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CD reviews

John COPRARIO (c1570 - 1626): Songs and Consort Music

[I] "Funeral Teares, Consort Music"a
The Consort of Musicke
Dir: Anthony Rooley

rec: Dec 1978, London, Decca Studios, West Hampstead
Decca - 480 2299 (R) ( 1979/2011) (48'45")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations

[II] "Songs of Mourning, Consort Music"b
The Consort of Musicke
Dir: Anthony Rooley

rec: April 1977, London, Decca Studio 3, West Hampstead
Decca - 480 2298 (R) ( 1977/2011) (53'43")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations

[I] Fantasia I - Fantasia (Ayre) No. 3 - Fantasia (Ayre) No. 2; Fantasia V - Almain - Galliard; Fantasia VIII - Almain - Galliard; Funeral Teares
[II] Fantazia; Fantazia - Almand - Ayre; Fantazia - Almand - Ayre; Fantazia 3; Fantazia 4; Fantazia 5: Chiu pue miravi; Songs of Mourning

Emma Kirkby, sopranoa; John York Skinner, altoa; Martyn Hill, tenorb; Monica Huggett, Polly Waterfield, violinab, treble violb; Ian Gammie, tenor violb; Trevor Jones, tenor violb, bass violab; Jane Ryan, bass viol; Anthony Rooley, lute; Alan Wilson, organ

Australian Eloquence has reissued some of the recordings from the Florilegium series which were produced by L'Oiseau Lyre in the 1970s and 1980s. The Consort of Musicke was one of the pillars of this series, and explored extensively the music written in England around 1600. It was one of the most fruitful periods in English music history - a true 'golden age'. Anthony Rooley and his ensemble recorded the complete works of John Dowland, which was a monumental achievement. But probably even more important was the exploration of the oeuvre of composers who at the time were hardly known. One of them is John Coprario.

Despite his name he was an English composer - he was born as John Cooper, and italianized his name, which could be an indication of his interest in Italian music. And that is indeed a feature of his oeuvre. In his liner-notes Anthony Rooley points out that Coprario was innovative, for instance in his scoring for violins. The violin was a rare instrument in his days, and it was to become common only after the middle of the 17th century. Another reason to connect Coprario to the Italian style is the writing for the voice, in particular in the two song cycles on these discs.

In his notes to the second disc Trevor Jones calls Coprario "one of the first, if not the first, English baroque composer". That seems to me a little exaggerated. Firstly, neither of Coprario's compositions has a basso continuo part. In the songs the voice is accompanied by a lute and a bass viol. The instrumental pieces contain organ parts, which are all written out - some of them are ad libitum, by the way. Secondly, the songs - and certainly the Songs of Mourning - have a declamatory character, but they are not comparable in any way with the monodic style which was in vogue in Italy in the first decades of the 17th century. And declamatory elements can also be found in some of Dowland's songs, but he is never considered a baroque composer. Dowland had been in Italy himself, and although there are suggestions Coprario has been there as well, so far no documentary evidence of that is available.

Funeral Teares is the first song cycle in English music history and dates from 1606. The complete title is Funeral Teares for the death of the Right Honorable the Earle of Devonshire. The Earl of Devonshire refers to Charles Blount who died in 1606. For many years he had a relationship with Penelope Rich, who was married to Lord Rich. The latter tolerated the affair, but after a while he decided to get a divorce. The way was free for Charles and Penelope to get married. Whereas the affair was tolerated by the court, the marriage was declared illegitimate as re-marriage after a divorce was forbidden under James I. Blount fell into melancholy which caused his death. One year later Penelope died as well. It is assumed the poems Coprario set to music were written by Penelope as she was famous for her artistic skills. In the poems she speaks of her unhappy fate, and in the seventh and last song She - as she is referred to - is joined by a second voice - He - in which the latter states that Charles Blount is in heaven. Music which is connected to Charles and Penelope (including this song cycle) is also performed at an interesting disc by Evelyn Van Evera and others.

In 1613 the second cycle was written. Its title immediately tells what it is about: Songs of Mourning: Bewailing the untimely death of Prince Henry. The poems were written by Thomas Campion, himself also a composer. In the composition of these songs poet and composer closely cooperated, which was unique and had never happened before. Prince Henry, the eldest son of King James I, died at the age of just 18. He was much-beloved among the people, and his death caused a public outcry of mourning. Only recently the ensemble Gallicantus devoted a disc to music which may have been written at this occasion. That disc contains several of these Songs of Mourning, but The Consort of Musicke presents them as a cycle. I think that is to be preferred, although these songs are less closely connected than those in the Funeral Teares. The various stanzas are dedicated to those who grieved over Henry's death: his parents, King James and Queen Anne, his younger brother Charles (who took Henry's place as heir to the throne) and his sister Elizabeth, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, Frederick V (Henry's brother-in-law) and lastly "to the most disconsolate Great Britain" and "to the World".

On both discs the song-cycles are complemented by instrumental music, for violins as well as viols. This is written in the tradition of English consort music in which all parts are of equal importance. That includes the pieces with violins, and I have the feeling these parts could also be played on treble viols. The violin parts are the only 'Italian' element in Coprario's instrumental oeuvre, but it seems right to me that strong dynamic accents in the Italian manner are absent. This is still renaissance music where such dynamic gradation is out of order.

Here the players show a perfect understanding of the style of Coprario's music. Despite being recorded more than 30 years ago these performances are still enjoyable. Today the playing may be more refined and the recording technique has improved, but these interpretations make fine listening. The same is true of the two vocal items. In Funeral Teares we hear a young Emma Kirkby, demonstrating the qualities which have made her famous, in particular an excellent delivery, perfect intonation and tasteful ornamentation. John York Skinner has only a very minor role in the last song. In the second cycle we hear Martyn Hill, who at the time played a major role in performances of early music. He gives a beautiful reading of the seven Songs of Mourning, with convincing text expression and excellent diction.

All in all these two discs make up a compelling portrait of John Coprario who was a true master and an important link in English music history.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

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