The songs in this collection span a period of over four hundred years, yet they show a fundamental unity of style which illustrates how static a genre based in a tradition of apparently untrained music-making necessarily remained. Tudor court composers conjure up an Arcadian world of innocence, while later works often derive from indigenous folk-songs. Either way, the secular song packages and sanitises a dangerous world of rustic abandon for an audience more restrictively cultured.
The musical styles of these songs and madrigals have several main features, most important of which is the intensity and intimacy of the choral writing. Only a small group of singers, as on this recording, can truly exploit the densely packed wit of pieces where every musical gesture has real textual purpose. The texts of these works were not only chosen for their shameless idealism but are also set to music in a most self-consciously literalistic style. Consider Weelkes's As Vesta was: even before the homophonic opening reaches the main point of the sentence (that Vesta is descending Latmos hill) the alto line is already tumbling down scales and establishing the polyphonic mayhem which will allow this motif to be reversed as the maiden queen is later seen ascending the hill. And as Diana's darlings rush down to meet the queen they come 'first two by two' (two voices) 'then three by three' (three voices) 'together' (all voices). The goddess is left at the top 'all alone' (solo soprano). In the closing section, Long live fair Oriana (the motif begun by the lower tenor) is tossed between each part as if to illustrate the activity of the nymphs and shepherds as they hail the monarch, while the bass line magisterially mimics the tune at a greatly reduced speed. The other piece by Weelkes in this collection, Thule, the period of cosmography, uses the same technique: for example, the meaning of the classical epithet for Mount Etna (Trinacrian, or three-sided) is illustrated by a tiny side-step into triple time. This is textual awareness coupled with an intellectualism which belies the facade of innocence inherent in the genre.
John Farmer's Fair Phyllis shows a different aspect of this technique. The poem of pastoral love is revealed for its true implications by the deliberately raunchy musical setting. Similarly, Cornysh sets Blow thy horn, hunter to leave us in little doubt as to the hunter's actual prey. The anonymous Hey trolly lolly lo is a work less of innuendo than of explicit, if unconsummated, sexuality, and its use of a refrain between each verse puts it alongside Cornysh's example as a drinking song inviting maximum participation.
The traditional Brigg Fair sees this forward presentation in more contemplative mood. The soloist narrates his trip to the fair while the other singers support the poignant tune along its journey of inconsequence: an 'unconstant lover' may indeed cause the anguish stressed in the music, but these lovers have remained faithful. In the same vein is The blue bird. Stanford's music creates a texture over which the soprano can soar much as the bird whose reflection we see in the lake, the disjointed calls of 'blue' being glimpses of expectation as the bird comes in and out of sight.
The personal genre of the madrigal is equally well suited to the metaphysical questioning we find in Sound saddest notes and Weep, weep mine eyes Death was very much a predilection of the time of Carlton and Wilbye, and just as Andrew Marvell could write 'Had we but World enough and Time, this coyness, Lady, were no crime', so these composers debunk the expressed finality of death in their music. The instruction 'Death, do thy worst' in Wilbye's Weep, weep mine eyes is set in this deliberately ironic style, and in his Elegy, Carlton is still able to weave his harmonies around the astringent text before the closing exhortation to believe that in Sir John Shelton's drowning 'neither death nor fates did well'.
Be it Thomas Vautor's Mother, I will have a husband with its excellently superficial text and music, or the sentimental and quasi-tragic early Victorian masterpiece Lay a garland, the art of the madrigal has remained a simple vehicle for all emotions and all times.
The Oxford Camerata was formed in order to meet the growing demand for choral groups specializing in music from the Renaissance era. It has since expanded its repertoire to include music from the medieval period to the present day using instrumentalists where necessary. The Camerata has made a variety of recordings for Naxos spanning the music of nine centuries and in 1995 was awarded a European Cultural Prize.
Jeremy Summerly studied Music at New College, Oxford from where he graduated with First Class Honours in 1982. For the next seven years he worked for BBC Radio and it was during this time that he founded the Oxford Camerata and undertook postgraduate research at King's College, London. In 1989 he became a lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music and in the following year he was appointed conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford. In 1991 he signed a long-term contract with Naxos to record a variety of music with Schola Cantorum and the Oxford Camerata. In 1996 he was appointed Head of Academic Studies at the Royal Academy of Music, and he currently divides his time between lecturing, researching, conducting, and writing and presenting programmes for BBC Radio 3.
ReviewsThese [Oxford Camerata] are singers with feeling - Gramophone