Session 51 (Themed Papers): Rethinking Thomas Weelkes

Friday, 9 July 2021, 11.00-12.30, Room 209 Chair: Magnus Williamson (Newcastle University)

Session Abstract

English composer Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) is one of the most beloved musicians in the Anglican choral tradition, in part because of an oft repeated apocryphal anecdote about him urinating on the Dean of Chichester Cathedral from the organ loft. Yet this ‘bad boy’ of English music is perhaps most well known for his printed collections of vernacular domestic song, including madrigals and canzonets. Still, as a composer Weelkes has unjustly accrued a reputation as an ‘unliterary’ musician, for mostly historiographical reasons. In the last 50 years, a few scholars such as Philip Brett have begun important work in reassessing Weelkes’s persona. But with the composer’s quatercentenary forthcoming in 2023 (shared with his more famous contemporary William Byrd) this panel aims to instigate further revision of Weelkes’s reputation through an analysis of his poems, music, and historiography.

The wit of Weelkes | Katie Bank (University of Birmingham)

Aspects of Thomas Weelkes’s sparse biography have led some to see the composer as an “anti-intellectual” figure, often citing a remark in the first dedication to his 1600 set as evidence, where Weelkes wrote, “I confesse my conscience is vntoucht with any other arts.” This paper explores Weelkes’s historiography alongside recent research that demonstrates why the wit of Weelkes is not to be underestimated. Not only did Weelkes have a highly developed satirical streak, writing cynical social commentary, but I show why Weelkes was probably a reader of travel literature as well. This paper demonstrates in historiographical and musical-textual terms why a comprehensive, interdisciplinary revision of Weelkes scholarship is long overdue.

‘Diana’s Darlings’: Thomas Weelkes and the Rhetoric of Music | Eleanor Chan (University of Manchester)

Thomas Weelkes describes his own madrigals with playful diffidence: ‘not sweet, onely once to tast off’. Although ironic self-disparagement, Weelkes’ description is arguably correct: his madrigals afford a rich variety of new insights at each repeated performance. ‘As Vesta Was’, his contribution to Thomas Morley’s The Triumphes of Oriana (1601), is no exception. Nevertheless, traditionally Weelkes has been interpreted as a one-trick pony, with little focus on knowledge beyond the musical. This paper will argue that ‘As Vesta Was’ demonstrates that Weelkes was in fact rhetorically dexterous and highly conscious of contemporary literary tropes, not least the idea of Romance.

Thomas Weelkes and The London Madrigal Society: English Madrigals and English Revivals | Samantha Bassler (New York University)

The London Madrigal Society, an organization founded in the eighteenth century and still active today, recently attracted attention for its significant contributions to English revivals of early music long before the so-called ‘English Musical Renaissance’. The Society is an antiquarian society for ‘ancient music’, connected not only to the eighteenth-century London club culture, but also to a long history of English antiquarianism and both public and private madrigal performance.

This paper explores the relationship of madrigals by Thomas Weelkes within the antiquarian milieu of eighteenth-century London, by examining manuscript copies of Weelkes’ madrigals, and comparing them to other madrigal composers. The aim is to determine what about the style of Weelkes’ madrigals, and other madrigal composers, fascinated the eighteenth-century antiquarians, during a time when early music was supposedly in its nadir in England and elsewhere.