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Mourning a Stuart ‘Absalom’

22 May 2015

Roderic Dunnett hears plangent voices and viols in Colchester

THERE can be few concerts or recitals during which one has the chance to hear four works by Robert Ramsey (c.1590-1644), court musician to James I in the Scottish and then English court, and latterly choirmaster (Master of the Children) at Trinity College, Cambridge - let alone to catch the first modern performance of his work commemorating a dead prince.

But Colchester Chamber Choir, under its characterful director, Roderick Earle, himself an opera soloist of distinction, has an appetite for reviving or giving life to lesser-known or lost works. In this case, their programme was unusual and invigorating. All, or almost all, the pieces performed in their latest concert at St Peter's, North Hill, paid a tribute to the lost prince, the 18-year-old Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales, son of James I and elder brother to Charles I, who expired of typhoid fever in November 1612, and whose death brought a massive outpouring of public mourning: as one writer had it, "An ocean of tears".

Prince Henry was seen as the admirable hope for England's future: astute, cultured, scientific, sporting, and charismatic, perhaps the future deliverer of English pride from the pressures of Roman Catholic Spain. As the National Portrait Gallery exhibition devoted to the prince in 2012-13 showed, he was also the subject of some of the most meltingly beautiful and expressive portraiture of the period.

Colchester's choral tribute was given the title "When David Heard", because of the number of elegies to the young prince included which draw an analogy with the deaths of Saul, Jonathan, and especially David's son Absalom.

But most important on this occasion was Ramsey's Dialogues of Sorrow upon the Death of the late Prince Henrie. Performed, like many of these pieces, with a rich backdrop of plaintive viols (the Royal Consort, closely associated with the Royal College of Music), the work - not actually heard till 1615 - has required some reconstruction, effected here by Andrew Kerr, with some apt textual additions to verse one by Hugh Keyte. "Delight is dead, and dying did bestow upon her votaries due legacy," runs the restored text. "Twofold bequests doth dead Delight impart, to some salt tears, to me a broken heart."

The choir intermingles with a pair of agreeably assured soprano solos: "Why are thine [eyes] so dry, yet in thy face a world of woe appears?" was one exemplary choral passage; "Death slew him not, 'twas a celestial fire divine ambition kindled in his breast" was another. Where the whole chamber choir joined in, the impact was richly rewarding: "with tears of woe, and thus bewail his end", or "O no, he is not dead", where the tenors, a little variable elsewhere, came good. What especially shone was a kind of Purcellian feel, sensed well before its time.

The pièce de résistance of this pleasingly retrieved work is the close, where the words "He fled to Heaven" are coloured by the voices ascending in turn: a delightfully picturesque way of visualising this lamented prince being drawn up by angels to heaven.

One or two more tentative starts aside, the choir consistently excelled in strong, robust delivery and firm and dependable conclusions: Ramsey's "When David heard", with its alluring canonic effects and some intricate counterpoint ("Would to God I had died for thee"); or John Ward's "No object dearer", more buoyant and madrigalian, where a slightly unyielding, perhaps over-robust approach in the chorus earlier on was replaced, to advantage, by a tangibly lighter touch. The insistent descending sequence "arm'd by Fate's despite" was splendidly well-managed.

The diminuendo that concludes Thomas Weelkes's "O Jonathan, woe is me" ("Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women") was especially touching, while some improved balances in Richard Dering's Contristatus est Rex David - which has something of the dance about it - revealed an evenness between the voices which verged on exemplary. Both that and Dering's picturesque "And the king was moved", equally well intoned, were tributes to Prince Henry; the grieving in both anthems is of David for Absalom, and both were poignantly intoned.

Another rarity was Thomas Tomkins's exquisite lament for Prince Henry, "Know you not", launched here by a notably fine bass solo. Some of the detail hinges upon the offsetting of soprano (in effect soprano and alto) solos with the main choir, and a nicely executed passage where solos from all four voices contribute in turn.

Like much of the second half, this had a delicacy and a marked intelligence to the singing: the finale, "Ah, Lord, ah, his glory!" was masterful. "Then David mourned" was sung in a lighter, more subdued way; the result was exhilarating. But it perhaps should be no surprise that Tomkins's "When David heard", the best-known piece in the concert, drew almost certainly their best and most rarefied performance, restrained even when using full forces, abetted by a cleverly chosen, risky driving pace from Roderick Earle.

Two works especially gained from some eloquent soprano solos: Thomas Vautor's "Melpomene, bewail" ("Prince Henry's dead, farewell the Muses' King"); and most significantly, William Byrd's late elegy "Fair Britain isle" ("Who took away in moment of one hour, Henry our Prince of Princes the flower"). Hillary Sellers and Jennifer Lloyd did sterling work in several solo passages - not so much restrained as quite urgent and intent, and competent.

Lighter-voiced was Lehla Abbott in the Byrd, marginally tentative but certainly attractive. Incidentally, this was a refined work in which a boy's solo voice might fare even better.

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