Musica Sacra: These Distracted Times

Directed by Robert Oliver; comprising Baroque Voices (director: Pepe Becker) and Academia Sanctae Mariae (led by Gregory Squire)  

Music by Henry and William Lawes, John Jenkins, Richard Dering, Thomas Tomkins, Matthew Locke  

St Mary of the Angels, Wellington; Sunday 22 November 2009

I found myself unusually intrigued by the last concert of Musica Sacra’s 2009 series, dwelling on the music of the Civil War period in England in the mid-17th century; for interest in English music has tended to wane with the death of the composers who were active in Elizabeth’s and James I’s reigns, such as Orlando Gibbons, Peter Philips, Thomas Campion, John Dowland…   

Though this concert included music from both before and after those 20 years of strife and the subsequent Commonwealth – the 1640s and 50s (Richard Dering was dead by 1630 and Matthew Locke was born in 1630 and lived till 1677), most of the music was touched in some way by either the gathering clouds or by the strife itself. Catholic liturgical music was banned and most musical composition was directed towards domestic music; the Puritans did not object to music per se.

Those central to the years of the Civil War were John Jenkins who lived from 1592 till 1678, and Henry and William Lawes (though William was killed in battle in 1645).

The older brother, Henry, is presumably well known to Wellingtonians as a result of the very rich Milton collection in the Turnbull Library which has been expanded to encompass Milton’s literary, musical and political contemporaries. Milton’s masque Comus was written to be set by Henry on commission from the Earl of Bridgewater. Though his music was lost, an adaptation of Comus was later set by Thomas Arne and was very popular; that version was performed in Wellington a few years ago by an opera group, Brio, led by Lesley Graham.

Milton wrote a Sonnet, his No 13*, in praise of Henry Lawes for completing a certain play. It first appeared as the introduction to Henry and William Lawes’s Choice Psalms of 1648.

Henry Lawes’s setting of Psalm 9, ‘Thee and thy wondrous deeds’ opened the concert: a setting for five voices, strings and organ, which set the tone for the evening. It began with Pepe Becker, at her peak, a pure yet warm soprano, so fluid and brilliant that one feared she would outshine the other singers. But they did match her in their different, perhaps not quite as remarkable, ways; in duet with her, tenor John Fraser held his own, and both Jane McKinlay and alto Andrea Cochrane established themselves confidently in solo passages as well as in the several trios involving two or three women.   

Bass David Morriss in particular has emerged with greater confidence and his lower voice has gained splendid strength; in Locke’s ‘Ad te levavi’ (Psalm 122), and elsewhere, he impressed with skillfully decorated lines.

The programme took the form of Psalm settings and several Latin motets with continuo, by Dering (most of whose life was spent outside England) and Locke; these were interspersed with readings by Morriss. Although the amplification made some words hard to catch, they were amusing and pertinent, especially those from Nicholas L’Estrange’s collections of anecdotes (generally the decent ones, which are in the minority) and his brother, Roger’s Truth and Loyalty Vindicated.

One related a protest by ‘One Mr Saunders’ who remonstrated with people talking during an instrumental performance: “This is not vocal music,” he is reported crying out.

The two groups involved in Musica Sacra are alike in their sensitivity to the style of the music they play and achieve a degree of harmony of tone as vocal and instrumental ensembles that is remarkable. The three women, sopranos Becker and McKinlay, and alto Cochrane, created an especially beautiful blend in the Matthew Locke motet ‘Audi Domine’; but the five together achieved almost as much perfection.

The instrumental ensemble accompanied, in various configurations, sometimes both violins, Greg Squire and Shelley Wilkinson, Robert Oliver on bass viol and Douglas Mews on the chamber organ; sometimes the organ alone. As well as contributing an ultimate polish and balance to the singing; they played several purely instrumental pieces such as a Fantasy Suite by John Jenkins (involving demanding virtuosity) and two sonatas by William Lawes for all the instruments.

Mews played a solo piece for organ by Thomas Tomkins which gave the concert its name: A Sad Pavane for These Distracted Times; Tomkins’s life extended from the last 20 years of Elizabeth’s reign till 1656. He was a Royalist and the Pavane was composed a few days after the execution of Charles I in 1649; sounding from a somewhat earlier, happier time, this was a beautiful, intelligent performance, its tone elegiac and lamenting.

Even if interest in the less familiar music of the past is driven to some degree by the frustrations felt by audiences at much of the music of the past century, the benefits are huge; as with this concert, the explorations are not only unearthing less-known music of famous composers and obscure composers who were the links between many of the greats, but are also bringing to life music from totally neglected periods such as the early 17th century.

We are so lucky to live in a period when so much musical exploration is happening, unprecedented in any earlier time. For none of the composers in this concert was familiar to any but the musical historian till recently, and all are worth getting to know. 


*John Milton’s Sonnet No XIII (to Henry Lawes)


Harry whose tuneful and well measured song

First taught our English Musick how to span

Words with just note and accent, not to scan

With Midas Ears, committing short and long;


Thy worth and skill exempts thee from the throng,

With praise anough for Envy to look wan;

To after-age thou shalt be writ the man,

That with smooth aire could’st humor best our tongue.


Thou honour’st Verse, and Verse must lend her wing

To honour thee, the Priest of Phoebus Quire

That tun’st their happiest lines in Hymn, or Story.


Dante shall give Fame leave to set thee higher

Then his Casella, whom he woo’d to sing,

Met in the milder shades of Purgatory. 



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