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A Very Quick Guide To . . .Thomas Weelkes

Thomas Weelkes, a composer from the first Elizabethan age
Thomas Weelkes, a composer from the first Elizabethan age

What’s it all about?

2023 is going to be a big year for English early music thanks to the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd, one of the country’s greatest ever composers, with a raft of celebratory concerts, recordings and scholarly publications planned to mark the event. But spare a thought for fellow Elizabethan composer Thomas Weelkes, who had the misfortune to die in the same year as Byrd and whose own 400th anniversary is going slightly under the radar as a result.

Thomas Weelkes? The name sounds familiar . . .

So it should. Weelkes was one of the greatest of England’s many Elizabethan madrigalists and lots of his works are still regularly performed today. He was also a prolific composer of church music, writing more Anglican services than any other musician of his era.

He was a religious man?

Not exactly. In fact, let’s be honest, Weelkes was probably the ultimate Bad Boy of Elizabethan music. Rumours suggest that he got his wife pregnant before marrying her, a definite no-no back in Tudor times, while later in life he was also fond of the occasional drink. In 1616 he was described to the bishop of Chichester Cathedral (where he was the organist) as being "famed for a common drunkard and notorious swearer & blasphemer", while shortly afterwards he was dismissed for being drunk at the organ and using bad language during divine service. Despite all this he somehow managed to get himself reinstated, although his behaviour notably failed to improve. He also deserted his post for long periods, spending most of his time in London, where he ultimately died, probably of alcohol-related causes, in the house of his friend Mr Henry Drinkwater.

Alcoholic composer dies in the house of a Mr Drink Water? You’re making this up, right?

I wish I was.

Maybe we should talk about his music?

Maybe we should. Particularly the madrigals for which Weelkes is best remembered. Almost a hundred of these survive, with the finest being found in the two books of madrigals (for five and six voices respectively) published in 1600.

So before he started drinking?

I thought we were talking about the music?

OK, sorry . . . Do carry on.

Weelkes madrigals cover an enormous range of styles. Some, like Strike it up
or the jolly Since Robin Hood, are simple strophic songs reminiscent of earlier madrigal composers such as Thomas Morley. His best works, however, elevate the simple madrigal to new levels of musical complexity and emotional depth. The famous “As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending”*, for example,
feels more like a miniature scene from an imaginary opera than a simple song, while pieces like “O Care, Thou Wilt Despatch Me” demonstrate an emotional intensity and chromatic complexity unlike almost anything else in Elizabethan music. Weelkes’ love of vivid word-painting is also a big feature of his work, as in recurrent “cuckoos” which punctuate the end of the evergreen “The Nightingale”.

Sounds good. Where can I find out more?

There’s an excellent mix featuring some of Weelkes’ finest madrigals performed by the excellent Wilbye Consort below. Or check out the newly released album by the brilliant King’s Singers, “Tom + Will” (Signum Classics), pairing music by Weelkes and Byrd in honour of their joint 400th anniversary.

Official Line

“Weelkes’ finest madrigals rival those of Monteverdi and Gesualdo for their contrapuntal skill, dramatic word-painting and chromatic daring.”

Out of Line

“Make mine a double.”

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