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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 13 (2007) No. 1

Thomas Tomkins: Above the Starrs. Fretwork with Emma Kirkby, Catherine King, Charles Daniels, Donald Greig, Richard Wistreich, and Jonathan Arnold. Harmonia Mundi, 2003. [HMU 907320.]

Reviewed by Andrew R. Walkling*

1. Tomkins and His Music

2. Assessment of the CD


1. Tomkins and His Music

1.1 Thomas Tomkins is one of those early seventeenth-century composers whose name is recognizable, but whose works are not widely familiar. Despite his longevity (he died in 1656 at the age of 83 or 84) and his association with the Chapel Royal, particularly in the 1620s, Tomkins lived and worked largely out of the spotlight, spending the bulk of his career in Worcester, where he served as cathedral organist from 1596 to 1646. His considerable output of anthems and services reflects this vocation; however, Tomkins also made contributions to other important genres, including the madrigal, and instrumental works for keyboard and viol consort.

1.2 Above the Starrs, a collaboration between the highly regarded ensemble Fretwork and a fine group of singers, ushers us through a selection of Tomkins’s works involving viols, including the composer’s five surviving “consort anthems” and a selection of 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-part instrumental works. As might be expected given the forces, this recording offers a rich palette of sonorities and the kind of exceptionally clean, crisp playing for which Fretwork has become justifiably famous. The seventeenth-century “flavor” of the disc is augmented by the singers’ employment of early-modern vowel pronunciations, an area Catherine King has explored in the past, and in which she may have taken the lead in this case.

1.3 Although the disc’s title (drawn from Tomkins’s anthem “Above the Starrs My Saviour Dwells,” based on a ten-line poem possibly written by the composer’s bishop, Joseph Hall) places emphasis on the six sacred vocal works contained therein, nearly three-fifths of the recording’s time is devoted to the secular consort works. These include fantasias in three and six parts (three of each); a five-part pavan; two dance-pairs (a pavan/alman à 4 and a pavan/galliard à 6); and three cantus firmus etudes: two three-part in nomines and an ut-re-mi hexachord fantasy à 4. Though Tomkins was not one of the great innovators of his age, the fine technical crafting of his work is apparent, and is highlighted by the sparkling performances, whether in the angular chromaticism of the second six-part fantasia (track 2) and the Lachrimae-influenced five-part pavan (track 13), the bouncy ebullience of the four-part alman (track 10) and the swinging six-part galliard (track 4), or the jagged contrast provided by the in nomine pieces (tracks 6, 15), in which the moving parts churn frantically above the placid creep of John Taverner’s plainsong melody. The composer’s absorption of stylistic features from a number of his contemporaries, including Orlando Gibbons, Alfonso Ferrabosco II, John Coprario, and, perhaps most importantly, his “ancient & much revered Master” William Byrd, lends his work an expressive, virtuosic quality that defies easy categorization and thus pleases with its range and variety, even as it falls short of breaking substantial new musical ground.

1.4 The opulence of Tomkins’s oeuvre is similarly on display when Fretwork takes a back seat to the vocalists. The five- and six-part verse anthems are full of expressive moments, all admirably executed by the singers, four of whom serve as soloists at various junctures. Of particular note are the nervous agitation characterizing “he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell / whoe shall gather them” in “O Lord, Lett Me Knowe Myne End” (track 1); the forceful modulated repetitions of the successively threatening and ominous phrases “I will treade them downe, / that rise up against me” from “Thou Art My King” (track 17); and the extraordinary twelve-fold acclamation “Blessed be God,” which starts out antiphonally in the verse, comes together as a duet, and then swells to a jubilant choral exclamation as it draws the majestic “Sing unto God” (track 8) to its conclusion. Complementing the five anthems is the agonizingly dissonant psalm setting “Woe Is Me” (track 14) that Tomkins published in his 1622 Songs of 3. 4. 5. and 6. Parts and dedicated to his half brother and fellow composer John. In this exquisite performance, Catherine King sings the cantus line as a solo, with the viols taking the altus, tenor, quintus, sextus, and bassus parts, an approach that aptly demonstrates Tomkins’s mastery—albeit some three decades after the fact—of the mid-Elizabethan consort song.

