Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

Published in 1593, Henry Peacham’s The Compleat Gentleman reminds
us of one of fundamental philosophical and cultural tenets of the
Elizabethan age: the close, perhaps inextricable, relationship which was
held to exist between the art of music and the art of spoken rhetoric. And,
it was that bond of music and word – which composers exploited to ‘move’
the listener by cultivating grief, melancholy, joy and faith – that this
programme of music presented by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall was designed to

But, the self-conscious rhetoric of the lute ayre, with its
quasi-metaphysical tensions and its strange intensity and elusiveness, is
quite a different thing from the nature of the musico-poetic relationship
that we see William Byrd crafting in his 1611 collection, Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets. When Byrd declares his music as being
‘framed to the life of the words’ he does not mean that his songs are a
musical embodiment of a poem’s central conceits, such as we find in John
Dowland’s 1612 collection, A Pilgrimes Solace. Byrd is concerned
not with elusiveness but with clarity; his music reinforces the formal
contours of the poetry which thereby acquires a rhetorical force so that
the listener may appreciate its meaning more directly and powerfully. The
Sixteen, led by their conductor Harry Christophers, proved more comfortable
exploring Byrd’s expressive formal rhetoric and madrigalian detail than
Dowland’s illusive tropes and dialectic.

The items by Dowland offered individual singers an opportunity to step from
the ensemble and perform as soloists, accompanied by lutenist David Miller.
Soprano Katy Hills sang ‘Disdain me still’ with directness, purity of tone
and some attentiveness to the words, but her delivery lacked the
flexibility required to convey the erotic tension of the text which opposes
desire’s fulfilment with its self-destruction: “Disdain me still, that I
may ever love”, begins the poet-singer, concluding, “Love surfeits with
reward, his nurse is scorn”.

These songs require considerable performative presence. Perhaps the
presence on the platform of the other singers and Christophers, the latter
perched on a high stool, was inimical to the recreation of the intimate
context for which these courtly songs – intended for a specific,
intellectually sophisticated and socially elevated status – were composed.
That said, the ensemble was necessary for the choric conclusions to
‘Welcome black night’ and ‘Cease these false sports’, which suggest that
these songs were performed within a masque or similar entertainment. The
florid melismas of the latter were elegantly sung by bass Ben Davies,
although he did not communicate the nuances and inferences of the text,
which he articulated clearly, as the poet-speaker bids “Goodnight” to his
“yet virgin bride”. Jeremy Budd’s tenor was fittingly light and buoyant in
‘Up merry mates’, though in characteristically melancholy fashion, Dowland
concludes with a minor-key choral lament, “A dismal hours,/ Who can
forbear,/ But sink with sad despair.”

Alexandra Kidgell revealed the richly colour lower register of her soprano
at the start of ‘In darkness let me dwell’, but she seemed uncertain how to
negotiate the irregularity of Dowland’s phrase structures and his inventive
approach to text setting which capture the idealisation of sorrow and death
in these elegiac ayres, embodying as they do the notion of inexpressibility
and the dissimulation, concealment and ambivalence which are the essence of
the courtly pose.

The stillness and serenity of soprano Julie Cooper’s performance of ‘Sweet
stay awhile’ was compelling, and bass Eamonn Dougan made much of the
repetition of the final couplet of ‘Shall I strive with words to move’: “I
wooed her, I loved her, and none but her admire./ O come dear joy, and
answer my desire.” Here there was a real sense of human complexity,
contradiction and desire. The Dowland songs were accompanied in a rather
restrained manner by Miller, tasteful and no doubt idiomatic, but with
little sense of the mercurial and ‘strange’ that more elaborate renditions
may intimate. Miller and tenor Mark Dobell had the stage to themselves for
a sequence of three songs, ‘Thou Mighty God’, ‘When David’s Life by Saul’
and ‘When the poor cripple’. Dobell’s soft even tone was apparent from the
first unaccompanied “Thou”, and the vocal line was well-focused as it
twisted through the chromatic contortions and the aching repetitions of
“misery and pain”.

The members of The Sixteen seemed more comfortable singing as an ensemble,
and the idiom of William Byrd’s Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets, ‘Some
solemne, others ioyfull, framed to the life of the words: fit for voyces or
viols of 3.4.5. and 6. parts’, is a natural fit for Christophers’ approach
to words, rhythmic form and temporal expression.

There was a gradual heightening of intensity in the opening ‘Retire, my
soul’, while the ever denser textures of ‘Come woeful Orpheus’ were
beautifully strengthened by the eloquence of the middle voices, culminating
in the urgent chromaticism of the closing appeal: “Of sourest sharps and
uncouth flats make choice,/ And I’ll thereto compassionate my voice.” A
‘wiry’ nimbleness characterised ‘Come, let us rejoice unto the Lord’ and
this energy swept through and beyond the final phrase, Christophers briskly
snatching away the concluding avowal, “in psalms let us make joy to him”.
The way Byrd’s uses formal rhetoric to communicate verbal, often moral,
meaning was well-illustrated at the close of ‘Arise Lord into thy rest’,
the melismatic ‘leans’ of “Let the priests be clothed with justice
” being sharply superseded by the staccato dance, “And let the saints

I found some of the lighter lyrics presented in the second half – ‘Sing we
merrily’, ‘Come jolly swains’ – a trifle too tinged with the diction and
tone colour of the English cathedral school tradition; but, ‘This sweet and
merry month of May’ had lovely flexibility, the triple-time “pleasure of
the joyful time”, giving way to the expansive awe and adulation of “ O beauteous Queen”, before a celebratory surge to the close. The
“Amen” at the end of ‘Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles’ was warm and florid,
opening its petals like a budding flower releasing its scents and welcoming
the sunlight. Some of the ensemble songs were accompanied by Miller but, at
least from my seat at the rear of Wigmore Hall, the lute was practically

‘This day Christ was born’ had made for a buoyant conclusion to the first
half of the concert, “rejoice” blossoming melismatically before a majestic
“Glory be to God on high” was answered by a triple-time “Alleluia”.
Christophers manoeuvred the structural and temporal shifts with masterful
control and ease. Similarly, the seamless polyphony of the final item of
the concert, ‘Turn our captivity, O Lord’, built persuasively towards the
confident assertion, “they shall come with joy”, and the broad assurance,
“carrying their sheaves with them”.

Claire Seymour

The Sixteen: Harry Christophers (conductor)

Byrd – ‘Retire my soul’; Dowland – ‘Disdain me still, that I may ever
love’; Byrd – ‘Come woeful Orpheus’; Dowland – ‘Welcome black night/Cease
these false sports’; Byrd – ‘Come, let us rejoice unto our Lord’, ‘How vain
the toils’, ‘Arise Lord into thy rest’; Dowland – ‘Thou mighty God’; Byrd
-‘Make ye joy to God’, ‘This day Christ was born’, ‘Sing we merrily’;
Dowland – ‘In darkness let me dwell’; Byrd – ‘Come jolly swains’; Dowland –
‘Up merry mates’; Byrd – ‘Crowned with flowers and lilies’; Dowland –
‘Sweet stay awhile’; Byrd – ‘This sweet and merry month of May’; Dowland –
Preludium, ‘The Frog Galliard’; Byrd – ‘Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles’;
Dowland – ‘Shall I strive with words to move’; Byrd – ‘Turn our captivity,
O Lord’

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 21st February 2020.

product_title=The Sixteen sing Dowland and Byrd at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Harry Christophers

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve