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The Wacky World of Weelkes

Chichester Cathedral

From PRI, Public Radio International, welcome to Harmonia. I’m Angela Mariani. This week, we’re going to meet Thomas Weelkes, one of the most gifted of the early 17th-century English madrigalists and a major composer of church music.  Join us as we look at Weelkes’ colorful life and listen to some of his sublime music. Plus, Celtic harp meets Baroque violin on our featured release, Harvested from Tradition, a mix of early music, traditional music, and new music played by harpist Paula Kibildis and violinist Vincent Kibildis.

From a CD called Harvested from Tradition, we heard “The Bonny Broome” and “Never Love thee More,” music from the 1651 and 1698 editions of John Playford’s English Dancing Master. The CD is a mix of early music, traditional music, new music and arrangements played by Paula Kibildis, Celtic harp, and Vincent Kibildis, baroque violin.

Secular and Sacred Vocal Music

We know almost nothing about Thomas Weelkes’ early life, including his birthdate. Evidence suggests it might have been 1579, but Weelkes was surely learning about music in the late 16th century, since his first publication, a book of canzonettes for 3 voices, appeared in 1597.

At that time, English music was in transition. Students still studied Flemish polyphonic music, but musicians were becoming increasingly familiar with the Italian madrigal. In fact, about the only thing we know for sure about Weelkes is that he knew the work of Salamone Rossi, the celebrated Mantuan composer, since he borrowed several texts and musical ideas for his 1597 publication from Rossi’s Primo libro delle canzonette a tre voci of 1589.

Weelkes was appointed organist of Winchester College in 1598, and remained there for three or four years, during which he composed some of his finest madrigals, published in two books in 1598 and 1600. Let’s begin our journey with the extraordinary 6-part madrigal "Thule, the period of cosmography," a madrigal in two sections. It catalogues newly discovered wonders of the world, for instance the Icelandic volcano Hekla, “whose sulphureous fire Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky; Trinacrian Etna's flames ascend not higher.” Says the poet, “These things seem wondrous, but more wondrous I, Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.”

You heard the Hilliard Ensemble performing Weelkes’ "Thule the period of cosmography" from their 1999 Virgin CD English and Italian Madrigals with, as you may have noticed, historical pronunciation of English.

Weelkes’ musical imagination seems inspired by texts with sharply contrasting images or feelings. Here is another of his madrigals, "O care thou wilt dispatch me," with its second part, "Hence care, though art too cruel." You will hear lots of dissonance and some of the sadder fa la las’s in the madrigal literature.

That was Philip Ledger directing the Pro Cantione Antiqua from their recording English Madrigals, released by Peters International in 1979.

It’s interesting that Weelkes’ madrigals haven’t been more comprehensively recorded, and not recorded much at all recently. Are they more successful in live performance, or perhaps just too hard for most groups of singers? It’s difficult to imagine them done by a whole choir, but a wonderful one-to-a-part group of singers would enjoy a rewarding challenge from Weelkes’ music.

Thomas Weelkes eventually moved from Winchester to Chichester, where he was named organist and informator choristarum (OK, choirmaster) some time between 1601 and 1602. Though we can’t date any of his church music, it seems reasonable to assume that most of it was composed after his move to Chichester. Things started out very well for him there; he was awarded a Bachelor’s degree in music from New College, Oxford, and married Elizabeth Sandham, the daughter of a wealthy Chichester merchant.

Then, in 1609 Weelkes was charged with unauthorized absence throughout the whole of the bishop’s visitation. And in 1613 he was charged with being drunk in public. Things started to slide downhill for Weelkes, who was probably in his early 30s by then. By 1616 he was reported to the bishop as being “noted and famed for a common drunkard and notorious swearer and blasphemer.” On Jan 16, 1617 Weelkes was dismissed from his post as organist and informator choristarum, though he retained his singing position at the cathedral. If you go speak to the current musicians at Chichester Cathedral, you will find that Thomas Weelkes’ behavior is remembered there to this day and you’ll hear stories of some shocking behavior that includes, well, relieving himself in the choir loft.

