Program Notes, December 2013
Christmas with Peter Warlock and Henry VIII
The traditional English carol is certainly a familiar genre to each of us. At this time of the year carols are omnipresent, pouring forth from the loudspeakers of every department store and shopping mall! But the history of the carol properly begins in France during the twelfth century, where the term meant simply a song for dancing. It is not surprising, then, that the texts of the early carols refer to many aspects of life, such as the harvest, the seasons, and, of course, the relationship between man and woman. The carol eventually spread from the continent to Britain, where the genre became very popular. It was there that the shift of subject matter began, leading to a preponderance of carols on sacred subjects, most especially the Annunciation and the Nativity. These fifteenth-century English carols are written in the prevailing musical style of the time, some containing jaunty, repeating rhythms — vestiges of the medieval system of rhythmic modes — with others composed in a plainer style containing many parallel triads and other consonances. Here one might recall the music of John Dunstable as an example. The texts are often macaronic, a term which refers to the interspersion of a different language (Latin) into the predominant one (English). In macaronic verses one finds clever linguistic alternations even within a single poetic line, for example, "Make we joy now in this fest in quo Christus natus est."
With the onset of the Reformation, the carol went into a long hibernation that continued almost all the way through the eighteenth century! Many of the familiar carols we know today were composed in the nineteenth century, and the story would therefore be over, were it not for an interesting development. In the early years of the twentieth century, Britain, like many other nations, was subjected to the dominating influence of the Germanic musical tradition, and in reaction composers of the time strove to assert a national character in musical terms. Folk music was an important source of inspiration, but so too were the texts of the long-forgotten medieval carols, along with those of Elizabethan poetry. Collections of this poetry appeared in print, and composers such as Holst, Vaughan Williams, Walton, and Warlock began to make new settings of the carol texts, a tradition that persists even to this day.
While our program is largely an exploration of the English carol tradition, featuring settings both medieval and modern, we also present music written for the venerable collegiate chapel at Eton College, established in the same century as our medieval carols were composed. Robert Wylkynson was master of the choristers there in the 1500s. His massive nine-voice Salve regina, based on the plainsong cantus firmus Assumpta est Maria in coelum, is an important example of the large-scale sonorous style cultivated by English composers during the early sixteenth century. Robert Parsons, a slightly later figure, was a composer of considerable stature who was employed at the Chapel Royal. His setting of the Ave Maria is extremely elegant and beautiful. Parsons died young while at the height of his powers, as did another of our featured composers, the brilliant and enigmatic Peter Warlock. Warlock's most poignant and beautiful choral piece is Bethlehem Down, a setting of words by his friend, the poet Bruce Blunt, in which the influence of Frederick Delius may be heard. John Paynter's impressionistic soundscape The Rose is replete with whole tone gestures and indeterminate murmurings, the sound of the choir becoming ever more distant at the close.
~ Paul Flight