Elizabethan Songs and Consort Music

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Elizabethan Songs andConsort Music

Although the Golden Age of Elizabethan music-making is commonly linkedwith the upsurge in popularity of the madrigal, this was really only aphenomenon of the very last years of the Queen's life. The earlier part of herreign (1558-1603) saw the production of a wealth of secular music, bothinstrumental and vocal. Consort songs for solo voice and viols wereparticularly esteemed, since their rich polyphonic fabric shared musicalinterest between all the parts without detracting from the clarity of a singlevoice declaiming the text. The voice was often the highest part, and thereforemost clearly audible, as in the simple beauty of Pattrick's Send forth thysighs [14], though it was common to have one treble viol spinning a descantabove the voice: the anonymous lullaby Ah, silly poor Joas [22] is agood example.

Many consort songs stem from the entertainments and dramaticpresentations made at court and other London venues by troupes of choirboymusician-actors from the Chapel Royal and the choir schools of WestminsterAbbey and St Paul's Cathedral, whose boys were in great demand in the earlyyears of Elizabeth's reign. Some songs, like Rennet's Eliza, her name giveshonour [17], were addressed directly to the chief guest. More often, musicwas used in plays to heighten moments of great tragedy or distress: the textsmake frequent use of alliteration, as parodied by Shakespeare in the Pyramusand Thisbe play produced by the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night'sDream. So Pour down, you pow'rs divine [8] by Robert Parsons, whodrowned in the River Trent in 1570, contains such lines as 'Unless my hurtedheart have help, My hopes are but my hates'. The second part of this piecesurvives only as an early seventeenth-century lute song, whose written vocalembellishments give some idea of the virtuosity with which such songs mighthave been performed. The viol parts have been reconstructed here by RichardRastall.

Many of these dramatic songs take the form of elegies or 'death songs',either evoking death as a relief, as in the gentle O Death, rock me asleep [5],or railing against fate like Panthea in Richard Farrant's Ah, alas, you saltsea gods [2] as she prepares to die next to the body of her husbandAbradad. O Jove, from stately throne [20] is from Farrant's play KingXerxes, one of a series of annual entertainments he produced each winterfor the Queen from 1567 to 1579, performed by the boys in his charge as Masterof the Choristers of the Chapel Royal. Farrant was clearly something of anentrepreneur, for in 1576 he leased a rehearsal room in Blackfriars, London, toprepare for that year's royal entertainment, but was subsequently sued forcharging the public to attend these 'private' rehearsals.

Another type of consort song took moralising rather than dramatic texts:Climb not too high [15] by Nathaniel Pattrick, Master of the Choristersof Worcester Cathedral between 1590 and 1595, sets a poem from The Arbor ofAmorous Devises on the theme of 'pride comes before a fall'.

The composer who developed the consort song furthest in terms of varietyand intensity of expression was William Byrd, who was associated with theElizabethan court and Chapel Royal from 1570 onwards. Byrd's contributions tothe consort song repertory are of the very highest quality. He too couldturn his hand to music for plays: Quis me statim [10] was probablywritten for a performance of Seneca's Hippolytus at Christ Church,Oxford in 1592. Its text closely parallels the dramatic laments of the choirboydramas: 'Who forbids me to die at once, my destiny having been destroyed? Alas,while you, too cruel, forbear, let Death pierce my bowels with your swordScatter the bones of your beloved, O Hippolytus!'

Byrd also wrote heartfelt elegies for his patrons and colleagues,marking the death of his friend, teacher and colleague Thomas Tallis in 1585with Ye sacred Muses [24]. Although Byrd published Penelope thatlonged [12] in his 1589 collection Songs of Sundrie Natures with allparts texted, the altos part has many of the characteristics of a consort songvoice part: it enters last, has the narrowest range and presents the poem inthe clearest way, following the spoken word rhythms with little embellishmentand with the most important syllables placed on the highest notes of eachphrase for natural emphasis So this performance restores the song to itsprobable original form, with the altos sung and the remaining four parts playedon viols.

Many Elizabethan choirboys were skilled viol players as well as singers:records of a banquet in 1561 tell how 'All ye dynner tyme ye

syngyng children of paules played upon their vyalls and songe very pleasauntsonges to ye great delectacion & reioysyng of ye

whole companie.' One of our chief sources for the sort of music they may haveplayed is now in the British Library (Add. MS 31390), written in table-bookformat with each player's part facing outwards to a different side of the tableon which the book was placed. Most of the instrumental tracks on this recordingare taken from this manuscript.

The single genre most frequently found in this London consort table-bookis the In Nomine. The origin of this refined and fascinating collectionof pieces is John Taverner's elaborate six-part festal mass Gloria tibiTrinitas, possibly written for the celebrations of Henry VIII's meetingwith Fran?ºois I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. In the Benedictus,when the voices sing the words in nomine Domine, the texture reducesto four parts, the plainsong cantus firmus is clearly heard in the altovoice in relatively quick note-values, and the often complex triple rhythms arereplaced by a more square-cut duple pulse. These may be the reasons that thisshort section was lifted out of its original context and written into keyboardand consort books without its words.

Between Taverner and Purcell, a period covering 150 years, there is atleast one example of an In Nomine by virtually every major Englishcomposer, as well as by many less well-known ones. Many of the earlier settingsused the same four-part texture as Taverner: Tallis adopts the undulatingphrases characteristic of the plainsong and ends his setting with serenelyrising scales while the cantus firmus holds a long final pedal.

Christopher Tye, choirmaster at Ely Cathedral and possibly music tutor toElizabeth's brother Edward, wrote more In Nomines than any other singlecomposer. They are in five parts, often with enigmatic titles; Reporte [11]is unusual for its lilting triple-time pulse and wayward cross-rhythms, while Crye[13] is characterised by a strident repeated-note figure typical of thecalls of the Elizabethan street traders. While many In Nomines recallthe vocal origins of the genre, the anonymous six part setting [7] seems purelyinstrumental in conception. It opens with a jaunty duple-time theme, andcontinues in an often homophonic style that seems colourfully at odds with thelinear counterpoint of other settings.

It was a common Elizabethan procedure to perform vocal music such asmotets without words. Singers might employ sol-fa-ing (pitching and naming thenotes of the hexachord, the six-note scale of Elizabethan music theory), oreven replace voices altogether with instruments. Several of the textless piecesperformed here on viols may well have once been motets: Mundy's Fantasia [1]wi
Disc: 1
Ye sacred Muses
1 Fantasia
2 Ah, alas you salt sea gods
3 A Song of Mr Robert Parsons
4 The Song called Trumpets
5 O Death, rock me asleep
6 In Nomine
7 In Nomine
8 Pour down, you pow'rs divine
9 Ut re mi
10 Quis me statim
11 In Nomine No. 14, 'Reporte'
12 Penelope that longed
13 In Nomine No. 20, 'Crye'
14 Send forth thy sighs
15 Climb not too high
16 De la court
17 Eliza, her name gives honour
18 Pavin of Albarti
19 Gallyard
20 O Jove, from stately throne
21 A Solfing Song
22 Ah, silly poor Joas
23 In Nomine
24 Ye sacred Muses
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