Men of Letters

Article excerpt

Thomas Weelkes's text authors

ERIC LEWIN ALTSCHULER & WILLIAM JANSEN reflect on the poetry set by one of the greatest of the English madrigalists

THOMAS WEELKES (c.1575-1623) is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most creative of the English madrigalists.1 Indeed, Gustav Holst said of him: `Weelkes [...] can do so many things, and do them all well. He is almost as many-sided as Shakespeare. He is the real musical embodiment of the English character in his fantastic unexpectedness.'2 Curiously, Weelkes is also a rather enigmatic figure. There is `absolutely no concrete information about him before 1597, the year in which he published his first collection of music, Madrigals to 3, 4, 5 and 6 voices.'3 Even the year of his birth is inferred. Furthermore, after successful madrigal sets published in 1597, 1598, 1600 and 1608, Weelkes abandoned the genre, causing one commentator, for example, to wonder `did the creative urge leave him?'4 (And, in general, the 1608 set is regarded as being of inferior quality to the other three.) Here, we point out that the anonymous authors of Weelkes's texts have been somewhat under-appreciated as great men or women of letters.

Thule, the period of cosmography/The Andalusian merchant, nos.7 and 8 of the six-part madrigals from Weelkes's 1600 collection Madrigals of 5 and 6 parts, is among his finest compositions, renowned both for its beauty and innovative use of chromaticism.5 After presenting a brief review of previously noted aspects of Thule, we point out a number of features we have noticed in the anonymous text which are perhaps worthy of some discussion. Our findings further confirm Norman Ault's title for the poem in his compendium of Elizabethan lyrics6 - Wonders - as most appropriate. IMAGE FORMULA6

Tovey noted that the `first word looms in semi-- breves at the top of the octave as large as Iceland (magnified by the exigencies of Mercator's projection) straddling at the top of the cosmographies of Elizabethan and Jacobean days.7 'Trinacrian' (Sicilian) is emphasised with the use of triple meter, with most of the rest of the piece in common time. The strange burning of Fogo is highlighted by chromaticism unusual for the day The very notes which are sung to `flying fishes' appear almost themselves to leap off the page. Clearly, the text and the music of Thule are most brilliantly intertwined. In general, Arnold8 has noted that Weelkes `always delights in finding poems where the music can portray literally the meaning of the words.'

But the madrigal has still more deep and intriguing features:

(1) We find it interesting and curious that three volcanoes would be featured (Hecla, Etna and Fogo), and that the number three is emphasised in using triple meter for the word 'Trinacrian' in a poem which is in the form of, and putatively seems to be, a love poem (two people).

(2) The poet has great breadth of knowledge and interest in things naturalistic, geographical and geophysical: e.g., the three volcanoes, sulphureous fire, frozen clime, flying fishes. But beyond these examples, the poet seems to have a mathematical interest in the issue of dimensions: zero dimensional - `the period of cosmography; one dimensional - the lines the reader seems to be invited to draw between the volcanoes; two dimensional - areas such as the Mercator projection of Iceland and the triangle with vertices at the coordinates of the volcanoes; three dimensional - the ocean and earth with heights of sky, ascending flames, and flying fishes; perhaps four dimensional (space-time) -'cosmography', though there are clearly other interpretations of this word.

(3) We have noticed an interesting similarity between the last line of the reprise of Thule -Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love Both fry' - and a line from Shakespeare's The taming of the shrew (Act 2, Scene 1, lines 335-36) - `Graybeard, thy love Both freeze, but thine doth fry. …