The British Are Coming!

October 2008

Program Notes


Pastyme with Good Company  

Henry VIII (1491-1547)

* * * * * *
It Was a Lover and His Lass


John Rutter (b. 1945)

Poor Is the Life


Michael East (c. 1580-1648)

Mother, I Will Have a Husband


Thomas Vautor (fl. 1600-1620)

Got To Get You Into My Life

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Paul Crabtree

* * * * * *

Lady, When I Behold Thee   John Wilbye (1574-1638)
A Dialogue on a Kisse  

Henry Lawes (1596-1662), arr. Jonathan Miller

Thus Sings My Dearest Jewel

Thomas Weelkes (c. 1575-1623)

* * * * * *

Quam Pulcra Es
(How Beautiful Thou Art)


John Dunstaple (1390-1453)

The Lark in the Morning 
from Five Bird Songs  

Paul Crabtree (b. 1963)

My Spirit Sang All Day


Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

* * * * * *

False Love  

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Now I See Thy Looks Were Feigned

Thomas Ford (c. 1580-1648)

* * * * * *

Lost Is My Quiet Forever  

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Love is a Sickness  

C. Hubert H. Parry (1848-1918)

I’ll Follow The Sun   Lennon/McCartney, arr. Ives
You Stole My Love

Walter Cecil MacFarren (1826-1905)



I Love My Love

trad. folksong, arr. Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

* * * * * *

And I Love Her 

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Chilcott

Counsel for Married Folk  

Michael Wise (1648-1687)

When I’m Sixty-Four Lennon/McCartney, arr. Swingle

* * * * * *

But Have Been Found Again

Geoffrey Burgon (b. 1941)

* * * * * *

I Feel Fine

Lennon/McCartney, arr. Chilcott

Quick!  Quick!  Away Dispatch! / No Haste

Michael East

encore: "The Lark in the Clear Air" from Five Bird Songs Paul Crabtree

The British Are Coming! is supported by a generous grant from the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation.


We are here tonight to celebrate the musical riches of the British.  They’ve been writing and singing wonderful songs for centuries, and singing them very well indeed.  Tonight you’ll hear great British music from a period spanning more than 500 years.  Your journey begins in the medieval period and goes through the great flourishing of the madrigal under Queen Elizabeth I, from the sweet Romantic partsong composers, and from the singular British phenomenon known, of course, as the Beatles.

How British Music Got Here

I’m going to tell you a little bit on these pages about the music you’ll hear tonight.  While we are not singing things in chronological order at all, it simplifies things a bit for me to write some notes for you about the music in more of a historical order.  There is a purpose in the order of the music in the concert itself, and if you simply follow the words that we sing, you’ll find it!

The First Wave of Great English Music

When I first started singing “early” music, and telling people that that’s what I was singing, they would sometimes ask me, “You mean Elvis?”  No, I mean really early music.  As far back as the 1400s, English song and singing styles have been renowned.  The scholar John Caldwell tells us that the English had more influence over high-brow European art music in the 1400s than at any other time before or since.  Indeed, the English court choirs were the “rock stars” of the Council of Constance, an important clerical gathering that took place in Germany in 1414-18. The singing islanders earned a reputation for musical sweetness at the Council, even as their rulers had political ambitions to take over the north of France.  Five and a half centuries later, the “British invasion” of the 1960s was strictly a cultural one, with the Beatles and the Stones taking over and virtually defining the rock-music world for a decade or more.

Speaking of really early music, you’ll hear some partway through the first half, a love song by the composer John Dunstaple (1390-1453).  He was the most prominent representative of his generation.  Though many of their names are lost to us, these were superb musicians.  Their music bore a unique quality that French musicians of the period loved, calling it the contenance angloise (“English countenance” or “English face”).  The music of Dunstaple and his contemporaries includes particular ways of “voicing” the ensemble.  If you look at their music in terms of the intervals each of the voice parts makes with the others, they create a sort of open texture that the French and Italians were not writing at the time.  Perhaps you’ll be able to hear some of these qualities yourself in Dunstaple’s song Quam pulcra es.  This is a very intimate love poem from the Song of Songs.  I don’t know why Dunstaple felt compelled to follow the line “Ibi dabo tibi ubera mea” (“There will I give you my breasts”) with an “Alleluia,” but he must have had his reasons!

