Thomas Weelkes

(c1576 -- 1623)

Thomas Weelkes, whose professional career spanned one of the most fertile periods in England's musical history, is without doubt one of her finest composers. Like Purcell, he had a vivid imagination and love of experiment, and died prematurely at the peak of his creative powers, but not before he had composed a very large amount of music. Nowhere are Weelkes' outstanding musical abilities more evident than in his four sets of madrigals, which appeared between 1597 and 1608, and his splendidly sonorous full anthems. The English madrigal school reached its peak with Weelkes, the most original madrigalist, and John Wilbye, the most polished; both were deeply indebted to Thomas Morley, both surpassed him.

Probably the son of a Sussex clergyman, Weelkes was appointed organist of Winchester College in 1598. There he composed some of his finest madrigals, which appeared in two volumes published in 1598 and 1600. In July 1602 he graduated BMus from New College, Oxford; and some time between October 1601 and October 1602 he was appointed organist and master of the choristers at Chichester Cathedral, where he ended his days, dismissed from his post on grounds of his being a habitual common drunkard and a notorious swearer and blasphemer, a tragic end for the successful young madrigal composer of the 1590s, who had evidently aspired to higher things: several of his anthems and services were written not with Chichester in mind but for the more sumptuous services and ceremonies of the Chapel Royal, with which he evidently had some informal contact. He never, however, consolidated the London connectionto the extent that he could leave provicial Chichester. We can only speculate whether the debuached habits were the cause of the stagnation in his career ir the effect if it.

As a madrigalist, Thomas Weelkes owed a great debt to Thomas Morley, who had done more than anyone to establish the Italian form on English soil. But while Weelkes' madrigals may lack Morley's lightness of touch and fondness for nimble counterpoint, they are much more adventurous and possess stronger links with English musical tradition. Similarly, although Weelkes does not display the same elegant and carefully shaded sensitivity to the text as John Wilbye, arguably England's greatest madrigalist, he pushed the use of musical imagery to its limits and often attained a magnificent sonority in his writing.

These qualities are shown to perfection in two masterpieces from his Madrigals of 5 and 6 Parts (1600), dubbed by Joseph Kerman 'one of the high points, if not the highest point, of the English Madrigal repertory'. The first, O care, thou wilt despatch me/Hence care, thou art too cruel, is based on the 'ballett,' traditionally a light, dance-like form with a 'fa-la' refrain, which Weelkes transforms into a vehicle for pathos and despair, the tragic 'fa-la's which close each part lending an air of total resignation. The second part, Hence care, is remarkable for its extreme chromaticism redolent of Carlo Gesualdo's mannerist Italian madrigals. The other work, Thule, the period of cosmography/The Andalusian merchant, is a much more expansive musical structure in which the poet's vivid geographical reports are exaggerated by the most striking musical imagery, ranging from the furious scales depicting Hecla's 'sulphureous fire' and the rising accompaniment to Mount Etna's ascending flames, through the flying fishes' acrobatic motif, to the meandering chromaticism of 'how strangely Fogo burns'. But the real climax comes at the end of each part, where the poet reflects that his feelings are far 'more wondrous' than any traveller's tale. As Professor Kerman has remarked, this piece links Weelkes with the works of Drake and Hakluyt and 'should occupy a special place for admirers of the Elizabethan spirit'.

Weelkes had the most restless, exploring musical imagination of any, achieving greater extremes of expression within the compass of one madrigal, as well as width of human experience, from care-free drinking or tobacco songs to care-laden masterpieces, like 'O care, thou wilt dispatch me.' With him one is relieved from the Petrarchan obsession with the love of women (the women themselves must often have been bored!). There is a whole spectrum instead, from the Cries of London, 'New Walfleet oysters', or 'The ape, the monkey and baboon', through the bell-like gaiety of 'On the plains', to the most astonishing of madrigals, 'Thule, the period of cosmography', and 'The Andalusian merchant'. These last, with their fantastic descriptiveness, the musical leaps from Hecla's fire to 'frozen climes', the references to cochineal and china dishes and 'how strangely Fogo burns', throw the mind back to the world of the Madre de Dios with its cargo of cochineal, the Chinese Ming porcelain that came into Burlegh's possession and, tricked out in Elizabethan silver garnishing, is to be seen now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is not fanciful to see the physical expansion of their world reflected in the explorations and discoveries of their minds.

Weelkes was familiar with the chromatic expressionism of the Italians, but it corresponded with his own emotional needs and trials. In his finest madrigals in this vein, 'Hence, care, thou art too cruel', and 'Cease sorrows now', one hears the autobiographical inspiration. He wrote more madrigals than any, except Morley, but, with his intensity of temperament, crammed the bulk of his work into four early years. He was about twenty-two when he produced his first set in 1597: 'unripe in regard of time', he said in dedicating 'the first fruits of my barren ground' to a Hampshire gentleman who had been good to him. From the time of the severe Bishop Horne there had been no organ in Winchester College. Not until Weelkes' appointment in 1598-9 was the organ restored to chapel services. In 1598 Weelkes followed Morley with a set of Ballets--these delightful compositions are always distinguished by fa-la refrains. He displayed a wider range than most in his choice of words, in this volume drawing upon Barnabe Barnes as in the former from Barnfield's poems in The Passionate Pilgrim. In his dedication to Edward Darcy, who became Groom of the Privy Chamber, Weelkes says pathetically, 'although poverty hath debarred them [musicians] their fellow arts-men's company, yet nature hath set their better part at liberty to delight them that love music.'