The very same Thomas Weelkes composed the largest number of Anglican services of any composer of his time, mostly for Evensong. In part because none of them were published, all the services are incomplete and require reconstruction from, for instance, an organ part that survives. Here is a part of the evensong liturgy that the choral scholars call the “Mag and Nunc,” that is, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. We’ll hear the Magnificat from Weelkes’ Ninth Service, sung by the Christ Church Cathedral Choir of Oxford directed by Stephen Darlington.

We heard the Magnificat from Weelkes’ Ninth Service, performed by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral directed by Stephen Darlington in 1988, on a disc released by Naxos in 2002.

Weelkes also composed some 50 anthems, several of which are among his most frequently performed compositions. Some are full anthems, sung by the whole choir, and others verse anthems with soloists alternating with the full choir. Here’s an example of a full anthem based on the Old Testament story of David and Absalom, a text set by many fine composers. We’ll hear a version recorded by the Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, directed by David Skinner. Can you tell that this, contrary to one’s possible assumption about Cambridge choirs, is a choir of men and women with neither boys nor falsettists involved?

Thomas Weelkes’ anthem based on the story of David and Absalom, sung by the Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, directed by David Skinner.

Choral and Consort Music

Welcome back. We are listening to sacred music, in particular anthems, of Thomas Weelkes. Here’s an often-performed composition sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

That was the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge under the direction of Stephen Cleobury singing Thomas Weelkes’ "Alleluia, I heard a voice" from the 2007 EMI Classics release I heard a voice: anthems and consort music.

Ah yes, the title of that CD mentions consort music. Weelkes DID compose for keyboard and other instruments, including viols, as you’ve been hearing in the background at times, played by the group Fretwork. Instrumental music isn’t Weelkes’ most important contribution, but he’s one of several composers of his period, Gibbons being probably the best known, who composed a “Cries of London” based on the songs that one can hear to this day in markets all over the world.

Weelkes’ version (at least in this performance) unusually puts all Cries in a single singing part and, unlike Gibbons, breaks the meter to interject a dance element.  Here is Theatre of Voices with the viol consort Fretwork, performing Thomas Weelkes’ “Cries of London.” If you’re listening with good sound equipment, you may notice the solo voice moving around the sound picture. I have it on good authority that the singer, Paul Elliott, was indeed running around a church from mic to mic.

That was Paul Elliott singing Thomas Weelkes’ "The Cries of London" with the consort of viols Fretwork from the CD of the same name, released in 2006 by harmonia mundi.

It’s worth remembering that not all anthems are sacred. Let’s end our tribute to Weelkes with a fabulous 7-voice full anthem that sets two verses of Psalm 61 as a tribute to James I, with a prayer for his preservation.

Amen. Once again we heard Stephen Darlington direct the Christ Church Cathedral Choir from their 1988 recording Thomas Weelkes – Ninth Service and Anthems.

Harvested from Tradition

Our recent release featured this week contains early music, Anglo-Celtic traditional music, Playford tunes and more, all of which come together on a CD called Harvested from Tradition, played by Paula Kibildis, Celtic harp, and Vincent Kibildis, Baroque violin. Here’s “All in a Garden Greene,” from John Playford’s English Dancing Master.

“Go merrily wheel,” from the “Matthew Holmes Lute Book,” played on Celtic harp and baroque violin by Paula and Vincent Kibildis. Before that, “All in a Garden Green,” from Playford’s English Dancing Master. Both are from a CD called Harvested from Tradition.

Break and theme music

:60, Grant the King a long life: English anthems & instrumental music, Fretwork, Obsidian 2012, Tr. 9 Mr. Weelks his 3 Pavin

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia was Wendy Gillespie.

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