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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

In Praise of Queens

Some time I ago I offered in this blog a pair of articles on the composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd under the heading Writing for Oriana. The name "Oriana" comes from a collection of madrigals called The Triumphs of Oriana, published near the start of the 17th century by the composer Thomas Morley. Most commentators regard the "Oriana" praised in these madrigals as being Elizabeth I, even though the collection didn't appear in print until just after the Queen's death.

Gheeraerts the Younger (attrib.): Elizabeth I (c. 1595)

A few years ago I discovered this isn’t the only collection of vocal partsongs written to honour an English Queen. Collections honouring Queen Victoria in 1899 and Elizabeth II in 1953 contain some absolute gems of the vocal partsong repertoire, but apart from a few pieces (from the Morley collection, mainly) these works are almost totally unknown. In this program I want to share some of the music from all three collections, all written in praise of Queens.

The Triumphs of Oriana is a collection of 25 madrigals for five or six voices composed by 23 different composers. The publication bears the date 1601 but it wasn't issued until 1603, just after the death of Elizabeth I, who died in March of that year. Later editions contained 27 madrigals, and some of those in the first edition were altered in subsequent reprints.

Title page of the Alto part of the first edition of The Triumphs of Oriana. Vocal works at the time were published in parts (as instrumental works still are today) rather than in score.

Morley's collection was inspired by an Italian collection of 29 madrigals called Il Trionfo di Dori (The Triumph of Doris). This was published in Venice in 1592 and known across Europe in German and English versions. The original collection was published by a Venetian music lover, Leonard Sanudo, in honour of his bride (who was identified by the name Doris, Dori in Italian) in each madrigal.

Here's a madrigal to get us into the stylistic world of the English publication: Hence stars too dim of light by Michael East. [listen]

Like many of the composers represented in the English collection, Michael East was well-known and respected at the time but is largely forgotten today. His madrigal ends with a refrain which is found at the end of every piece in The Triumphs of Oriana: "Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana: Long live fair Oriana".

This refrain is given a gorgeously expansive treatment at the end of one of the most famous pieces in the set: John Bennet's All creatures now are merry-minded. [listen]

There have been questions raised over the years as to whether or not "Oriana" actually does refer to Elizabeth I. The fact that collection didn't appear in public until just after the Queen's death points to this possibility, and some scholars believe that "Oriana" refers to Anne of Denmark, who was the consort of James I (the monarch who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603). Other scholars (among them Edmund Fellowes, one of the most respected writers on the period) dismiss this theory and maintain that "Oriana" is most definitely Elizabeth I.

Two composers are represented twice in the first edition of The Triumphs of Oriana. One is Thomas Morley himself, who was responsible for putting the publication together. Morley's most famous madrigal is probably Now is the month of Maying, which is not in the Oriana publication [listen]. One of those which is is Hard by a crystal fountain, which shows why Morley is regarded as a master of the miniature madrigal form. [listen]

The other composer who had two madrigals included is almost unknown today: Ellis Gibbons. Ellis Gibbons was one of the older brothers of the better-known Orlando Gibbons and he was quite young - just 28 - when The Triumphs of Oriana was put together in 1601. He died at the age of 30 around the same time as the collection appear in public two years later. His two madrigals in The Triumphs of Oriana are his only known surviving works.

The intricate energy of his style is evident in Round about her charret. [listen]

One of the composers Morley included is still known among madrigal enthusiasts today: Thomas Weelkes. Like most of the other composers, his output included much more than secular partsongs; he wrote beautiful Anglican church music and a small amount of instrumental music by him also survives. His Oriana madrigal is one of his best-known works today: As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending.

Like many other pieces in the English madrigal style, Weelkes's piece indulges in some delicious word-painting. This means that the music clearly reflects or "paints" the text at a given moment, and almost every line of this madrigal does this.

In the first line, the music for the words "Latmos hill" goes up, while the setting of the word "descending" goes down. Shortly after, the word "ascending" is set to rising patterns of notes. Then the words "came running down amain" rapidly trip down little scale patterns.

Weelkes then takes very literally the line, "First two by two, then three by three together". "Two by two" is sung by pairs of voices, "three by three" by three voices, and "together" by all of them. The words "all alone" shortly after are poignantly sung by a single voice. The ubiquitous lines in praise of Oriana at the end are set magnificently. The piece takes only three minutes but it's a masterpiece of the form, one of the gems of the Elizabethan madrigal style. [listen]

Morley's publication was a milestone in British music history and in British music publishing. Edmund Fellowes, who lived from 1870 to 1951, was a driving force in the revival, publication and performance of 16th and 17th century English music during the later 19th and early 20th centuries. It is undoubtedly due to Fellowes that most English musicians of the early 20th century knew about The Triumphs of Oriana, and it was the model of The Triumphs of Oriana which led to another collection of songs in praise of a Queen.

Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 when she was just 18. Her reign became the stuff of legend and coincided with the largest expansion of the British Empire and the industrial revolution. Her reign was also unprecedentedly long, and huge celebrations took place to mark the 50th and 60th anniversaries of her accession in 1887 and 1897.

