When the virgin lady was idolized in the midieval scheme of courtly love, the virgin mother of God was perhaps as popular as the Christ figure. The idealized virgin was the image of perfection and the object of perfect love. Thus, Mary, the first lady of heaven, was highly favored in the liturgy and song of the early church. The three Marian compositions of John Dunstable presented here represent three distinct forms of liturgical song. In his setting of the hymn “Ave Maris Stella,” the upper voice sings an elaboration of the chant tune. The sensual “Quam Pulcra Es” is a processional antiphon, homophonic and dance-like. The “Sancta Maria,” a motet, is more complex in design. It employs a variety of textures and is characterized by a careful regard for the lovely text.|
“Edi Beo Thu Hevene Quene” is a simple, two-part love song to Mary, while “Alas, Departynge Is Ground Of Woo” bemoans the loss of love. Both “Sweet Kate” and “Ah Robyn, Gentil Robin,” employ imitative devices. The first to affect a lover’s quarrel, the second as a lulling consolation to a lover’s complaints.
The following Elizabethan madrigals, as well as Jones’ “Sweet Kate,” reflect the growing Italian influence in the British Isles. The subjects are decidedly pastoral and the women are markedly more deceptive and less virginal. The metaphorical dying is more to be desired than roses and lilies and the queen of heaven has taken on an image something more akin to the “virginal” Queen Elizabeth of England.
Thomas Morley was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and author of the ‘Plaine and Easy Introduction to Practical Musick.’ His style and manner are indeed plain and easy, relying on clearly demarked sections and simple and tuneful imitative passages.
John Wilbye, on the other hand, wrote with a most subtle and clever hand. His “Come Shepherd Swains” expresses a depth of melancholy and dramatic sweep the like of Shakespeare. The lighter “As Fair As Morn” is an insistent lover’s proposition: ‘Tell me my sweet; Live I or die?’ She smiles, she frowns and by his sighing we know the lover’s reply.
Continuo duets and trios by John Blow and Henry Purcell comprise the second half of the program. The Italianate and operatic style is informed by a Drydenesque sense of rhetoric. A highly expressive treatment of text is common to both the secular and sacred works.
‘Cloe Found Amintas,’ by John Blow, recalls the pastoral quality of the madrigal while anticipating the form of the Glee, which was to flourish in England a century later. The poignant refrain ‘kiss me dear’ appears thrice and is answered by a florid laughing figure. The trio may have been written for a musical men’s club gathered at a convivial pub.
In the sacred works of Purcell we recognize a strong sense of drama which, while serving the purposes of devotion, was tailored to the king’s taste in entertainment. ‘With That Sublime Celestial Lay’ is from the 1692 ‘Ode to Saint Cecelia.’ This exceptional trio offers persuasive argument for the lavish musical practices of the Restoration church.
‘Upon A Quiet Conscience’ appears in John Playford’s collection Harmonia Sacra and the devotional text is attributed to King Charles I. Purcell’s setting of the first three verses of Psalm 41, ‘Blessed is he that Considereth the Poor,’ concludes with an unusually boisterous Gloria Patri. Both this trio and Robert Patrick’s paraphrase of Psalm 4, ‘Hear Me O Lord,’ may have served as anthems in the royal chapel. The text of the latter is however distinctly secular in flavor, mixing the Holy Spirit with alcoholic spirits.
A metaphysical celebration of the wedding of Christ and His bride, the church, is found in ‘Hosanna to the Highest Joy Betide.’ When the baritone bids the poet speak, the alto responds with phrases for the holy pair. Both this work and ‘Triumph Victorious Love’ are formed over the repeating pattern of a ground bass. The latter is taken from the finale of the semi-opera ‘Dioclesian.’ The vocal writing, resembling trumpets and drums, bears resounding praise for the secular deity of love.
Steve Bryant, June 27, 1980