"Not the Queen’s Birthday Party ..." On a grey, damp, unpromising June day, 18 singers and six viol players convened in Gloucester, not for an outdoor celebration of the Queens 90th birthday, but to commemorate the untimely death of James I and VI’s son, the 17-year-old crown Prince Henry, in 1612. We gathered in the welcoming, ancient, timber-framed Parliament Room of Gloucester Cathedral. Our young conductor, Gabriel Crouch, was remarkably fresh and energetic after a Friday-night flight from Princeton, USA, where he teaches, and another workshop the previous day. This intriguing juxtaposition of old and new was to become a recurring theme as the day unfolded.
The music before us was little known and specialized, yet also part of a voluminous repertoire, to which both well-known names such as Tomkins, Weelkes and Ramsay (after whose multi-movement madrigal ‘Dialogues of Sorrow’, our day was named) contributed, and less familiar names like John Ward (‘Weep forth your tears’) and William Cranford (‘Weep, weep, weep Britons’). Written at a time following the Elizabethan heyday of English music, when continental influences were becoming more prevalent, this music can be seen as the swan-song of the English Renaissance, after which the impact of the Civil War and the decline of the monarchy brought reversals from which it never recovered. In addressing the question of how to account for such an outpouring of passionate grief, Gabriel likened the national mood of the time to the great outpouring of emotion that followed the death of Princess Diana, prompting a flood of grief as if, in Gabriel’s phrase, we had released our ‘inner Italian’! Indeed, we were to be grateful for that inner Italian, especially our small group of gentleman singers, as we opened our scores to Gabriel’s warning that we were embarking on some ‘very difficult’ music.
In the event, Gabriel’s extensive knowledge, his love of this work and remarkable multitasking (viz. teaching, voice training, conducting whilst singing one of the tenor lines, rounding up ‘lost sheep’ with salient notes and even the occasional whistle when needed by a soprano line in the final run through!) carried us through the day with an exhilarating, albeit modest amateur, sense of achievement. His richly elaborated account of the historical context and the internal architecture of the pieces enabled us all, singers, viol players and some of us both in different pieces, to achieve the full spectrum, from Tomkin’s familiar setting of ‘When David heard’ to the newly discovered (by Gabriel himself) ‘Sleep Fleshly Birth’ by Robert Ramsay, with reconstructed bass part by Francis Steele. The day was over all too soon, but Gabriel’s music and musicianship, with his group Gallicantus, are available to revisit on the Signum CD Dialogues of Sorrow, released in 2012 on the 400th anniversary of Price Henry’s death.
By way of post script, thanks are also due to Heather Gibbard for three kinds of delicious home-made biscuits, including an old handed down recipe and fancy viol-shaped ones, and to Marilyn and Jenny for their generously given time at the end of the session, to provide a Try-a-Viol opportunity for would-be viol players to explore the instrument.- Barbara Cottman