‘A notorious swearer and blasphemer’ – the sad life and wonderful music of Thomas Weelkes (died 1623)

SWEMF Workshop
2 September 2023 – St Mary’s Church, Yatton.

The year is 1619, and on a routine Sunday at Chichester Cathedral the service of Evensong is happening. But suddenly, it is rudely interrupted. One of the choir members, a lay vicar named Thomas Weelkes, begins to ‘curse and swear most dreadfully’, as an eyewitness report puts it, and ‘so profane the service of God as is most fearful to hear, and to the great amazement of the people present’.

His madrigals have been said to combine the elegance of Luca Marenzio and the firm sense of tonality characteristic of Thomas Morley with the verbal sensitivity of William Byrd. Weelkes is noted for his word painting, lively rhythms, and highly developed sense of form and structure.

This complex and ultimately sad man composed one of the most sublime and poignant anthems: ‘O Jonathan’ and ‘When David heard/O my son Absalom’. Both are richly scored for six voices, and the latter is one of the finest pieces in the repertory. Weelkes explores the depths of grief, and the music is outstanding for its striking textural contrasts, its wealth of ideas, its excellent contrapuntal technique, and its sheer expressive power.

So the opportunity to explore the ‘Other 400th’ anniversary, was not to be missed – in a beautiful late mediaeval church, sited then at the junction of two trackways, and where the churchyard is now still used in the same way, as we saw last weekend.

We were some singers, some instrumentalists and an experienced singing and choral conductor. Breathing exercises helped us all. Tuning was unproblematic (unusual in churches) . As we built confidence in the music and each other we used differing instrumentalisation and pitches. We didn’t do ‘O Absolom My Son, My Son’ , but wallowed in the glorious ‘O Care Thou Wilt Despatch Me’ instead, and some other lovely madrigals. It was a good day (and I hope we cheered up his shade).

Angela Le Grice