance are beautifully blurred. (‘Move now with measur’d sound’ [track 6] even describes dance through song). This cheerfully pragmatic recycling is one answer to the question of what use the masque could be after the night. It’s an approach that underpins our selection of ‘moments’.
Stephen Orgel pointed out that ‘a masquer’s disguise is a representation of the courtier beneath’. For this reason, courtiers tended to stick to the noble heroics of the main masque, leaving the anti-masque to lowlier professionals. Unlike in opera, character and performer are not always identical, and audiences delighted in appreciating the slippage between them. In ‘Did you not once, Lucinda, vow’ (track 16) the simple shepherd and his would-be amour Lucinda sing in the style of their creator, court singer Charles Coleman, with an un-shepherdy mastery of Italianate flair and French swing: musical tricks that sweeten the awkwardness of the wealthy royal party agreeing that ‘truest love | Grows not on wealth nor lands’. The shepherd claims he hasn’t got a ‘Viddle’ to which to sing, but gets more than he bargained for:
Tom: What che thinke thu wants a Viddle? chill fetch thee a Viddle, Man, is there be a Viddle in the house.
[He goes in and brings out a theorbo]
Che can borrow no Viddle but this, and here’s one aumost as long as a maypole.
[The shepherd takes the theorbo and sings]
Anti-masque musicians trod a fine line between ‘art’ and ‘nature’: the text of ‘From the famous peak of Derby’ (track 10) is in a duple metre, but the music is based on a version of the popular guitar ground the villanella in triple time; just as well the character is a mountebank, a swindler whose identity is slippery. ‘Tho’ it may seem rude’ (track 12) takes us more towards nature.
Dancing masters were often violinists and often French (Adam Vallet, Nicolas Confesse), and sometimes produced tunes which lute players like Robert Johnson would then adapt for the five-part band. Inner parts range from being materials inviting improvisation and division over several strains (‘The Earl of Essex Measure’ [track 2], ‘Lord Zouche’s Maske’ [track 1]) to beautifully composed counterpoint (‘Coperario’ [track 17] by John Cooper who became Giovanni Coperario after a trip to Italy, and tutored the Lawes brothers in composition). The dance music functioned both as entertainment and—in its melodic and choreographed patterns—as an expression of social and cosmic harmony (‘The Cadua’ [track 9], ‘The Maypole’ [track 14], ‘Move now with measur’d sound’ [track 6]). But it also hinted at the darkness and disorder that the masque sought to overcome, ‘antic’ dances portraying madness and grotesquerie, the pause signs in the music denoting wild choreography here realized in musical improvisation. Charles I’s Private Music, in which William Lawes was a prominent figure, brought the sounds of the hitherto separate world of the violin and viol family together in his symphonies. French sounds pervade the music right through the 1620s and 30s, led from the top by Jacques Gaultier with his treble lute. Gaultier added more scandal to the genre by arriving from Paris on the run from a murder charge; he was rumored to be having an affair with Queen Henrietta Maria …
The plucked soundworld of which this recording gives a hint reflects a cornucopia of sounds used to create everything from a tavern scene (the wire string cittern punched above its weight in this area) to a reflection of paradise. Lutes of all sizes, guitars and theorboes of English and Italian tuning were part of a large palette that gives a richness to often thinly-notated music. Irish harpers such as Daniel Cahill and Cormack Dermode probably inspired Francis Bacon’s remark: ‘No instrument hath the sound so melting and prolonged as the Irish harp’. Lutes, viols, voices with a touch of Elysian harp; for this reason we take the liberty of adding a small piece of Matthew Locke’s Cupid and Death (track 25), in which the Elysian fields may or may not be captured on earth. Music enabled the masque to be the place where fantasy and reality meet.
Elizabeth Kenny © 2017
We enter anti-masque territory with dancing bears and drunken revellers.
A gentler, Caroline anti-masque moves us out of Jacobean music for the second part, to music from the 1630s starting with a pastoral dialogue, in which financial realities sit uneasily with ‘true’ love. Real pastoral follows, with music from Milton and Lawes’ Comus; harmony links heaven and earth, with just a hint of voluptuousness in the depictions of nature, to give the battle between Comus and the attendant spirit for the souls of the Egerton children some tension.
The ‘angry steed’ addresses the King and Queen (Charles and Henrietta Maria) and depicts the triumph of love over the trappings of war, transforming them into divinities. Next in The Triumph of Peace, Irene (Peace) is irritable without her sister Eunomia (Order) and they agree the one needs the other. Amphiluca, a Banquo’s ghost figure, gloomily contemplates wrecking all this harmony, but disappears and gives way to an England that looks uncannily like the Elysian Fields. Mercury sends everyone home:
Like a perfuming gale o’er flowers
Now glide again to your own bowers.
A far-off tenor heralds the arrival of the dawn when the masque must end, and a familiar tune becomes the final dance.
Linn Records © 2017