For the 25 years that Polyhymnia has been performing, we have primarily centered our attention around music composed between 1450-1650. No matter how you may try to fit music into convenient little historical file cabinets, style rarely adheres to date. Despite the popular, but somewhat inaccurate date of 1600 as the beginning of the Baroque era, human creativity, artistic evolution, and discovery cannot be easily contained within arbitrarily set temporal boundaries. One of the places with the most evident examples is England. England, because of its relative isolation and tumultuous history, allowed the fullest potential of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to flourish, and each art form evolved in very English ways, and extending years beyond their traditional cutoff dates. Among the most compelling examples of this are the composers of the Chapel Royal School who worked during the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign and until the English Civil War.
One of the most fascinating aspects of English choral music is how deeply past musical traditions were embedded in later styles. Despite the back and forth of the 16th-century religious upheavals, the inherited musical memory extending back to the Eton Choirbook reveals itself in works of Stuart composers. Two of these composers, Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) and Thomas Tomkins (1572 – 1656), are the ones I find most interesting. Their works are elegant, beautifully crafted, and often musically complex in ways that harken back to the composers who flourished on both sides of the turn of the 16th Century. Small wonder then when that great enemy of culture, Catholicism, and regicidal maniac, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan goons, went about smashing organs, stained glass windows, and other expressions of church art, they were especially threatened by the magnificence of English sacred music. The English choral tradition, its roots firmly planted in royal patronage, was heard in cathedrals and royal chapels until Cromwell put a violent stop to it all by relieving poor King Charles of his crown and ultimately, his head. Even more interestingly, though the Interregnum only lasted 11 years, and Cromwell himself only was in charge for about as long as Mary I, the damage was done. If there is any doubt of the ferocity of Cromwell’s intentions, ask the Irish.
My family is descended from the Early American Puritans. My mother especially embraced that more austere, iconoclastic sort of practice, would have been somewhat bemused by my embrace of High Church Anglicanism. Though I suspect that she would be relieved that in my later life that I belong to a church at all. By the Restoration, music was not included in that particular package deal, as seen by the contributions to that genre of England’s best known Baroque composer, Henry Purcell. I come from a family of musicians, though my mother did adhere a bit to the puritanical view that church musicians somehow shouldn’t be making any money, just singing or playing soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone. Even I might add, my happily Calvinist Mom, must have realized that musicians like Weelkes and Tomkins did receive a paycheck for their efforts.
Enough about me, and I digress.
Back to the Brits.
For me personally, one of the most engaging aspects of 17th century Chapel Royal repertoire is its unabashed Englishness. At the same time that Venice, with Monteverdi at the helm, was establishing Baroque everything, Weelkes and Tomkins were composing choral music that clearly can trace its style and theory back to The Eton Choirbook and the great Late-Medieval English choral institutions. The celestial treble voices returned, Clashing cadences abound, and composing in six and seven voices was common. During the reigns of James I and Charles I, this must have been just too much for the Puritans. Admittedly, this music was being sung mostly by Cathedral and Oxbridge choral scholars, not to mention that most opulent of organizations, the Chapel Royal. The Chapel Royal, we must remember, was not a building but a household establishment of priests and singers who traveled with the royal household and saw to its spiritual needs. But it was not just a religious organization, but a political one, intended to impress as much as worship and even perhaps more of the first. Puritans – start your engines. Elizabeth I was politically savvy enough to grasp the political potential of the Chapel Royal when displayed to a broader international audience. By the time of the Stuarts, the Chapel Royal continued a musical tradition of the same sort of incredible, opulent polyphonic music that had served Royal Britain, with a few breaks for experiments by the not so music-loving Edward VI, for generations. That is, until Cromwell and his merry band of roundheads put the kibosh on anything beautiful. They got rid of Christmas and Easter too.
Elizabeth preferred elaborate music like William Byrd’s Great Service to ornament her Chapel Royal, and James I inherited a chapel that was accustomed to this grand musical style. Charles took it a step further with the appointment of William Laud, one of a group of theologians known collectively as the Caroline Divines who advocated for a more ritualist expression of Anglicanism. Great for music and liturgical ceremony, not so much for the Puritans, but it provided a perfect platform for the two composers highlighted here.
