“Semper aliquid novum”
That “there is always something new out of Africa” has been proverbial since the 4th century BC, but the Latin version is generally attributed to Pliny, and it was a dictum popularised by Erasmus. What, I sense the readers of this review asking, has that to do with the TVEMF event which took place at Ickenham on 10th January 2009 ?
The answer is that our organisers have produced a series of events at Ickenham which have had little in common except that they introduced us to music which we would have otherwise been unlikely to experience; and each director has brought his particular skills and enthusiasms to the event. There is, thus, always something new out of Ickenham. On 26th April 2008 Jenny Robinson enabled us to explore the limes with David Allinson, who once again demonstrated how accomplished a choral director he is, and he gave us, in addition to Gombert and Mouton, the virtually unknown Richafort and Phillip van Wilder. On 18th October, persuaded by Neil Edington, master musicologist John Milsom added Jachet of Mantua and Loyset Pieton to our repertoire. And now we are indebted to Jeff Gill for the instrumentalist’s approach to sacred music, bringing William Hunt to TVEMF for the first time, to take us through two anthems by Thomas Tomkins and one by Orlando Gibbons.
These composers are not unknown to us in the same sense as Richafort, van Wilder, Jachet and Loyset Pieton. They are familiar names, and yet their works have not featured to any great extent either in TVEMF or other workshops in which your reviewer has participated over the last 10 years or so. Why is this? In the case of Tomkins there are two possible reasons. One is that many people seem to find him uncomfortable to sing; one feels at sea in a way that does not occur with (for instance) Tallis or Byrd. The other is that he has not had a particularly good press from the musicologists. Thus Peter Le Huray writes in the New Grove that “The style of full and verse anthems is fundamentally imitative and as in the madrigals there is much sequential extension of ideas. This leads in places to a certain ponderous predictability and dryness”; though he acknowledges that the best of the church music (which was highly regarded in his day) “forms an indispensable part of the pre- Restoration repertory”. Gustav Reese (Music in the Renaissance, Norton, 1954), had been kinder: “Notwithstanding his mannerism of repeating words at the ends of phrases to a disconcerting extent, Tomkins is one of the finest early composers of English church music”.
We began with a full anthem in 7 parts, O sing unto the Lord a new song (text from Psalm 149). William drew out attention to the manner in which the word stresses are placed within the tactus and the necessity for not only the singers, but the instrumentalists, to adjust their phrasing accordingly. Singing a smooth melodic line was not what the setting required. The contrast was particularly marked when the broad and rather stately “Let the congregation of saints” was followed by the decidedly jazzy “sing praise unto him” section and again where the gentle “and let the children of Zion” leads into the strongly rhythmical “alleluia” with which the anthem concludes.
We then moved on to the 6-part verse anthem “Know you not”. As William explained, this style derived from the fusion between the full anthem and the consort song, and is therefore much more rhetorical. Your reviewer has not been able to trace the source of the words except for the opening, which is from 2 Samuel 4, v.38 recounting the death of David’s supporter Abner at the hands of the sons of Zeruiah, “And the king said unto his servants, Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel”.
The high rhetorical style was well suited to the anthem, since it was written on the death of Prince Henry Stuart (from typhoid, at the age of 19) in November 1612. William compared the public reaction to that death with that triggered by the death of Princess Diana, and one can see why. A great deal of emotional capital had been invested in each of them. Henry was something of a Renaissance figure, and Carol Lee, in The Advancement of English Ballet, describes him thus:- “a popular heir to the English throne and the embodiment of the perfect prince, Henry Stuart was an excellent dancer having a genius for sponsoring and organising festivals”. Masques were a favourite entertainment of his and Ben Jonson, Samuel Daniel and George Chapman all wrote for him. He was an accomplished jouster and at the tournament celebrating his installation as Prince of Wales he participated as the knight Moeliades. David Norbrook (Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance) tells us that this was chosen as an anagram of “miles a deo” and represented his commitment to be a soldier in the Puritan cause. His death was a setback from which that cause was not to recover for a long time.
In order to perform Know you not, soloists were recruited from among the singers, and Alice Metherill (who deserves a special mention as she had come all the way from Newcastle), Paul Smith, Andrew Black, David King, Keith Hitchcock, David Griffiths, and one soprano whom, to my regret, I was unable to identify), should be congratulated for their fortitude in coping with the verses of a demanding piece of music. Unfortunately this arrangement, combined with the time taken in instructing the instrumentalists, left the rest of the singers somewhat under-employed during the period between lunch and tea while the work was in progress.
In order to avoid a recurrence of this situation, the verse anthem We praise thee, O Father, by Orlando Gibbons, which occupied the last hour of the day, was in effect treated as a full anthem, with all the singers singing both verses and chorus. This anthem, which begins with a five-part verse (mean, countertenor 1 and 2, tenor and bass) , retains that structure for the choruses but (as is apparently characteristic of his verse anthems) uses a variety of vocal groupings for the verses. Thus the dance- like “who by his death hath destroyed death” is sung in canon by C1 and C2 alternating with M1 and M2 until the final cadence, while the tenors (divided) join them in the weightier “Therefore with Angels and Archangels”, before the chorus brings the anthem to a resoundingly triumphant conclusion with “we laud and magnify thy glorious name”. The vocal forces are therefore very appropriately fitted to the text. Your reviewer did not pick up the exact point in the music at which William referred to a “loose canon”, and while the New Grove refers to “mirror”, “crab” and “riddle” canons, and informs the reader (on the authority of Tinctoris, 1475) that “Canon is a precept which somewhat obscurely states the composer’s plan” it does not explain what a loose canon is. The quest for further elucidation was abandoned after a Google search for the phrase produced 118,000 results, many of which refer to Pachelbel’s canon. Gibbons’ verse anthems have produced mixed reactions. Reese considers that he, like Tomkins, was much less successful with the verse anthem than with the full anthem, and cites Hosanna to the Son of David and O clap your hands as surpassing any of the verse anthems. Le Huray, however, has said that “his most memorable compositions are at once dramatic and yet, as Morley put it ‘carrying a majesty’ ”. He does not (though he might well have done so) refer to We praise thee, O Father, in that context, but mentions several of the other verse anthems. Judging by the number of members who bought a copy at the end of the afternoon, there is enthusiasm (shared by your reviewer) for further acquaintance with Gibbons’ anthems.
Warm thanks are due to Jeff for organising this event (and to him and everyone else who helped with the catering) and particularly to William for his patience and good humour in leading us through an area of English church music with which we have not engaged recently.
© Sidney Ross 2017