Welcome to Hyperion Records, an independent British classical label devoted to presenting high-quality recordings of music of all styles and from all periods from the twelfth century to the twenty-first.
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This glorious album is both a compendium of some of the finest English music ever written and a testimony to the power of superlative performance.
A keen theologian, and doughty veteran of verse and prose, in his own right, James happily enough left patronage of the arts to his queen Anna or crown prince Henry, but began to appreciate the assured English style of enlisting music into state-church ceremonial. He shrewdly appointed a well-born, energetic Chapel Dean (a position latterly not even filled by Elizabeth), who addressed stagnant pay-rates. A new mood informed composition, especially in verse anthem; a better showcase for soloistic declamation than full anthem. Into that, Gibbons put his full incantatory Orphic persuasiveness. Composers for the earlier Elizabethan Anglican rite had been enjoined to decorum in effects by Calvinist reformers: pithiness in phrasing, no over-elaborate word-painting. By and large, they conformed; even in Chapel, where royal fiat could (and did) countermand the strictures at will. Sumptuous restraint, though, may be the phrase for emergent solutions conceived by predecessors to Gibbons, like his senior colleague, John Bull, and developed by him.
The essence of his urbane, elegant art, complex but still strikingly direct and personal, is hard to encapsulate. A ‘metaphysical’ label is more readily affixed to the era’s verse and prose than music, even his; yet they trace parallel paths. Some needful context, if nothing else, is furnished by a priceless score salvaged by the mid-century publisher John Playford; assumed by him a Gibbons autograph, though most likely copied for family soon after his death. Intriguing pre-print versions given for his Madrigals (1612) and Fantazies of III. Parts (c1622) are trumped by a unique array of verse anthems with ensemble parts. Church sources hold some of these ‘consort anthems’, but with sparser organ backing; only one survives in extant household partbooks. Still, cathedrals did employ ensembles. The score witnesses similar breadth of practice in the Chapel, down to rubrics for decani-cantoris alternatim effects in its choir stalls. Headings for some anthems even note occasion of composition; that, at a time when such remarks are as rare as hens’ teeth.
One undeniable strain is semi-liturgical, fulsome adulation. ‘Great King of Gods’ prefaced the one and only return by James to his native land, in 1617. Its chordally weighted, upbeat stately major mode confidently instructs Jehovah of Psalm 95 to safeguard the king’s passage and finally translate his person bodily heavenwards, thwarting decay. ‘O all true faithful hearts’ interposes choruses like victory-galliards to encourage public rejoicing in April 1619 over an avoided narrow shave: ‘A thanks Giving for the kings happy recoverie from a great dangerous sicknes’. His ominous nephritis, aggravated by melancholy after Anna’s death in January, had alarmed doctors; many subjects were also concerned, by now mellowing to his genial if autocratic foibles. The one gratulatory, ensemble-backed item not in score is ‘Do not repine, fair sun’: a welcome ode for that Scottish Progress of 1617, to mildly pagan verse by Joseph Hall, one of the English bishops corralled into dancing attendance. A florid first section, structured by verses but a bit racier than church norms, commiserates with Phœbus Apollo on being outshone by James during his stay in Edinburgh. A dancier sequel anticipates ensuing revels inside Auld Reekie’s palace, Holyrood House; mimicking the measures to be trod by rustic fairies from Lothian dells, alongside classical nymphs. To perform it, the Chapel was shipped up wholesale to the Water of Leith, well in advance.
‘Blessed are all they that fear the Lord’, Psalm 128 in Prayerbook wording for the solemnisation of marriage, carries barely inferior cachet, for Boxing Day 1613 in Whitehall Chapel: ‘A Weddinge Anthem first Made for my lord of summersett’. Robert Kerr, the Scots favourite who preceded the great Duke of Buckingham in the king’s affections, had fallen for a demure court charmer, Frances Howard; unfortunately already wife to the Third Earl of Essex. James repeatedly leaned on his bishops to pronounce an annulment, then raised the young nobody to a newfangled Earldom of Somerset, to equal his blushing fiancée’s titular rank. Choral recapitulations and spatial effects enhance a graceful affirmativeness; the ensemble form’s exultant running bass Amen broadens and lengthens the circulated church version. (At times the score provides a remarkable extra boon, unique expansions.) Two years on, scandal blighted the match. The not-so-virginal bride’s murderous proclivities came to light: a Lucrezia Borgia-like poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury, leading to death sentences for the pair, commuted by royal indulgence to permanent house-arrest. This contretemps did nothing to dent the setting’s cathedral popularity.