The Hilliard Ensemble, a world-renowned professional ensemble from London, burst onto the scene in the late 1970s with an album of some of this very same medieval English music, a stunning recording that still stands the test of time;  it’s one of my “top ten desert-island” albums.  To use a baseball analogy, I’ll never forget being a groupie at Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago, hearing the Hilliards knock that early music out of the park.  (My lame excuse for being such a musical nerd is that I was too young to hear the Beatles play Comiskey in 1965.)

The other very early piece on this program is the opener, Pastyme with good company, penned by King Henry VIII himself early in his reign, celebrating the life of a “Renaissance man” with exuberance and cautioning against idleness.

Mad About Madrigals

About half of the music on this concert was written before the United States was its own country, and about a quarter of this concert is “madrigals,” drawn from the explosive creative period of English musicians from a fifteen-year span between 1588 and 1601.  Early in that period, Italian madrigals migrated over the Channel via traveling singers and composers and were translated into English, where, for some reason, they really caught on.

The huge wave of human activity surrounding the madrigal was both musical and social in nature.  The whole thing in a sense was sort of like an early version of MySpace or Facebook, because it was connected to a new distribution technology (the newly inexpensive “partbook,” a musical book printed in relatively large quantities on paper, much cheaper than the old way of making single copies on animal-skin parchment).  Look at it like this:  Madrigals were easy and cheap middle-class entertainment for people in a newly prosperous merchant society.  The singers who sang them were people with time and energy on their hands.  Sitting around a table singing madrigals was an acceptable way for men and women to spend time together socially, doing something slightly more elevated than pursuing more obvious earthly delights.  (The words to most madrigals are mostly about those same earthly delights, with nymphs and shepherds frolicking and the like, so sex wasn’t likely to have been far from anyone’s mind.)

It is not clear just how much the flourishing of the madrigal is connected to Her Majesty Elizabeth I, also known as “fair Oriana,” but a number of composers were inspired (or paid) enough by her to write madrigals in her honor. 

Baroque Sensibilities

When the lute and keyboard instruments became more popular in the early 1600s, a cappella music ceased to be the rage for about 250 years.  The Baroque period mostly consists of music with some sort of accompaniment.  Nevertheless, some sweet (and some very funny) songs come down to us from that period which were either originally written for voices alone or which we have adapted for a cappella performance.  Henry Lawes was the first real master of the English lute song in the mid-17th century, taking over where John Dowland had left off.  Lawes’s charming Dialogue on a Kisse has a lovely, playful tone to it, and his matching of music to the rhythm of a poem is unmatched.  Henry Purcell’s poignant duet, Lost is my quiet forever, shows a master of counterpoint at his best, writing just before the end of his tragically short life.  We won’t give away the punch line for Michael Wise’s Counsel for Married Folk, other than encouraging you to pay close attention to the words!

Romanticism and the British

In many ways, Queen Victoria dominated British life in the 19th century.  Her long reign and emotional tone have made British reserve and the “stiff upper lip” into stereotypes and caricatures.  The truth is that much over sweetness and expressivity can be found in English Romantic music, particularly in those pieces known as partsongs.

These pieces, starting from around 1860 and going to the early decades of the 1900s, stem from a deliberate attempt in certain segments of the English art world to recapture the sensibilities of an earlier, less complicated time.  The aesthetics behind many of the English Romantic partsongs can be attributed to this “Pre-Raphaelite” school in art and poetry, which filtered down to music as well;  John Ruskin was the main influence on the Pre-Raphaelite figures such as Dante, Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William (and sister Christina), Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and even James Whistler.  In music, composers such as Parry, MacFarren and Elgar can be said to have come from this school of thought.  Ruskin himself wrote, referring to the upbringing of young women and their exposure to great models of art and thought: 

 … that music [is truest] which makes the best words most beautiful, which enchants them in our memories each with its own glory of sound, and which applies them closest to the heart at the moment we need them.

The Folk-Song Revival

Some might say that the English Romantic partsong, while truly lovely, is a bit cloying.  As Paul Hillier has written, there is a sense in that genre that “ripeness is all,” and perhaps listening to too much Romantic music can be like smelling a peony for too long.  The musical pendulum kept swinging as the Romantics were doing their later work, and a new phenomenon came to the fore in English music:  the recovery of older folk materials.  Around 1895, though clearly and self-consciously in the middle of its own “Musical Renaissance,” English music was facing a bit of a crisis, and a transition of leadership;  in cultural as well as other terms, the English were striving to fashion and maintain their own identity as distinct from German influences, especially the dominant (yet polarized) figures of Brahms and Wagner.  One of the ways in which the English dealt with the tension was to return to their own roots:  folk songs.  Cecil Sharp, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams were among the most active “collectors” of English folk-song material, which they published in seminal works in the early years of the 20th century.  Holst and Vaughan Williams went on to use many of these materials in their own compositions, of which I love my love is a beautiful, heart-wrenching example.

