The musical portion of Still. Here., Seraphic Fire’s November 8th, 2020 concert program is divided into three acts dealing with fear, longing, and hope, respectively. Aside from the first work on the program, composers are English or Italian. Each lived during a particularly plague-and-epidemic-disease-ridden time for their homelands, a period from the beginning of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th century.
Prior to this time, the last “great” plague was beyond the living memory of these composers. It began during the rule of the Eastern Roman dictator Justinian and continued for two centuries (541–c. 750). To offer a musical reference, the music which we now commonly refer to as “Gregorian” chant did not see its birth until at least the century after the final outbreaks of this first plague pandemic. The next plague outbreak, the one posthumously-titled “The Black Death,” would not begin until the 14th century, ravaging communities on the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe through the end of the 17th century, with smaller outbreaks following as late as the 19th century.
Beginning in the late Medieval period and continuing through the European Renaissance, composers left documents of this experience in sound. We hear desperation, fear, and pleading; but we also hear tales of deep love, strong friendship, and hope.
Our program opens with a piece written in response to the Black Death. Stella caeli, a 14th century plague chant, speaks in terms that, at the time, would have been considered universal:
We didn’t cause this plague (our ancestors did);
It is causing us great fear of bodily harm (in this case, death ulcers);
Only a divine miracle can save us.
Our contemporary view of linking pandemic disease events to microscopic and smaller agents is a relatively modern one based on mid-19th century “germ theory” studies by the French scientist Louis Pasteur. In the 14th century, however, plagues were thought of as supernatural events. As such, the remedy for such plagues was similarly supernatural and required supernatural intercession (here directly addressing the deity in song).
From this anonymous melody, we move to the early 16th-century court of Henry VIII of England, who was mortally afraid of an outbreak of the “Sweating Sickness.” The death of Henry’s brother Arthur from a similar disease was the event that placed Henry first in line for the English throne. During one particularly virulent outbreak, Henry fled from court into isolation, taking with him only his doctors and his organist, Memo. Notably, Henry brought neither his spouse nor members of his family.
Fittingly, both William Cornysh’s Ah, Robin and Henry VIII’s own (attributed) Passtime with good company deal in the separation of humans from their lovers and friends, offering emotional insight into the attendant human affliction and isolation in times of disease.
Ah, Robin begins with a simple canon—two voices singing the same musical material displaced in time yet creating a musical whole. It poses the question of how “thy lehman doth,” or how one’s romantic partner fares. Two voices in dialogue voice opposing views. For one, the lover is unkind and faithless; for the other, the lover is true. The canon underneath, with its beginning as end and end as beginning, underlines feelings of anxiety over our loved ones in times of separation.
Passtime with good company, on the other hand, sings the praises of companionship. A trio trumpets the youthful yearnings of physical connection. “Youth must have some dalliance,” poses the song. The choice of associations—“good or ill”—is left to the free will of the individual; but, in the end, company is virtuous, dispelling the vices around us.
As we fly over France on our way to Italy, we are treated to a entr’acte provided by longtime Seraphic Fire lutenist John Lenti. Two French country dances, a Branle and Gaillarde, from the revolutionary printer, Pierre Attaingnant, reset our minds and ears for a very different musical style. These lute dances illustrate completeness—longing coming to resolution. The Branle’s searching melody and pungent half-phrase gives way to a musically satisfactory and resolutely up-tempo Galliarde.
The Italian peninsula during the lives of our next two composers—Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Claudio Monteverdi—was devastated by plague; when that retreated, malaria (literally mal aria, or “bad air”) was not far behind to take its place as an invisible invader. Both composers were in ecclesiastical employ when they grappled, musically, with the existential threat of mass illness.Yet with universal empathy, they expressed a deep, visceral longing in their music, both sacred and secular.
In 1525, the most probable year of Palestrina’s birth, current-day-Italy was in the midst of a seven-year bubonic plague outbreak. Palestrina spent most of his life in Rome. He formed his worldview in a city that was constantly fighting off, or recovering from, disease. Two of Palestrina’s motet masterpieces, Super flumina Babylonis and Sicut cervus, convey an aching longing: one yearning for homeland, another comparing an animal’s thirst to his/her desire for wholeness.
