Program: #22-08 Air Date: Feb 21, 2022
Gabriel Crouch, the director of the early music ensemble Gallicantus, continues to guide us through some of their releases. This week, Dialogues of Sorrow and The Tears of St. Peter.
I. Dialogues of Sorrow: Passions on the Death of Prince Henry (1612). Signum CD SIGCD210.
At the beginning of November 1612, the 18-year-old Prince Henry, eldest son of King James I, took a dip in the heavily-polluted River Thames. Flu-like symptoms followed, which rapidly developed into a debilitating fever, now believed to be typhoid. Sir Walter Raleigh sent medicine from the Tower of London which the dying prince refused, and he passed away on the 6th November, attended by his brother Charles and sister Elizabeth. Some thirty years before England was riven by civil war, the nation had lost a young man who might just have had the strength and wit to prevent it. Certainly the flood of written memorials—epistolary, poetic and musical—which followed his unexpected death and which far outnumbered those penned for Queen Elizabeth nine years previously, and the vast crowd of mourners which attended the prince’s body on its final journey to Westminster Abbey, attest to the hope which the people had invested in this young man. This was a conspicuous abandonment of British reserve, and it fuelled the composition of emotionally-charged and text-driven vocal music inspired by the new sounds emerging from the Italian courts of Mantua and Venice, combined with the fashionable melancholy of the late Elizabethan era.
After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James VI of Scotland acceded to the throne of England, in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Berwick. This treaty secured an allegiance between England and Scotland and resolved the vexing question of the Virgin Queen’s succession. Elizabeth’s death had brought to an end a period of unprecedented cultural prosperity for the English, with the first wave of composers who collectively established the ‘Golden Age’ now dead (Tallis, White, Sheppard, Mundy etc) or retired (William Byrd was now living in seclusion on his Essex estate), and the next wave, led by Thomas Tomkins and Thomas Weelkes, only just reaching maturity. James failed to establish his predecessor’s rapport with the general population, isolated by his firm belief in the ‘divine right of kings’ and his assumed air of intellectual superiority, and he was to some extent held responsible for the fact that things were not quite as they had been. Contemporary poets and playwrights, who often used codified characters from history or mythology to represent their rulers, represented James as one of the biblical kings David or Solomon to imply wisdom and austerity—though a less polite reading of the analogy could suggest that the king was a bit of a bore—and the representation of James as King David creates fascinating sub-plots which may tell us something about the way James was really perceived, and in particular how his subjects viewed his relationship with his son Henry.
James of course had two sons: Henry and Charles. Henry was the eldest, born on the 19th February 1594 at Stirling Castle in Scotland. He was christened at midsummer and it is said that his baptismal celebrations were used as inspiration for part of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even as an adolescent he developed a reputation for chivalry, athletic prowess and fierce self-discipline, and it was these qualities which fired the imaginations of the artistic and literary figures of the day. The artist Robert Peake produced portraits which depicted Henry excelling at the hunt with quarry at his feet, and Ben Jonson set his masque Oberon in a wild landscape populated by satyrs with huge sexual appetites who awaited the rigor and order which the young prince (as Oberon) promised to impose upon his accession.
Henry’s virtuous and heroic image contrasted dreadfully with that of the young Prince Charles, the second son of King James, and the next in line after Henry. Even as a teenager he was considered to be vacillating and feeble, not helped by an early bout of rickets which left him weak-boned and slow to develop, and his affinity for classical and religious study bore the aloofness and detachment of his father. Henry recognized the need to distance himself from anything associated with his father, and took every step possible to appear ‘in touch’ with the people, as Elizabeth had been. His public appearances took place independently from the king’s, and his strategic alliances with prominent Protestant nobility (including some who were out of favour with the king) and foreign royalty such as Henry VI of France revealed a distinctly mature political mind. The former favourite of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, was one such ally despite his prolonged imprisonment on suspicion of plotting against the king, and one of Henry’s most often–quoted phrases was uttered with reference to Raleigh: “Only a man such as my father would keep such a bird in a cage.”
Those lauded qualities of chivalry and discipline also permeated Henry’s court, established at St James’s Palace in 1609, and quickly propelled its reputation well above his father’s rather chaotic royal household at Whitehall: Swearing and rowdy behaviour were punished with fines; military men were promoted to the most trusted positions; and since he was a strict practitioner of the Protestant faith, no Catholics were allowed. This last point played particularly well in the court of public opinion, and at a time of continuing insecurity on the continent, as wars continued to flare up over territorial disputes and religious schisms, it was a comfort to know that the next king would be demonstrably willing to fight and die for his God (as distinctly opposed to his father, who showed no desire to ‘muck in’ with his subjects under any circumstances, least of all military ones). The simmering disquiet between England and Spain had not been resolved, and there was a sense of frustration that the great Catholic enemy was still amassing weapons and colonial territory in spite of the sacrifices which England had made to defeat it during the previous century. On the other hand, all this loathing of Catholicism did not deter Henry from imitating the best of Catholic southern Europe when it came to music, art and architecture at his court. Early on he imported a handful of householders from Florence to help bring a little of the Medici magic to London, and indeed his patronage of figures of international renown such as the composer Alfonso Ferrabosco and the architect Inigo Jones suggested that King Henry the Ninth would wipe out the memory of James’s austerity and institute a cultural legacy to rival Italy’s.
But Henry’s premature death robbed England of its longed-for Renaissance, and replaced it with an uncertain future under Charles. The cleaving self-pity was understandable, and from it sprung an enormous quantity of laments from some of the country’s most important creative figures: John Donne, John Webster and Thomas Campion were among the more than 100 who published eulogies or poems, and perhaps more than 40 pieces of music were composed, which can be divided into two categories: those which bear the prince’s name, either in the text itself or in a dedication at the top of the score; and those which refer analogously to Henry through the story of David’s lament over the death of his son Absalom. This latter category has been the subject of debate for some time, since the evidence linking it to Henry’s death, though compelling, is only circumstantial.
Of the pieces which declare their raison d’être explicitly, the most large-scale comes from the composer Robert Ramsey. His Dialogues of Sorrow upon the Death of the Late Prince Henry, whose title gave this recording its name, is an extended dramatic madrigal in six movements, composed for voices and viols. Since two of the six parts are missing from the only surviving source, the work is now unperformable and does not feature on this recording, but the surviving parts are reminiscent in structure of the multi-movement madrigals of Lassus from the previous century. Ramsey was serving as Director of Music at Trinity College, Cambridge University at the time, and is the composer with the most works which could be dedicated to the prince’s memory. Little is known of his life save for a few trivial details, but it has been speculated that he might have devoted so much effort to memorializing the prince because he was attempting to secure a more prominent musical post for himself in London. Whilst his song What tears, dear prince?, and the madrigal Sleep, fleshly birth both fall into the category of pieces certainly written for Prince Henry, the same cannot be said with such confidence about When David heard and How are the mighty fall’n, though the probability remains high that they were written with Henry in mind.
The other multi-movement work composed for Henry was a set of seven lutesongs by John Coprario entitled Songs of Mourning. Each song is dedicated to those who survived Prince Henry and who now mourned his loss: The first names King James as the dedicatee, the second his mother Queen Anne, the third is for his brother Charles, the fourth for his sister Elizabeth, the fifth for King Frederick V of Prussia, and the final two are dedicated to the wider public, with the sixth song bearing the subtitle “To the most disconsolate Great Britain”, and the final song is simply addressed “To the World.”
Also in this category fall the madrigals by Thomas Ford, William Cranford and John Ward which together complete a trilogy under the heading Passions on the Death of Prince Henry. These are preserved alongside each other in a manuscript belonging to the prince’s friend Sir Henry Fanshawe and are now housed, with one partbook missing, in the library of Christ Church, Oxford. Ford was at one time employed by the prince, and his madrigal appears to be the only memorial which came from within the prince’s household. John Ward’s contribution to the set—No object dearer—has survived intact in more than one source and is published, but fate has been less kind to the madrigals by Ford and Cranford, which have no other source than the Fanshawe MS. We are therefore colossally grateful for the skills of Francis Steele, who has painstakingly restored these idiosyncratic and important works so that they may appear on recording for the first time.
There are several other works which fall into this first category, but not all could find room to be included on this recording. John Ward’s second madrigal for the death of Henry—the ravishing Weep forth your tears—and Thomas Vautor’s duet Melpomene, bewail are two that were able to be included. William Byrd’s Fair Britain isle and Thomas Tomkins’ great verse anthem Know ye not are among the most important works to miss out.
Into the second category (in which room for doubt exists) can be placed the 13 sacred madrigals which use the analogy of David weeping over the death of his son Absalom (When David heard that Absalom was slain, with text drawn from the second book of Samuel), and several more describing David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (O Jonathan, Woe is me, Then David mourned etc). Various settings by Thomas Weelkes, Thomas Tomkins and Richard Dering are included on the recording, whilst the works of Michael East, John Milton, William Bearsley and others are not. For many years the theory that all of these were written within a few months of (and inspired by) the prince’s death remained uncontested, but concern has grown recently over the supporting evidence for such an unequivocal pronouncement, especially since none of these works bear the prince’s name at the top of the score. It is most certainly startling that so many settings of this text suddenly appeared during this era, with no Elizabethan tradition whatsoever to build on, and it is logical to look for an extraordinary trigger event (and the death of Prince Henry was decidedly that).
