Heigh Ho Holiday
Christmas Revels in 17th-century London
The City Musick, William Lyons
St John’s, Smith Square. 13 December 2017
King James I issued his ‘Declaration of Sports’ in 1617, noting that he had heard that people had been ‘barred from all lawfull Recreation, & excercie vpon the Sundayes afternoone, after the ending of all Diuine Seruice‘. So wrote Wiliam Lyons, director of The City Musick in his programme note for this concert, as an example of the encouragement of festivals and holy days during the early 17th century, despite opposition from Puritans and Catholic gentry. These occasions included Christmastide festivals, a time when the virtuosi musicians of the local city waits came into their own, perhaps with the opportunity to relax a little from their normal role of providing music for civic ceremonies, processions, dances, masques etc. Their musical repertoire was wide, as was the range of instruments that they played, both aspects revealed in this concert by a 21st-century incarnation of the waits – the seven musicians of The City Musick.
The music was interspersed with readings from the period, read by actor Andrew Havill, from the likes of Philip Stubbs (railing against ‘fooleries’ in Christmas Virtue, 1584 and the ‘filthy ballads’ of musicians in The Anatomie of Abuses, 1584), Shakespeare, and Thomas Hardy with his description of music in churches in a later era, and the ‘miserable Dumbledors’ the newly popular harmoniums and barrel organs that were replacing the Gallery Bands. The music played by the present day waits ranged from Parson and Holborne, writing before the start of the 17th century, to Playford, writing in the mid-1600s.
As interesting as the music played, were the instruments used. These included Recorders, Hoboys, Shawms, Curtals, Cornetts and Mute Cornetts (and a Lysard, a new one to me, that turned out to be another name for the bendy tenor Cornett), Sackbuts, and Bagpipes. George Bartle was released from Sackbut duties for some impressive vocal contributions, notably in the Gloucestershire Wassail, Coventry Carol and the Ravenscroft’s Remember O Thou Man. The interval was sandwiched between music by two continental guests, Thoinot Arbeau, with his Bransle de l’officiel and Samuel Scheidt’s extended multi-sectional Canzon on O nachbar Roland.
This was a Christmas concert (part of the St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival) refreshingly free of the usual seasonal carols, although one or two were slipped into the medley that introduced The Sussex Carol.