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"O Poore Distracted World! - English songs and anthems"

Les Voix Baroques
Dir: Alexander Weimann

rec: August 2009, Victoria, BC, Unitarian Church
ATMA - ACD2 2630 (© 2012) (71'42")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

John BLOW (1649-1708): I said in the cutting off of my daysbcde; John COPRARIO (c1570/80-1626): Funeral Teares for the death of the Right Honorable the Earle of Devonshire (VII: O poore distracted world)abcd; William CROFT (1678-1727): Rejoice in the Lordbcdef; Matthew LOCKE (1622-1677): The Lord hear thee in the day of troubleabcdf; ?Thomas LUPO (1571-1627) / ?Theophilus LUPO (?-1650): O Lord come pity my complaintabcdf; John MILTON (c1653-1647): If that a sinner's sighsabcde; Martin PEERSON (c1572-1651): O let me at Thy Footstool fallabcdf; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): I will give thanks (Z 20)abcdef; In guilty night (Z 134)ade; Let mine eyes run down with tears (Z 24)abcdf; Robert RAMSEY (?-1644): In guilty nightbdf; Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623): O happy he whom thou protect'stabcdf

Yulia Van Dorena, Shannon Mercerb, soprano; Matthew White, altoc; Charles Daniels, tenord; Tyler Duncan, baritonee; Robert MacDonald, bassf; Matthew Jennejohn, oboe; Chloe Meyers, Chantal Remillard, violin; Scott Metcalfe, viola; Amanda Keesmaat, cello; Natalie Mackay, violone; Sylvain Bergeron, lute; Alexander Weimann, organ

The liner-notes of this disc dwell on what is often considered a typical English disease of the early 17th century. Their title speaks for itself: 'English melancholy'. It seems that the whole programme is presented as a musical illustration of this 'English disease'. There are reasons, though, to question the concept.

There can be little doubt that melancholy was a state of mind which was frequently expressed in literature and music. Some songs of John Dowland spring to mind, and his Lachrimae or Seaven Teares are the most famous evidence. It was also discussed in writings of the period. However, it is questionable whether every text - with or without music - of a mournful or gloomy content can be considered an expression of melancholy.

Take for instance the song O poore distracted world by John Coprario. It is one of the songs in his cycle Funeral Teares for the death of the Right Honorable the Earle of Devonshire. This title reveals the specific reason for the composition of this cycle. The Earl of Devonshire refers to Charles Blount who died in 1606. Coprario set the poems which were written by his wife Penelope Rich in which she speaks about her unhappy life. In 1613 Coprario composed another cycle, the Songs of Mourning: Bewailing the untimely death of Prince Henry, again reacting to the death of a specific person. Compositions which express sadness about someone's death are of all times and cannot be specifically connected to 'melancholy'.

Just as questionable is talk about 'religious melancholy'. The author of the liner-notes, François Filiatraut, goes back as far as the Middle Ages to identify a state of mind, called acedia, as "a kind of depression linked to belief in the concept of original sin, obsession with sinfulness, and fear of eternal damnation and of the devil. Melancholy took over as the era-defining mood towards the end of the 15th century, a time of great religious upheaval." The connection to the 'religious melancholy' of the 17th century seems rather misconstrued. Original sin, the awareness of sinfulness and the reality of the devil belong to the core of Christianity since ancient times. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most famous theologians of the Middle Ages, identifies acedia as "the sorrow of the world" and opposes it to the sorrow the apostle St Paul talks about. In the Middle Ages acedia in its extreme form was even considered one of the mortal sins.

In the 17th century many compositions were written to texts of a mournful character. It it rather unlikely that this can be considered an expression of melancholy. Bach's oeuvre, for instance, is not fundamentally different, and includes frequent references to death, often as a rather good thing.

It would have been better if the booklet had given more information about the music and the composers instead. For instance about Martin Peerson, who is a largely unknown quantity. He was educated as a keyboard player and became Master of the Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral. O let my at Thy footstall fall is a full anthem in five parts, which begins with a descending line. In this performance, with one voice per part, the singers are accompanied by the organ. That is not a basso continuo part; Peerson is a representative of the stile antico. According to the track-list the song by Coprario is accompanied by a basso continuo, but that is not correct: the cycle is for one to two voices, viola da gamba and lute. The second section is performed here with five voices; how exactly this is in line with the original scoring is an issue which should have been discussed in the liner-notes.

The traditional polyphony, without basso continuo, lasted longer in England than everywhere else. O Lord come pity my complaint is by Thomas Lupo or his son Theophilus. Thomas was a violinist and a member of the court violin consort. The largest part of his surviving oeuvre consists of consort music. His anthem is an expressive setting of the text which includes words like "weep", "mourn", "sighs" and "groans". Just as unknown is John Milton, father of the poet and an amateur composer. Most of his works are for viol consort; it was recorded recently by Fretwork. The disc ends with a much better known master, Thomas Weelkes. The short anthem O happy he whom Thou protect'st is of a quite different character than the largest part of the programme.

Needless to say that this piece and the anthems I will give thanks unto Thee, O Lord by Purcell and Rejoice in the Lord by William Croft have nothing to do with melancholy. The latter show the stylistic developments from the late 17th to the early 18th century. Purcell is much more adventurous in his treatment of harmony than Croft. In the latter the second section, "Praise the Lord with harp", is a modern solo aria for alto. The score of Croft's anthem includes a part for the oboe, which is not mentioned in the track-list.

A stylistic change of a different kind can be noticed when comparing the two settings of In guilty night, the scene about Saul and the Witch of Endor. Robert Ramsey's shows the influence of the Italian monodic style, and that is well reflected in the performance. Purcell's setting, which dates from about half a century later, is more operatic: there is more repetition of phrases and parts of the text, the solo parts are considerably more virtuosic, and the range of the vocal parts is wider. Even so, they are equally dramatic in their very own way. Purcell's Let mine eyes run down with tears, the anthem The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble by Locke and John Blow's I said in the cutting off of my days are three further fine examples of the emerging baroque style in England.

The performances are almost ideal. The singers generally avoid vibrato - except Yulia Van Doren and Robert MacDonald now and then, mainly in solo episodes - and that results in the often daring harmony coming across perfectly. It is rightly stated in the liner-notes that "[up] until Purcell's time, what distinguished English music was its extreme refinement and delicacy of expression". This disc contains some impressive examples of this quality, and the singers are fully aware of that. Without wanting to wrong any of the singers, for me Charles Daniels especially stands out for his subtle expression, also due to his immaculate diction and stylish ornamentation.

Despite the concept of this disc being somewhat questionable, this is an exceptionally fine collection of English sacred music of the 17th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Les Voix Baroques

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