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8.554284 - Elizabethan Songs and Consort Music
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Elizabethan Songs and Consort Music

Although the Golden Age of Elizabethan music-making is commonly linked with the upsurge in popularity of the madrigal, this was really only a phenomenon of the very last years of the Queen's life. The earlier part of her reign (1558-1603) saw the production of a wealth of secular music, both instrumental and vocal. Consort songs for solo voice and viols were particularly esteemed, since their rich polyphonic fabric shared musical interest between all the parts without detracting from the clarity of a single voice declaiming the text. The voice was often the highest part, and therefore most clearly audible, as in the simple beauty of Pattrick's Send forth thy sighs [14], though it was common to have one treble viol spinning a descant above the voice: the anonymous lullaby Ah, silly poor Joas [22] is a good example.

Many consort songs stem from the entertainments and dramatic presentations made at court and other London venues by troupes of choirboy musician-actors from the Chapel Royal and the choir schools of Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral, whose boys were in great demand in the early years of Elizabeth's reign. Some songs, like Rennet's Eliza, her name gives honour [17], were addressed directly to the chief guest. More often, music was used in plays to heighten moments of great tragedy or distress: the texts make frequent use of alliteration, as parodied by Shakespeare in the Pyramus and Thisbe play produced by the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream. So Pour down, you pow'rs divine [8] by Robert Parsons, who drowned in the River Trent in 1570, contains such lines as 'Unless my hurted heart have help, My hopes are but my hates'. The second part of this piece survives only as an early seventeenth-century lute song, whose written vocal embellishments give some idea of the virtuosity with which such songs might have been performed. The viol parts have been reconstructed here by Richard Rastall.

Many of these dramatic songs take the form of elegies or 'death songs', either evoking death as a relief, as in the gentle O Death, rock me asleep [5], or railing against fate like Panthea in Richard Farrant's Ah, alas, you salt sea gods [2] as she prepares to die next to the body of her husband Abradad. O Jove, from stately throne [20] is from Farrant's play King Xerxes, one of a series of annual entertainments he produced each winter for the Queen from 1567 to 1579, performed by the boys in his charge as Master of the Choristers of the Chapel Royal. Farrant was clearly something of an entrepreneur, for in 1576 he leased a rehearsal room in Blackfriars, London, to prepare for that year's royal entertainment, but was subsequently sued for charging the public to attend these 'private' rehearsals.

Another type of consort song took moralising rather than dramatic texts: Climb not too high [15] by Nathaniel Pattrick, Master of the Choristers of Worcester Cathedral between 1590 and 1595, sets a poem from The Arbor of Amorous Devises on the theme of 'pride comes before a fall'.

The composer who developed the consort song furthest in terms of variety and intensity of expression was William Byrd, who was associated with the Elizabethan court and Chapel Royal from 1570 onwards. Byrd's contributions to the consort song repertory are of the very highest quality. He too could turn his hand to music for plays: Quis me statim [10] was probably written for a performance of Seneca's Hippolytus at Christ Church, Oxford in 1592. Its text closely parallels the dramatic laments of the choirboy dramas: ‘Who forbids me to die at once, my destiny having been destroyed? Alas, while you, too cruel, forbear, let Death pierce my bowels with your sword Scatter the bones of your beloved, O Hippolytus!’

Byrd also wrote heartfelt elegies for his patrons and colleagues, marking the death of his friend, teacher and colleague Thomas Tallis in 1585 with Ye sacred Muses [24]. Although Byrd published Penelope that longed [12] in his 1589 collection Songs of Sundrie Natures with all parts texted, the altos part has many of the characteristics of a consort song voice part: it enters last, has the narrowest range and presents the poem in the clearest way, following the spoken word rhythms with little embellishment and with the most important syllables placed on the highest notes of each phrase for natural emphasis So this performance restores the song to its probable original form, with the altos sung and the remaining four parts played on viols.

Many Elizabethan choirboys were skilled viol players as well as singers: records of a banquet in 1561 tell how 'All ye dynner tyme ye syngyng children of paules played upon their vyalls and songe very pleasaunt songes to ye great delectacion & reioysyng of ye whole companie.' One of our chief sources for the sort of music they may have played is now in the British Library (Add. MS 31390), written in table-book format with each player's part facing outwards to a different side of the table on which the book was placed. Most of the instrumental tracks on this recording are taken from this manuscript.