Super flumina has served as a particular anthem for us, the artists of Seraphic Fire, during this time of distance and silence. The images of musicians hanging up their instruments on the trees, prevented by both circumstance and grief from uttering sound: this is the most personal piece on the program. From the first utterance of the basses, we hear the descending and then rising half-step on the word flumina (“rivers”). The bass voices continue with a phrase that sounds alternately like a wailing lament, or an aural depiction of a twisting river. As each voice enters in turn, we as listeners join the communal understanding of loss communicated through angst-ridden polyphony ends on a harmonic question mark, unresolved, unrelenting.
Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes (“As the deer longs for water”) presents us with a counter-argument—longing, through harmony, is sated. Sicut cervus (in contrast to Super flumina) begins with an upward ascending half-step motive in the tenor voices, pointing the listener towards anticipation (rather than anxiety). The text painting by Palestrina on the word aquarum is of particular brilliance and strength. Throughout the work, we are treated to larger, tension-filled intervals resolving to more comforting and static harmonies. This musical longing—wanting to release tension—achieves this goal when it comes to an end with the same quiet confidence with which it began.
Monteverdi (1567–1643) also contended with plague in Venice at the height of his career. It was Monteverdi’s music, which, fittingly and triumphantly, celebrated the end of Venice’s two-year bout with plague at the Basilica di San Marco in 1631. Five years later, Monteverdi published his Madrigali guerreri et amarosi (Madrigals of War and Love). The Lamento della Ninfa is a sensuous three-movement depiction of a young maiden who shakes her fist at the sky, longing for a lover lost. The middle movement, sung over a ground bass (a repeating set of notes), is one of the great moments of the literature. Note the way in which Monteverdi uses a trio of men’s voices as a greek chorus: delivering plot points, and punctuating the lament of the music’s heroine.
For the conclusion of our program, we return from whence we came—Tudor England—but this time with Elizabeth I on the throne. England continues to be ravaged by disease, this time bubonic plague. We return to the seductively engaging English school of lute playing. The jaunty, and anonymous, Wilson’s Wilde gives way to A Toy, an evocative number. We are treated to an aural depiction of a music box winding down. The piece doesn’t end—it simply trails off, leaving us with a smiling nostalgia.
Come again, Sweet Love by John Dowland begins our epilogue. Dowland, born during the Elizabethan plagues, took as his moto Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens (Always Dowland, Always Dolorous) and does not disappoint here. Come again pleads quite literally from the heart for the return of a lover lost. Dowland sets words repeating textured dialogue (“to see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die”), wonderfully mimicking heart-palpitations beating in anticipation.
The words to The Poore People’s Complaynt, found in the anonymous Shirburn BaLlads, lament on the 1685 death of Francis Russel, 2nd Earl of Bedford, a great philanthropist and patron of the indigent. Philanthropy was in trouble. Henry VIII had dissolved the English monasteries years earlier (the primary source of alms for the poor in 16th century England) and either kept them as property of the state, gave them to allies as patronage, or sold them off to pay for other projects. This piece speaks to the times: The good Earl is lauded, the impact on the poor is mourned, and the lack of charitable souls in the world is sardonically bewailed. This text is sung to the traditional English tune “Light O’ Love,” which now carries the nickname “The Earl of Bedford” for its association with this ballad.
We end our program with another child of the Elizabethan-era plagues, Thomas Campion, composer-lyricist of Never weather-beaten sail. Comfort and encouragement are at the fore; help and relief are soon at hand. Even the structure of the piece gives off security. Quickly, the speaker emplores, quickly might come my respite. The terse structure shows the pleas of a weary sojourner—ready for the order to emerge from the chaos of uncertainty.
This program is dedicated to the memory of a dear friend who has left us since we last made music, our own “Earl of Bedford,” Marvin Sackner. Marvin, along with his wife Ruth who predeceased him, were original members of the Seraphic Fire family. A polymath-inventor, doctor, curator, collector, scholar, father, and friend, Marvin always lovingly encouraged us to try something new. This most certainly is that, and we celebrate Marvin’s life with every note.
If you are interested in finding out more about our program, see the full program with complete text and translations below.
With great anticipation of being reunited with you on Sunday,
Patrick Dupré Quigley
November Program Book: (View the latest issue of the Seraphic Fire Magazing by clicking here.)