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Thomas Weelkes: Hidden in Plain Sight

Anticipation is growing ahead of the 400th anniversary next year of the death of William Byrd on 4 July 1623, and as publishers of The Byrd Edition, we at Stainer & Bell will naturally be amongst the chorus of voices paying tribute to the great man. For all that his music is now remarkably well known and frequently performed for someone who lived all those centuries ago – arguably on a day-to-day basis, if all the ecclesiastical choirs worldwide who sing his music in regular workshop are accounted for – there are still corners of his output that are all too easily overlooked.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, how often do we give more than a fleeting thought to those composers whose significant anniversaries happen to fall in the same year as a ‘giant’ who absorbs so much of our attention? It occurs to me that, especially when one is looking back over so many centuries, we may be perpetuating an outdated narrative in accepting that the ‘grand figure’ in question is the person to whom all obeisance must be made. We are in danger of corroborating judgements on one composer’s merit in relation to others’ which were first made a very long time ago indeed, possibly on questionable grounds, and so there is surely a case for re-evaluation, if only to arrive at the same conclusion.

Let’s take a case in point. Philip Rosseter, born 1567 or 1568, died 5 May 1623, was a man of various talents: lutenist at the court of King James I from 1603 until his death, a theatrical manager (impresario?) whose projects were not always entirely successful, and an occasional composer. His enduring legacy in this latter realm is A Booke of Ayres (1601) and, if you are like me, you may well realise on listening to this recording by Alfred Deller that you already know the charming and inviting song I Care Not for These Ladies though having forgotten who it was who wrote it! While there might not be a case for a wholesale re-evaluation of Rosseter’s music, neither should it be deposited in the pile labelled ‘best left alone’. A song or two would grace any well-designed recital programme.

However, we might – and should – take a different position with respect to Thomas Weelkes, born 1576, died 30 November 1623. A healthy number of his sacred works remain in use throughout churches and cathedrals to this day, though even regular singers may struggle to namecheck many titles beyond Hosanna to the Son of David and Alleluia! I heard a voice. Admittedly, Weelkes had something of a reputation of being ‘a very naughty boy’, and this undoubtedly harmed his own cause during his lifetime, but several centuries on he should perhaps be forgiven for his behavioural problems that included unauthorised absence, underperforming in his duties as a choirmaster, and his characterisation as ‘a comon drunckard and notorious swearer and blasphemer’.

Weelkes. Thomas: Alleluia, I heard a voice
Weelkes, Thomas: Alleluia, I heard a voice (MB23)

Leaving his misdemeanours to one side, is it possible that an age-old prejudice against Weelkes’s music has become ingrained, giving rise to what could almost be described as an official verdict? As early as 1915, Edmund Fellowes bemoaned the fact that ‘one tag of criticism seems to have fastened itself almost indissolubly on to Weelkes’s works, although it is more than doubtful if it can be substantiated. It owes its origins to Mr W. H. Husk’s article on Weelkes in the original edition of Grove’s Dictionary (1879), and to the effect that this composer exhibited “a certain stiffness” of style.’ Fellowes notes that the same phrase subsequently appeared in the Dictionary of National Biography and was also ‘practically adopted’ by at least one other influential writer.

Despite Fellowes’s advocacy of the composer in the early twentieth century, it could be said that the same tacit acceptance of Weelkes’s inferiority to other composers of his generation persists in some quarters. It is just one measure of his current reputation that Weelkes’s music will often only appear in concert and on recordings as a part of a broader composer anthology, rarely in its own right. Furthermore, in the current edition of Grove, the ‘Assessment’ that concludes the article on Weelkes starts with a list of his shortcomings: ‘[his] few instrumental works are of little importance … [his] main deficiencies were a lack of response to the sound of words themselves, and uneven melodic invention … he could not match Wilbye’s ability for making his individual lines grow … nor did he share Gibbons’s mastery of vocal declamation.’ This is not to criticise the writer’s opinion, but I would suggest that it is harsh to begin your evaluation with all the negative factors.

Yet the same writer goes on to comment that ‘[Weelkes’s] great strength lay in the vivid inventiveness of his very calculated musical imagery’, and ends the article with a conclusion that may seem light years from what was previously stated: ‘For imaginative brilliance, sonorous counterpoint applied to majestic utterance, and capacity for broad musical thinking, Weelkes is unsurpassed by any of his English contemporaries.’

But I will leave the final words to Professor Joseph Kerman, an acknowledged authority on English Renaissance music. Writing about Weelkes’s Madrigals of 5 and 6 parts (1600), Kerman declares them to be ‘one of the high points, if not the highest point, of the English Madrigal repertory’.

Ask yourself this: how many of these madrigals do you know?

Weelkes, Thomas: Madrigals of Five and Six Parts (1600) (EM11)
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