STUART MILLSON dives into old English ‘ayrs’

There is a persistent idea that English music only really got going with Parry and Elgar, but four centuries earlier William Cornysh, Thomas Campion and John Dowland had possessed national and European reputations.

William Cornysh was one of England’s leading Tudor composers, gaining the attention and then patronage of that most difficult-to-please of monarchs, King Henry VIII. There is disagreement about the date of his birth, especially as he was christened with the same name as that of his father, also a musician, who, during the late 15th century was Master of Choristers at Westminster.

Cornysh (senior) was also a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, to which institution his son gravitated and remained connected for nearly 15 years, from 1496. Choral scholars through the ages have marvelled at the treasures contained within the ancient manuscripts of sacred choral music, the Eton and Caius choirbooks, both containing important works by Cornysh; yet this is a composer who could also turn his hand to occasional and secular pieces.

Then, as now, music was considered an essential background to great events of state, and in 1520 Cornysh achieved a high-point of his career – embarking with his monarch upon a state mission across the English Channel, the famous meeting between Henry VIII and the King of France (François l) at the “Field of the Cloth of Gold”. Here, amid the ornate (but temporary) pavilions and awnings, Cornysh and his musicians of the Chapel Royal serenaded the monarchs and their entourages, whilst the latter engaged in their schemes, diplomacy, power-struggles and court gossip.

It is always remarked upon how that later 16th century composer, John Dowland, was the master of melancholia, yet in Cornysh’s Adieu, my Heartes Lust (a piece for four voices, typical of his style) we can find the essence of the yearning poet (in the English of the time), consumed for all his fretful, wintry waking hours in a state of emotional purgatory:

Adew, adew my hartis lust. / Adew, my joy and solace. / With dubyl sorrow, complain I must, / until I dye, I must, I must.

Campion’s England

Thomas Campion (1567-1620) achieved a great deal in his 53 years, despite an unpromising start: leaving Cambridge without taking a degree, and leaving Gray’s Inn without being called to the bar. However, in 1605, academic distinction eventually came, in the form of a medical degree from the University of Caen. He spent the rest of his professional life practising as a physician in London, and remaining a bachelor until his dying day.

Yet Campion remained drawn to the beating heart of his other passions, poetry and music. Writing in the shadow of the most famous poet of the time, Sir Philip Sidney, in 1602 Campion effectively produced a manifesto against “vulgarity” in poetry (Observations in the Art of English Poesie), decrying the act of “riming”. He also went on to publish a book of great interest to musicologists, a thesis on counterpoint – as well as many musical “ayrs”, masques and songs, and in 1613, to mark young Prince Henry’s death (King James I’s heir-apparent), the plangent Songs of Mourning. Campion’s work touched the spirit of the moment, in a country that was said to be distraught with tears and regret.

The beautiful part-song, Never WeatherBeaten Sail , with words by the composer, dates from the same year, and forms part of Campion’s First Book of Ayrs. For the man who decried “riming”, the piece has a beauty, simplicity – and rhyme – that makes it almost like (to our ears, today) a traditional hymn:

“Never Weather-Beaten-Sail, more willing bent to shore / Never tired pilgrim’s limbs affected slumber more…”

The two-and-a-half minutes of the song, as all good songs do, seems to reach out, in simple terms, to a lifetime’s experience and the need to grasp that last anchorage on our voyage: a vision of “Heaven’s high paradise…”, of the weary human being “with troubled breast” coming to that eternal shore, where the Lord will “take my soul to rest.” With music that never soars to too high a degree of emotion, Campion’s music nevertheless has much pathos, great beauty for its vocalists, and forms a benediction in miniature. It is a perfect moment for reflection on mortality, for all those who have set sail upon the mysterious voyage to one English composer’s safe harbour.

Dowland in Denmark

The Danish royal family of the late 16th century was a generous employer – John Dowland achieving the material gains which often eluded him in his native land. Yet despite his chagrin at later being excluded from England’s official high circles, due to his Roman Catholic beliefs, the composer’s life had been a full and productive one, with some time even spent in the service of Sir Henry Cobham, Ambassador to France.

With books of songs, psalms and lachrimae galore – some 20 pieces to each collection – Dowland can be viewed as one of the most prolific composers of his era. Perhaps, he can be een as one of the true founding-fathers, or presiding spirits of our music – an echo of which reached to the 20th century, when Benjamin Britten incorporated a theme by the composer in his Lachrymae for viola and orchestra.

To pick but one piece, Come again, sweet love doth now invite comes from his First Booke of Songs or Ayres, and can be performed either as a conventional lute-song, or expanded slightly into a piece for a small group of vocalists. Whether a melancholy discourse for one singer, the lute conjuring that sense of lonely winter twilight, or lifted into the realms of a madrigal (but still resonating regret and longing, sighing and soft tears), this short work is one of extreme delicacy. Yet as the work comes toward to its conclusion, Dowland repeats and re-emphasises the important lines from each of the (three) verses: “To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die”. These are words that embody the soul of the composer, the essence of his age, and the character of the times to come in English music.

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