2. Assessment of the CD

2.1 The recording is attractively packaged, with contemporary engraved celestial diagrams (presumably to underscore the “above-the-stars” theme) illustrating a number of the pages, and translations of the anthem texts into German and French (although it is unclear why, in the latter case, the cross-references to the Psalms have not been converted into the Vulgate/Septuagint numbering). David Pinto, who co-edited the verse anthems with Ross Duffin, adds an element both decorative and informative, contributing his singularly virtuosic, dance-like prose to the liner notes.

2.2 In a CD so well put together there is little to find fault with; however, one question does arise with respect to programming. Given its largely successful blending of sacred vocal and secular instrumental works, neither of which predominates over, or is inserted merely to supplement, the other (as so often happens with discs of this nature), not to mention the concern shown in the liner notes for appropriate scholarly citation, Above the Starrs clearly offers an expansive approach to an interesting and aesthetically engaging repertory. Yet the listener is left asking what precisely it is, beyond this, that the recording seeks to accomplish: is it, on the one hand, a potpourri of Tomkins’s music, designed to introduce audiences to a range of his compositional output? Or does it strive to fill one or more specific gaps in the composer’s collected works? According to the website for Fretwork Editions, the disc presents Tomkins’s “complete consort verse anthems,” which is accurate if we exclude one unreconstructable fragment, as Pinto makes clear in the liner notes. In the case of the instrumental music, however, the picture is more complicated. For three-part works, the disc includes both of the composer’s in nomines and a small sampling of his fifteen fantasias. The three four-part works, on the other hand, are all present, supporting the claim of “completeness” in this instance. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the five-part works: Tomkins is believed to have composed ten of these—one fantasia and nine pavans, though the former survives only in a keyboard version and five of the latter are incomplete, while another is simply a contrafactum of the four-part pavan. Of the three remaining, only one, the widely popular pavan in A minor (VdGS no. 6) appears here.1 Perhaps most puzzling, though, is the treatment of the six-part works: of six pieces—four fantasias and the pavan/galliard pair—all but one (the last fantasia, VdGS no. 4) are represented. Did Fretwork simply not record it, or was it left off the 73 1/2-minute CD because of time constraints? Either way, the omission is unfortunate, particularly since Pinto tantalizingly discusses it in the liner notes (pp. 4–5), where it is presented as the culmination of the four-piece sequence of six-part fantasias, and the one in which Tomkins’s stylistic originality is most overtly on display.

2.3 That this CD seeks to fulfill a variety of purposes is, of course, both a weakness and a strength, and it should not distract us from either the beauty or the value of the finished product. Above the Starrs is, as one might expect, a well produced and—apart from occasional inconsistencies in the early-modern pronunciation, probably attributable to the lack of experience with such things on the part of some of the singers—an exceptionally well performed recording. However elusive Thomas Tomkins might have been, either in his own lifetime or in the centuries that followed, this disc gives us the opportunity to appreciate, and to understand, him more fully.


* Andrew R. Walkling (aw12@cornell.edu) is Dean’s Assistant Professor of Early Modern Studies at the State University of New York, Binghamton. He is a historian of seventeenth-century England with an interest in the royal court, music, and theatre in the reigns of Charles II and James II.

1 For a complete listing of Tomkins’s consort works, see Gordon Dodd, comp., The Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain Thematic Index of Music for Viols (London: The Viola da Gamba Society, 1980–92), 183–6. More recent compilations in the thematic index, as well as revisions, are available at the “Publications” section of the Viola da Gamba Society website, http://www.vdgs.org.uk/. The indexing for Tomkins’s viol compositions is free for download from that site (accessed 25 July 2007).

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