Virtual Maestro di Cappella thereafter, Gibbons found another post in the household of a new Prince of Wales (later Charles I) in 1616. It resulted in an opus or two of innovative string chamber music. His ‘In Nomines’, though, reflect an older world. Composition developed around its cantus firmus, unchanged from a Mass movement of the 1540s by John Taverner, in creative emulation. That mid-Tudor fashion underwent decline, then surprising revivals: the Jacobean one instigated, maybe, by the court violist Alfonso Ferrabosco Junior, English-born son of the only Italian ever to pen In Nomines while visiting England. His set of three refers to his own father, in chief. Gibbons may parallel those, and rings similar changes, but also strikes a balance with tradition. His sweetest and serenest traces Taverneresque motifs more sinuously, yet finds room for fleeting insertion of an unusual dissonant self-quotation from fantasia: a poignant, slow-paced quasi-madrigalian ‘cell’. The most recherché, but also popular, borrows blissful, indulgently prolonged syncopations from John Bull’s keyboard In Nomine style. Graduating midway to a dance-strain, it finally shoots the rapids in frothing roulades. The last, also touched by virtuosic keyboard traits, may borrow a motif or two from Ferrabosco’s third exemplar, and its less usual scoring for two basses. Gibbons liked to observe an earlier Elizabethan finesse with the habitually slow-moving plainsong part: ‘breaking’ it, freeing it at node-points to quote main motifs bandied by other voices, though in a token form easily missed from outside the texture.
The score names two more clergymen of some standing at court, if extraneous, for requesting anthems. While still fairly junior, William Laud commissioned ‘This is the record of John’ before he reached archbishop’s eminence, at some unspecified time in his tenure (1611–21) as ‘presedent of Saint Johns’, the Oxford college dedicated to John the Baptist. The text (from John the Evangelist, based on Isaiah) handles tangential but doctrinally significant verses with ripeness and warmth, presumably to celebrate its feast day, 24 June. ‘Behold, thou hast made my days’ responds to ‘the Entretie of Doctor Maxcie Deane of Winsor the same day sennight before his death’ (so dating it to late April 1618, and possibly a first use by the distinct choral foundation at Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor). Here, too, homophony coalesces to reinforce a lone voice, but here with sombreness; emphasising starkly the psalmist’s invective against worldly wealth. The pathos conveyed hints at contrition by Dean Maxey, a notorious amasser of ecclesiastical benefices, among them a royal chaplaincy.
Others have no precise occasion noted. ‘Glorious and powerful God’ is set apart from contemporary repertoire by its functional uniqueness, though it answers a recent vogue: chapel-dedication. The period saw an increase in private chapels; Lancelot Andrewes (Chapel Royal Dean 1619-26, just before Laud’s tenure) devised a formulary by 1620, expressly for the necessary ceremony. Its verse (author unknown) echoes his phraseology, drawn mainly from New Testament texts: the music’s rhythmic resilience and deep-toned onward flood must be a response to its strength, and focus on divine love. ‘Sing unto the Lord’ also lacks a local habitation, in that its Chapel use is undocumented; yet the score calls it ‘made for Do(cto)r: Marshall’, possibly Hamlett Marshal, another king’s chaplain from 1616. A bass solo responds here to a fellow bass, not a tenor; but in both anthems Gibbons deftly avoids the ‘table-leg’ bass harmonic progressions that hobble some writers. The sinewy sheen of his counterpoint for strings or keyboard perhaps explains something unique to his vocal manner. Voices surrender a little independence; but the resultant linear style’s achievement is better seen as pure fusion of instrumental and vocal. Time and again this comes through in the run of the anthems, where close canon between soloists intensifies the oratory to imbue the whole with inward raptness. Unassuming to the eye, ‘We praise thee, O Father’ almost casually attains that numinous aura within notes, peaking in verse two with a haunting, close-entwined tenor duet, expounding the Paschal mystery. This preface to Easter communion is poised—structured—to lead into something bigger, which never emerges; maybe implying that scored consort anthems were part only of an intended project. ‘Lord, grant grace’, related to the collect for All Saints, adds the common termination for prefaces at communion. Despite its possible liturgical role, and a setting blooming into eight voices, after another muted opening with minimalist economy in part-writing, it too is unattested in the Chapel Royal. The longest, most powerful, ‘See, see, the Word is incarnate’, is another expanded to include divisi effects and a more triumphal Amen. Strangely, even this has no known connection to the Chapel of the day; but signs from the score are that here too revision may not have been quite complete. Its text, furthermore, fits no Anglican festival unless maybe Ascension: it traces Christ’s entire life up to then, Messiah-fashion. Its prose (assigned to Godfrey Goodman, soon to become one of the most latitudinarian of bishops), almost devoid of narrative, creates an oddly static series of icons or tableaux. Even so, the organic quality infused through the notes lifts that visual, verbless aspect, merging with it to a stained-glass brilliance. Paradoxically, it still streams on as irresistibly as anything else in the literature. Had Gibbons lived longer, English Baroque might have evolved to very different effect.
David Pinto © 2017
William Hunt © 2017