The single genre most frequently found in this London consort table-book is the In Nomine. The origin of this refined and fascinating collection of pieces is John Taverner's elaborate six-part festal mass Gloria tibi Trinitas, possibly written for the celebrations of Henry VIII's meeting with François I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. In the Benedictus, when the voices sing the words in nomine Domine, the texture reduces to four parts, the plainsong cantus firmus is clearly heard in the alto voice in relatively quick note-values, and the often complex triple rhythms are replaced by a more square-cut duple pulse. These may be the reasons that this short section was lifted out of its original context and written into keyboard and consort books without its words.

Between Taverner and Purcell, a period covering 150 years, there is at least one example of an In Nomine by virtually every major English composer, as well as by many less well-known ones. Many of the earlier settings used the same four-part texture as Taverner: Tallis adopts the undulating phrases characteristic of the plainsong and ends his setting with serenely rising scales while the cantus firmus holds a long final pedal. Christopher Tye, choirmaster at Ely Cathedral and possibly music tutor to Elizabeth's brother Edward, wrote more In Nomines than any other single composer. They are in five parts, often with enigmatic titles; Reporte [11] is unusual for its lilting triple-time pulse and wayward cross-rhythms, while Crye [13] is characterised by a strident repeated-note figure typical of the calls of the Elizabethan street traders. While many In Nomines recall the vocal origins of the genre, the anonymous six part setting [7] seems purely instrumental in conception. It opens with a jaunty duple-time theme, and continues in an often homophonic style that seems colourfully at odds with the linear counterpoint of other settings.

It was a common Elizabethan procedure to perform vocal music such as motets without words. Singers might employ sol-fa-ing (pitching and naming the notes of the hexachord, the six-note scale of Elizabethan music theory), or even replace voices altogether with instruments. Several of the textless pieces performed here on viols may well have once been motets: Mundy's Fantasia [1] with its unusual scoring for two equal high parts and its bright major tonality suggests a celebratory theme, while Parsons' Song [3] is more melancholy, its harmony coloured by numerous 'false relations' (the simultaneous sounding of sharp and natural leading-­notes). The title of Tallis' A Solfing Song [21] suggests that it was intended for singers to practise sol-fa-ing, while its closely woven musical imitative counterpoint shows the great English composer's adoption of a continental device.

If none of these motet-like fantasias shows signs of intrinsically instrumental writing, there are others that do, particularly in the works of Robert Parsons, Byrd's immediate predecessor as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. The Song called Trumpets [4] imitates the marching rhythms and signal calls of military bands before launching into a hectic gallop. In contrast, De la court [16], one of the most frequently copied pieces of Elizabethan instrumental music, begins each of its two substantial sections with serious vocal-style polyphony, but gradually introduces increasingly skittish ideas before ending with vivacious flourishes from the two treble viols. Parsons' Ut re mi [9] may well have been intended as teaching material for the choirboys of the Chapel Royal; while the treble simply plays up and down the six-note hexachord, the lower three parts play counterpoint of some rhythmic complexity. In one source an Elizabethan performer commented, 'The second part is good, but that it is so hard, I will not sing this part'.

Dance music made up another most important element of Elizabethan music making. During the sixteenth century two dances in particular swept to popularity: the pavan, with its majestic stylised walking step, and the galliard, in which six beats were matched to five steps, the penultimate one taking two beats as the dancers sprang into the air. The Pavin of Albarti [18] and its related Gallyard [19], found in the Lumley partbooks, probably date from the 1560s and are typical of the continental dances imported into England at that time. Their jaunty air and robust rhythms provide a lively counterbalance to the prevailing melancholy of the dramatic songs and elegies so central to Elizabethan music making

John Bryan


Ah, alas, you salt sea gods!

Ah, alas you salt sea gods!

Bow down your ears divine.

Lend ladies here warm water springs

To moist their crystal eyne,

That they may weep and wail

And wring their hands with me

For death of lord and husband mine:

Alas, lo, this is he!


You gads that guide the ghosts

And souls, of them that fled,

Send sobs, send sighs, send grievous groans,

And strike poor Panthea dead.

Abradad, ah, alas poor Abradad!

My sprite with thine shall lie.

Come death, alas, O death most sweet,

For now I crave to die.



O Death, rock me asleep

O Death, rock me asleep,

Bring me to quiet rest;

Let pass my weary, guiltless ghost

Out of my careful breast.

