Master Tresham: His Duckeforces: Orchestra, Chorus, Organ
published by: Composer
Nominated for a 2006 British Academy of Composers and Songwriters award in 2006.
A quatercentenary commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot, commissioned by the King’s Singers and featured on their Signum CD release, 1605: ‘Treason and Dischord’, where it is performed by them with the celebrated viol consort, Concordia.
The work was widely performed by the same two groups in concert during 2005. The rest of the programme featured music contemporaneous with the Gunpowder Plot and a commissioned script by Dr Deborah Mackay (delivered variously by the distinguished actors Joss Ackland and Bill Wallis) purported to view the events of the time through the eyes of its greatest composer, William Byrd, himself a recusant.
Gunpowder, Treason -and Pott…
Musical commissions can take many forms, probable or otherwise. If text is involved, the commissioners may or may not have one up their sleeve. My own most recent experience has been a ‘first’ for me. As I probed the King’s Singers’ plans, I realised that their focus was far from the one pessimistically anticipated (a kind of 1066 and All That approach to ‘cod’ history and to a secular annual festival already fully hi-jacked by consumerism). Instead, Catholic recusancy in England was to be soberly examined through the works of William Byrd (ca1543-1623) and his fellow-Catholic contemporaries, including music written by Byrd himself during 1606, the year which saw the trial and grisly executions of the Gunpowder conspirators. Despite his Catholicism, Byrd was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth owing to his musical brilliance, and somehow survived –albeit uncertainly –by propitiating the monarch with English choral settings which enabled him also to set Latin with impunity. However, sovereign and court were two separate entities. In studying Byrd’s precarious existence (based at Stondon Massey, Essex –whose most celebrated denizen today, in bizarre contrast, is the boxer Frank Bruno), one becomes keenly aware of the sinister shadow-play of the whole period, when any born survivor kept eyes wide open in the back of his head at all times.
Byrd was to be the King’s Singers’ mouthpiece in more ways than one: a script, commissioned from Deborah Mackay, already linked the music in the programme, and purported to come from the lips of Byrd himself, somewhat after the imaginative fashion of Peter Ackroyd. The problem for me was a large blank space near the end. It stared back at me like an accusingly empty speech bubble in a cartoon. I was required to fill it. No text was specified. Seldom has the ‘terror of the blank page’ oppressed more heavily. However, the work (for six singers, used both solo and as an ensemble, and five viols) has emerged, I hope, as an apposite reflection of sixteenth and seventeenth century appetite for metaphysical symbolism and linguistic riddling, while the imaginative process itself has seemed an intellectual challenge more in keeping with the Times crossword or Eco in The Name of the Rose than rooted in ‘pure’ inspiration (whatever that may be). The following is an attempt at ‘fleshing out’ a creative process far more holistic in its challenges than any other in my experience to date:
The Gunpowder Plotters were terrorists of their day, now achieving a certain grim resonance in our own. This prompted reflection on their counterpart in the ‘9/11’ era -and on the western oligarchs and plutocrats –murky themselves as their precious oil –who from certain perspectives may be said to have created him. Meanwhile, the toppling of a tyrant in Iraq and (pace Yeats) a consequent unloosing of ‘mere anarchy’ upon the world suggest how terror may reciprocally create the tyrant, whether this be the dictator who (like Tito or Castro elsewhere) seals the lid on the Iraqi pressure cooker or the western political opportunist, Messianic in self-belief but holding highly suspect cards. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
In 1605 the prevailing Catholic reaction to attempted regicide was one of understandable fear mingled with a genuine human revulsion. The conspirators (staggeringly inept) believed that –in that quaint modern phrase –they could ‘go to the country’, blithely persisting in this expectation for some time even after they had (small point, this…) actually failed. Small wonder that doors knocked upon in their flight across Middle England were hastily closed upon them with expressions of horror. It is behind a few such doors that some of the King’s Singers’ concerts will take place.
