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The Oxford Psalms

Charivari Agréable
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: August 2006
St Andrew's Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Hunter
Engineered by Adrian Hunter
Release date: March 2007
Total duration: 78 minutes 27 seconds

Charivari Agréable present an imaginative new disc themed around their home town of Oxford. They are joined by a formidable line-up of singers including Rodrigo del Pozo, Simon Beston and Nicholas Perfect, to present a programme of 17th Century domestic devotional anthems and psalms by some of the greatest British composers of all time.


'A must, I would say, for lovers of English Baroque' (Gramophone)

'The singers are ideal for the repertoire, unaffected voices with the mutual rapport of lay-clerks—as two of them have been. Rodrigo del Pozo has a colourful but easy high-tenor voice, Nicholas Perfect a remarkable resonance at the bottom of his range' (BBC Music Magazine)» More
This programme is a random sampling of seventeenth-century English devotional chamber music for three men and basso continuo. A couple of coincidences define the parameters of our recital. Most of the composers have some connection with Oxford, be it academic, professional, or, more tenuously, fraternal. Also, most of the music on this disc represents what we believe to be a neglected genre, viz. that of sacred songs and non-liturgical anthems for domestic consumption, ‘fitt for private Chappels or other private meetings’, to cite a rubric from William Child’s only publication The First Set of Psalmes of III Voyces (1639). Unlike the ‘cantilenam quinque partium’ that he was required to submit as part of the degree of Bachelor of Music at Oxford (to which he was admitted in 1631), these were ‘newly composed after the Italian way’. Thus did the language of the ‘seconda prattica’ find its (albeit somewhat anglicized) voice, namely in two ways: the first being the disposition of parts in what would come to be identified as the triosonata texture; and the second being the earliest use in England of the ‘continuall Base’. The enterprise was exquisitely engraved on copper plates, and consisted of four small (but perfectly-proportioned) part-books: ‘cantus primus’, ‘cantus secundus’, ‘bassus’, and ‘basso continuo’. The presumed Second Set never materialized, an anomaly made all the more curious by the presence of numerous manuscript—i.e. ‘pirated’—copies of the first set which indicate not only the growing appetite for the new-fangled baroque declamatory idiom, but which also reveal Child’s business acumen in not associating his works with any political cause. Re-issues by John Playford of the First Set appeared in 1650 and 1656 in the guise of Choise Musick to the Psalmes of Dauid, an act of political expediency perhaps, as religious reformers (including Henry VIII) had always associated themselves with David.

After the Restoration, Child resumed his position as organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and was subsequently made one of the organists of the Chapel Royal. He took his D.Mus. in July 1663 and proceeded to supply single-handedly the shortfall in the cathedral repertory caused by the Interregnum. He lived to be a nonagenarian, with a reputation as a much-respected and highly prolific composer of services, even if he could at times be cantankerous, judging by several incidents in Windsor. These included protracted pay disputes, and a severe deterioration of relations with Matthew Green, the Master of the Choristers, who reportedly assaulted him with ‘uncivill and rude language while he was doeing his duty in playing the Organ, and…did trip up his heels, and when down, did unhumanly beat him’. Child was buried ‘in Woollen’ in St George’s Chapel, and his gravestone is near the present entrance to the organ loft. An oil painting of Child in his doctoral robes hangs in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

In contrast to Child’s longevity, William Lawes’s life was tragically cut short in 1645 in an ill-timed sortie at the siege of Chester by what was possibly, in today’s parlance, ‘friendly fire’. A diehard royalist, he had enlisted as a soldier in 1642, but in order to steer him away from frontline action, he was appointed commissary in Sir Charles Gerrard’s Oxford-based foot regiment. Lawes was present at the siege of York in 1644, which lasted twelve weeks, tantalizingly coinciding with his dozen Psalmes for 1, 2 and 3 partes, to the comon tunes. This has given rise to the suggestion that the anthems were intended for the Sunday services at York Minster, a conjecture abetted, albeit inconclusively, by a description from Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument (1676) referring to accompanied psalmody during the siege. At that time Mace recalled hearing ‘the very best Harmonical-Musick that ever [he] heard’; it was ‘in the stately Cathedral’ in which ‘before the Sermon, the Congregation sang a Psalm, together with the Quire and the Organ’. But the stylistic evidence of Lawes’s Psalmes (such as the vivid word-painting) suggests that this unique collection of pre-Commonwealth verse anthems might have been an early experiment, composed either during Lawes’s employment at the estate of the earl of Hereford, or, more plausibly, during the court’s exile in provincial Oxford.

