Tomkins in Ealing

November 2011

St Andrew’s United Reformed Church, Mount Park Road was the venue for another well-attended and successful singing day. Fifty-three singers assembled to spend the day exploring the sacred and secular music of Thomas Tomkins under the expert direction of James Weeks. Some singers (including your reviewer) who are otherwise well acquainted and feel reasonably comfortable with the music of the period find themselves less at home with the rhythmic and harmonic complexities which Tomkins presents, and it is a tribute to James’ patience and encouragement that we were eventually able to produce tolerable renditions of the selected works.

Thomas Tomkins (1573-1656) is the only English madrigalist of any significance to have survived into the repressive years of the Protectorate, an age in which everyone was to be virtuous and there were to be no more cakes and ale; “if any man wished to be merry”, exhorted one of the Cromwellian divines, “let him sing psalms”. Tomkins’ one collection of mainly secular music, the Set of Songs of 3, 4, 5 and 6 parts, was published in 1622. It contains 28 compositions, and is unusual in two respects. One is that, contrary to the more usual custom, the Set was not dedicated to a single person; instead, each piece has an individual dedication. Some are to members of his family, several of whom were musicians, and others to madrigalists and lutenists of the period; the dedicatees include his “ancient and much revered Master, William Byrd”, as well as John Dowland, John Cooper (Coprario), Nathanael Giles, who was master of the choristers of the Chapel Royal when Tomkins succeeded Edmund Hooper as an organist there and Orlando Gibbons who was the senior organist until his death in 1625. The other is that four of these ‘songs’ were settings of scripture words, one of them being the well-known When David heard that Absalom was slain.

Tomkins, in so far as he has attracted comment, has had rather a mixed press, and has not figured to any great extent in the anthologies. Of over a hundred anthems listed in the New Grove, only two appear in the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems and three others in the recent collection of Tudor Anthems edited by Lionel Pike (Novello, 2010). As to the madrigals, Fellowes, in The English Madrigal Composers, (first published in 1916, second edition 1948) describes the Set as “the last volume of first- rate importance in the great series of English madrigals which began with Byrd’s Psalms, Songs and Sonnets (1588)”, though he does say that the other three settings of scripture words in the Set “do not quite reach the same standard as the rest of the volume”, while the writer of the article in the New Grove remarks that “the book gets off to a dull start, for none of the three-part madrigals except the last (Love, cease tormenting) is at all memorable”. However, the writer is more positive about the four- and five-part compositions.

No doubt to lead us gently into Tomkins, James began by taking us through the five- part To the shady woods, which is one of the nine madrigals in the set with a fa-la refrain and which, as Fellowes observes, is one of the more conventional of that type and adds little to the development of that form by Morley and Weelkes. It displays none of the rhythmic invention of (for example) See, see the shepherds’ queen which is one of the five madrigals of his in the Oxford Book of English Madrigals. This was followed by the considerably more demanding Almighty God, The Fountain of All Wisdom - something of a steeplechase with a set of gymnastic exercises at the end in the shape of the 13-bar Amen. A return to perhaps more familiar ground ended the morning session, in which we tackled Adieu, ye city-pris’ning towers and were encouraged to emulate the chirping of the birds, though whether this rendering would in practice have been an inducement to our loves “to delay not” but “to come and stay not” is perhaps open to doubt.

Refreshed in our various ways, we had a short warm-up to banish the post-prandial somnolence before attempting the piece probably most familiar to us, When David heard. It was a new insight (at any rate to your reviewer) to have pointed out to us the contrasting ways in which we should perform the opening section, the words of which are in reported speech, and the direct speech of David’s lament. This was followed by probably the most well-known of all the madrigals, Oyez (or, as the Oxford Book of English Madrigals for some inexplicable reason has it, O yes !) Has any found a lad ? This variant is somewhat reminiscent of Misadventures at Margate in the second series of Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends, in which the narrator is taken in by a juvenile con-artist who makes off with all his belongings and consequently sends the town crier round to find him, with conspicuous lack of success, recounting that “But, when the Crier cried O Yes, the people cried O No!”. Agreement having been reached on Oyez, we engaged in a spirited if not always accurate attack on the madrigal, fortified by thoughts of tea to come.

James saved the most ambitious piece till the final session, telling us that we ought to go home exhausted. The seven-part O sing unto the Lord a new song from Musica Deo Sacra is a work of great splendour with many contrasts, going from the firm but reverent setting of the opening words, to the dancing rhythms of “Sing praise unto him”, then to the majestic “let Israel rejoice” and finally (it being the portion of the blest to sing eternal psalms, or so it is said) to the more contemplative “And let the children of Sion ever sing” ending with the long-drawn out Alleluia; though even the heavenly choir might have had difficulty with some of the underlay, particularly the variants of “children”. If James wanted us to go home exhausted, he achieved his object in that respect; but we also went home refreshed after a most enjoyable encounter with an inexplicably neglected composer. Our warmest thanks go not only to James for his patient and good-humoured direction but to Nicola Wilson-Smith for organising the event and (without which no event and no review can, for this reviewer, ever be truly complete) to Mary Reynor for yet another admirable display of the cake-maker’s art.

Sidney Ross

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