The Invasion and its Aftermath

When the Beatles became world-famous, it wasn’t long before arrangers started putting their music into other forms, including that for vocal ensembles.  The King’s Singers, in fact, created a whole mini-industry with their recordings and arrangements of Beatles charts, a trend that has been continued in recent years by the most recent incarnation of the Swingle Singers, ably led by Jonathan Rathbone and Joanna Forbes, among others.  We are fortunate to have access to many of these wonderful arrangements.  We are also lucky to have Paul Crabtree (himself an English transplant—originally from Warwickshire, home of William Shakespeare—and now living in the Bay Area) among our composer/arranger friends, who enthusiastically and masterfully took Got to get you into my life from the Revolver album and set it just for Chicago a cappella. In the process, he turned it into one of our all-time favorite songs to perform.

What’s Happening Now?

This concert barely scratches the surface of what has been happening in English music for the past thirty years or so.  One could devote several concerts alone to the music of John Rutter, who is probably the most recognized in America among choral conductors after Robert Shaw, even though Rutter still lives and works primarily in England.  It is unfair to gloss, as we must here, over the monumental achievements of Rutter’s output as a composer, arranger, editor, conductor, and overall force in choral music across the world.  We have chosen to represent Rutter with a short, whimsical piece, It was a lover and his lass, which sets a Shakespeare text in a breezy, vocal-swing mood.  Notably, this very song was the very first selection on the very first concert by Chicago a cappella, fifteen years ago.

Not merely an arranger of Beatles tunes, Paul Crabtree is a star in his own right, having just completed major commissions for Cantori New York which were performed during the past few seasons and enthusiastically received by audiences and critics.  Crabtree’s musical sensibilities are grounded in the English madrigal but are influenced at least as much by rock and pop music as by “serious” or “art” music.  His music has an unpretentiousness, and an intention to communicate directly, which are infectious qualities.  He wrote Five Bird Songs a few years ago, based on the very types of English folk songs that Holst and Vaughan Williams were collecting.  The Five Bird Songs all have lyrics combining something about birds with something about love—whether requited or not—and The Lark in the Morning is the opening movement from that lovely cycle.

Multiple influences and types of output also characterize Geoffrey Burgon, writer of the haunting piece titled And have been found again, on a text by the medieval mystic, St. John of the Cross. Mr. Burgon started out as a trumpeter and supported himself that way after conservatory, but at the age of thirty (in 1971) he sold his trumpets and turned full-time to composing.  His “breakout” works were the Requiem in 1976, which led to many commissions, and the score for the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Burgon has continued to juggle commercial and high-art composing, spending the vast majority of his time on the latter.  His economy of utterance is combined with a true love of the voice and of poetry, blending powerfully in And have been found again.  This piece was written in 1983 for the combined choirs of the Southern Cathedrals Festival in Chichester.

As Burgon’s example shows, there are institutions supporting the creation of new music—institutions that, however they are supported financially, are the longstanding envy of many an American choral musician.  Through that support, many composers in and around London are making a living creating superb music, and many singers find work, even fulltime--long may that trend continue.  The strength of the British cathedral-choir, college-choir, and choir-school system has been the underpinning of England’s strength in both performance and composition.  As long as these institutions continue to flourish, and as long as BBC Radio continues to support classical music, the British will occupy a leading position in the world’s choral-music scene for the foreseeable future.

* * * * * * *

The United States is probably the most successfully pluralistic democracy in the world.  However, it’s very clear where we came from, in the broadest sense—American culture came over from our colonial power, based on a small island across the Atlantic.  No culture has affected the overall shape of American life more profoundly than British culture.  Our language and culture came over from England by virtue of the original 13 colonies;  our legal system is based on English common law.  The values which gave rise to American independence from Britain are the values of the Enlightenment, filtered through British and then American lenses.  (Fortunately, we mostly have progressed well beyond traditional British food.)  We seem to still have a fascination with the British, our sister country separated from ours, as they say, by a common language.  There is some inevitable pull, for some of us anyhow, back to the land from which our forebears came, and back to the country which has shaped so much of how we think and live our lives.  Such is our musical journey back across the ocean.

Please visit with us after the concert, and enjoy the show.

—Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director