Thomas Weelkes


Born: October 25, 1575 Died: December 1, 1623
Thomas Weelkes has been known as one of the great names in the flowering of the Elizabethan madrigal, in a class with Morley, Wilbye, and Gibbons. Unlike many of his famous contemporaries, however, Weelkes never seems to have served the royal household in London, rather eking out a living as a provincial church musician. He first privately served noble patrons George Phillpot and then Edward Darcye, following this with an uneasy tenure as Winchester College organist from 1598 to 1602. He then took the appointment as organist and choirmaster at Chichester Cathedral, with a lucrative clerkship on the side. Unfortunately, he spent the greater part of his church career being reprimanded by the ecclesiastical authorities; he was "noted and famed for a common drunkard and notorious swearer and blasphemer," and was dismissed from his musical duties at least once. After the death of his wife in 1622, Weelkes left all his responsibilities and spent his last year in London.

His first (and best-known) compositions fed the tremendous vogue for Italianate music in Elizabethan England. In comparison to the then-recent publications of Morley, Weelkes lacked the elder madrigalist's graceful simplicity in the form; his resounding sonorities and imaginative contrasts, however, were already present in the First Book of Madrigals (3-6 voices, 1597). The volumes of 1598 (5 voices) and 1600 (5 and 6 voices) present Weelkes' best work, and some of the best English madrigals of all time. Weelkes' style in this music coalesces his understanding of the tradition of Flemish polyphony through the Englishman William Byrd, with Weelkes' own fascination with Italian music, especially the rich text-painting and daring chromaticism of Marenzio. Other characteristic traits include embedded musical contrasts, such as those in O care, thou wilt despatch me; the brilliant sonorities of Thule, the period of Cosmography; and the careful structural constructs found in his contribution to Morley's volume of Orianna madrigals: As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending.

Weelkes' long tenure serving the Church yielded a rich (though lesser-known) harvest of liturgical compositions. He produced both "Full" and "Verse" anthems, the latter involving passages written for soloists. The Verse Anthems afforded him more room for text-sensitivity, in addition to being more practically suited to a smaller, provincial choir. However, the fullness of his textures brings a note of brilliance and grandeur to the Full Anthems, such as his Hosanna to the Son of David. He also wrote 10 complete Anglican Services, more restrained (and again practical) in style, the mark of a conscientious, if sometimes ill-behaved, church musician. These Services often demonstrate deep structural relationships between the various canticles and even contain motivic ties to related anthems.

There are 67 Thomas Weelkes recordings available.

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