Thomas Weelkes, in particular, is an intriguing figure. He was a prolific composer of both madrigals and church music. He contributed one of the most beautiful pieces to the Triumphs of Oriana (1606), As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending. He also composed more music for Anglican services than anyone else of his generation. He and Thomas Tomkins are significantly influenced by the almost genetic memory of older musical styles. You hear influences of all of the great Tudor composers in their music and those characteristics are skillfully woven throughout their compositions, especially the full anthems and choral services. It is in these examples that the full flowering of the Middle Ages and Renaissance are preserved, while on the European continent, new styles of music have replaced the old. In terms of personality, it is easy to draw the comparison between two previous contemporaries, Christopher Tye and Thomas Tallis, with the brash, talented but yet undisciplined Thomas Weelkes standing in stark contrast to the more restrained and, in fact, significantly more respectable Thomas Tomkins.
Weelkes is impulsive, taking chances with rhythm and harmony, especially with his almost cavalier tossing about of dissonance, word painting, in fact using a large amount of illustrative material from his madrigals melding the sacred with the profane. If any of tonight’s composers could be considered a rebel, surely it would be Weelkes. He is, interestingly, the only composer of the Chapel Royal School of composers (which also included William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons,) who was not a full member. This may be due to a life that can only be described as unconventional. He attended New College, Oxford, and was hired at Chichester Cathedral in 1601 or 1602. The majority of his church music dates from before 1619. He had a volatile reputation, and it seems that he drank. His behavior became increasingly erratic, culminating with the dismissal from his post as informator choristarum in 1617. By 1619 he was reported to have gone regularly from the Ale House “into the quire where he will both curse and sweare most dreadfully, and so profane the service of God.” He apparently, one one occasion at least, relieved himself over the edge of the organ loft upon the Dean of the Cathedral. As unlikely as it might seem, Weelkes managed to retain his clerkship.
Hosanna to the Son of David is one of Weelke’s most familiar works, used liturgically at Palm Sunday liturgies in churches today. Its massive opening chords with only the tenor line moving, are emotionally transporting, providing a fanfare for the highly rhythmic and contrapuntal sections to follow. Weelkes skillfully packs a lot of moments of high drama into an anthem that is only about two minutes long.
Thomas Tomkins also of the same generation as Gibbons and Weelkes, outlived both of them by some thirty years, and interestingly, Monteverdi by fourteen. Yet, stylistically he was firmly attached to the uniquely English Chapel Royal style, so influenced by the last 150 years of English Church composition. He was highly respected by both James I and Charles I, and was a dedicated royalist. His music as you can hear in the Magnificat from his Third (Great) Service, would surely have set the Puritans teeth on edge. Perhaps that was his intention. Tomkins, a native Welshman, was born in St. David’s in Pembrokeshire. His father was also a musician, a vicar choral of the cathedral of St. David’s and organist there. In 1596 he was appointed as a choral instructor at Worcester Cathedral. He most likely studied with William Byrd for a time in London. He became a Gentleman Ordinary of the Chapel Royal sometime before 1620 and became senior organist there in 1625. He survived the Civil War, and the subsequent dissolution of the monarchy. There is an account that he surrendered to the Parliamentarian forces at the door of Worchester Cathedral, but was allowed to go free. Cromwell’s thugs destroyed the Worcester Cathedral organ, which Tomkins himself had commissioned in 1614. The choir was disbanded and driven from the cathedral. Tomkins moved in with his son Nathaniel and lived with him until his death. Unusually, he managed to retain his position at the cathedral though one might imagine that he didn’t have much music left to direct. He died in his house in the cathedral close before the Restoration of the Monarchy. It was Nathaniel that was the driving force behind the publication of “Musica Deo Sacra” published posthumously in 1668. It is thought by many that this remarkable collection of his sacred music was preserved to be a primer of liturgical music. Nathaniel, who went to great lengths to preserve and catalog his father’s music believed strongly – and correctly – that the Interregnum was to end, and the monarchy restored.
Tomkins is mostly known for his abilities as the composer of verse anthems, but his service music and anthems are also of the finest caliber. His Third or Great Service, which has canticles for both Mattins and Evensong, remains a staple of Anglican choir music and is some of the most beautiful and challenging examples of that repertoire. It is set at times for 10 voices, SSAAAATTBB. The Magnificat avails itself of the multi-hued contrasts between full choir and soloists. It employs very madrigalian devices such as the glorious word painting at “He hath scattered the proud.” The extended Gloria Patri section is full of flung dissonances and acrobatic leaps. The overall effect is reminiscent of the pyrotechnic vocal lines found throughout the Eton Choirbook and the mid-16th Century repertoire of Tallis and Sheppard.