Toll on the passing bell.

Ring out the doleful knell,

Let the sound my death tell.

Death doth draw nigh.

Sound my death dolefully:

For now I die.


Forewell, my pleasures past:

My pains alone, alone

In prison strong, who can express:

Alas they are so strong.

My dolours will not suffer strength

My life for to prolong,

Lest my woe work his cruel hope

That I must taste:

This misery, this misery.



Pour down, you pow'rs divine

Pour down, you pow'rs divine,

On me poor wretch and silly maid,

Some hope, alas, of him to have,

My heavy heart to aid.

Pandolpho, some pity, Pandolpho!


Frame else with fiery flames

Your force on me, you furious fates,

Unless my hurted heart have help,

My hope, are but my hates.

Pandolpho, some pity, Pandolpho!


Thus restless will I remain in truth,

Respecting what remains;

If pitiless then pleasureless,

If pity feel no pains.

Pandolpho, some pity, Pandolpho!


No grief is like to mine,

Which naught but death can 'suage.

My help is hurt; my weal is woe;

My rest is ruthless rage.


My comfort is my care;

My safety shipwreck is.

My med'cine is my misery,

And bale is all my bliss.


Farewell, my friendly foe!

Pandolpho proud, farewell!

Farewell the causer of my woe!

I love, and loathe to live,

I live and long to die.


Come death, dispatch her life,

She yield, to die;

Come death, dispatch her life,

She doth desire to die.



Quis me statim

Quis me statim rupto vetat fato mori?

Crudelis, heu, dum parcis, ah, mors nimis

Tuum perforet nostra ferum viscera.

Amantis ossa dissipes, Hyppolyte.


Who forbids me to die at once, my destiny having been destroyed?

Alas, while you, too cruel, forbear,

let Death pierce my bowels with your sword.

Scatter the bones of your beloved, O Hippolytus!



Penelope that longed

Penelope that longed for the sight

Of her Ulysses wand'ring all too long,

Felt never joy wherein she took delight,

Although she lived in greatest joys among,

So I poor wretch, possessing that I crave,

Both live and lack by wrong of that I have:

Then blame me not, although to heavens I cry,

And pray the gods that shortly I might die.



Send forth thy sighs

Send forth thy sighs, the witnesses of woe.

Pour down thy plaints, the signs of thy unrest.

Let trickling tears from forth thy fountains flow,

For these same weeds become thy calling best.

Let sobs, let sighs, let plaints, let tears and all

Bear witness just of this thy fatal fall.



Climb not too high

Climb not too high for fear thou catch a fall.

Seek not to build thy nest within the sun;

Refrain the thing which bringeth thee to thrall,

Lest when too late thou find'st thyself undone:

Cause thy desires to rest and sleep a pace,

And let thy fancy take her resting place.


The tiger fierce cannot by force be tam'd.

The eagle wild will not be brought to fist,

Nor women's minds at any time be fram'd

To do aught more than what their fancies list:

Then cease thy pride, and let thy plumes down fall,

Lest soaring still thou purchase endless thrall.



Eliza, her name gives hononr

Eliza, her name gives honaur to my singing,

Whose fame and glory still are springing;

Her name all bliss,

With voice demiss

I sing adoring,

Humbly imploring

That my rude voice may please her sacred ears,

Whose skill deserves the music of the spheres.



O Jove, from stately throne

O love, from stately throne

Cast down thine heav'nly eye,

And search the secrets of my heart

Accused wrongfully.


Ay me! if you in heav'n

Regard the faithful wight

Defend, O God, my rightful cause,

And bring the truth to light.


Alas! to just request

Your gracious grant, ah, yield,

That my Altages may perceive

How truth my heart doth shield.



Ah, silly poor Joas

Ah, silly poor Joas, what fortune hast thou.

Sing lully, lully, lully.

To live in this time of cruelty now:

Lully, lully, lully, lully

Wherein thy poor brethren and sisters are slain.

Ah, lully, lully, lully

And thou, little fool, dost only remain.

Ah, lullaby, baby, sweet babe, lullaby.



Ye sacred Muses

Ye sacred Muses, race of love,

Whom Music's lore delighteth,

Come down from crystal heav'ns above

To earth, where sorrow dwelleth,

In mourning weeds, with tear in eyes:

Tallis is dead, and Music dies.


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