Programme notes from our concert "The Birth of the Baroque"

English music for voices and viols by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Tomkins

As with the Renaissance a hundred years earlier, Italy was the source of the new ideas, circulating at the beginning of the 17 th century, that were to lead to the development of the new styles and even forms in music that were characteristic of the Baroque. Those of you who attended our ‘Dawn of the Renaissance’ programme may remember that even in the late 15 th and early 16 th centuries, English composers were slow to take up new ideas, preferring instead to continue writing in the ornate and complex style of the late medieval world, even when a simpler, more direct style - born in Italy - was spreading elsewhere on the Continent.

The renaissance madrigalian style of writing was therefore slow to take hold in England – appearing only really in the final decade of the 16 th century. Correspondingly it continued in vogue long after the Italians had abandoned the a cappella polyphonic madrigal in favour of new forms involving basso continuo accompaniment, solo and duo textures and a greater emphasis on the expression of emotion in the texts set. The most revolutionary form to emerge from the Baroque was opera – something English composers rarely took to at any point!

Having said all that, the three composers featured in tonight’s programme, all born in the late 16 th century, really do represent the birth of the baroque in England – albeit some decades later than in Italy. Characteristically too, while English composers were clearly embracing Italian styles by the early 17 th century, they never seemed to want to relinquish rich counterpoint and the typically complex English harmonic language involving so many ‘false relations’ (the sounding of a note in both natural, and either sharpened or flattened state within the same or adjacent chord)!

Strangely enough it is the continuation of this contrapuntal style that can at times foreshadow the fugal style of Bach. Gibbons’ O clap your hands together’ is a prime example.

While Gibbons, Weelkes and Tomkins all wrote unaccompanied madrigals, their sacred music did often involve instrumental accompaniment and solo verses – particularly for Anglican canticles. The organ was now largely used to accompany church services, but verse anthems using viols would have been particularly appropriate for domestic music making and even within private family chapels.

Sussex-born Thomas Weelkes, spent most of his adult life as organist at Chichester Cathedral – at times in trouble for coming directly…..

from the Taverne or Ale house into the quire as is muche to be lamented, for in these humoures he will bothe curse & sweare most dreadfully, & so profane the service of God … and though he hath bene often tymes admonished … to refrayne theis humors and reforme hym selfe, yett he daylye continuse the same, & is rather worse than better therein.

Although his fame now rests mostly upon his madrigal output, he did write a quantity of sacred music for performance in Chichester, as well as a small amount of instrumental music. Many of his anthems are, in fact, sacred madrigals in all but name; often employing chromaticism and highly affective word setting alongside dancing rhythms and rich counterpoint. He was clearly a man of senses!

 

Orlando Gibbons, though born almost a decade later, died only two years after Weelkes. He was a very all round composer, and one of the finest this country has produced. His sacred music, in particular, has never left the repertoire of English cathedrals and churches since his death. His counterpoint is particularly striking for its modernity. It is not merely dense, but has a clarity that grows from his development of almost fugal passages, with clear cut points neatly dovetailed into one another. In his verse anthems the accompaniment is truly instrumental – not just imitating the vocal lines, but filled out with divisions.

 

Thomas Tomkins was the oldest, but longest lived of the three. He survived to the middle of the 17 th century and living through turbulent times - including the civil war and closing down of cathedral choirs – including his own in Worcester. He was a geat writer of keyboard music; something that must have been a comfort when he was no longer allowed to write music for services.

 

Although Tomkins lived so much longer, his style did not really change much during his life. Perhaps it was that the combination of the powerfully prevailing, distinct style of early 17 th century English music, and the cultural blow that the Commonwealth dealt, curtailed musical development. It certainly was the case that the English choral tradition was cut off by the Puritans. With the Restoration of Charles ll, it was necessary to send musicians to France to study. Even the choirs had to be re-trained from scratch, and it was some time before they once again regained their former glory. That brings us up to the period of Henry Purcell…….. the story continues next year!

 

Deborah Roberts May 08