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Stile Antico: Elizabeth I, Queen of Muses

Queen Elizabeth I was one of the most significant patrons of music in British history; her reign (1558–1603) saw an unprecedented flourishing of music and the arts, both as a result of her direct patronage and from those who used their music to gain her favor – whether courtiers, diplomats or even suitors. The music of the present program explores some of these varied musical connections within the cultural orbit of the Elizabethan court.

Without doubt, Elizabeth’s best-known court composer was William Byrd (1538–1623); throughout his long life he composed and published a wide range of music, both sacred and secular, both for Elizabeth’s court and – perhaps more riskily in a Protestant regime – for the circle of recusant Catholics in which he moved. His masterful and intricate six-part madrigal This sweet and merry month of May opens the program, conjuring up an idyllic pastoral scene in which Elizabeth herself is joyfully ‘greeted with a rhyme’.

The two motets which follow are from Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur — a collection of motets which Byrd and his close friend and teacher Thomas Tallis (1505–1585) compiled and published in 1575, contributing seventeen motets each, in honor of Elizabeth’s seventeen years on the throne and to commemorate her accession day, November 17th. It was also the first publication to be made under a music-printing monopoly she had granted to the two composers, and it consists of pieces employing a wide range of musical styles and techniques – as it were a kind of varied demonstration of the two composers’ art. Byrd’s Attolite portas sets verses from Psalm 23 (Vulgate) in richly expansive and varied six-part imitative counterpoint; Tallis’s Absterge Domine, is also a substantial work, albeit characterised by simpler, syllabic points of imitation in predominantly ‘note-against-note’ polyphony, and shorter melodic phrases –perhaps demonstrating a reticent nod towards the ‘reformed’ Protestant style of English church music.

Amongst Elizabeth’s various suitors, Erik XIV of Sweden pursued a marriage alliance with her for a number of years, and it has been suggested on the basis of circumstantial evidence that the fine music manuscript known as the Winchester Partbooks may have been given to her by Erik as one of the final gifts of his courtship. We perform three secular works from that manuscript here. In the Madonna mi pietà, Orlande de Lassus (1532–1594) sets an erotically charged love poem in a declamatory, chordal style with characteristically arresting and sensuous harmonic gestures. The text of Vecchie letrose non valete niente by the elder Netherlander Adrian Willaert (1490–1562) could – by contrast – be hardly less flattering of its subject. His music, however, is about as good-humored and light-hearted as can be, with its infectious syncopated dance rhythms. The chanson Doulce memoire by Willaert’s French contemporary Pierre Sandrin (1490–1561), though similar to Lassus’s villanella in subject matter and some musical characteristics, adopts a slightly more contrapuntal approach in places, with more conventional handling of tonality, though it is likewise a piece of sublime expressivity.

The first half concludes with two contrasting pieces by Byrd. If it is uncharitable to say that these pieces represent split loyalties (Byrd seems to have always maintained a good relationship with his royal patron, who was willing even to intervene to protect him when necessary) they certainly represent the tensions of life as a Roman Catholic at court. First, we hear a prayer for the Queen: O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth. Here we find the composer at his most lush and ingratiating, alternating between five-part and even more colourful six-part counterpoint, before concluding with one of the most sublime ‘Amen’ settings of the English renaissance. This is followed by one of Byrd’s most powerful expressions of his Catholic sympathies. The two-part motet Ne irascaris is from the composer’s 1589 collection of Cantiones sacrae, one of the most politically subversive of his published collections in its choice of texts, many of which had particular significance for the recusant Catholic community of the time. One of their favorite metaphors for their own plight at the hands of a Protestant regime was the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the early 6th century BC; this is the subject matter for Ne irascaris – surely one of Byrd’s most affecting motet settings. It may seem ironic that the 1589 collection was published under Elizabeth’s direct patronage (after Tallis’s death in 1585, Byrd retained their music publishing monopoly alone for the remainder of its 21-year duration) – yet Elizabeth, who knew a first-rate composer when she saw one, seems to have been willing to overlook the elephant in the room.

