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Weelkes & Byrd: Tom + Will

Weelkes & Byrd: 400 years
The King's Singers, Fretwork Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: January 2022
Orford Church, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: January 2023
Total duration: 70 minutes 53 seconds

William Byrd and Thomas Weelkes died in 1623, Byrd in his ninth decade, Weelkes barely half that. Eighteen works, mainly secular in nature and several relatively unknown today, are presented here, along with two inspired new compositions from Roderick Williams and James MacMillan following in the tradition of the musical elegy. The beguiling intertwining of voices and viols throughout the programme remains as potent today as it must have been four centuries ago.

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The many 400th anniversary projects and celebrations commemorating the life and music of William Byrd (c1540-1623) have finally come to fruition, from concerts and festivals to books and articles to, like this, dedicated recordings of the many forms and genres the composer mastered throughout his long life. This recording offers quite a different take by incorporating, in equal measure, the music of Thomas Weelkes who also died in 1623 although as a relatively younger man. Byrd lived more than 80 years, while Weelkes only 47: two composers from two different generations, and certainly two men of wildly contrasting characters.

Byrd was almost certainly a young chorister towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII. Being famously ‘bred up’ under the towering figure of Thomas Tallis, he would have spent his formative years singing and composing during the protestant reign of Edward VI and the brief Catholic restoration under Mary I. He was a product of the English Reformation and the large majority of his music was shaped and influenced by these religiously turbulent years. He became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572, and, with Tallis, jointly produced Cantiones sacrae, a landmark collection of sacred songs in Latin and published in 1575. Thomas Weelkes was born in the following year. At the age of around 21 he published his first book of madrigals in 1597 and was soon after appointed organist of Winchester College. He went on to publish two further volumes of English madrigals in 1598 and 1600, and by 1602 he received his Bachelor of Music degree from New College, Oxford; he went from there straight to Chichester Cathedral as Instructor of the Choristers as well as a paid singer. A stellar career thus far, although he began to suffer notable and notorious decline after the publication of his final volume of English madrigals in 1608.

The choir at Chichester was accused of insubordination at this time, and Weelkes was singled out as the most disorderly member of the cathedral staff. In 1613 he was admonished for being drunk in public, and two years later it was recorded that Weelkes and ten other choir men were further reprimanded for their failure in attending cathedral services. Matters came to a head in 1617 when he was dismissed as organist and choirmaster for his notorious ‘drunkenness and outrageous blaspheming’, although he remained in post as a singing man. Weelkes was unreformed the remainder of his life, and it was noted that he continued to ‘utter curses and oaths that both profaned the service and outraged those who were present’. Weelkes ended his days in London and died in the house of a friend, ironically called Henry Drinkwater, in November 1623 and was buried in St Bride’s church.

Byrd’s life from the 1570s took a different route. Following the death of Tallis in 1585 he went on to produce four extensive solo publications: two volumes of secular and spiritual songs (1588 and 1589) and two volumes of Latin motets (1589 and 1591). The latter included so-called ‘political’ motets written in response to the persecution of English recusant communities. These were followed by blatantly Catholic works in the form of three Masses (mid 1590s) and two books of Mass Propers or ‘Gradualia’ in 1605 and 1607. One further volume of sacred and secular songs was published in 1611. Byrd remained faithful to the Catholic faith to his death in July 1623, and lies buried in the churchyard at Stondon Massey in Essex. Unlike Weelkes he was never accused of scandalous acts although he can be found in contemporary court documents petitioning the rights of fellow Catholics—he himself was more or less immune from persecution owing to his high status. He attracted the patronage of some of the greatest personages of the time, and the sheer quality and diversity of his output has ensured his place as England’s most celebrated high Renaissance composer. Within Weelkes’s relatively short composing career he, too, was able to demonstrate his first-rate skills as a composer of several genres. His publications between 1597 and 1600 are argued to contain ‘some of the boldest music yet conceived in England, and the best of the twenty works in his 1600 volume are among the greatest of all English madrigals’ (David Brown).

This recording therefore provides an opportunity to admire their works side-by-side, in a variety of genres. The title of this album is relevant, as it is quite likely that Weelkes and Byrd would have been known by their respective diminutives ‘Tom’ and ‘Will’, which was commonplace in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Given, too, that the majority of music on this recording is of a secular nature, or of sacred music intended for the household rather than chapel, the informality seems even more appropriate. The programme begins and ends with two sacred anthems by Byrd: the proud and confident Praise our Lord, all ye gentiles (Psalm 117) and O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth, a prayer for the health and well-being of his principal patron the queen. Sandwiched in-between is a garden of various musical delights.

Weelkes was known primarily as one of England’s greatest composers of the madrigal, a form that gained its popularity in London with the publication of Musica Transalpina (London, 1588), a collection of Italian madrigals ‘Englished’. The madrigals became immediately popular, and inspired home-grown composers to produce their own works with themes broadly ranging across all human emotions. This sweet and merry month of May is one of Byrd’s few contributions to the genre (depending on how one defines a madrigal), while this genre was very much Weelkes’s domain. Hark! all ye lovely saints above is among his most popular, with the characteristic ‘fa-la-las’ that follow each verse. Other general themes include likening courtship to battle (Like two proud armies) and melancholy (Say dear, when will your frowning leave), but Thule, the period of cosmography is a poetico-musical tour de force. Thule is a metaphorical term for a distant place beyond the known world, but Weelkes describes it with reference to the Icelandic volcano Hekla. The meaning of the poem has been variously debated, but the general theme is, perhaps, that nothing can be more strange than those induced by the unsteady progress of love. One interpretation is that ‘the commonplace grime and dirt of our own feelings is still more powerful and exciting than the Thule of either cosmography’. Weelkes’s musical response to this idiosyncratic poem is direct, sensitive, and ingenious.

