Prince Henry Motets

May 2017

The TVEMF event at the United Reformed Church, Ickenham on Saturday, March 11, attracted a large body of singers eager to explore the musical consequences of what may have been a major turning-point in English history. For that journey we were indeed fortunate to have, as our guide, philosopher and friend, the versatile and widely travelled Patrick Craig, who not only led us expertly through a demanding programme but enlivened the occasion with information about the chequered careers of some of the composers represented, Jacobean court life, Henry’s upbringing and achievements, and public and private reactions to his death.

There has been little to say about warm-ups in recent reviews, but Patrick’s are noteworthy in that one of their stated objectives was to exercise, by means of various combinations of bodily movement and vocalisation, both halves of the brain. The warm-up which preceded the afternoon session involved singing the familiar nursery rhyme about hot cross buns while engaging in contrary motion. For those who wish to improve their technique in that respect, your reviewer has the good news that googling “hot cross buns song actions” will yield over five million results, many of which are on YouTube.

Henry, had he lived, would undoubtedly have been a patron of literature and music as well as of architecture and garden design, in which he had already shown a great interest. That clearly appears from the two books which Patrick brought to the event, the biography by Roy Strong (Henry, Prince of Wales and England’s Lost Renaissance, 1986) and the book of the exhibition of 2012 commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of his death, entitled The Lost Prince: the life and death of Henry Stuart, edited by Catherine Macleod and produced by the National Portrait Gallery. Among the contributors to the flood of elegiac literature were well-known poets (Donne, Herbert, Campion and Chapman) and playwrights (Tourneur, Webster and Heywood). Classical allusions permeated the titles of these works. The otherwise almost unknown Josuah Sylvester, who would probably have been Henry’s court author, produced Lachrimae Lachrimarum or the Distillation of teares shede for the untimely end of the incomparable Prince Panaretus, (“all-virtuous”), while William Drummond of Hawthornden contributed Tears on the death of Moeliades, which he then turned to commercial advantage by having his 1616 collection of verse sold under the title Poems Amorous, Funerall, Diuine, Pastoral in Sonnets, Songs, Sextains and Madrigalls, by W.D., the author of the Teares of Moeliades. The appellation Moeliades apparently derives from a chivalric event which took place on the occasion of Henry’s “official entry into this romanticized and ritualized martial world [which] came on 31 December 1609, when under the guise of Moeliades, Lord of the Isles, Henry issued a challenge to all the knights of ‘greate Brittayne’ ”. (Catriona Murray, The Pacific King and the Militant Prince? Representation and Collaboration in the Letters Patent of James I, creating his son, Henry, Prince of Wales, eBLJ 2012, Article 8)

The nine items of the selected programme included the works of five composers. Weelkes, Wilbye, Tomkins and Orlando Gibbons are no doubt very well known to singers of the music of this period, being represented in all the standard anthologies. Ramsey is much less well known, though two volumes of the Early English Church Music series (one of English and one of Latin sacred music) are devoted to him, and among his other works is a set of consort songs entitled Dialogues of Sorrow upon the Death of the Late Prince Henrie, published in 1615. In English Sacred Music 1549-1649, (Gimell, Oxford, 1991) Phillips gives pride of place among those five composers to Gibbons and Weelkes (one chapter between them), Tomkins (a chapter to himself) and divides the rest into professionals and amateurs, Ramsey appearing in the latter category among the “amateurs influenced by the Italian monodic idiom”. He was of Scottish origin, born in the 1590s, but spent most of his life in Cambridge, graduating B. Mus in 1616 and becoming organist of Trinity College in 1628. Phillips says of him that he “unmistakably showed more daring in his English anthems than was common among professionals, though he achieved no fame for them at all during his lifetime”. Phillips also refers to a number of contemporary compilations to which he was not invited to contribute and works of reference in which he was not mentioned, and surmises that that was because he was regarded as eccentric compared with his more orthodox colleagues at Cambridge. In more recent years Sleep, fleshly birth (one of his eight madrigals) has been included in the Oxford Book of English Madrigals and his anthem How are the mighty fallen, which was one of the items in our programme, is his sole contribution to the collection of Tudor Anthems edited by Lionel Pike (Novello, 2010). That collection also includes two other items in our programme, Wilbye’s O God, the rock of my whole strength (one of his very few incursions into the field of sacred music) and Tomkins’ Then David mourned.

