Oriana, Fairest Queen: Stile Antico celebrate the life and times of Elizabeth I

The vocal ensemble was at its best in the items that brought all twelve
voices together in a mellifluous but rich-grained blend. The ebbing swells
of Byrd’s and Tallis’s polyphonic glories, the plaintive rhetoric of
Dowland’s lute conceits, the jubilant majesty of the madrigalian homages of
Wilbye and Weelkes: diverse musical worlds and expressive contexts were
rendered with equal assurance and accomplishment.

More florid contrapuntal excursions, or episodes where the texture was
sparser and the musical arguments flew thick and fast, were not always so
persuasive. Such moments were full of vitality but occasionally the
intonation of the soprano line did not stay wholly tethered to the bass.
And, in the items requiring smaller forces not all the singers seemed
equally at home with a more soloistic role, though others relished the
opportunity to engage directly with the audience.

The concert might have been as aptly titled ‘Music for Troubled Times’ as
‘Music for A Golden Age’. For, as Catholic recusants such as William Byrd
knew well, patronage and propaganda, art and politics, were never far
apart. Byrd’s Anglican anthem, ‘O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our
Queen’, was probably written when Byrd was the organist at Lincoln
Cathedral and it’s easy to imagine that its rich counterpoint embodies the
hopefulness of the young composer. The vocal entries were clearly but
sensitively marked, and there was a lovely expansiveness through the second
line of appeal, ‘Give her her heart’s desire and deny not the request of
her lips’, the cadence piquantly pointed by chromatic inner voices. The
warm, glowing ‘Amen’ perhaps the conveyed the confident, grateful and
affectionate sentiments of a composer in a prominent but precarious
position, towards his monarch, patron and protector.

The cessation of Catholic services in 1549 and 1559 made the Latin motet,
in the words of Joseph Kerman, a ‘major art-form under peremptory death
sentence’. But, while extinction might have seemed the likely prospect for
the motet following the Act of Uniformity, or Elizabethan Settlement, which marked the accession of Queen Elizabeth, the continued
strong influence exerted by the music of the Continent and the artistic
sang-froid of English composers in response to successive religious
revolutions – Elizabeth I was the fourth monarch to rule England in Thomas
Tallis’s lifetime – ensured that Latin motets, often setting non-liturgical
texts or performed in private homes, continued to be composed. Indeed,
Kerman suggests, ‘one might argue the proposition that the Latin motet
remained the richest form of English music until as late as 1590’.


Certainly, ‘Attollite portas’ by Byrd (who was just sixteen years-old when
Elizabeth ascended to the throne) and Tallis’s ‘Absterge Domine’ provide
evidence of the richness Kerman describes. Byrd’s motet had both breadth
and brightness – I’d have liked even more soprano lustre – but the rhythmic
and textural freedom proved a challenge at times. Stile Antico seemed to
find Tallis’s piling penitential entries at the start of ‘Absterge Domine’
more natural ground for their timbral coherence and they built compelling
energy through the text’s driving expression of devotion – ‘nam tu es Deus
meus, tibi soli fidit anima mea’ (for thou art my God, my soul hath faith
in thee alone) – enjoying, too, the false relations and chromatic nuances
which perhaps betray the motet’s origin in an instrumental fantasia.

Musicologists have oft commented on the mutually beneficial interchange
between Tallis, Byrd and Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder, the latter having
risen to a high level in the musical court of Elizabeth. (It has also been
suggested that he was the queen’s spy: when imprisoned in Italy, accused of
murder, treason and practising Catholicism, it was the intercession of
Catherine de’ Medici and Elizabeth I that secured his release.)
Ferrabosco’s psalm-settings ‘Exaudi Deus orationem meam’ (SATTBB) and ‘Ad
Dominum cum tribularer’ (SSTTB) – sung here by six and twelve singers
respectively – shared melodic breadth and linear fluency with the preceding
Byrd anthem and motet. A pleading urgency marked the opening of the former,
while ‘Ad Dominum’ was invigored by strong forward momentum which
underpinned textual intensity.