Akin to the madrigal, the consort song with voices and viols was a particularly English invention in the latter half of the 16th century which extended well into the 17th century. Byrd’s song collections of 1588 and 1589 were the first to introduce the genre to the masses. Who made thee Hob? is a short, boisterous dialogue between two rustic characters about the pursuit of a maiden called Sylvana, ending with a trail of protests ‘yet love I must or else I die’, while If women could be fair warns of colluding with ladies of the night. Some consort songs could be described as verse anthems more suited to the church, which is the case for Weelkes’s What joy so true and Byrd’s Alack, when I look back (where the narrator ponders the follies of youth). Both have here been arranged for domestic performance with viols.

A good number of purely instrumental works also survive by both composers, including various dance forms such as the Pavan. The so-called ‘In nomine’ tradition can be traced back decades earlier to the Mass Gloria tibi trinitas by John Taverner (d1545). From the mid 16th century the four-part ‘In nomine’ section from the Benedictus of the Mass was detached as a separate work and copied in a variety of instrumental sources. This became a composition template for generations of composers up to the time of Henry Purcell, and the three settings here by Weelkes demonstrate the variety of ideas which can be inspired by a single tune. Among Byrd’s many creations is his arrangement of the popular tune ‘Browning’. The original model is a monophonic folksong which comes with the words ‘The leaves be green, the nuts be brown; they hang so high they will not come down.’ Byrd shuffles the tune from one voice-part to another for the entire work, and one can imagine informal household performances where singers randomly join in with the words as in the version recorded here.

Among the many highlights of this recording are the two elegies. Weelkes’s stirring Death hath deprived me was composed as a elegy for Thomas Morley (1557-1602), another fine madrigalist whose Plain and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (London, 1597) would have served Weelkes well for his Oxford B.Mus. But arguably the most poignant and heartfelt example is Byrd’s Ye sacred muses written upon the death of Thomas Tallis, his mentor, colleague and friend for much of his life. The song ends with the haunting words ‘Tallis is dead and Music dies’. They are both here expertly reimagined by Roderick Williams in Death, be not proud (Weelkes), and James MacMillan, who resets the words of Byrd’s own elegy replacing ‘Tallis’ for ‘Will’. No elegies for Byrd or Weelkes survive by their contemporaries, but these new works admirably stand in their stead. One candidate could very well have been the great Orlando Gibbons had he not joined them in death two years later.

David Skinner © 2023

We are thrilled to include at least two world premiere recordings on this album. As far as we are aware, Say dear, when will your frowning leave is one of them, but perhaps more notable still are the newly commissioned works by Roderick Williams and Sir James MacMillan. These two works were commissioned especially for this album and collaboration, as part of our commitment to celebrating the legacy of these two composers in today’s choral music landscape.

The starting point for these new works was in fact Thomas Morley and Thomas Tallis. These two composers had such a profound impact on their friends and pupils, Weelkes and Byrd respectively, that the two composers wrote musical elegies (Weelkes’ Death hath deprived me and Byrd’s Ye sacred muses) after the passing of these two old masters. To create something of a chain stretching into the present day, we invited James and Roderick to write their own elegies, reflecting on Weelkes and Byrd and we were delighted that they accepted the challenge.

In the case of James MacMillan’s work particularly, we found there to be something deeply significant in the elegy. James elected to set an altered version of the same Ye sacred muses text that Byrd set, mirroring the same sentiment that Byrd expressed towards Tallis. James’ Catholic faith, like Byrd’s was, is an important ingredient in his music, and like Byrd, James is undoubtedly the foremost Catholic composer working in the British Isles today. There are other parallels too. Both Byrd and James have chosen to write music for practical, local use in community worship, as well as for major publications. In the case of Byrd, it was for the Catholic community in his corner of Essex around Stondon Massey and Ingatestone; for MacMillan it can be seen in (amongst other works) his St Anne’s Mass and Galloway Mass—two congregational settings for use in Catholic churches—and in his annual Cumnock Tryst music festival, based near Glasgow. James’ setting of Ye sacred muses weaves the voices and the viols around each other—sometimes in block homophony, and at other times in solo lines which dance around viols at a similar pitch. In the opening passage and again later in the work, MacMillan gives the bass viol a kind of cantus firmus: a melody in long notes, around which the other parts are built. This was an established and venerated technique in 16th-century Catholic church music, when sacred plainchant melodies would be used to provide the cantus firmus, and we learnt during the process that in his distinguished career this was his first time writing for ‘period instruments’.

For his new work, Roderick Williams opted for Death, be not proud, one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. John Donne was one of the preeminent theologians and writers of the early 17th century, and an almost direct contemporary of Thomas Weelkes who would certainly have known Donne’s work. The theme of this poem is one which complements Weelkes’ Death hath deprived me. Whilst Weelkes’ piece mourns the loss of a friend at the powerful hands of Death, Death, be not proud pokes fun at Death and points out the powerlessness of Death in the face of Christ’s gift of eternal life. Roderick Williams also shares some of his story with Weelkes, both earning their Music degrees from Oxford colleges mere metres away, and both working as educators and singers – although Roderick with significantly more success than Weelkes ever managed!

We are grateful to our partners in Fretwork, and to the Continuo Foundation, for their support for these two commissions. And above all we are grateful to James and Roderick for their inspired writing, and for helping us celebrate the legacy of Tom and Will.

The King's Singers © 2023

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