Forerunners of the Restoration verse anthem, these elaborate Psalmes juxtapose high-church verses in extrovert style (scored in various permutations for alto, tenor, and bass soloists) and low-church traditional hymn tunes; both segments are set to ‘Old Version’ metrical paraphrases from psalters by Sternhold and Hopkins, and others. Unusually enough, the verses for unison choral or congregational—or both—participation are indicated by the words ‘common tune’ in all three solo parts, and by the incipits of the desired verses. The five anthems selected for this recording come from the library of Christ Church, Oxford (MSS 768–770); they were copied c.1670 from an incomplete secondary source by Oxford’s music professor Edward Lowe. The choice of texts is particularly poignant, for the psalm settings resonate with the echoes of the Civil War with such phrases as ‘from dangers me defend’ (Psalm 51/2) and ‘of force I must love thee…Thou art my castle and defence’ (Ps. 18/1). Lawes’s untimely demise caused King Charles I to institute special mourning for this ‘Father of Musick’. Various laudatory publications followed, including his brother Henry’s Choice Psalmes (1648), containing musical tributes from colleagues, and other three-voice psalms by both brothers.

Like Lawes, George Jeffreys, too, was a committed Anglican and Royalist, answering a call in 1643 to come to Oxford to assist his employer Sir Christopher Hatton, who had become the king’s Comptroller of Household. Jeffreys’s musical talents were soon requisitioned by the king’s court at Christ Church, either as organist in choral services ‘performed there after a very homely fashion’—indicating small-scale chamber performances—or as a copyist of many concertato motets by Italian composers, or even as a composer of many devotional songs, of which one is an evening prayer setting (of the non-metrical Psalm 104), most probably written about the time of the publication of Child’s Psalmes.

Another who drew inspiration from Child was Matthew Locke, whose devotional songs for ATB and continuo resemble the Psalmes in their Italianate style, brevity, and use of non-metrical texts. Locke advanced one development, however, which was the not-infrequent divergence of the vocal bass part from the thoroughbass. He heightened the expressivity of the text by changing the metre in ‘be glad and rejoice’ (‘In the beginning’) and ‘be merry and joyful’ (‘Let God arise’). Like Lawes and Jeffreys, Locke, too, went to Oxford with the court, which this time was taking refuge from the plague of 1665. Although he came as a member of the court orchestra, the Twenty-four Violins, Locke found time to participate in some of the weekly meetings for music making held at the Music School; he also wrote some new-year songs for Charles II’s celebrations in Oxford on 1 January 1666. Somehow, these activities were not sufficient to warrant the bestowing of a doctorate by the University, despite his eminence in the musical establishment. He was, after all, the composer for the king’s Private Music and the Twenty-four fiddlers, and had composed for the Chapel Royal, and for the royal wind band, the Sagbutts & Cornetts; he was also organist in the queen’s Catholic chapel. Perhaps it was a combination of his religion and his belligerent personality, evident in the polemics he penned against Thomas Salmon, which antagonized the academic community. Still, he kept in contact with the Music School through Edward Lowe, and in 1673 even provided music for the University’s ‘Act’ (a festive ceremony held in early summer in Christopher Wren’s magnificent Sheldonian Theatre, at which candidates for degrees gave public evidence of their eligibility).

Lowe held the professorship of music, but this fragrant title belies the actual job description of a mere ‘Choragus’ [Latin, in the statutes, for University music master]. He was not required to deliver the academic curriculum, his duty being simply to provide for, and to superintend, the Music School meetings and musical entertainment for the Act. Lowe was also one of the three organists—one of the other two being Child—taking turns of duty in the Chapel Royal at Whitehall where he would have known John Blow, first as one of the Children of the Chapel (i.e. choirboys), then from 1674 as Master of the Children. Lowe must have prevailed on his colleague to write some Act music, for Blow duly obliged on two occasions, although he might have had cause for regret. The Act of 1677 emanated unpropitious signals when the ceremony’s traditional scurrilous locutions of the ‘Terrae Filius’ (the buffoon licensed by the University to create a satirical Latin poem) was undecorously accompanied by the performance of a nonsense song with the lyrics ‘Touf-fouf-touf, clinc-clincclanc, dron-dron-dron’ etc. The Act for the following year was cancelled. The antithesis of such silliness is the text of Blow’s devotional song for three men and continuo ‘As on Euphrates’ shady banks’, taken from George Sandy’s Paraphrase upon the divine poems (1638). In a league of brutality quite different from Lawes’s anthems, Blow’s graphic setting rises to the savagery of the metrical Psalm137, which bloodthirstily proclaims ‘O thrice happy they, who shall with equal cruelty, revenge our fall, that dash thy children’s brains against the stones, and without pity hear their dying groans’.

