WEELKES: Anthems (Gary Cooper/ Jeremy Summerly/ Judy Lieber/ Oxford Camerata) (Naxos: 8.553209)
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Thomas Weelkes (1576 -1623)
It is not just the approach of a new millennium which encourages ideologicaldiatribes about change and fortune: fins de siecle are adequate enough,so history relates, to stimulate new directions and a sense of quest. Modemmusic history can thus be broadly pinned on five important dates: 1499 - Josquinand the flowering of vocal polyphony; 1599 - Monteverdi, opera, and musicwritten in a definite key; 1699 - Corelli, the concerto, and discovering how tomake movements longer; 1799 -Beethoven Symphonies and revolution; 1899 - Debussyand the abuse and decline of tonality. However simplistic, the implications forthe rest of the century of these milestones of musical thinking cannot beunderestimated.
Yet the way in which individual composers react to times of intense change isnot so straightforward. This is where chronological studies of the 'development'of music history often reveal their shortcomings. 1599 is one of the biggerdates on account of the radical polemics brought about by Italian dare-devilswho, literally, wanted to create a scene. Small groups of arty folk met forlunch in Rome and invented a new musical language: a type of speech in tonescalled recitative whose freedom from the shackles of the strict rules of theRenaissance would allow music to reach the parts to tickle the senses and stirthe passions as never before. The fact that little of this pioneering fare ismemorable tells much. If Monteverdi is the father of modem music then this isbecause his genius was for understanding where innovation was truly liberatingand established principles of order, beauty, and balance were unnegotiable.
Thomas Weelkes would not have known much about Rome in the early 1600s norwould he have been aware of Monteverdi's successful synthesis of old and new. Hewas a busy Church of England musician whose music is distinctly "Clog'dwith somewhat of an English vein". This description, employed by RogerNorth over a hundred years later to describe Purcell's Sonatas, is as apt forWeelkes and his generation as it was for the great 'Orpheus'; the vein isclogged with the same infusion, that of an unusually enterprising and timelessaffinity to counterpoint. This shows, above all, that England - if not entirelyoblivious of the ultimate importance of the new Baroque - had its own sense ofvalues and destiny according to a national temperament, one which foundcontinental histrionics and emotional outpourings rather embarrassing.
So, no opera in England. Nevertheless, enough changes were afoot at the turnof the seventeenth century, as Elizabethan culture drew to a close, for Weelkesto realise that he was operating in a world of transition and he took advantageof it. The power of representing words and images, central to the Italianbaroque ethos, was not lost on those composers involved in lute-song andparticularly madrigal writing. The fact that Weelkes, Gibbons, Dowland, Byrd,Wilbye, and Tomkins were not at the forefront of the latest Italian innovationsis irrelevant: they had a taste of the expressive devices which could illuminatetexts, although textual images were more compelling than merely setting words inthe abstract world of English counterpoint. This is born out in Weelkes'sexquisitely focused and atmospheric sacred madrigal When David heard.
If Weelkes stands slightly apart from his contemporaries then it is becausehe was perhaps the nearest the English got to a 'dare-devil'. The traits of theboldest compositions of his 1600 madrigal collection dig surprisingly deeplyinto the baroque psyche without ever drawing on specific 'baroque' practices:impetuosity, restlessness, a love of bold and startling symbolism, concentratedgestures, and an ambition for large structural coherence - all characteristicswhich would have found a natural home fifty years later. But when the madrigalsoon, and ironically for Weelkes, became an anachronism he willingly turned hisattention to the church, committed as he was to the bastion of counterpoint.
However tempting it is to think of an innovator stifled by the conservatism ofhis age, the relatively experimental devices in the madrigals are surprisinglyunintegral to Weelkes's musical style. He was never particularly responsive towords; as Hosanna to the son of David and Alleluia! I heard a voice display,his music is essentially driven by sonorous textures and an engagingly directdesire to set a text with the minimum of fuss. At its best, his fertileimagination engages us in its virility and a thrilling organic growth. At hisleast inspired, his melodic lines can appear pedestrian and strangely austereand unambitious. This honest cross-section of Weelkes's church output conveys aflawed genius but one with a capacity for invention and individuality withoutwhich his fin de siecle would be the poorer.
?® 1995 Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
The Oxford Camerata was formed in order to meet the growing demand for choralgroups specialising in music from the Renaissance era. It has since expanded itsrepertoire to include music from the medieval period to the present day usinginstrumentalists where necessary. The Camerata has made a variety of recordingsfor Naxos spanning the music of nine centuries and in 1995 was awarded aEuropean Cultural Prize.
Jeremy Summerly studied Music at New College, Oxford, from where he graduatedwith First Class Honours in 1982. For the next seven years he worked for BBCRadio and it was during this time that he founded the Oxford Camerata andundertook postgraduate research at King's College, London. In 1989 he became alecturer at the Royal Academy of Music and in the following year he wasappointed conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford. He currently divides his timebetween lecturing, researching, conducting, and writing and presentingprogrammes for BBC Radio.