“Upon thes nots” recital: programme notes

Upon thes nots
Two 400th anniversariesThomas Tomkins & Michael Praetorius
St George’s, Hanover Square, 1 March 2022

Andrew Benson-Wilson, organ 

Thomas Tomkins (1572–1656)
For Mr Arc[hdeacon] ThornBurgh
Mr Thomas Tomkins offertorye [upon thes nots] (1637)
Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
Hymnus in festo trinitatis: O lux beata Trinitas (Hymnodia Sionia, 1611)
Chorale Fantasia: Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (Musæ Sioniæ VII, 1609)

This concert (performed on the 2012 Richards, Fowkes & Co organ) features two organists born a year (and about 750 miles) apart, 450 years ago, in very different circumstances. Apart from writing for very different organs, the pieces in this recital show how compositions can be built on simple or pre-existing themes – or “upon thes nots”, as Tomkins wrote in the score of his Offertorye.

Thomas Tomkins was born to a Cornish family in St David’s in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where his father was cathedral organist. During his teens, the family moved to Gloucester where Tomkins probably came into contact with William Byrd who lived nearby. In 1596 he became organist of Worcester Cathedral, marrying his predecessor’s widow. He remained there for the rest of his life, alongside posts at the Chapel Royal. After 1642, during the Civil War, all Cathedral services were stopped. The 1612 Thomas Dallam organ that Tomkins installed in the Cathedral was badly damaged, and Tomkins’ own house in College Green was hit by cannon fire, destroying most of his domestic goods and, presumably, most of his music collection.

The little piece For Mr Arc[hdeacon] ThornBurgh refers to Tomkins’ colleague, Edward Thornborough, Archdeacon of Worcester from 1629 to 1645. It is usually referred to as a “Voluntary” (without evidence) although the liturgical implications of that title are not apparent. It is based on a simple rising scale with carefully worked out polyphony, and is domestic in nature, perhaps intended for a chamber organ or virginals. It is found in the same manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Mus. Sch.) as the Offertorye, and was probably also composed around 1637.

Tomkins had a conservative approach to musical styles, as is apparent in the monumental Offertorye. It is the last example of a genre of English composition going back to at least the early 15th-century. Tallis’s two 1562/4 Felix Namques are the best-known examples, but Tomkins’s is by far the most complex and expansive, lasting around 17 minutes. Unlike most of Tomkins’s dated compositions, it was written before the collapse of Cathedral services and could therefore have been performed on Tomkins’s own two-manual organ. Unlike other Felix Namque/Offertory pieces, it does not use the traditional Felix Namque chant, but paraphrases the first phrase into a stately seven-note theme announced at the start of the piece, with the added comment that the Offertorye is based “Upon thes nots”. After a short imitative introduction, the seven-note theme forms an ostinato idée fixe that is repeated 55 times before the short and flamboyant coda. Two-thirds of the way in, the speed of the ostinato is doubled, up to the last two appearances. Tomkins’ treatment of the surrounding voices is imaginative and frequently virtuosic, with a ratio of note values ranging from whole notes to notes 48 times faster. It seems to have been composed over a period of time, and includes several pause marks whose meaning is not always clear.

Michael Praetorius was one of the most important German Protestant organist-composers of all time, as well as a prolific writer on musical matters. Most of his monumental 1619 De Organographia (part 2 of the Syntagma Musicum) is devoted to “A precise description of ancient and modern organs”, which he referred to as “the most perfect instrument”. He is well known today for his vocal music and Terpsichore dances, but very few of his organ compositions were published or are performed. He worked in Frankfurt, Lüneburg, in the court of the Brunswick Dukes in Wolfenbüttel & Gröningen, and at the Electorial Court of Dresden. He died on 15 February 1621 and is buried in the Marienkirche in Wolfenbüttel. For this recital, I am using registrations based on Pretorius’s own organ in the Palace Chapel of Gröningen, built by David Beck in 1596. It was the most important organ in Germany at the time, both for the range of 59 stops and the richly decorated case. Although the richly decorated chapel (which also contained an enormous wine barrel with a volume of 137,000 litres) has long since gone, the organ case still exists in the Martinikirche in nearby Halberstadt, awaiting reconstruction of the original Gröningen organ.

The Gröningen organ was opened with the famous Organ Congress, when 53 of the most famous German-speaking organists were invited by the Duke to a week-long inauguration ceremony. In 1610, the Brunswick court organ builder, Esaias Compenius built another organ for the Duke’s castle in Hessen, with advice from Praetorius, who described it as having an “unusual, soft, subtle and delicate sonority cannot be truly described”. After the Duke’s death in 1613, his widow gave the organ to her brother, King Christian IV of Denmark. Compenius transferred the organ to the castle in Frederiksborg where it remains to this day under the name of the ‘Compenius Organ’.

The Hymnus in festo trinitatis: O lux beata Trinitas was published in the 1611 Hymnodia Sionia. It is based on a Vespers and Trinity Sunday hymn ascribed to the fourth-century St Ambrose. The theme appears in long notes in the pedal below a delightful sequence of imitative motives that are developed in a rather pastoral style. For reasons that I have never managed to work out, the last section of the piece quotes the Tudor melody Will Yow Walke the Woods soe Wylde, used in keyboard variations by Byrd and Gibbons and in Dowland’s Can she excuse my wrongs and his Earl of Essex’s Galliard.

Praetorius’s majestic Chorale Fantasia: Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott was published in Musæ Sioniæ VII in 1609, one of three such fantasias. It was presented in a form that was impossible to play from, with the four parts printed on different pages requiring the performer to transcribe it into a playable format. There are no clues on performance style, registrations or the use of pedals, although De Organographia gives a lot of information on such matters. The nine lines of the famous Lutheran hymn, known as the ‘Battle hymn of the Reformation’, are treated line by line in a large scale fantasia. The first two lines of the chorale melody are repeated for lines three and four of the text. Each line is given its own individual treatment, with a variety of musical forms and textures for each line. It is a masterpiece of High Renaissance imitative polyphony and a magnificent example of the high standard of organ composition in Germany before the time of the pupils of Sweelinck.

Andrew’s next London recital is on Friday 18 March at 1:15, in St Giles-in-the-Fields
for the Music-at-Hill Midtown Concerts series. It is part of Early Music Day,
an annual festival on or near Bach’s birthday. It celebrates Bach’s music
for organ and cello, with the Pastorella pro Organo, Partite on O Gott, du frommer Gott
and one of the Cello Suites, played by Baroque cellist Poppy Walshaw.