Renaissance masters: The King’s Singers and Fretwork pay tribute to Byrd and Weelkes

Edward Breen
Monday, February 13, 2023

For the 400th anniversary of the death of both Byrd and Weelkes, The King’s Singers and Fretwork join forces to reflect the contrasts, and parallels, between the two composers

The King’s Singers together with Fretwork (photo: Rebecca Reid)
The King’s Singers together with Fretwork (photo: Rebecca Reid)

The British music scene is something I love, and I’m convinced it’s one of our great exports, from Sumer is icumen in to Britpop and beyond. So when I heard about this joint project of Renaissance music from The King’s Singers and Fretwork, my attention was piqued immediately. Just consider the title: ‘Tom and Will’. The Will is, unsurprisingly, William Byrd, whose 400th anniversary we celebrate in 2023. How about Tom? It turns out it’s not him of 40-part-motet fame, but another one, Thomas Weelkes, known for his exquisite setting of When David heard (try Gallicantus on Signum) and several madrigal evergreens, and it turns out that he also died in 1623, albeit at a younger age.

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This project will be special to those of us who, back in the early 1980s, were introduced to madrigals through The King’s Singers’ celebrated ‘Madrigal History Tour’ (EMI, 8/84) or later through their all-vocal snapshot of the Elizabethan era ‘The Golden Age’ (EMI, 1995). Their clear, fresh sound was hugely skilful but presented with a light touch which helped bring this nuanced music alive. Crucially, they sang madrigals with more obvious humour than others had before them. Like so many early music enthusiasts, I also remember Fretwork’s ‘Goe Nightly Cares’ (Virgin, 1990), an album of Byrd and Dowland with countertenor Michael Chance giving arguably some of his best performances: the thrust of those galliards, the sinewy sounds of their instruments, the clear soaring falsetto tone! The melancholy was so visceral that even now the mood of that pitch-perfect programme still lingers in my memory. It is therefore with some joy that I anticipate this new collaboration: it’s a musical partnership that has been waiting to happen for some time.

Music beyond motets

When I speak with Patrick Dunachie, first countertenor in The King’s Singers, I put it to him that although I love the idea of ‘Tom and Will’, it initially made me think of Tallis and Byrd and expect a collection of motets. I mean, wasn’t it Charlotte Church who said, memorably, ‘You can have one too many Ave Marias’? Dunachie tells me that The King’s Singers had spotted this joint 400th anniversary for Byrd and Weelkes quite a few years ago and felt it was an opportunity to explore a world of music beyond motets. ‘There’s a lot of music that ties into our heritage both as a group that originates in King’s College, Cambridge, and individually: lots of us grew up in the chorister tradition and this stuff runs in our veins. But we thought, what can The King’s Singers do specifically to mark these anniversaries in a way that only we would? The two composers are best known for their church music, because it’s amazing, so we thought the thing we could try to do was to bring their characters to life. They’re both men with interesting, colourful stories and we thought, “Why don’t we dig a little bit more into their madrigals and their secular music and find pieces that shine a light on their characters?” That is how we got to the “Tom and Will” title: contracting names into nicknames was super common back in those days.’ Of course, this use of informal names is something we find usual in the case of Byrd and Weelkes’s contemporary Shakespeare, who himself was known as Will.

Madrigals have always been in our blood and it’s great to have a fresh chance to find new stuff that we – and Fretwork – haven’t done before

Patrick Dunachie, The King’s Singers

So this album aims to uncover something new in these composers’ secular music-making. If that’s what brought the two composers together in one programme, then I have to ask Dunachie what brought The King’s Singers together with Fretwork. His answer is characterised by straightforward and unflinching admiration. ‘They’re a brilliant group,’ is how he puts it, ‘and I think lots of us in The King’s Singers “fangirl” over Fretwork albums!’ Working together, they discovered a few of their own parallels too, which enhanced their relationship. The first is, naturally, longevity – in fact, it’s hard to think of more established names in this field. Then there’s the fact that they’ve both navigated changes of personnel while maintaining their distinct musical identities over the decades. Personally, I find it notable that both have appetites for new as well as old music, regularly commissioning leading composers and encouraging them to write for voices and viols respectively.