The motet by John Taverner (1490–1545) which opens the second half is an interesting adaptation. The original work was written for the choir of Cardinal College, Thomas Wolsey’s new collegiate foundation in Oxford (now Christ Church), where Taverner was the choirmaster. The original text was an antiphon in honor of St William of York – not so much in keeping, then, with the Christocentric focus of Elizabethan Protestant theology, where veneration of the saints was proscribed. Taverner’s music, however, was clearly thought worth keeping – indeed, it displays several forward-looking ‘protestant’ stylistic traits, not least a simple and engaging declamatory texture. Instead, the text was ‘mended’ so as to be addressed to Christ, and to include a prayer for the Queen and her godly subjects.

The famous lutenist-composer John Dowland (1563–1626) had a somewhat difficult relationship with Elizabeth and her court. Having already been turned down once for a post, his case was doubtless not helped by the fact that an Italian journey to study with Marenzio got him accidentally mixed up in a papist plot against the Queen. He hurriedly escaped, but, upon his return, failed again to win the royal patronage he so desperately craved. He self-pityingly wrote that his religion was the reason for his failure to win Elizabeth’s favor – though in reality she probably objected as much if not more to his sycophantic personality, although she was said to have dismissed him as an ‘obstinate papist’. It was not until after Elizabeth’s death that he was finally taken on as court lutenist in 1612. Dowland’s music is famed for its melancholy; this seems to have been rather true of his personality, too (though such affectations were somewhat voguish at the time). The two songs performed here started life as songs for solo voice with lute accompaniment, but, in keeping with common practice at the time, they were published in such a way that they could be alternatively performed with a consort of viols or additional voices in the style of a madrigal (as we do here). Both songs are, ostensibly about love and loss. Now, O now I needs must part seems the more intimate and affecting of the two – and yet it shares its tune with ‘The Frog Galliard’ – a popular dance which – legend has it – had its origins with the Duc d’Alençon (later Anjou) – one of Elizabeth’s suitors, whom the Queen notoriously referred to as her ‘frog’. It is hard, on the other hand, not to hear the galliard Can she excuse my wrongs as Dowland’s personal appropriation of the poet’s plea to the queen for personal, political or – in this case – artistic recognition; the original poet is thought to have been another suitor, the 2nd Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux.

Originally from a Bolognese family, the Italian composer Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder (1543–1588) spent time in Rome and Lorraine before coming to England in 1562, where he was soon given a job at Elizabeth’s court; indeed, a combination of factors – including his unusual status as the only Italian madrigalist in England and the uncharacteristically generous pay he received for his services – have fuelled speculation that he was a secret service agent for Elizabeth. Spy or not, he was undoubtedly influential in bringing the Italian madrigal style to England, though he also composed sacred anthems and motets. The three penitential psalm settings performed here, Exaudi Domine orationem meam, O remember not our old sins, and Ad Dominum cum tribularer are of the latter category, but each in their own way demonstrate a rich cross-fertilisation with the musical styles of both Tallis and Byrd.

The import of the Italian madrigal, however, was to have a huge impact on English composers, and, by the last decade of the 16th century, all the significant English composers were writing madrigals in an Italianate style – some almost exclusively so. One collection of madrigals is of particular interest to our program – The Triumphs of Oriana was a collection assembled in 1601 by Thomas Morley containing 25 madrigals by 23 of the leading composers of the day. The collection was almost certainly made in honor of Queen Elizabeth (to whom the phrase ‘long live fair Oriana’ – the second half of a couplet which concludes each of the madrigals in the collection – surely refers). Three of those madrigals are performed here: The lady Oriana by John Wilbye (1574–1638), Fair nymphs I heard one telling by John Farmer (1570–1601), and As Vesta was, from Latmos hill descending by Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623).


— Notes by Stile Antico