Another preoccupation was the odd fascination of Guy Fawkes’s initial anonymity under interrogation. ‘I can yet …meet with no man that knows him; the Letter found upon him gives him another name’, runs a tetchy phrase in the King’s Articles. Of another, earlier mysterious visitant, the mystic and poet Thomas Traherne was to question ‘Who art thou, who bleeding here causest the ground to tremble and the rocks to rend?’. The ultimate self-belief of martyrdom (following betrayal, moreover) carries a clear dramatic echo of events upon which Christian faith –of whatever hue –is founded. Thus, certain oddly prophetic phrases from the psalms began to ‘insist on their own direction’ as I assembled my texts.
Thoughts such as these that led me to light upon Alciato’s Book of Emblems. Published as a Latin text in Augsburg in 1531 and widely translated, this was a runaway best seller of its time. Emblem books express the period’s predilection for riddling and symbolism. Textual and visual motifs, mythological references and multilingual puns interact to assemble hermeneutical puzzles, often of a moralising nature. Alciato’s work runs to 212 emblem poems, each uniting a quasi-proverbial motto phrase with a woodcut and an epigram. Though often aimed explicitly at identifiable individuals, the Emblems happily proved sufficiently cryptic to be applied elsewhere.
Soon I happened upon Alciato’s rather gross (illustrated) allusion to ‘a biform monster, which is not man, and not a snake… The man farts out a snake; the snake has belched a man. There is no end to the man, and no beginning to the beast’. [I am grateful to Professor William Barker, President at the University of King’s College, Nova Scotia, and Jean Guthrie of Memorial University, Newfoundland, for kind permission to make use of their translation.] Actually this is an improbable salutation to Massimilliano, Duke of Milan, in a direct reference to his heraldic arms, from which a notably strained mythological compliment concerning the birth of Athene is conjured. Transplanted, it provided instead my reference to the deadly symbiosis of regimes and terrorists. It brings to mind the modern cartoonist Saul Steinberg’s unsettling image of an incomplete man with a pencil, intently sketching his own second arm and missing flank into being.
I borrowed another apt passage on the two-faced attributes of the god Janus, gatekeeper of the old and new years, who gazes both forward and back. January 1606 saw the start of the plotters’ trial; moreover, the betrayer is two-faced, while the man who wishes (like Byrd) to stay alive has eyes everywhere. Further on, a fable tells of a duck, trained by its masters to come and go to and from them, which infiltrates an airborne cluster of its own kind, leading them (unwittingly or not?) under the nets laid to ensnare them. No explicit target is revealed, but the image’s aptness -as a finger of accusation levelled at some supposed Judas amongst the conspirators – is unmistakeable. This led me to my deliberately bizarre and quasi-Elizabethan title,Tresham’s Duck. There are similar-sounding conceits amongst the titled music of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book; for example, the word maggot crops up regularly, since in those days it meant merely a petit rien, not a larval intruder –not that the latter would have exercised any self-respecting Elizabethan very much.
Francis Tresham is widely identified as the likely Quisling, though Lady Antonia Fraser dismisses this convincingly in her study of the Gunpowder Plot. His father, Sir Thomas (1545-1605), who had spent fifteen years in prison for recusancy, was one of England’s most singular architects. In August 2004 I visited Rushton Triangular Hall in Northamptonshire, a small but striking oddity erected by him between 1594 and 1596. Though without practical function as a building and never inhabited, it is less a folly than a symbolic statement; as such, it felicitously mirrors the encryptions of Alciato (moreover, Tresham kept at least seven books of emblems in his library). As a device, the building makes play with the Trinity, not merely by possessing only three sides but also through punning on the name Tresham / ‘Tres am’. Covered by arcane geometric symbols and numbers which elude definitive interpretation to this day, the pinnacled edifice preserves an air of quasi-Masonic strangeness and secrecy. Among its several inscriptions appears the phrase from Ecclesiasticus,‘respicite non mihi soli laboravi’ (‘Behold, I have not laboured for myself alone’). The unconsciously prophetic irony of this, when applied to Sir Thomas’s son, is inescapable. Accordingly the phrase was embedded in my text. The words ‘non mihi’ occupy a gable of their own, and seem to acquire an additional resonance if set against one who betrays in order to secure his own deliverance and absolution. No less suitable might have been the (Latin) text from Habbakkuk on another façade: ‘I have considered thy works, Lord, and been afraid’.
