Program: #18-51, Air Date: 12/10/18The Ebor Singers return with their first release (after the popular "Music for Troubled Times”) with Christmas Music from the time of the English Civil War.
With A Cavalier Christmas, the choir are joined by the Chelys Consort of Viols in exploring this fascinating, yet turbulent, period in music as Charles I sought to continue to observe the festive season in style, contrary to attempts by England’s Puritan- influenced parliament to ban such celebrations.
The Civil War as such was not a religious, but a political conflict. Even so, as politics and religion were very much intertwined, religion was never far away. The subject of this disc attests to that. Paul Gameson, in his liner-notes, sums up what it is about. "During the early days of the Civil War, the Puritan-influenced parliament sought to abolish holy days, and in particular Christmas Day, 'the Old Heathen's Feasting Day in Honour of Saturn their Idol-God, the Papist's Massing Day, the True Christian Man's Fasting Day'. By contrast, first in London and then at his war-torn court in Oxford, Charles I continued to celebrate Christmas in style, assembling the best musicians and poets to provide entertainment alongside other festivities." Charles's insistence to celebrate Christmas even gave food to insinuations that he had 'Papist' sympathies. The fact that in 1625 he married Henrietta Maria of France, daughter of King Henry IV and Maria de' Medici, was a further incentive to that suspicion, especially as she always stuck to her religion and had her own chapel with a Catholic liturgy.
The programme includes music by composers, who belonged to the Church of England (Gibbons, the Lawes brothers, Jeffreys, Peerson), but also Catholic composers, such as Byrd and Richard Dering. The latter converted to Catholicism during a journey through Europe. This not only had an effect on his religious convictions, but also influenced his style of composing. Laetamini cum Maria is written in the form of a sacred concerto for three voices (soprano, tenor, bass) and basso continuo, which was common in Italy at the time. Such pieces were not written in England, which was still in the grasp of the stile antico. However, that kind of music was available in London, and Gameson suggests that pieces such as O quam tu pulchra es, on a text from the Song of Songs, by Alessandro Grandi, scored for three voices (two tenors and bass) and basso continuo, may have been part of what was on sale and may have been used in Henrietta Maria's chapel.
These are not the only pieces performed here by solo voices. The same is the case with the anthems from the pen of William Lawes and George Jeffreys. This decision is inspired by the assumption that pieces like these were not intended for the King's Chapel, but for his Chamber. They are for five voices, but include solo episodes. This shows that they belong among the genre of the verse anthem, but as all the parts are sung by single voices, that effect is more or less nullified.
These pieces are specifically connected to feast days of the ecclesiastical year. Jeffreys added them to the titles of his anthems. Hark, shepherd swains is "for the Nativity of our most blessed Saviour", Busy time this day "for the Blessed Innocents Day" and Brightest of days "for Epiphany". The programme ends with a piece by Byrd: O God that guides the cheerful sun is "a carol for New-Year's Day" and is a mixture of consort song and consort anthem. The two stanzas are sung by a solo voice (alto), and the piece ends with a choral episode. Byrd, although he had died in 1623, was still very popular, as also the contrafactum of his motet Ne irascaris shows: Behold I bring you glad tidings. It is the only piece in the programme, which is sung by the choir a cappella. In other items it is joined by the organ or the viol consort.
The latter plays an extended part in the last item, mentioned above, and also the verse anthem by Gibbons, which opens the programme. It is the best-known piece in the programme, as it is often sung by choirs: See, see, the word is incarnate. Another piece for voices and viols is Upon my lap my sovereign sits by Martin Peerson. It was published in a collection of Private Musicke for Voyces and Viols; the title indicates that this is music for the chamber. It comprises two stanzas; the first is sung by an alto and the second is for two tenors and bass. The piece closes with a repeat of the first stanza. The stanzas are separated by instrumental sections.
Whereas the subject of this disc is Christmas music, not every piece is specifically connected to it. That is the case with Grandi's O quam tu pulchra es. The only connection with Christmas is that in the Christian church the bride in the Song of Songs has been identified with the Virgin Mary. Certainly not connected to Christmas are the two instrumental pieces. William Lawes is represented here with an Aire; unfortunately there is no indication from which source it is taken. John Jenkins's Newark Siege is rather connected to politics. In 1646 the third siege of Newark ended in a victory for Charles over the Parliamentarians. At this occasion Jenkins composed this piece of programme music, which comprises three movements: pavan (although the title of this dance is not mentioned), galliard and air. The first movement depicts the battle and toward the end it turns to a lament for those, who were killed in the battle. The air has been omitted here. I could imagine a more graphic performance of the battle scene.
Otherwise the Chelys Consort of Viols delivers good performances of the instrumental parts. I was rather critical of the solo contributions by members of The Ebor Singers on the previous disc. It is a little better here. James Cave is excellent in Peerson's song, and so is Laura Baldwin in Byrd's carol. However, some of the singers use too much vibrato, for instance in the opening of Gibbons's anthem. Here the soprano is a bit too weak. In most pieces the vibrato is not that wide, but often clearly discernible. I find that regrettable, for historical and stylistic reasons, but also because it damages the ensemble, for instance in the pieces by Jeffreys.
That said, I am happy with this disc because most of the music is virtually unknown. This period in English music history is probably a bit underrated, at least as far as the vocal music is concerned. Henry Lawes, for instance, composed a large number of songs, which are hardly known. And the performances here are good enough to show that this music by the likes of Lawes and Jeffreys is well worth being performed. —Johan van Veen
See, see, the Word is incarnate [7:22]
Behold I bring you glad tidings [6:02]
Laetamini cum Maria [2:44]
Quem vidistis, pastores [2:38]
O quam tu pulchra es [3:26]
Upon my lap my sovereign sits [9:58]
Hark, shepherd swains [3:48]
Hark, shepherd swains [5:08]
Busy time this day [3:59]
Brightest of days [3:54]
Newark Siege [9:48]
O God, that guides the cheerful sun [4:13]
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625), William BYRD (c1539/40-1623), Richard DERING (c1580-1630), Alessandro GRANDI (1586-1630), Martin PEERSON (c1572-1651), William LAWES (1602-1645), Henry LAWES (1596-1662), George JEFFREYS (c1610-1685), John JENKINS (1592-1678), William BYRD