For The King’s Singers, a collaboration with Fretwork also meant that the number of pieces they could explore expanded radically; and sure enough, the programme they have built together is enormously varied not just in mood but also in texture. In some pieces, viols mirror the singers’ parts; others are verse-anthem style, alternating viols and chorus; and on a couple of occasions there are consort songs: solo voice plus viols. Fretwork also perform In nomines by Weelkes, and The King’s Singers serve up a few vocal-only madrigals. Voices and viols are in full collaboration for two ingenious new pieces from Sir James MacMillan and Roderick Williams.

kings singers and fretwork session photo

Fretwork and The King’s Singers recorded their first ever joint album, ‘Tom and Will’, at St Bartholomew’s Church in Orford, Suffolk, in early 2022

I quickly discover that it’s a real joy to talk music with Dunachie. True to the onstage persona of his ensemble, he is charismatic off stage, and we share memories of several albums, repeatedly discussing Fretwork’s ‘Goe Nightly Cares’ with Chance and lutenist Christopher Wilson, which had a catalytic effect on us both. Richard Boothby from Fretwork played on that album and tells me via email that Chance ‘had an extraordinary capacity to deliver both text and the meaning of text with a supremely expressive voice’. I note that there are a few Byrd tracks on that old recording in common with this new project; in particular, If women could be fair. For The King’s Singers, this was the track that spawned the most joyful experiment as they sought to maintain clarity and fluidity in the quirky cross-rhythms that underpin the whole song. In the end, they settled on a different treatment for each of the three verses: for the first, both countertenors sing the solo line, doubling as a single soloist with Fretwork playing pizzicato underneath; for the middle verse, there’s a baritone solo, still with pizzicato accompaniment; and then all voices and viols come together for the final verse.

 

We discuss the pizzicato effect for a while – it is an inspired decision, like a lute stop on a harpsichord but with extra thickness. Dunachie tells me they chose it particularly because the cross-rhythms sounded so ‘funky’ when Fretwork gave them a percussive edge.

Two very different composers 

With The King’s Singers displaying such diverse creativity across their concert performances, I wonder how they feel coming back to Byrd and his contemporaries, but Dunachie assures me that Renaissance music is never far from their repertoire. He explains that the key to The King’s Singers’ programming is variety and the spread of genres, and ‘really leaning into the styles, be it a jazz standard or some contemporary music like Ligeti, or medieval chansons. All the variety is always there and, as such, Byrd and Weelkes are never very far away from our programming list.’ Having said that, it has been quite a while since they last celebrated the English madrigal style and repertoire on disc. But, as Dunachie points out to me, it’s in the group’s DNA. We chuckle at how the thought of the BBC commissioning a six-part series on the madrigal with The King’s Singers from various European cities, as it did in 1984, these days seems fantastical. ‘Madrigals have always been in our blood and it’s great to have a really good reason and a fresh chance to re-engage with them and find new stuff that we’ve not done before, that Fretwork haven’t done before, and, in fact, a couple of things that have never been recorded before.’

The King’s Singers are such an energetic group; it was wonderful to get caught up in their world

Richard Boothby, Fretwork

On the stylistic differences between the two composers, Boothby finds that, in general, ‘Byrd is weightier and more profound, the earthier of the two. Weelkes seeks lighter and airier textures.’ Dunachie goes further in perceiving Weelkes as a slight outsider, not in the quality of the music, he tells me, but rather in the risks it takes; whereas in the case of Byrd, ‘Even in this repertoire, you feel more of the grand master who is at the centre of national life in Elizabeth’s court, which Weelkes wasn’t, even though he was a prestigious musician.’ Interestingly, for Dunachie, both have flashes of the other side too, and Byrd in particular can be Weelkesian: ‘There is a sensationally funny track by Byrd, Who made thee, Hob?, which is two farmers in dialogue, and we decided to add West Country accents to bring it to life a bit because it’s so funny. The thought that this was written by the same guy who wrote Ave verum corpus and was right at the centre of court life is bonkers to me, but it shows the sense of humour.’ And the reverse is true: Harke all ye lovely saints above is an example of Weelkes following closely the mould of Byrd’s madrigals in that it displays an assured technique clearly indicating an intention to offer the performers a lovely ride right from the start of the music. As such, it makes a fascinating comparison with Like two proud armies, in which Weelkes puts all his performers on the edge of their seats from the very first note as he launches straight in at the deep end as if the piece might have already been going on for at least a minute by the time it started.

We discuss how Weelkes is, of the two composers, more obvious with his word-painting. Dunachie finds that Weelkes really leans into every chance to paint a phrase. Intriguingly, he also muses that there is something impressionistic in Weelkes: ‘Death hath deprived me feels like two or three or four pieces morphed into each other; it’s rhapsodic (which I don’t think you would ever hear in Byrd), because each idea just keeps giving way to something totally new. There is an amazing passage at “until the world shall end” which is a canon that stops on a single voice, and when Weelkes starts again it’s absolutely extraordinary.

