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By contrast, in a much later work, Pelham Humfrey's rarely heard Lord, Teach us to Number our Days, it was the choir's impassioned tutti sections and forceful imitations that registered most strongly; the most startling element in Humfrey's writing in other anthems, although not so much evident in this one, is the expressive chromaticisms which, still a boy in his mid-teens, Humfrey learned in Paris and Versailles from Lully and his contemporaries and passed on to the young Henry Purcell. They find their fruition in anthems like O Lord my God, Humfrey's setting of Psalm 22 in which the music provides an astonishing emotive match to some of the most graphic texts of the entire psalter ('I am poured out like water/ And all my bones are out of joint').

John Ward (1571-1638), in boyhood a chorister of Canterbury Cathedral, is far better known for his madrigals, of which he was a veritable and acknowledged master, than his sacred anthems. Yet to the latter he made a not negligible contribution: some ten are listed in Peter Philips' landmark study which explores English Sacred Music of the Tudors and Stuarts, spanning the year 1549-1649. Ward's Come, sable night, a setting of a gentle eclogue, secular in demeanour, was sung lucidly, if perhaps a little too retiringly. In a less well known Gibbons work, Almighty God, who by Thy Son, one passage for four voices -- two upper, then two lower, came over with attractive assurance; and the exquisite late sequence that leads up to the final cadencing in Gibbons' Almighty and Everlasting God, a more simply conceived anthem, received a beautifully measured and nuanced delivery by all four voices.

The madrigal 'Since Robin Hood ...' from 'Ayres or Phantasticke Spirites' for three voices (1608) by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623)
The madrigal 'Since Robin Hood ...' from 'Ayres or Phantasticke Spirites' for three voices (1608) by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623)

Thomas Weelkes worked in two southern cathedral cities, both Winchester (at the King Henry VI foundation, Winchester College) and at Chichester, as cathedral organist, gradually building up a reputation for dissoluteness and unreliability that (as Watkins Shaw's landmark book The Succession of Cathedral Organists reminds us) seems to have attached itself to a good many otherwise distinguished occupants of cathedral organ lofts over the centuries -- not least the great Victorian-era composer of verse anthems, Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Part of Weelkes' problem was that later he had to divide his time with his duties as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, which perhaps created conflicts (unlike Byrd, who left Lincoln when London demands grew). It was not so much Weelkes' fondness for the bottle, however, but seven years of unauthorised absences that finally caused his dismissal -- after many unfulfilled threats -- from what had become something of a sinecure, when the Chichester Cathedral authorities decided they had had enough in 1616. Weelkes composed a beautiful verse anthem setting of When David Heard that Absolom was Slain, which remains among the glories of the Tudor verse anthem, even though to a degree upstaged by the arguably even finer setting made by Thomas Tomkins, one of the most heart-piercing word-settings of the entire period.

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Copyright © 29 April 2007 Roderic Dunnett, Kent UK


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