Secular chansons and villanelles from the Continent provided variety of
mood, texture and language. The threads tying Orlande de Lassus’s ‘Madonna
mia, piet‡’, Adrian Willaert’s ‘Vecchie letrose non valete niente’ and
‘Doulce memoire en plaisir consommÈe’ by Pierre Sandrin (or Regnault) to
the Elizabethan court may be tenuous – the programme note suggested that
the Winchester Partbooks in which the three songs are found may
have been a gift from to Elizabeth from Erik XIV of Sweden, one of the
Queen’s many suitors in marriage


, though the works themselves exist in sources dating from 1555, 1545 and
1537 respectively – but this made them no less musically appealing. The
four-voice texture of ‘Madonna mia’ freshened the palette after the denser
English motets and the text was vividly interpreted – the homophonic
pronouncement, ‘Vostra altiera belt‡, sola infinita’ (Your lofty beauty,
unique and boundless’), had a lovely intensity – though the intonation was
not consistently secure. The spiteful vulgarity of ‘Vecchie letrose’ –
which castigates ‘spiteful old hags’ who are ‘murderous and mad!’ – was
delivered with light-hearted directness by two tenors and two basses, whose
springy syncopations had delightfully parodic grace. The simple melancholy
of Sandrin’s plaint for lost love was beautifully evoked but the quartet
were less successful in capturing the Gallic tint of the text.

The twelve singers came together again for John Dowland’s ‘Now, O now I
needs must part’, which unfolded a little too languorously for this
listener (the cadential rhythmic suspensions did not have quite enough
insistent, tugging impact) but which was beautifully hushed in tone. I liked the injection of power in the second stanza, thus
complementing the dialectical text which first impresses the impossibility
of recapturing lost joy now that love has been divided, but then asserts
that, in fact, affection is not destroyed by absence and will survive until
Death itself intervenes. Baritone Will Dawes assumed the melodic line in
the final stanza, his delicate decorations both vivid and tasteful, and his
tone tenderly beautiful. ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’ was sung by a vocal
quartet and was compellingly rhetorical, the individual voices freely
exploring the syncopated gestures, held together by a strongly rooted bass

Not surprisingly, two madrigals from The Triumphs of Oriana – the
collection of 25 works by 23 composers which Thomas Morley published in
1601 – concluded the programme, with the ensemble uniting once more for
John Wilbye’s ‘The Lady Oriana’ and Thomas Weelkes’ ‘As Vesta was from
Latmos hill descending’. These was a true sense of scale and majesty as
Stile Antico relished Wilbye’s repetitions and sequences, while Weelkes’s
unapologetic word-painting – ‘descending’, ‘ascending’ and ‘running’
phrases fulfilling their descriptors, and the departure of the shepherds’
swain, ‘First two by two, then three by three’, being texturally
represented – was obviously enjoyed.

The twelve singers were at ease in each other’s musical company and warmly
engaged in their collective music-making. The presentation and choreography
of the concert was professional and slick, though the note-pitching at the
start of each item seemed overly fussy … perhaps the group were distracted
by the atypical interruption of the prefatory commentary of the BBC radio
presenter which necessitated repeated short delays in between the musical

This was a varied and uplifting concert: just what was needed to rebuff the
unseasonal chill of the tenacious ‘Beast from the East’ which has revisited
London in recent days. Wigmore Hall was bursting to the seams and the
programme offered something to suit every predilection. We were offered an
encore, too – ‘Gaudete in Domino’ by Giaches de Wert – which demonstrated
the composer (1535-96) to be a master of the Franco-Flemish school, though
I’m at a loss as to what a composer who spent most of his active career in
service to the Gonzaga dukes in Mantua has to do with the Virgin Queen.

I’d have preferred to leave Wigmore Hall with my ears ringing with Weelkes’
dazzling contrapuntal conclusion, the infinite explorations of
‘Long live fair Oriana!’ seeming to embody both the Queen’s unassailable
spirit and the unbounded optimism of the age.

Claire Seymour

Stile Antico

Byrd – ‘O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth’; Tallis – ‘Absterge Domine’;
Byrd – ‘Attollite portas’; Lassus – ‘Madonna mia piet‡’; Willaert –
‘Vecchie letrose non valete niente’; Sandrin – ‘Doulce memoire en plaisir
consommÈe’; Ferrabosco – ‘Exaudi Deus orationem meam’, ‘Ad Dominum cum
tribularer’; Dowland -‘Now, O now I needs must part’, ‘Can she excuse my
wrongs’; Wilbye – ‘The Lady Oriana’, Weelkes – ‘As Vesta was from Latmos
hill descending’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19th March 2018.


Joseph Kerman, ‘The Elizabethan Motet: A Study of Texts for Music’, Studies in the Renaissance Vol.9 (1962), pp.273-308.


This argument was first proposed by Kristine K. Forney in ‘A Gift
of Madrigals and Chansons: The Winchester Part Books and the
Courtship of Elizabeth I by Erik XIV of Sweden’, The Journal of Musicology Vol.17, No.1, (Winter, 1999),

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Photo credit: Marcus Borggreve