English anthems straddling 1600 offer rich and satisfying concert from voices and viols

‘This is the Record of John’
English Verse Anthems for voices and viols
Music by William Byrd, Peter Philips, Thomas Campion, Thomas Tomkins, John Amner, Orlando Gibbons, John Ward

Baroque Voices (leader: Pepe Becker; and Anna Sedcole, Katherine Hodge, Jeffrey Chang, Phillip Collins, David Houston)
Palliser Viols (leader: Robert Oliver; and Lisa Beech, Sophia Acheson, Jane Brown, Sue Alexander, Kevin Wilkinson)
Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 29 May, 7:30 pm

Verse anthems are the English equivalents of the Latin or French motet or Lutheran cantata.

They were not just an early music genre, but continued to be composed till modern times. The Bach Choir recently sang an English verse anthem, in Parry’s Hear my Words, Ye People. In Tudor times they were particularly prolific. All of the anthems and harpsichord pieces in this concert came from the Elizabethan and Stuart periods, though Tomkins survived into the time of Cromwell’s Protestant Commonwealth.

The concert began with compositions of a couple of less familiar composers whose music has barely escaped disappearance: John Ward and John Amner. Each opened with the gorgeous sound of the viol ensemble of two trebles, three tenors and Robert Oliver himself on the bass viol, followed by the entry of voices, their numbers varying between five and six. Both pieces could have been written by the same composer; perhaps designed for singing by amateurs, to create a cheerful, harmonious atmosphere in a salon where cultivated people could enjoy themselves. Some of the pieces could have been as part of the church liturgy.

One can imagine different settings for the various pieces presented, according to the subject, whether distinctly religious or not. If not for liturgical purpose, did listeners have to be silent during the performance? Did they clap after each piece ended?

Ward’s piece was slow and meditative and apparently not drawn from a Biblical source while Amner used words from a Psalm, I am for peace. Robert Oliver’s programme note provided interesting background to the likely settings and purposes of anthems over the years.

The concert was punctuated by three non-vocal pieces. The first of them, Passamezzo Pavan à 6, was by Peter Philips, for viols; it was more spirited than the preceding vocal pieces. Another anthem, probably by Ward, followed: Mount up my Soul, where the tenor had a prominent part. A further piece by Ward came after the interval: How long wilt thou forgive me, set at a steady tempo to charmingly fluent music, for the usual two sopranos and one each of the other three voices.

There was a set of three pieces by Thomas Campion, songs to his own words (he was an admired poet as well as composer), rather than anthems, though the first two had religious subjects, of a kind: Never the weather-beaten sail and Author of Light. One had to admit that the words were strikingly more poetic, imaginative and picturesque than one finds in 99% of routine Protestant hymns. The third song, Jack and Joan, was clearly for two single voices, Pepe Becker and Philip Collins (I assume), and displaying much more of a popular, folk song spirit.

The first of two anthems by Orlando Gibbons supplied the title given to the concert: ‘This is the record of John’. The notes did not reveal the source of the words; they presumably refer to John the Baptist. Though I am no Biblical scholar, the reference to the voice crying in the wilderness is from either Isaiah or John’s gospel; in the latter: “John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘I am a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'”. Thus it was probably intended for church use. Here, I had thought more could have been made of its narrative character, enlivening the direct speech quotations by a pause and change of tone between question and answer.

Gibbons’s second item was See, See the World Incarnate. Its musical character indeed supported Oliver’s rating it as a masterpiece; the alto’s voice was very distinct and the several vocal lines interwove engagingly. Although the musical invention continually held my attention, I was struck by what I felt was an odd, even inappropriate, relationship sometimes between the words and the music to which they were set, as if Gibbons was pursuing a musical idea regardless of the words’ meaning.

Thomas Tomkins was a near contemporary of Campion. His verse anthem, ‘Above the stars my savior dwells’, is a charmingly simple text, though richly set with soprano and tenor prominent through most of it, and employing a second tenor voice in the last couplet.

It was preceded by a Pavan and galliard à 6 by Tomkins, which, I might note here included all six viols plus the harpsichord of Douglas Mews, whose unobtrusive, carefully idiomatic playing was probably more important than that of any one of the viols. The pavan is a stately dance, the galliard somewhat quicker, and here was an opportunity to hear the generally impressive skills of each player.

The third instrumental piece was an organ Fantasy by Byrd which Mews played on the chamber organ. Though it began with only a pure flute stop, it became more complex in terms of registrations, harmony and canonical devices, ornaments and flamboyant scalic flourishes through its considerable length.

Finally, voices and viols joined for Byrd’s Christ is rising again – Christ is risen. But unfortunately, I had great difficulty in facing the need to leave before it, to catch a train, or have an hour’s wait for the next. It was especially painful in the light of the notes’ description of it as a “magnificent pair of verse anthems …a superb example of Byrd’s transcendent and unexcelled art”.

This was a most satisfying concert, confined, to be sure, to just one genre and one national school during hardly more than a half century, but bearing such evidence of the richness of English music, not to be seen again (apart from the momentary brilliance of Purcell) till the 20th century.


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