My aim, then, was to respond to the politico-religious espionage and sheer lurking menace of the years leading up to 1605 and just beyond. I was indebted along the way to Hugh Hetherington of Salisbury Cathedral Choir for his aperçu that Sir Francis Walsingham’s monogram, a long-handled lorgnette (denoting his function as ‘the eyes and ears of the Queen’), bears closer iconic resemblance to Ian Fleming’s device ‘007’ than one can attribute easily to mere coincidence -though I might add that 007 is also the telephone area code for Moscow. In the world of the spy, it seems, little has changed. Be that as it may (or not), Master Byrd was to voice for me the pervasive dread and starting-at-shadows which seem plausibly to characterise his experience and that of other recusants. So I set Alciato in his original Latin (with the contribution by Tresham père embedded midway). This had two purposes. First, the language betokened Byrd’s own clandestine defiance. Secondly, though only a token nod was made at embedding its meaning beyond modern reach, the text symbolised things which (Magritte-like) compel attention because they are not as they seem, since it was set in a quasi-devotional and polyphonic idiom. This made clear reference to Byrd’s own voice while preserving a note of jarring discrepancy between manner and meaning.
Additional (overlaid) texts provided fitful glimpses into the grisly aftermath for Guy Fawkes of his capture. Pointedly opposing underlying Latin with the Protestant mother tongue, I caused phrases from the interrogation of Guy Fawkes (aka ‘John Johnson’) to loom out of the shadows. Intoned or sung, sometimes spoken, these intertwined with snatches from the English of the Psalms, selected for their macabre consonance with the plight of Fawkes and supposed perfidy of Tresham. The work opens with unctuously spoken lines from later collects of thanksgiving for the monarch’s delivery, since these blithely admit that ‘our iniquities justly called for vengeance upon us’ and thank God for his mercy, in naked contrast with the dire treatment meted out to the King’s prisoner. In deploying these, I tried to compound the listener’s intermittent uncertainty whether the voice heard is the Crown’s or that of its prisoner, – the denounced foe a King or his would-be assassin: one returns to the image of man and serpent, locked eternally in their gruesome symbiotic embrace. Where, asks Alciato, does one end and the other begin?.. A phrase which persistently resurfaced in my mind was that of the contemporary poet Geoffrey Hill. Writing of his sequence Funeral Music (on the Wars of the Roses), he described how his verbal attempt at an ‘ornate and heartless music punctuated by mutterings, blasphemies and cries for help’.
As a last touch, into my composition were woven detectable motifs which really are by Byrd. These came from his motet Civitas Sancti Tui, partly because its music is so arrestingly bleak, but primarily because it offers an icon of the entire matter at issue: at a later date Byrd sanctioned an English version of the text, which (with appropriate amendments to syllabic repetition) fits the same music exactly. Eventually the original Latin phraseSion deserta est is heard in my piece, set to Byrd’s own music. One by one, the singers switch to English in token of final capitulation to the inimical will of a less tolerant monarch – himself jumping at every shadow in the wake of 1605. A remarkable poem by Sidney Keyes, killed in the Second War at the age of only twenty, borrows the lips of the ageing Byrd as I have, and might have featured here but for complications of copyright.‘My spirit sings in silence’, laments his resigned composer. Accordingly, Byrd’s mother tongue finally gags him in Tresham’s Duck. As with Schumann at the end of his song cycle on love and death, Frauenliebe und Leben, wordless instrumental echoes have (almost) the last say, here restating the music of ‘desolate and void’Jerusalem. The singers then process from the stage singing (over spectral and improvisatory viol effects, suggestive of the bleak desert wind) Anglican plainsong found in the English Hymnal: Thy holy cities are a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation: our holy and our beautiful house, wherein our fathers praisèd thee.
Another two long centuries would pass before a compatriot and fellow visionary of Byrd’s took up cudgels (or arrows of desire) again for the building of a new Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. Even that might never have come to pass: in the village where I grew up lived the minor English song composer Douglas Stewart (whose bequeathed ‘tails’ I sometimes wear in concert; he told that they had been borrowed once by Arnold Bax, for whom they must have been several sizes too large). A one-time student at the RCM, he recalled how one day in 1916 Sir Hubert Parry arrived late for a class, muttered ‘just been scribbling this but I don’t think it’s any good’ and then proceeded to play the music which has become Britain’s unofficial national anthem. How narrowly was this saved by Stewart and others from the bin! But that is another story…
The Times, May 11, 2005, Richard Morrison at St Nicholas, Brighton
Concert: The King’s Singers, Concordia
…The programme included a modern take on the 1605 plot: Francis Pott’s intriguing new melodrama for viols and voices, Tresham’s Duck. Starting like an authentic Jacobean fantasia, and quoting Byrd and plainsong later, it bloomed in the middle into rich chromatic harmonies – at first melancholic, then increasingly ecstatic – that evoked English Romantics such as Herbert Howells. A potpourri, then; but exquisitely crafted.