David Butler’s excellently produced booklet containing eight of the nine items in the programme was headed “Music inspired by the death of Prince Henry in 1612”. That reflects what Alan Clark would have called the “actualité”, since very little seems to have been written specifically for the obsequies. The only such anthem identified by Phillips is Tomkins’ Know ye not (SSAATBB) which sets texts from Ezekiel, Lamentations, Amos, Zechariah and Psalms as well as the familiar texts from II Samuel. This was not included in our programme, which, however, began with one of Tomkins’ better known anthems, When David heard (SAATB), with text from II Samuel xviii, 33. This is a tragedy in two acts; the narrative which builds up to the repeated “and wept” and is linked to the lament which takes up the second part by “and thus he said”; the tenor entry on top G initiates the successive waves of grief which eventually die down, in the final 3:2 section, to a more reflective conclusion. Next, we attempted a less well-known work by Tomkins, When David mourned (SSATB), from his Musica Deo sacra, with a different text, from II Samuel i, v.17. It is interesting that composers of this era set texts which portray the relationship between David and Saul in affectionate terms. Move forward to 1738 and we have the libretto which Charles Jennens wrote for Handel’s oratorio, Saul, drawing on the later chapters of I Samuel in which Saul’s original admiration for David’s prowess turns to envy and hatred, vividly portrayed in Part II, scene IV (beginning with Saul, recit., “The time at length has come when I shall take My full revenge on Jesse’s son…”, and ending by ordering Jonathan to kill him.)

Phillips (p.187) says of When David mourned that it “relies for its effect on very unstable tonality, based not on modulation but on the rather unfocused use of only vaguely connected chords and chromatic notes”. Having emerged from this unfocused chromaticity, we set out on our exploration of the three items by Ramsey, When David heard (SSATBB), How are the mighty fallen (SMATBarB) and the first secular item of the programme, Wilt thou unkind leave me weeping (SSAATB). By comparison with both Tomkins’ and Weelkes’ settings of the same text and his own How are the mighty fallen, Ramsey’s When David heard is a relatively small-scale and inexpressive composition. His How are the mighty fallen, which followed, was undoubtedly the centre-piece of our programme. The text is from II Samuel i, vv.25-27, and the structure reflects that fact that the title phrase occurs at the beginning of both v.25 and v.27. Its rapid repetition in all voices in the opening section conveys the impression of the mighty falling individually, with “in the midst of the battle” depicting the culmination of their destruction. The change of theme from carnage to mourning is smoothly managed and the treatment becomes broader and more reflective as the text moves on from the slaying of Jonathan, through the expression of woe, to the eulogy on the quality of the love between them, while the reprise of the opening words in the final section seems almost to exult in the fall of the mighty and the destruction of the weapons of war. In the last of three Ramsey compositions, a madrigal, we passed from shared to unrequited love, with the disdained lover traversing a familiar gamut of emotions, ending with a rather charming sequence of defiance in which he first invites the loved one, almost with a battle-cry, to enjoy his deadly pangs and then, in supplicatory mode, to re-invigorate him so that he can revel in further torments.

The short composition by Orlando Gibbons, O Lord, how do my woes increase, is a setting of a poem by Sir William Leighton. Leighton, a Gentleman Pensioner of James I, had plenty to complain about and plenty of time in which to express his dissatisfaction with his fate, since he was imprisoned for debt in 1609 and passed the time by versifying. The collection contains fifty-three pieces and, apart from Leighton himself, Byrd (with seven) was the most prolific contributor; Tomkins is the only major composer of the period who did not contribute (see Phillipps, pp.86-89). Gibbons’ brief depiction of the incessant and increasing woes is most easily seen in the Cantus line with its interrupted upward movement. From the least to the most madrigalian composer of the programme-Gibbons to Wilbye-was our next step; O God, the rock of my whole strength is another piece from the Leighton collection.. Wilbye spent much of his life as household musician to the Kitsons of Hengrave Hall in Suffolk, who do not seem to have required him to set any sacred texts. In this madrigalian anthem Wilbye gives full expression to Leighton’s text.

The final items in the programme were two anthems by Weelkes. The text of the first, O Jonathan, woe is me, (SSAATB) is from II Samuel i., 26, that is, the same text as the central section of How are the mighty fallen. Although Weelkes stands much higher than Ramsey in the general estimation of composers of this period, your reviewer would venture to suggest that in a comparison of those two settings, Ramsey emerges as the clear winner. “Very kind hast thou been to me” seems almost perfunctory and “thy love to me was wonderful”, disposed of in only four bars, even more so. On the other hand, When David heard (SSAATB) gives the text full value although in shorter bursts of grief compared with Tomkins’ more sustained expressions of it; a clear example of this is the treatment of the words “O my son Absalon” in the two settings.

After a generous and nourishing tea-break we returned for a final session which was mainly devoted to polishing up our performance of How are the mighty fallen. Whether this will kindle a more general desire for further exploration of Ramsey is in the lap of the gods (as represented by the management of TVEMF) but for your reviewer, that one item alone was worth the journey.

Finally, our warmest thanks are due to Patrick for his expert and entertaining direction of the event, to David Butler for organising it and producing the music, to Vivian Butler for a stellar display of the cake-maker’s art, and to all those who helped in less noticeable ways to make the occasion such a success.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017