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8.553209 - WEELKES: Anthems
Thomas Weelkes (1576 -1623)
It is not just the approach of a new millennium which encourages ideological diatribes about change and fortune: fins de siecle are adequate enough, so history relates, to stimulate new directions and a sense of quest. Modem music history can thus be broadly pinned on five important dates: 1499 - Josquin and the flowering of vocal polyphony; 1599 - Monteverdi, opera, and music written in a definite key; 1699 - Corelli, the concerto, and discovering how to make movements longer; 1799 -Beethoven Symphonies and revolution; 1899 - Debussy and the abuse and decline of tonality. However simplistic, the implications for the rest of the century of these milestones of musical thinking cannot be underestimated.
Yet the way in which individual composers react to times of intense change is not so straightforward. This is where chronological studies of the 'development' of music history often reveal their shortcomings. 1599 is one of the bigger dates on account of the radical polemics brought about by Italian dare-devils who, literally, wanted to create a scene. Small groups of arty folk met for lunch in Rome and invented a new musical language: a type of speech in tones called recitative whose freedom from the shackles of the strict rules of the Renaissance would allow music to reach the parts to tickle the senses and stir the passions as never before. The fact that little of this pioneering fare is memorable tells much. If Monteverdi is the father of modem music then this is because his genius was for understanding where innovation was truly liberating and established principles of order, beauty, and balance were unnegotiable.
Thomas Weelkes would not have known much about Rome in the early 1600s nor would he have been aware of Monteverdi's successful synthesis of old and new. He was a busy Church of England musician whose music is distinctly "Clog'd with somewhat of an English vein". This description, employed by Roger North over a hundred years later to describe Purcell's Sonatas, is as apt for Weelkes and his generation as it was for the great 'Orpheus'; the vein is clogged with the same infusion, that of an unusually enterprising and timeless affinity to counterpoint. This shows, above all, that England - if not entirely oblivious of the ultimate importance of the new Baroque - had its own sense of values and destiny according to a national temperament, one which found continental histrionics and emotional outpourings rather embarrassing.
So, no opera in England. Nevertheless, enough changes were afoot at the turn of the seventeenth century, as Elizabethan culture drew to a close, for Weelkes to realise that he was operating in a world of transition and he took advantage of it. The power of representing words and images, central to the Italian baroque ethos, was not lost on those composers involved in lute-song and particularly madrigal writing. The fact that Weelkes, Gibbons, Dowland, Byrd, Wilbye, and Tomkins were not at the forefront of the latest Italian innovations is irrelevant: they had a taste of the expressive devices which could illuminate texts, although textual images were more compelling than merely setting words in the abstract world of English counterpoint. This is born out in Weelkes's exquisitely focused and atmospheric sacred madrigal When David heard.
If Weelkes stands slightly apart from his contemporaries then it is because he was perhaps the nearest the English got to a 'dare-devil'. The traits of the boldest compositions of his 1600 madrigal collection dig surprisingly deeply into the baroque psyche without ever drawing on specific 'baroque' practices: impetuosity, restlessness, a love of bold and startling symbolism, concentrated gestures, and an ambition for large structural coherence - all characteristics which would have found a natural home fifty years later. But when the madrigal soon, and ironically for Weelkes, became an anachronism he willingly turned his attention to the church, committed as he was to the bastion of counterpoint. However tempting it is to think of an innovator stifled by the conservatism of his age, the relatively experimental devices in the madrigals are surprisingly unintegral to Weelkes's musical style. He was never particularly responsive to words; as Hosanna to the son of David and Alleluia! I heard a voice display, his music is essentially driven by sonorous textures and an engagingly direct desire to set a text with the minimum of fuss. At its best, his fertile imagination engages us in its virility and a thrilling organic growth. At his least inspired, his melodic lines can appear pedestrian and strangely austere and unambitious. This honest cross-section of Weelkes's church output conveys a flawed genius but one with a capacity for invention and individuality without which his fin de siecle would be the poorer.
© 1995 Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
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