Tomkins-the end of the line

March 2016

The workshop on the Byrd-Tomkins relationship which was held at the United reformed Church, Ickenham, on Saturday, January 30th 2016 was a hugely popular event and an excellent start to TVEMF’s musical activities for 2016. One of the attractive features of TVEMF’s programmes is the range of skills displayed by the various directors of the workshops. The versatility of our director for this occasion, Stephen Jones, has already been recounted in the flyer for the event, and in directing it he emphasised his interest in exploring the teacher-pupil relationships that created the tradition of which Tomkins was the final exponent.

The programme, consisting of seven items, was lengthy and ambitious, and it was obvious that we would not be able to do full justice to all of them. Five of the items were by Tomkins and two by Byrd. To some extent for purposes of exposition of the relationship, we spent quite a long time on the first item, Tomkins’ Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom. Peter Phillips says of this, in his notes to the Gimell recording which also includes four movements from the Great Service, that ‘although it retains a polyphonic idiom, its daring comes from the underlying harmonic structure, which foreshadows the compositional method of Henry Purcell’. Among the harmonic features which Stephen drew to our attention were Tomkins’ fondness for parallel thirds and sixths and his characteristic use of major-minor shifts, as in the section setting the text ‘vouchsafe to give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ, our Lord’. Returning to the recording notes, Phillips goes on to speculate that, had it not been for the suppression of the Anglican Church and its musicians during the Commonwealth, Tomkins might have fathered a new generation of composers; in which case the title of this review would have been radically different.

We then moved on to the Te Deum of the so-called Great Service (the epithet ‘so-called is used because Stephen expressed the view that the term ‘Great Service’ is a twentieth-century construct). As published in Musica deo sacra, the 1668 compilation whose edition was overseen by Tomkins’ son Nathaniel, it is the third of Tomkins’ five services, consisting of the morning canticles Te Deum and Jubilate, both of which were included in our programme, and the evening Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, which were not. The Great Service and Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom are particularly mentioned by Phillips as examples of his status as the composer who most obviously continued Byrd’s achievement. The forward-looking nature of his music which Phillips also mentioned was addressed in an interesting discussion with Stephen when he asked if we could detect resemblances with any more modern composer, eliciting the answer ‘Brahms’. Stephen accepted this as a possibility but the composer whom he had in mind turned out to be Stanford. This caused your reviewer to wonder whether his ears were not deceiving him, since his own early experiences (ca 1943-50) of English Church music included frequent and increasingly unwelcome exposure to Stanford’s 1923 composition, the service in D major for unison choir and (with that admittedly circumscribed experience of Stanford) it would never have occurred to him to see that composer as an inheritor of the tradition to which the workshop was devoted.

Curiously, the Stanford-Brahms similarity (if such there be) was the subject of an extremely disobliging critical comment by George Bernard Shaw in his capacity of music critic of The World under the pen-name Corno di Bassetto. Shaw’s attitude to both these composers was extremely changeable - he eventually came to see merit in Brahms, whom he had once described as ‘the Leviathan Maunderer’ - and he was an admirer of some of Stanford’s works (oratorios being strictly excluded from the sphere of admiration) one of which was his quartet in A minor. In volume III of ‘Music in London 1890-94’ he said of it at page 156 ‘It is a genuine piece of absolute music, alive with feeling from beginning to end, and free from those Stanfordian aberrations into pure cleverness which remind one so of Brahms’ aberrations into pure stupidity’.

To return to the workshop itself after that digression, we concentrated for a fairly long time on the opening section of the Te Deum (the first twenty-one pages) and, after lunch, made a less detailed excursion into the remainder (pp.22-52) a particularly individual feature of which was the AAAATTBB passage setting the text ‘when thou took’st upon thee’. Byrd, too, had employed unusual vocal scoring in his Great Service, an example being the AAAT passage ‘And thou child shall be called the prophet of the highest’ from the Benedictus.

We then moved on to two contrasting settings of ‘O God, the proud are risen against thee’, the first by Byrd (SSAATB) and the second by Tomkins (SSAATTBB). The texts differ slightly - Byrd’s closing section reads ‘great in kindness and truth’ while the Tomkins text has ‘goodness’ rather than ‘kindness’ but the important feature is the way in which Tomkins, with his larger grouping of voices, outdoes his master in effect, for instance in his depiction of ‘the assembly of violent men’ in comparison with whom Byrd’s violent men might seem something of a vicarage tea-party. The richer effect of Tomkins’ augmented forces is also very well realised in the concluding ‘great in goodness and truth’ section.

With the passage of time, the remaining three items received relatively little attention. We read through Byrd’s ‘five-part ‘Domine, secundum multitudinem’ which exemplified Byrd’s debt to Tallis, and then went on to Tomkins’ five-part ‘Domine, tu eruisti’. This came supplemented with an English text which might be regarded as a contrafactum, since the text ‘Why art thou so full of heaviness’ is not, and does not purport to be, a translation of the Latin. In fact the Latin text is slightly adapted from Isaiah xxxviii, v.17, by the substitution of ‘Domine’ for ‘Tu autem’, while the English text is taken from the version of Psalm 42, vv. 6 and 7, in the English Church Prayer Book of 1662. Psalm 42 is perhaps more familiar to us in the Latin as the source of the text of Palestrina’s Sicut cervus. (The Vulgate has ‘quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum’).

So as to leave adequate time for tea and a concluding sing through, we had room for only the most cursory glance at the Jubilate from the Great Service, but that did not detract from what your reviewer would (without casting doubt on the excellence of many previous workshops) rate as one of the most interesting, informative and enjoyable TVEMF singing events for some considerable time. Congratulations are due to the TVEMF management for arranging it and in particular for getting Stephen Jones to direct it. His calm and purposeful approach to this challenging music was exactly what was required and added greatly to the experience.

Very warm thanks are also due to Michael Bloom for organising the event and taking on the herculean task of producing seventy copies of everything, and once again we are all grateful to the volunteers who ensured that bodily sustenance was made available to complement the uplift derived from the musical experience.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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