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ClassicsOnline Home » All the Queen's Men - Music for Elizabeth I (Sarum Consort, Mackay)
‘The Virgin Queen’ Elizabeth I was the focal-point of all England; the subject, dedicatee and audience for much of the music composed and performed throughout her long and now legendary reign. The music on this album, chosen for a concert of words and music devised for the Sarum Consort by Deborah Mackay, includes sacred and secular pieces by composers from Byrd to Weelkes. The Sarum Consort, whose performances have been hailed as ‘exhilarating’ (Gramophone) and ‘magical’ (BBC Radio 3 Record Review), here makes its Naxos début under founding musical director Andrew Mackay.
ALL THE QUEEN’S MEN: Music for Elizabeth I
Weelkes • Hunt • Byrd • Gibbons • Ferrabosco II • Rogier • East Wilbye • Dowland • Tomkins • Morley
These are the causes upon which her Majesty the Queen travels on progress every summer from May to September. Firstly, to avoid the contagious air of the capital, which is a notable cause of plague and death in the summer season. Secondly, to give herself the joy of travelling her realm and disporting herself with her loyal subjects, to the refreshment of her body and spirit. Thirdly, to ease the burden upon her privy purse of maintaining her court, by casting the expense upon those of her subjects who are most meet to entertain her. Finally, to make show of herself to her nobility, gentry and common people, that they may see her person and continually hold her in that aweful respect which is due to God’s anointed Queen.
For these reasons, every summer the Queen makes her royal progress through the shires. The stately pageantry of her Majesty’s court is enacted up and down the land, and every house in which she stays is like a stage across which her little foot treads. And the dainty footfall of the Queen through one’s home is like a whirlwind, a comet, and a plague of locusts, all rolled into one.
The corpus of music written for and about Elizabeth I is far too large to represent in a single disc. It traverses the whole of her long reign, crosses both sacred and secular traditions, and moreover represents the glorious flowering of a hybrid between continental Renaissance influences and the English post-Reformation style. But more particularly, most Elizabethan composers were explicitly aware that they were contributing to a vivid mythology of ‘Oriana’, the Virgin Queen: unattainably, untouchably perfect, yet as perfectly devoted to her realm as any wife to her husband. Countless works of art portrayed England under Oriana’s rule as a bucolic paradise, consciously harking back to classical ideals of sylvan bliss that began even before Virgil, and were still going strong in As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale, to name but two Shakespearian examples. The reality of Queen Elizabeth’s reign was rather less idyllic: war, famine, pestilence, treachery, and religious upheaval both domestic and international were the backdrop against which a queen, determined to avoid marriage in order to avert civil war, trod the royal stage of England, steering her realm through a period of unparalleled change. The music on this disc was chosen to complement a script attempting to condense these ideas into a single concert programme, representing one of the royal progresses in which Her Majesty toured the countryside—with her vast court—staying at the houses of her daunted nobility and gentry. The action of the script, marking a single night on progress, gave ample opportunity to sample the delights of the ‘Oriana’ madrigals—in which so many Elizabethan composers loyally set the words ‘Long live fair Oriana’—and also the solo songs and instrumental music that might well have been performed on such occasions for a queen who was well-known as a gifted musician and a formidable dancer.
The Triumphs of Oriana, the collection put together for Queen Elizabeth in 1601, is here represented by several of its finest madrigals, and forms the backbone of the music on this disc. Whilst space does not permit comment on all of them, the briefest analysis of Weelkes’s As Vesta was from Latmos Hill descending shows the brilliant counterpoint and characteristic word-painting that is typical of all the greatest madrigalists. Notice the rising phrases at “ascending”; the running quavers at “came running down amain”; the two-part setting of “then two by two” the three-part “then three by three”, and the single soprano voice for “all alone”; and best of all the setting of “Long live fair Oriana”, where the wish for the Queen’s longevity is brilliantly underlined by the basses being in augmentation, that is to say singing the same tune as the other five parts but taking four times as long to do so.
Thomas Hunt’s Hark! Did ye ever hear?, another Oriana madrigal, is followed by Byrd’s meditative prayer O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen to rejoice in thy strength, notable for its contrast of a simple homophonic beginning with an increasingly contrapuntal development.
Orlando Gibbons was one of the last and greatest of the English Tudor polyphonists. Coming from a large family of musicians, he wrote chamber and keyboard works as well as some of the best-loved choral and vocal works of the era, both sacred and secular. O clap your hands was written for his award of an honorary Doctorate of Music from Oxford University in 1622. This remarkable work must have suited the occasion well, for the grandeur of its eight-part double choir writing, and the complexity of its counterpoint, suggest that Gibbons was keen to show off just how well-deserved was his award.
The beautiful set of variations on the ballad Robin is to the greenwood gonn (also known as “Bonny Sweet Robin” in many sources) is taken from the Folger “Dowland” Manuscript (Folger Shakespeare Library, Ms.V.b.280—olim 1610.1). The haunting melody of “Robin” was a favourite of Elizabethan and Jacobean composers for the writing of instrumental variations. This set is one of the finest, and may even be by Dowland himself, as he is associated with the manuscript.
Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger was born in Greenwich, his father (also named Alfonso) having settled in England and entered the service of Queen Elizabeth. So beauty on the waters stood, a setting of a poem of Ben Jonson for solo soprano and lute, uses music of elegant simplicity to complement a typically involved Jonsonian conceit.
Laboravi in gemitu meo was published as by Thomas Morley, but its attribution to the Flemish Philippe Rogier has been established. If Rogier was seeking to show that Northern Europe could produce polyphony warm enough for the Spanish Court where he worked, he certainly succeeded with this piece. It gains admission to this programme as an illustration of the all-night labour of preparing for a royal visit.
John Dowland’s Time stands still, a love song whose musical style instantly betrays its composer, is sung by tenor solo with lute. Like a great many of Dowland’s lute dances, The Right Honourable the Lady Rich, her Galliard is dedicated to a particular person, whose name it bears. Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich (1562/3–1607) was the elder daughter of the first Earl of Essex, and wife first to Lord Rich, and later to Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy. Lady Rich is also the famed inspiration for Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella cycle of poems. The piece comes from Varietie of Lute-lessons (1610), edited by Robert Dowland (John Dowland’s son).
Wilbye’s Draw on Sweet Night is justly famous for the way in which a frankly rather plain and even stereotypically melancholic text is transformed by the wonderful elegance of the six part harmony, as it moves, dignified but inexorable, towards the final cadence (‘I then shall have best time for my complaining’). Wilbye’s textures are further enhanced by the movement and ornamentation of the accompanying lute.
Deborah and Andrew Mackay
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