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"Dialogues of Sorrow - Passions on the Death of Prince Henry (1612)"

Gallicantus
Elizabeth Kenny, lutei
Dir: Gabriel Crouch

rec: Jan 1 - 4, 2010, Oxford, St Michael's Church, Summertown
Signum Classics - SIGCD210 ( 2010) (70'46")

John COPRARIO (c1570/80-1626): Songs of Mourning: O Grief (to the most sacred King James)fi; So parted you (to the most princely and virtuous Elizabeth)ci; When pale Famine (to the most disconsolate Great Britain)gi; O poor distracted world (to the World)ai; William CRANFORD (?-c1645?): Weep, weep Britonsabdefh; Richard DERING (c1580-1630): And the King was moved a 5cdfgh; Contristatus est Rex David a 5adfgh [1]; Thomas FORD (?-1648): Tis now dead night a 6abdefh; Robert RAMSEY (?-1644): When David heard a 6abdegh; What tears, dear Princeei; How are the mighty fallen a 6abdefh; Sleep fleshly birth a 6abcefh; Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656): Then David mourned a 5cdfgh [3]; When David heard a 5cefgh [2]; Thomas VAUTOR (fl 1600-1620): Melpomene bewailebci; John WARD (c1589-before 1639): No object dearer a 6abdefh; Weep forth your tears a 6abdefh; Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623): O Jonathan, woe is me a 6abcdeh; When David heard a 6abcdeh

Sources: [1] Richard Dering, Cantiones sacrae, 1617; Thomas Tomkins, [2] Songs of 3.4.5. & 6. parts, 1622; [3] Preces and psalms, 1668

Amy Moorea, Clare Wilkinsonb, soprano; Mark Chambersc, David Allsoppd, alto; Christopher Watsone, Matthew Longf, tenor; Gabriel Crouchg, William Gaunth, bass

When Princess Diana died in 1997 foreign observers were astonished at the public expression of grief. They hadn't expected that from the British, with their famous stiff upper lip. It was considered a sign of the times that people were not ashamed to show their emotions. But apparently there was a precedent in history. In 1612 Prince Henry, the eldest son of King James I, died at the age of just 18. "Certainly the flood of written memorials - epistolary, poetic and musical - which followed his unexpected death and which outnumbered those penned for Queen Elizabeth nine years previously, and the vast crowd of mourners which attended the prince's body on its final journey to Westminster Abbey, attest to the hope which the people had invested in this young man", Gabriel Crouch writes in his liner-notes.

This disc presents a selection of pieces which were written at this occasion. It is a small selection, since more than 100 poems and more than 40 compositions were written in connection with Henry's death. In addition to pieces which are specifically related to Prince Henry, as his name appears in the dedication or in the text itself, a number of pieces are sung which could be linked to this event. Most prominent among these are compositions on the text of the lament of King David for his son Absalom. Gabriel Crouch acknowledges that "the evidence linking it to Henry's death, though compelling, is only circumstantial".

He believes that the notable number of compositions on this text could be explained from an identification of James and David on the one hand, and of Henry and Absalom on the other hand. These analogies are inspired by the fact that there was clear disharmony between James and Henry, and there were even rumours about Henry being poisoned by agents working for his father. But these analogies aren't very plausible. The identification between James and David is rather far-fetched since David specifically ordered his army not to kill Absalom, and it was his general Joab who ignored his order. Even less convincing is the analogy between Henry and Absalom. According to the Bible Absalom was a rebel who plotted against David, the Lord's Anointed, and also his character isn't pictured very favourably. It is very unlikely that the composers whose pieces are an expression of admiration for Prince Henry would compare him to Absalom (*).

The programme also contains pieces on the text of David's lament for his friend Jonathan. There were rumours that James preferred the company of young men over his wife, and Crouch mentions that "some commentators (...) assert that the two young men [David and Jonathan] were lovers", "so perhaps the use of this story of loss and grief from earlier in David's life could be seen as another opportunistic barb to throw at the unpopular king". But to which commentators Crouch does refer? Modern writers have expressed this view, but I am pretty sure this interpretation was absent in the early 17th century. Moreover, where is Henry in this explanation? Wasn't this music written in honour of him? Why would pieces expressing grief about his death be used to throw barbs at his father?

