Matthew White was born in 1973 and began singing as a treble with St. Matthew’s Men and Boys Choir in Ottawa, Canada. He graduated in English Literature at McGill University and currently studies with [...]
Music & Sweet Poetry Agree
They spoke about it
Violins: Chloe Meyers, Chantal Rémillard
Viola da Gamba: Elin Soderstrom, Mélisande Corriveau, Elizabeth MacMillan
Violoncello: Amanda Keesmaat
Harpsichord, Organ: Alexander Weimann
Luth: Sylvain Bergeron
Recorder, Oboe, Cornetto: Matthew
Cornetto: Douglas Kirk
Sackbut: Trevor Dix, Peter Christensen, Dominique Lortie
The reign of Elizabeth I and the first Stuarts was for England a period of political and religious upheaval, one which led to a curious culture of moroseness that eventually developed into a “cult of melancholy.” This aesthetic of bittersweet sentiment would not only carry over into the Baroque period, with its taste for the tragic and for contrast, it also foreshadowed the Romantic period. Viewed by the Elizabethans as both a cause of and cure for melancholy, music thus played an important cultural role, serving both to sustain dark moods, but also to ennoble them and indeed even to heal them. The Humanist Robert Burton, who published his voluminous work Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, said that both instruments and voices have the power to push away the fear of death, to reinvigorate and to carry the soul beyond itself. Of course, he also added that “many men are [made] melancholy by hearing Musicke, but it is a pleasing melancholy that is causeth and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, feare, sorrow, or dejected, it is a most present remedy, it expells cares, [and] alters their grieved mindes[.]”
William Byrd, and later Dowland, Wilbye, Morley, Campion and many others, contributed greatly to this golden age of melancholy, whose influence could still be heard in Purcell. “What is love but mourning?” was the question these musicians and poets seemed constantly to ask, as demonstrated here by the madrigal “Ambitious Love,” in which the conquest of the beloved seems an enterprise that is both desperate and necessary. In the same vein is the extraordinary “Love Stood Amazed,” one of the most dramatic madrigals Dowland ever wrote and one of the few that show an Italian influence. Melancholy has many faces, however, and beyond amorous distress, it was often associated with spiritual angst and great piety. Thus, in “As By the Streams of Babylon,” Thomas Campion gives us a version of the well-known Psalm 137, in which the Hebrews lament their forced exile—a complaint that undoubtedly found an echo in the religious persecution common in England at the time.
It would be wrong, however, to think that this time was all gloom and doom; the playfulness of works by Morley (“April is in my Mistress Face”) or in “The Marigold,” set to music by Nicholas Lanier, is patently obvious. Even Dowland, seemingly so miserable (“Ever Dowland, Ever Doleful”) was, according to one biographer, “a cheerful person […] passing his days in lawful merriment.” This cheerfulness is most evident in his first book of “ayres,” from which is taken “Awake Sweet Love” and “Can She Excuse,” both constructed on galliard rhythms, as if to sustain the hope, however fragile, of happiness in love.
Clearly, such a range of emotional states and poetic styles necessitated an equal variety of musical practices. While the instrument of choice for many of the composers featured on this recording was the lute, it was certainly not the only instrument employed for vocal accompaniment. Campion, for instance, gave performers great latitude, indicating that his works are designed “to be sung to the Lute and Viols, in two, three, and foure Parts, or by one Voyce to an instrument.” Similarly, many of Dowland’s ayres are accompanied by both lute tablatures and extra parts to be sung or played. The instrumentation on this recording reflects these multiple performance choices: several ayres are accompanied by lute or harpsichord, while others lent themselves to different expressive possibilities. In “Oh God that Guides the Cheerful Sun,” for example, the clear, sweet sonority of the cornetto blends with the voice, in a sense illustrating the gentle glitter of the rising sun. And while Dowland set certain texts to dance-like instrumental music, conversely, in this recording of Wilbye’s marvelous madrigal “Adew, Sweet Amaryllis,” the four vocal parts are interpreted instrumentally, by a “broken consort” of viols, cornetto and lute.
Henry Purcell, whose music concludes the recording, continued the lute-song tradition until the end of the 17th century, paying even greater attention to rhetoric and expression of the text. In “Sweeter than Roses,” Purcell manages to maintain a sense of unity even while he highlights every word and stylistic element; he thus reveals the poem’s subject—the kiss—only after 15 languorous measures, heightening the sense of anticipation already present in the text. “Here the Deities Approve” is the most moving part of an ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (Welcome to All the Pleasures), which recalls that music, like love, is a gift from the gods.
© Philippe Gervais
Translation: Peter Christensen