Obvious parallels were drawn between Victoria and Elizabeth I. Elizabeth's reign of 45 years was also very long. It saw great military victories like that over the Spanish Armada and coincided with the Renaissance of English literature, music, science and exploration.

Bertha Müller (after Heinrich von Angeli): Queen Victoria at the age of 80 (1899)

There were also celebrations to mark Victoria's 80th birthday in 1899, two years after the diamond jubilee. Taking his lead from Thomas Morley, Walter Parratt - who was the organist at St George's Chapel, Windsor, and Master of the Queen’s Musick - asked twelve other composers to contribute to a collection of choral songs to honour the Queen's birthday. Simply called Choral Songs in Honour of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, these were published in a limited edition of 100 copies, and the collection gives a fascinating glimpse of the British musical establishment at the end of the 19th century.

Walter Parratt

Parratt's own contribution, The Triumphs of Victoria, is perhaps the most-indebted in style and tone to the Elizabethan collection. It sets a poem by Sir Thomas Herbert Warren. [listen]

The twelve other composers Parratt invited to contribute to the collection in honour of Victoria mostly represent established British composers with strong Oxford and Eton connections. This includes composers like Charles Villiers Stanford, John Stainer and Hubert Parry, who are still reasonably well-known today, and Arthur Murray Goodhart, Charles Harford Lloyd and Parratt himself, mostly remembered only by scholars and specialists.

Apart from the established composers are four who represented the younger generation at the time: Henry Walford Davies, Charles Wood, Arthur Somervell and - most famous of all - Edward Elgar (before he had his knighthood).

Given my predilection for the choral music of Stanford, I can't resist including his beautiful contribution to the collection. Out in the windy west sets a poem by Arthur C. Benson, a son of the archbishop of Canterbury and later Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was a prolific author, but he is best remembered today as the person who wrote the words for Land of Hope and Glory. [listen]

Charles Villiers Stanford (1921)

Elgar's contribution was one of the two pieces from the collection performed for Queen Victoria on the morning of her 80th birthday by a choir of 250 voices; the other was that of Parratt which we heard earlier. Elgar set a poem - To her beneath whose steadfast star - by Frederic Myers, an inspector of schools and writer of poetry and essays. He later came to prominence as a pioneer in the area of "psychical research" and contributed an influential book on, of all things, telepathy. [listen]

All 13 choral songs were performed together for the first time the following year, in May 1900, at a concert at which the Queen was not present. Victoria died less than a year after that, in January 1901, bringing to an end the second long, great reign of an English Queen.

With the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 there was much comment to the effect that a new Elizabethan age had commenced. Like Elizabeth I and Victoria, Elizabeth II came to the throne at a young age - in her case, 26 - and it was her coronation which inspired yet more musical tributes.

Elizabeth II in coronation regalia

The most famous - or perhaps (at the time, at least) infamous - work composed for Elizabeth II's coronation was Benjamin Britten's coronation opera, Gloriana. Dealing with Elizabeth I's infatuation with the Earl of Essex late in her life, Gloriana failed to make an impression when it was premiered in 1953. Indeed it is only relatively recently that it has been seen for the marvellous work that it is, absolutely on a par with Britten's other operas and in no way a failure.

But a less well known tribute to the young Queen came in the form of a collection of choral partsongs very much along the lines of The Triumphs of Oriana and the collection of Victoria's 80th birthday. Called A Garland for the Queen, this collection of ten pieces by ten different composers was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It was performed, complete, in a concert in London on the eve of the coronation in June 1953. The program on that occasion also included madrigals from The Triumphs of Oriana, as well as music by Henry Purcell and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The ten composers represented in A Garland for the Queen are Arthur Bliss, Arnold Bax, Michael Tippett, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Lennox Berkeley, John Ireland, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi, Alan Rawsthorne and Edmund Rubbra. Music by Arthur Bliss, who would be appointed Master of the Queen's Music a few months after the coronation on the death of Bax, opens the collection. It sets a text by Henry Reed called Aubade for Coronation Morning. [listen]

Gertler: Arthur Bliss (1932)

The senior composer of the group was undoubtedly Vaughan Williams. Had he developed as a composer more quickly he was definitely old enough to have contributed to Queen Victoria's collection in 1899. As it stands, his piece for Elizabeth II - Silence and Music - sets a text by his second wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams; they had married just a few months earlier. It's one of the old master's most beautiful miniatures. [listen]

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1954)

One of the younger composers to have been involved in A Garland for the Queen was Lennox Berkeley (although he was still 50 at the time; Tippett and Rawsthorne were both two years younger). His contribution was Spring at this hour, setting a text by Paul Dehn. Dehn provided texts for two of Berkeley's operas, as well as the text for Walton's opera The Bear. [listen]

All of the choral songs in A Garland for the Queen have their beauties and their details which recommend them - they are far from forgettable occasional works - but I can't resist ending with Herbert Howells' offering. Howells of course was a master of the choral genre and his choral works rank among the most significant of any 20th century composer. Setting words by Walter de la Mare, Inheritance is radiant and captivating. Howells often set texts by de la Mare, and called him "one of the few poets I've known who really understood music". In this piece, we hear the work of a master composer who really understood his text. [listen]

Herbert Howells (c. 1969)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2013.

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