THE period ensemble Passamezzo has made a speciality of programmes in which a spoken narrative links, and provides a context for, music on a particular theme. Appropriately for the season, on the eve of Quinquagesima, we heard at St John’s Wood Church in London the first performance of their latest offering, “The Battle between Shrovetide and Lent”, which in 16th- and 17th-century Britain was big business indeed.
The subject of the programme, which was repeated at St Thomas the Martyr, Bristol, three days later, was, in spite of the reference to Lent, almost without exception food, and not just pancakes. To this were added a helping of 17th-century football hooliganism and other anti-social behaviour, and St Valentine’s Day hanky-panky.
The literary content of the programme was devised and assembled by Taylor Aucoin, an American scholar at the University of Bristol currently undertaking a doctoral thesis examining festive culture in medieval and early modern Britain, focusing on Shrovetide and its related customs. The variety of sources is witness to his endeavour: Thomas Dekker, William Dunbar, William Hawkins, Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick — and Shakespeare, who perhaps captured the mood of the programme with “Do nothing but eat, and make good cheer” (Henry IV, Part 2, Act V, Scene iii).
This was complemented with vocal and instrumental music by composers such as Thomas Campion, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Orlando Gibbons, and Martin Peerson, in which the musicians demonstrated their virtuosity on a variety of instruments — violin, viols, recorder, lute and cittern — besides singing, as soloists and in combination, sometimes simultaneously while playing. The instrumental ensemble playing was of the highest order. The players’ attentiveness to each other, and obvious pleasure in working together, added an extra dimension to the performances.
John Taylor’s Jack a Lent (1620) — famously depicted astride a herring, in pursuit of a “fat grosse bursten-gutted groome, called Shroue-Tuesday”, and with Hunger behind him — kept us company throughout the performance, extolling the pleasures of meat and disdaining, at great length, the interminable Lenten fish diet (“the numberlesse Army that Lent doth conduct”).
Here, and in the “Battle” that ended the programme, the actors Duncan Law and Michael Palmer represented Shrovetide and Lent respectively, Shrovetide all bluster and confidence, with a “chain of office” made of sausages and fried eggs; Lent on the defensive, knowing that he is not popular (no meat, eggs, dairy, or sex during Lent), and is eventually sent on his way in an anonymous poem of 1661, ending “So hungry Lent adieu, We are resolv’d to feed in spite of you.”
This was a very well-researched, assembled, and presented programme, which deserves repeated hearings, though limited to the time of year that it can be performed. I learned much about Shrovetide (Carnival) which was completely new to me, and I can imagine the scope for modern-day commercial enterprise if this were more widely known, though it seems unlikely.
I’m not sure if a large church is the place to do it, however; a greater degree of intimacy is required, though it might work out of doors. Audibility was the problem in a programme where words are paramount. Law and Palmer — seasoned professional actors — were fine. The instrumental playing was impeccable, and the singing mostly good, though the sweet-toned soprano (and viol player) Eleanor Cramer must project more and not fade away at the end of phrases.
There was some very good ensemble singing, particularly the extract from George Wither’s The Hymnes and Songes of the Church (1623, not 1621 as stated in the programme), sung — as in the original — to Song 34 by Orlando Gibbons, now universally associated with Charles Wesley’s hymn “Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go”.
The great disappointment was Taylor Aucoin himself, who provided a linking narration throughout the programme, read in a very lacklustre manner into a hand-held microphone that may not have been working; so his words were at best indistinct, at worst inaudible. This was a great shame; for the content, based on his ongoing doctoral research, was undoubtedly fascinating and an important part of the presentation. But it needs to be delivered with as much energy and expression as were the actors’ lines, communicating the drama, humour, and interest of the subject, providing impetus between the sections and telling a story that holds the audience’s attention.
A professional narrator could do this (and without the microphone) and transform an already good programme into an excellent and imaginative one.