Weelkes' masterpiece came in two volumes he published in 1600, the first with a dedication to Lord Windsor. Once more there is the defensive note: the impoverished musician could hardly expect a lord to 'descend to the notice of a quality lying single in so low a personage as myself.' Weelkes' one and only talent was music: 'I confess my conscience is untouched with any other arts . . . many of us musicians think it as much praise to be somewhat more than musicians ... and if Jack Cade were alive yet some of us might live.' It seems sad that, 'without the assistance of other more confident sciences', discouragement should often have weighed down the spirit of -one capable of such a joyful masterpiece as -

Why are you ladies staying,
 And your lords gone a-maying?
Run, run apace and meet them,
And with your garlands greet them ...

 Hark! hark! I hear some dancing
And a nimble morris prancing,
The bagpipe and the morris bells

The second set of 1600, all composed for six voices, was dedicated to George Brooke, who fetched up on the scaffold three years later for conspiring with the Catholic Father Watson against James I ('the fox and his cubs'). This set opens with the bellicose and descriptive, 'Like two proud armies marching in the field', and includes the wonderful 'Thule'. This virtually closed Weelkes' marvelous madrigal output, seventy compositions, some of them more contrapuntally elaborate than any other. He moved on to Chichester and Church music. In 1608 there came a kind of coda, Airs or Fantastic Spirits for three voices. These are on a smaller scale, in a quite different vein: they reveal the humors and quirks of Weelkes and his drinking and smoking companions:

 I swear that this tobacco
It's perfect Trinidado ...
Fill the pipe once more,
My brains dance trenchmore.
It is heady, I am giddy,
Head and brains,
Back and reins, joints and veins:
From all pains
It doth well purge and make clean.

Or, for a familiar theme in social life:

 Some men desire spouses
That come of noble houses.
And some would have in marriage
Ladies of courtly carriage.
But few desire, as I do
The maidenhead of a widow.

It was customary for English composers to conclude their madrigal prints with an elegy on the death of a famous person, and Weelkes' publications are no exception. Cease now delight (1598) commemorates the death in Ireland the previous year of Thomas Lord Borough. It begins in triple time, but soon changes to duple metre in an attempt to underscore the transition from delight to 'sorrow', a word which is accompanied by pungent dissonance. Noel, adieu (1600) is dedicated to Sir Henry Noel, Elizabethan courtier and musical amateur, in whose memory Thomas Morley had earlier (in 1597) composed an elegy. Death hath deprived me (1608), written in remembrance of the death in 1602 of Morley himself, is a deeply-felt tribute, in which the 'grave' of the deceased is represented by a low D major chord, and the phrase 'until the world shall end' by a short descending figure. Weelkes' highly original treatment of this idea, which is shot through the texture from bass to soprano and ends abruptly as if it were suspended in mid-air, led E. H. Fellows to believe it represented 'the crack of doom'.

Midway between the printed madrigals and the church music stand two sacred madrigals, the laments O Jonathan and When David heard/O my son Absalom. Both are richly scored for six voices, and the latter is one of the finest pieces in the repertory. Here, once again, Weelkes explores the depths of grief, and the music is outstanding for its striking textural contrasts, its wealth of ideas, its excellent contrapuntal technique, and its sheer expressive power. (This work even influenced later madrigal composers, such as John Ward and Thomas Tomkins, who both refer to Weelkes' final section in their own compositions.)

After 1608 Weelkes published no more madrigals. Instead, well versed in the polyphonic techniques of William Byrd, he apparently devoted his creative energies to the production of a large quantity of church music, probably for use at Chichester Cathedral. Unfortunately, the composer's relationship with the ecclesiastical authorities was not a happy one and from 1609 onwards he was often in trouble. At first negligence and absenteeism were the main problem. But by 1616 he was 'noted and famed for a common drunkard and notorious swearer and blasphemer'; and in 1619 he had 'Very often come so disguised eyther from the Taverne or Ale house into the quire as is much to be lamented, for in these humoures he will bothe curse and sweare most dreadfully'.

Weelkes' enormous talent rose above his daily personal difficulties, however, and he managed to produce a stream of sacred compositions in a wide range of styles. Three brilliant full-textured anthems, Hosanna to the son of David, Alleluia, I heard a voice, and Gloria in excelsis Deo, use recurring musical and verbal material to unify them, a device which the composer had earlier developed in his madrigals. All three are dramatic works which combine fluent polyphonic technique with church anthem, Gloria exploits madrigalian chromaticism and the words 'tune thy heart'; and Alleluia is the only anthem in the repertory to exist in both 'Verse' and 'full' forms, and may have been influential, as the later madrigalist and composer of sacred music, John Ward, clearly modelled his own setting on it.

Writing from Winchester College, in the preface to his Madrigals of 1600, Weelkes confesses that his 'conscience is untoucht with any other arts' than music and apologises for 'these slender labours'. It is easy to share Joseph Kerman's indignation at the lack of contemporary interest in Weelkes' madrigals, when he wrote: 'A society that can allow a talent of this kind to go to waste while poets best forgotten flourish can hardly be considered a healthy one from a musical point of view'. Be that as it may, Weelkes is certainly the most paradoxical figure among the English madrigalists and one of the most interesting and talented English composers of his time.

A Partial Thomas Weelkes Discography   |  IV M: England Through 1635 |  The English Madrigalists  |  Index of Madrigal Composers