There is really no reason to look for explanations like that. These texts have been frequently used by composers in the renaissance and baroque to express grief. The simple reason is that they are highly expressive and moving, and that in those times everyone knew these texts by heart and also their biblical context. That made them very appropriate to express the grief at Prince Henry's death.

That justifies the inclusion of the various settings of David's lament over Absalom by Robert Ramsey, Thomas Weelkes, Richard Dering and Thomas Tomkins, whether they were specifically written at the occasion of Henry's death or not. All of them are strongly expressive. Whereas Weelkes and Tomkins belong to the standard repertoire of English polyphony, Robert Ramsey is far less known. He was organist and master of the choristers at Trinity College in Cambridge from 1615 until his death in 1644. In his compositions as well as in some others on this disc the influence of the Italian style of the early 17th century is noticeable. And that is reflected by the performance, which includes dynamic gradation, for instance at the words "and wept" and at "o my son" (When David heard). The pieces by Dering are also not that well-known, and in particular his motet, Contristatus est David, the only piece on a Latin text in the programme. The word "flevit" (wept) is set to strong dissonances.

Robert Ramsey also composed a piece on the text of the lament of David over Jonathan, How are the mighty fallen. He and Thomas Weelkes, in O Jonathan, Woe is me, concentrate on David's lament, whereas Thomas Tomkins' Then David mourned contains just one line from the Biblical text: "Then David mourned with this lamentation over Saul, and over Jonathan his son".

The other pieces are specifically written at the occasion of Prince Henry's death. John Coprario even devoted a cycle of seven Songs of Mourning to this event. Every song - consisting of two stanzas - is dedicated to those who grieved about Henry's death. Four of them are performed; they are for solo voice and lute, and they are sung with great sensitivity by four members of Gallicantus. There are two other pieces for solo voices: Robert Ramsey's What tears, dear Prince? and Melpomene, bewail. The latter ends with the words: "Farewell, the Muses' King". The word "farewell" is repeated a number of times, and the closing of this madrigal is highly expressive.

The other works are all polyphonic. The pieces by Thomas Ford and William Cranford and John Ward's No object dearer belong together. The former two are incomplete, and could only be recorded thanks to reconstructions by Francis Steele. One has to be grateful for that, because these two pieces - as well as Ward's - are very moving tributes to Henry. Cranford's Weep, weep Britons contains the line: "He whose triumphing name was loudly echoed by the trump of fame". It is set in a very evocative way, with fanfare motifs and repetitions suggesting an echo. Italian influences are traceable here as well. The last piece to be mentioned is again by Robert Ramsey, Sleep fleshly birth, which confirms the quality of his music. I definitely would like to hear more from him.

Gallicantus' first disc was devoted to music by Robert White, which greatly impressed me. This disc is of the same high standard. Gallicantus produces a beautiful sound, clear and well-balanced. They sing here with great sensitivity, and the expression of this mournful repertoire is fully explored. The Italian influences are also clearly notable. I have already indicated that the lute songs are beautifully sung. The singers are sparing in the addition of ornaments, and considering the character of the songs that is definitely right.

This disc is an impressive display of heartfelt grief. My advice: purchase this disc, let the music move you, and take some elements of the liner-notes with a grain of salt. The booklet includes the complete lyrics. The tracklist doesn't give the dates of birth and death of the composers, which is a serious omission.

(*) This subject is discussed in two articles in Music & Letters:
- Irving Godt, 'Prince Henry as Absalom in David's Lamentations', Music & Letters, LXII, 3/4, 318-330
- Donna M. Di Grazia, 'Funerall Teares or Dolefull Songes? Reconsidering historical connections and musical resemblances in early English 'Absalom' settings', Music & Letters, XC, 4, 555-598
I thank Gabriel Crouch for referring to these articles. They can be downloaded for free from Oxford Journals.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

Relevant links:

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