Lowe’s death in 1682 created a vacancy for Henry Purcell, who was Blow’s pupil and successor at Westminster Abbey. One of the most sublimely beautiful anthems ever to come from the pen of Purcell is an early work (c.1678), a setting of a psalm paraphrase (Ps. 116) by John Patrick; ‘Since God so tender’, at once expressively lyrical and boldly rhetorical, is a tour de force of invention, glorying in changes of affect, texture and tonality, and yet unconstrained by the unfaltering ostinato (ground) bass, itself an uncommon occurrence in his sacred music. The other anthem, based on the translated Psalm 41 ‘Blessed is he that considereth’, is yet another masterpiece, a mixture of sobriety with levity, expertly furnished with harmonic daring and vibrancy. By the time it came to be written, probably around the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which sent James II into exile, Purcell was embarking on a theatrical career of providing plays with songs, catches, or introductory (or incidental) instrumental movements. He did not provide music for the Oxford Acts—there were in any case none between 1685 and 1692—but then, neither did his brother Daniel, who was organist of Magdalen College, Oxford.

Soon after Purcell’s death in 1695, the unexpected outcome of a minor infection, Jeremiah Clarke left his job as organist of Winchester College for St Paul’s Cathedral, where he was eventually made a vicar-choral in 1699. He had trained under Blow, being listed as one of the trebles of the Chapel Royal at the coronation of James II, on which occasion Purcell also sang bass. Clarke’s inexorable rise followed in 1700 when he and a former fellow pupil William Croft were sworn in as Gentlemen-Extraordinary of the Chapel Royal, an occasion marked by ‘Two Divine Hymns’, one from each composer, jointly published by Henry Playford as a supplement, ‘Or stitch’d up with the Second Book of Harmonia Sacra’. Clarke’s contribution ‘Blest be those’ is a veritable cantata in miniature, featuring an aria-like refrain, around which is weaved arioso passages, presaging the arrival of Handel’s Italianate idiom. Clarke stayed on at St Paul’s and was promoted in 1703 to Almoner and Master of the Choristers in place of Blow. Despite a promising career, something in Clarke’s life was amiss: he suffered ‘a fit of melancholy’. This ‘conflict of mind’ was remedied when he ‘violently Shot himself…in the Head with a Screw Pistol’. The suicide ‘for the supposed Love of a Young Woman’ was widely reported in various ‘Sad and Dismal’ accounts, and even prompted a mock ode in The London Spy, which, in verse, enjoined its readers not to ‘wonder at his fall, since ‘twas not so unnatural, for him who lived by canon to expire by ball’.

Of the instrumental fillers in this programme, the earliest comes from Parthenia in-violata (c.1624), the second printed source of English keyboard music. Unlike its prequel Parthenia or the Maydenhead of the First Musicke that Ever was Printed for the Virginalls (1612–13), Parthenia in-violata contains neither pavans nor galliards, nor even fantasias; its mostly anonymous content is made up of more fashionable dances (such as almains) and settings of masque tunes. Alternatively entitled Mayden-Musicke for the Virginalls and Bass-Viol, it allows for ensemble (duet) performance by the addition to the self-contained keyboard part of a basic bass-viol line, which we have enlivened with divisions in our version. Conspicuous by its sacred title, the ‘Miserere’ may have been so named more in hope than in spirit; with the plainsong embedded in an inner part and its lively coranto-like character, this oddity represents the last splutter of a once-vigorous tradition.

The untitled piece, named ‘Voluntary’ for the sake of convenience, comes from a manuscript in the British Library (Add. 34695) and bears the inscription ‘A.B.’, generally taken to refer to Albert Bryne, who was Blow’s immediate predecessor as organist at Westminster Abbey. Bryne’s failure in petitioning the king to appoint him organist at the Chapel Royal is all the more surprising because of his reputation as ‘the famously velvet-fingered Organist’; his harpsichord music is preserved in a greater number of (mostly manuscript) sources than that of any other English composer of the time. The anonymous ‘Ground for ye Harpsicord’ is one of the few specifically associated with the instrument. Taken from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library (Mus. Sch. D.219), the ‘Ground’ is performed in an arrangement that conflates it with a ‘Division’ that shares its repeated harmonic pattern. These are then knitted together with other variations made up by the performer, as expected (and indeed instructed) by Christopher Simpson in his Division-Violist, or An Introduction to the Playing upon a Ground (1659), in which ‘Division’ we have selected is just one of many gems.

Simpson’s didactic Division-Violist and its subsequent revised editions, as well as other writings, garnered effusive praise from a parade of eminent musicians; even Purcell was moved to declare A Compendium of Practical Musick ‘the most Ingenious Book I e’er met with upon this Subject’. Simpson’s passing was commemorated by Locke, a fellow Catholic, who eulogized him as ‘a Person whose memory is precious among good and knowing Men, for his exemplary life and excellent skill’. His divisions were undoubtedly an inspiration to viol player Francis Withy, who helped Lowe (and Lowe’s successors at both the Cathedral and Music School) with the copying of much music, including a set of parts of Simpson’s Little Consort c.1673. Withy remained in Oxford till his dying days as gentleman or singing-man of Christ Church.

Kah-Ming Ng © 2007

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