Dialogues Of Sorrow / Crouch, Gallicantus

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An impressive display of heartfelt grief.

When Princess Diana died in 1997 foreign observers were astonished at the public expression of grief. They hadn't expected that from the British, with their famous stiff upper lip. It was considered a sign of the times that people were not ashamed to show their emotions. But apparently there was a precedent in history. In 1612 Prince Henry, the eldest son of King James I, died at the age of just 18. "Certainly the flood of written memorials - epistolary, poetic and musical - which followed his unexpected death and which outnumbered those penned for Queen Elizabeth nine years previously, and the vast crowd of mourners which attended the prince's body on its final journey to Westminster Abbey, attest to the hope which the people had invested in this young man", Gabriel Crouch writes in his liner-notes.

This disc presents a selection of pieces which for the occasion. It is a small selection, since more than 100 poems and more than 40 compositions were written in connection with Henry's death. In addition to pieces which are specifically related to Prince Henry, as his name appears in the dedication or in the text itself, a number are sung which could be linked to this event. Most prominent among these are compositions on the text of the lament of King David for his son Absalom. Gabriel Crouch acknowledges that "the evidence linking it to Henry's death, though compelling, is only circumstantial".

The analogy is inspired by the fact that there was clear disharmony between James and Henry, and there were even rumours about Henry being poisoned by agents working for his father. The identification of Henry and Absalom is not very plausible, though. According to the Bible Absalom was a rebel who plotted against David, the Lord's Anointed, and also his character isn't pictured very favourably. It is very unlikely that the composers whose pieces are an expression of admiration for Prince Henry would compare him to Absalom. The identification of James and David - because of the above-mentioned rumours - isn't plausible either: David specifically ordered his army not to kill Absalom, and it was his general Joab who ignored his order.

The programme also contains pieces on the text of David's lament for his friend Jonathan. There were rumours that James preferred the company of young men over his wife, and Crouch mentions that "some commentators (...) assert that the two young men [David and Jonathan] were lovers", "so perhaps the use of this story of loss and grief from earlier in David's life could be seen as another opportunistic barb to throw at the unpopular king". But to which commentators Crouch does refer? Modern writers have expressed this view, but I am pretty sure this interpretation was absent in the early 17th century. Moreover, where is Henry in this explanation? Wasn't this music written in honour of him? Why would pieces expressing grief about his death be used to throw barbs at his father?

There is really no reason to look for explanations like that. These texts have been frequently used by composers in the renaissance and baroque to express grief. The simple reason is that they are highly expressive and moving, and that in those times everyone knew these texts by heart and also their biblical context. That made them very appropriate to express the grief at Prince Henry's death.

That justifies the inclusion of the various settings of David's lament over Absalom by Robert Ramsey, Thomas Weelkes, Richard Dering and Thomas Tomkins, whether they were specifically written at the occasion of Henry's death or not. All of them are strongly expressive. Whereas Weelkes and Tomkins belong to the standard repertoire of English polyphony, Robert Ramsey is far less known. He was organist and master of the choristers at Trinity College in Cambridge from 1615 until his death in 1644. In his compositions as well as in some others on this disc the influence of the Italian style of the early 17th century is noticeable. And that is reflected in the performance, which includes dynamic gradation, for instance at the words "and wept" and at "o my son" (When David heard). The pieces by Dering are also not that well-known, and in particular his motet, Contristatus est David, the only piece on a Latin text in the programme. The word "flevit" (wept) is set to strong dissonances.

Robert Ramsey also composed a piece on the text of the lament of David over Jonathan, How are the Mighty Fall'n. He and Thomas Weelkes, in O Jonathan, Woe is me, concentrate on David's lament, whereas Thomas Tomkins' Then David Mourned contains just one line from the Biblical text: "Then David mourned with this lamentation over Saul, and over Jonathan his son".

The other pieces were specifically written on the occasion of Prince Henry's death. John Coprario even devoted a cycle of seven Songs of Mourning to this event. Every stanza is dedicated to those who grieved over Henry's death. Four of them are performed: O Grief, "to the most sacred King James", So Parted You, "to the most princely and virtuous Elizabeth" (sister of Henry), When Pale Famine, "to the most disconsolate Great Britain", and O Poor distracted World, "to the World". They are for solo voice and lute, and they are sung with great sensitivity by four members of Gallicantus: Amy Moore, Mark Chambers, Matthew Long and Gabriel Crouch respectively. There are other pieces for solo voices: Robert Ramsey's What tears, dear Prince? is sung by Christopher Watson, Melpomene, Bewail by Clare Wilkinson and Mark Chambers. This piece ends with the words: "Farewell, the Muses' King". The word "farewell" is repeated a number of times, and the closing of this madrigal is highly expressive.

The other works are all polyphonic. The items by Thomas Ford, William Cranford and John Ward belong together. The former two are incomplete, and could only be recorded thanks to reconstructions by Francis Steele. One has to be grateful for that, because these two pieces - as well as Ward's - are very moving tributes to Henry. Cranford's Weep, weep Britons contains the line: "He whose triumphing name was loudly echoed by the trump of fame". It is set in a very evocative way, with fanfare motifs and repetitions suggesting an echo. Italian influences are traceable here as well. The last piece to be mentioned is again by Robert Ramsey, Sleep Fleshly Birth, which confirms the quality of his music. I would definitely like to hear more from him.

Gallicantus's first disc was devoted to music by Robert White, which greatly impressed me. This disc is of the same high standard. Gallicantus produces a beautiful sound, clear and well-balanced. They sing here with great sensitivity, and the expression of this mournful repertoire is fully explored. The Italian influences are also clearly notable. I have already indicated that the lute songs are beautifully sung. The singers are sparing in the addition of ornaments, and considering the character of the songs that is definitely right.

This disc is an impressive display of heartfelt grief. My advice: purchase this disc, let the music move you, and take the liner-notes with a grain of salt. The booklet includes the complete lyrics. The track-list doesn't give the dates of birth and death of the composers, which is a serious omission.

-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 01, 2010

  • Catalog Number: SIGCD210

  • UPC: 635212021026

  • Label: Signum Classics

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: John Coprario, John Ward, Richard Dering, Robert Ramsey, Thomas Ford, Thomas Tomkins, Thomas Vautor, Thomas Weelkes, William Cranford

  • Conductor: Gabriel Crouch

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Gallicantus

  • Performer: Elizabeth Kenny