International Record Review, July 2005, Simon Heighes
1605 -Treason and Dischord: William Byrd and the Gunpowder Plot
…There’s simply not space enough to explain how effectively Francis Pott’s specially commissioned piece, Master Tresham: His Ducke, encapsulated the whole story. At first, his ‘Composer’s Note’ in the booklet appears to verge on the pretentious, but once the music had captivated me with its stylistic approachability and dramatic directness, I found I was hungry to know more about its multi-layered musical and textual allusions -and there’s plenty to know. Singers and instrumentalists throw themselves into the drama with passion. The spoken lines from the official interrogation of Guy Fawkes are chilling, and the conclusion is memorably atmospheric, as in Pott’s words: ‘disembodied plainsong becomes finally indistinguishable from the viols’ spectral evocation of a ruinous wind in the wilderness’. Don’t expect fireworks: this is a serious project, which, like the plotters themselves, has been skilfully executed. Strongly recommended.
Classics Today [online review], David Vernier
1605 -Treason and Dischord: William Byrd and the Gunpowder Plot
The King’s Singers, Concordia
The liner notes explain this program’s premise, …a novel way of presenting some excellent works of Byrd, Dowland, Weelkes, Dering and Philips (all of whom lived at the time of the event in question) together with a really unusual, fascinating, and thoroughly engaging modern piece by Francis Pott (b. 1957). It’s all supposed to relate to the time and place and personalities of England’s infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, but, except for Pott’s 14-minute-long dramatic work, commissioned by the King’s Singers for the Gunpowder Plot’s “quatercentenary commemoration”, none of the musical works is overtly associated with the happenings of November 5, 1605.
…Listeners will be most taken with–and certainly startled by–Pott’s ingenious creation, given the “quasi-Elizabethan” title Master Tresham: His Ducke (he explains its provenance in the notes). Its mix of ancient and modern, including some direct quotes from Byrd, and its dramatic texts make for a compelling 14 minutes, ending with the most delightfully diabolical enunciation of the word “Amen” you will ever hear. No doubt that this is an interesting release. …One of the more programmatically bold and musically satisfying discs to appear in a long while.
The Scotsman, 3 June 2005, Kenneth Walton
THE KING’S SINGERS: 1605 – TREASON & DISCORD
THE year is 1605. Guy Fawkes has attempted the 9/11 of his day, and failed. In the musical world, the prevailing British stars are William Byrd, John Dowland, Peter Philips and Thomas Weelkes. Their music – masses, anthems, galliards and fancies – reflects more the evolving creative richness of a period giddy from religious unrest than wracked by a single terrorist insurgence.
This cross-sectional presentation is brilliantly conceived and performed by the King’s Singers, the instrumental group Concordia and the organist Sarah Baldock, with Byrd’s glorious four-part Mass providing the spinal column. Among the musical jewels that intersperse this recording is one major modern piece – Francis Pott’s Master Tresham: His Ducke. A brilliant fusion of Renaissance and contemporary idioms.
Classic FM Magazine, August 2005, Andrew Stewart
Modern appeals to Britain’s eternal sovereignty over the instability caused by James I’s accession to the English throne. This fascinating disc spotlights the conflict that almost blew the King and his parliament to high heaven four centuries ago, exploring the reluctance of Romanc Catholics (Wm Byrd among them) to accept the Anglican settlement. The performers bring verve and forceful emotional fervour to these works of protest.