Richard Boothby

Fretwork’s Richard Boothby – co-founder of the group in 1985 (photo: Nick White)

‘A further example of the character, humour, excitement and reality – for want of a better word – of Weelkes is Thule, the period of cosmography. It’s kind of an advert for all the crazy places and things that had been discovered and written about in the recent few years of that period – it talks about the volcanoes in the Western Cape of Africa, flying fish in the Caribbean, the Icelandic frozen climate – about Hekla exploding. It has all this amazing imagery! And for people of that time to hear a madrigal like that and to hear the things it was describing would have been actually breathtaking, the equivalent of the BBC news alert flash! How did Weelkes find out about these things to describe them in music? Was it a sketch from a merchant explorer? This was also a kind of public service duty – taking this new information, these new ideas, and putting it all into a cultural form so that people could understand it and come on board with it. And in this way you feel a real sense of the living, breathing people.’

The programme also includes In nomines and a pavan by Weelkes. Boothby tells me how he has enjoyed exploring Weelkes’s music, which he has played less often than Byrd simply because there is a smaller quantity of chamber music. ‘With an In nomine,’ he reflects, ‘the listener is invited to observe the familiar shape of the plainchant, and wonder at the counterpoint that is woven around it; and then to marvel at how different each instance seems to be. Weelkes managed to wring some powerfully tense harmonic moments out of this well-known cantus firmus.’

The old and the new

Speaking of living, breathing people, MacMillan has written a piece inspired by Byrd’s Ye sacred Muses (which is Byrd’s elegy to his mentor Tallis), and Williams’s Death, be not proud is inspired by Weelkes’s Death hath deprived me (which is an elegy to Weelkes’s mentor Morley). These two new works represent the latest link in a chain of inspiration and influence which stretches back quite a few generations. In her 2013 biography of Byrd, Kerry McCarthy explores how Byrd’s lament on the death of Tallis is a translation and adaptation of a lament on the death of another great Renaissance composer, Josquin. ‘Ye sacred Muses, race of Jove’ reflects the opening line ‘Musae, Jovis ter maximi’ as set by Gombert and Appenzeller among others. It’s an exotic text reflecting how the earthly loss of a great composer is the gain of heavenly choirs, and as such it stands apart from the more than 150 English poems that Byrd set. Prominent, too, are the plangent semitones and what McCarthy memorably calls the concluding ‘wail of grief’ on the line ‘and Music dies’.

kings singers and fretwork session photo

The project is exciting in other ways too. MacMillan had not previously written for viols, but both he and Williams had written for The King’s Singers. Inviting them to join this anniversary project ‘felt like the right moment’, according to Dunachie. And there are further connections: ‘We thought there was a real kind of poetry to Byrd being a central figure in England’s cultural life but being a Catholic, which was on the outside of the state religion, and today, James being one of the country’s greatest choral writers, and also a Catholic … So the idea was to make a chain, with Byrd’s lament on the death of Tallis and then the next link in the chain, James’s piece. James wanted to set exactly the same text, but with Tallis changed to Will, so “Will is dead.”’ These two special new commissions from MacMillan and Williams are an integral part of this album and will be performed when The King’s Singers are together with Fretwork now and in the future. 

Look to the future

This is just the beginning of an exciting 2023 for The King’s Singers. Not only is ‘Tom and Will’ going on tour, but the year also marks Disney’s 100th anniversary – which is why the group have recorded a new album of Disney hits. As Dunachie says, ‘We have really covered both extremes of what we do and used it as a chance, artistically, for us to get as authentically adept as possible at both styles of singing. So it’s going to be exciting to see those albums come out together.’

 

In closing, I couldn’t resist asking Dunachie what the best thing was about working with viols. He laughed, and joked that the tuning process was the worst thing about working with viols! It’s something that The King’s Singers were not used to having to do between recording takes. ‘The best thing, I think, is that viols and voices are so interconnected because the viol can be played just like a voice, and conversely I think the beautiful sweeping legato of good viol playing inspires all the best things in your singing. It inspires a really long, on-the-breath legato line, particularly if you are sharing the same line with the viol – you come towards each other. They give this lovely cantabile quality to their playing, and we hopefully adapt to that incredible smoothness and consistency of sound that is so distinctive.’ Boothby’s enthusiasm is also evident: ‘The King’s Singers are such an enthusiastic, generous and energetic group; it was wonderful to get caught up in their world. Recording in St Bartholomew’s, Orford, was a joy.’

With unexpected significance, the album ends with Byrd’s magnificent Oh Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth. Recorded back in January, it was intended only to celebrate the first Elizabethan era but has now, in Dunachie’s words, ‘an extra surge of poignancy’.


Read the review: 'Tom and Will'

This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Life is better with great music in it – subscribe to Gramophone today

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