And then there’s the subject matter: Of course we have already seen that James was represented as King David by writers of the day, and we have written evidence (in a letter penned by his advisor Sir John Holles, and also in a poem by one James Maxwell) that at least some were able to draw a similarity between Henry and Absalom. It is not too fanciful to imagine that the thoughts of a contemporary audience would have turned to Prince Henry ‘as one’ on hearing these laments. The use of the David/Absalom analogy is particularly interesting when one considers the circumstances of Absalom’s death and the evidence of disharmony between Prince Henry and his father. Absalom was a rebellious son who died whilst in conflict with his father, and Henry was an ambitious and precocious prince who spent the last few years of his life in a state of simmering mutual resentment with the more pedestrian king. Indeed, his willingness to openly criticize his father’s leadership and conduct at court once caused James to muse that his son was trying to ‘bury him’ while he was still above ground. Inevitably, there were rumours that Henry was poisoned by malevolent agents working for his father. With all of this, one might conclude that the David/Absalom story was too controversial to use as a suitable epitaph for Prince Henry—but we should not underestimate how unpopular James was in certain circles, and how deliciously tempting it must have been to deliver a veiled insult to the king beneath the protection of a biblical text (of course, in these cases the music score would be less likely to bear a dedication to Henry, since the insult would then lose its veil!). The story of David’s lament over Jonathan suggests an even more controversial analogy. The description of David and Jonathan’s relationship in the second book of Samuel has led some commentators to assert that the two young men were lovers, with focus placed particularly on the line uttered by David at the height of his lament over Jonathan’s death during the wars with the Philistines: “Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” Rumours were rife that King James’s marriage to Anne of Denmark was something of a sham, and that he preferred the company of young men—so perhaps the use of this story of loss and grief from earlier in David’s life could be seen as another opportunistic barb to throw at the unpopular king.
So of all those David laments included on this recording—two each from Tomkins, Weelkes, Ramsey and Dering (including one in Latin), one should be prepared to concede that one or two might have been created out of a desire to emulate other settings rather than specifically to memorialize Prince Henry’s death, much as composers would later compete with each other to set the most florid version of the ‘Crucifixus’ text as part of the Mass. But whilst it is wise to maintain a cautious, open mind in approaching such issues, it seems incontestable that the heavy majority of these settings were intended to form part of the outpouring of grief for the young heir to the throne, and they most certainly belong together as an enchanting and distinctive body of music.
Gabriel Crouch © 2010
When David heard [2:29]
What Tears, dear Prince? [3:35]
[Passions on the Death of Prince Henry]
'Tis Now Dead Night [4:03]
Weep, weep Britons [4:18]
No Object Dearer [5:02]
Songs of Mourning:
O Grief [3:22]
O Poor distracted World [2:47]
O Jonathan, Woe is me [2:15]
When David heard [3:55]
And the King was Moved [2:16]
Contristatus est David [2:24]
Melpomene, Bewail [4:22]
How are the Mighty Fall'n [5:34]
Sleep Fleshly Birth [5:40]
Songs of Mourning:
So Parted You [4:25]
When Pale Famine [2:54]
Then David mourned [2:56]
When David Heard [3:51]
Weep Forth your Tears [4:37]
II. Lagrime di San Pietro. Signum CD SIGCD 339.
I was delighted to find out that they had released this cycle of sacred madrigals and a motet by Orlande (or Roland) de Lassus, one of the best composers of the Renaissance. Composed in 1594, the Lagrime di San Pietro was to be the composer’s last work, and it was published posthumously in Munich in 1595. It’s a wonderful piece depicting St. Peter’s grief after the denial of Christ. Many excellent groups have recorded it including the Collegium Vocale Gent under Philippe Herreweghe and the Huelgas ensemble and Paul Van Nevel. I was excited to get listening to this version.
These madrigals are renowned for their spiritual and confessional tone. Lassus was no stranger to scandal, and he was mischievous and playful for most of his life - a fact that was well known throughout Europe even during his lifetime. The sequence is dedicated to Pope Clement VIII, and Lassus spoke of his ‘personal devotion in … burdensome old age’ in his dedication. The music is intensely poignant and reflective. As an expression of the depths of a man’s soul in the face of death, reaching and maintaining the right emotional tone from the start can be a difficult task indeed.
Gallicantus hit the nail straight on the head from the off. The ensemble, tuning and blend are phenomenal from the first chord, and never wanes. Whether moving in chords or counterpoint, the ensemble remain tight throughout, dealing with the technical demands not only with consummate ease, but also with an absolute level of artistry that deserves nothing but awe and respect. On top of this, the group engages with the music on an intense emotional level, and this is crystal clear throughout. This is magnified further still by the diction, the clarity of which brings a great rhetorical gravity to the whole piece.
Each single voice is wonderfully strong, but never overwhelms. Even at the extreme ends of the musical range - particularly that of the countertenors, which is often soaring high above the rest of the texture, but never outside it - no single voice dominates. This is secured despite the awesome strength of each voice. Each is always subservient to the ensemble, the music, and the bigger picture. The resulting balance is sublime. This is all helped along by the very detailed and well-researched programme notes, which greatly enhanced my experience.
It is nigh on impossible to put just how good this recording is into words, so I am going to stop trying, and just say this: this recording is something that absolutely must be experienced. You will not regret it at all.
Robert RAMSEY (?-1644), Thomas FORD (?-1648), William CRANFORD (?-c.1645?), John WARD (c.1589-before 1639), John COPRARIO (c.1570/80-1626), Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623), Richard DERING (c.1580-1630), Thomas VAUTOR (fl. 1600-1620), Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656), Orlande de Lassus,
Signum CD SIGCD210, Signum CD SIGCD 339,