What’s the right way to commemorate loss? Medieval-, renaissance-, and baroque-era composers penned lavish, sometimes tormented, elegies for departed mentors, partners, and friends. We’ll hear a selection of musical memorials this hour, together with a featured release by London Baroque.
First, here’s a fantazie by the English Baroque composer Matthew Locke.
Locke was a grumpy composer, reprimanded for dueling during his schooling, who nevertheless managed to make his way in the London musical scene. In addition to composing consort music, Locke wrote for the theater—even starring in the occasional play himself!
Purcell & Blow
How do you celebrate a person you’ve lost? Do you build a memorial, write a eulogy, put together a slideshow of your favorite moments together?
For composers, the answer is clear: you make music. Many of the best composers of centuries past wrote vivid, often anguished, music memorializing their friends, patrons, and colleagues.
This hour, we’ll explore these musical elegies.
Let’s start with Henry Purcell, whose friendship with the older composer Matthew Locke seems, on the surface of it, unlikely. Purcell was a collegial, fun-loving man; Locke was a curmudgeon who spent his last years locked in a bitter war of letters. “Goggle-ey’d,” he called one opponent, “Sparrow-mouth-d,” “copper-nos-d,” and these were the milder insults!
Yet, Locke and Purcell became friends, and when Locke died in 1677, Purcell wrote an elegy: “What hope for us remains now he is gone?”
Purcell went on to accrue an even greater share of fame and favor than his friend. He, too, loved the theater and composed music for multiple plays, as well as what many people consider to be his masterwork, the opera Dido and Aeneas. When Purcell died quite suddenly at the age of 36, the musical community was shaken.
John Blow was a composer and organist who had mentored young Purcell and even created a position for his protégé by deliberately resigning as organist at Westminster Abbey. Blow must have been shattered when Purcell died unexpectedly in 1695: to mourn, he wrote a twenty-minute ode to his departed colleague, calling him “God-like.” (And by the way, Blow’s placement of Purcell’s name in the iambic pentameter of his poem should settle once and for all the “pur-cell” vs. Purcell debate.)
So ceased the rival crew when Purcell came
they sung no more/or only sung his fame
Struck dumb, they all admired the God-like man,
The God-like man, alas too soon retir’d
as he too late began.
We’ll hear excerpts of Blow’s ode from a 1974 recording directed by harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt. We’ll hear the Ode’s middle sections, “So ceas’d the rival Crew” and “We Beg not Hell.”
Andrieu, Binchois & Ockeghem
The composer Gilles Binchois lived to be 60 years old—not too shabby in the turbulent middle ages. After serving William, Duke of Suffolk, in English-occupied northern France, Binchois —perhaps as a composer, perhaps as a solider—served at the court of Phillip the Good in Burgundy until his retirement.
Along the way, he seems to have met other composers of note, including a younger Johannes Ockeghem. We don’t have letters or photographs attesting to a friendship between the two men, but we do have a déploration, a kind of musical eulogy common at the time.
Ockeghem’s Mort tu as navrè de ton dart, quotes an otherwise unknown Binchois tune and expresses profound woe.
Death, you have wounded with your dart
the father of joy
in unfurling your standard
over Binchois, that paragon of goodness.
An even older commemoration comes to us from Franciscus Andrieu, a little-known composer who flourished during the 1300s in France. The only work ascribed to him for certain is a four-part ballade, “Armes, amours / O flour de flours,” a lament upon the death of the composer Guillaume de Machaut in 1377.
Schmelzer, Tallis, Byrd & de la Rue…and green parrots too!
The loss of a patron could have serious economic consequences for a composer. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer entered the service of Ferdinand the Third, Holy Roman Emperor, as a violinist at a relatively young age. When Ferdinand died, Schmelzer would have needed to secure his future. A well-timed composition never hurts: Schmelzer wrote a lament on the death of the former Emperor, as well as music for the coronation of his new ruler, Leopold the First. The composer went on to have a close relationship with Leopold, receiving gifts of money and golden chains.
Let’s hear Schmelzer’s “Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinand III.”
Nearly a century before and a continent away, the English composer William Byrd mourned the death of his mentor Thomas Tallis. Byrd had a lot in common with Tallis, who survived to see five different monarchs rule England. A shared love of music was a given, but Byrd and Tallis also launched a business venture –publishing—and they, most likely, shared an out-of-favor Catholic faith. Byrd witnessed Tallis’ will and composed a moving elegy for his departed friend.
In five parts, Byrd’s commemoration, “Ye Sacred Muses,” ends on an anguished, repeated line:
Tallis is dead, and music dies.
And now for a somewhat unusual lament: the charming and melancholic chanson “Soubz ce tumbel” (Within this tomb) is attributed to the Flemish composer Pierre de la Rue and is based on text from the “Epitaph of the Green Lover” by renaissance poet Jean Lemaire de Belges. Both composer and poet worked in the court of Margaret of Austria, and the so-called “green lover” is actually Margaret’s pet parrot, grieving her absence during a long trip.
London Baroque’s Apotheose
An apotheose is a kind of deification, the transmutation of a mortal into a God. At least, this seems to have been what the French composer Francois Couperin was going for when he composed two lengthy pieces entitled “L’Apotheose,” one for the French master Jean-Baptiste Lully and one for the celebrated Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli.
Couperin’s pieces offer their own miniature mythologies, with movement titles that clue you in to the action: “Corelli drinking at the fountain,” for example, or “After his exhilaration, Corelli sleeps!”
We’ll hear London Baroque performing a sampling from each work on our featured release—their 2003 recording titled Apotheoses. In the first piece, Corelli approaches the foot of Mount Parnassus, asking the muses to welcome him. Then, Lully’s contemporaries mourn his death.
Break and Theme music
:30, Matthew Locke: The Flat Consort, Consort of Four Parts, Ensemble de Violes Orlando Gibbons, Alphee 1995 B000S56GP0 / B000025552, Matthew Locke, D 2, Tr 18: Suite 5- 2. Courante (excerpt of 1:23)
:60, With Charming Notes, Purcell & Blow: Songs and Instrumental Music, Arcadian Academy/Nicholas McGegan, harmonia mundi 1995, B00B9L1OTA, Tr. 4 Pavan in B-Flat (excerpt of 3:29)
:30, A-la-mi-re Manuscripts: Flemish Polyphonic Treasures, Capilla Flamenca/Patrick Denecker, Naxos 1999 B000QQQSKY / B000038I7X, Tr. 14 (Pierre de la Rue/Jean Lemaire de Belges, poet) Soubz ce tumbel (instr. excerpt of 5:03)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writers for this edition of Harmonia are Anne Timberlake and LuAnn Johnson.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.