Early Music Forum Scotland, D James Ross
Before I listened to this CD, I had a quick thought as to what music by Byrd would be relevant to a CD of this title and even wondered if the revelations about Byrd’s relative militancy in John Harley’s 1999 biography would be trumped by further new information about Byrd’s direct involvement in the plot itself. It was with growing disappointment that I read the desperate efforts of John Milsom to tie English composers in any way to the political events, before proceeding to Deborah MacKay’s frankly embarrassing script ‘in the persona of William Byrd’ – if you can’t find a connection, invent it – and finally listening to the CD itself. In the event, there is of course practically nothing substantial in any of these elements which relate directly to the gunpowder plot, and in fact the bulk of the CD is taken up with a performance of the very familiar Byrd 4-part Mass by voices and viols. Only the anthem O Lord how joyful is the King by Weelkes could conceivably have been directly inspired by the plot, while the rest of the material at best ‘resonates with the various themes’. I think this CD is flying false colours, and while the performances of these largely mainstream works is quite presentable, anybody who buys it expecting an anthology of Gunpowder Plot music will be disappointed. Also included on the CD is a 2005 commission from Francis Pott, which fortunately lies outside my remit.
The Consort, Vol 62, Summer 2006, Sarah MacDonald
This disc is on essence a history lesson in words and music. The liner notes include an imaginative meditation on the events leading up to the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, told from the point of view of William Byrd, in the elegant, quasi-archaic prose of Deborah Mackay. This discourse, intended to be read silently by the listener between tracks, does indeed provide a personal and ,moving insight into life in the difficult political and religious climate of the time. Musically, on the surface, this recording looks like just any other early music recording, – Byrd’s 4-part Mass interspersed with viol consort music, organ fancies, and motets and anthems from other contemporaneous composers from both sides of the denominational divide, including Dering, Philips, Weelkes and Dowland.
The singing is admirable: I have always been a fan of the Kings Singers; uncanny perfection of tuning and ensemble (this recording amply demonstrates both these characteristics), and my only minor qualm here is that when they get louder, the sound is simply louder. I would prefer rather more freedom and vivacity (and maybe even some vibrato!)at the top end of the dynamic register – a change of colour to match the change of mood – at the et resurrexit of the Credo, for example. The playing is as fine as the singing: the warmth of Concordia’s bass viol adds a particularly lovely timbre to the bass part of the Byrd Mass: Sarah Baldock’s sparkling organ playing is curiously not credited on the front cover of the disc.
All of this aside, though, a compelling reason to buy this disc is track 14: Francis Pott (b. 1957) was commissioned by the King’s Singers to compose Master Tresham: His Ducke for the Gunpowder Plot’s 400th anniversary celebrations in 20005. The 15 minute work is a reflection on the events of the fifth of November, composed for viol consort and voices. Throughout the guilt is confused: one is never sure which words are spoken by the ‘criminals’, and which by the king’s men. It is. by verbal admission of the composer and musical admission of the performers, a comment on the acts of terror of our own century, September 11 and the Iraq War in particular. ‘Who was the guilty?’
Pott’s composition begins with a fantasia for viols, in the style of Dowland, and returns to the 21st century with the entry of the voices. The first words to be sung are from Alciato’s 1531 Latin Book of Emblems (Our state is shaken by innumerable storms), progressing through the 1535 Coverdale Psalter (There is no king that can be saved by the multitude of an host), and into Byrd’s Civitas sancti tui. The portion of this anthem (it is heard in full earlier on the disc) begins in Latin (Sion deserta est), but the voices forsake the original language, moving one by one into the English version sanctioned by Byrd,s symbolising, in Paott’s words ‘final capitulation to the inimical will of an estranged monarch’. Spoken extracts from the transcript of Guy Fawkes’ trial, ending with Psalm 41: Let the sentence of guiltiness proceed against him, lead, excruciatingly, into the Advent Prose (Thy holy cities are a wilderness; Jerusalem, a desolation), the plainsong melody sung over motivic fragments of itself played by the viols. The work ends starkly, with a Collect of thanksgiving for the king’s deliverance, and is followed immediately by the final track of the CD: the Agnus Dei from Byrd’s 4-part Mass, surely his finest movement.
American Record Guide, November/ December 2005, Gatens
There is never a question of technical polish and precision with the King’s Singers, no matter how many changes of personnel have taken place since the ensemble was founded in 1968. They are always breathtakingly impressive in their vocal virtuosity, blend and pinpoint intonation.