Wednesday 21 February 2024

Revealing a remarkable talent: Solomon's Knot explore the Sacred Songs and Anthems of 17th century composer George Jeffreys

George Jeffreys: Sacred Songs and Anthems; Solomon's Knot, Josep Maria Marti Duran, William Whitehead; Prospero

George Jeffreys: Sacred Songs and Anthems; Solomon's Knot, Josep Maria Marti Duran, William Whitehead; Prospero
Reviewed 19 February 2024

The almost forgotten 17th-century English composer George Jeffreys is revealed as a remarkable talent, writing Italian influenced-music in the depths of darkest Northamptonshire during the Civil War, vividly brought to life by Solomon's Knot

The name of the composer George Jeffreys is not well known and it is perhaps fatally easy to assume that his surviving output of instrumental fantasias, thirteen Italian madrigals, sixteen English songs, sixty-one Latin motets, five Latin canticles, two Latin mass movements, twenty-six English anthems or devotional pieces, and three settings of texts from the English Communion Service would be that of an eminently forgettable minor 17th century English composer working in a somewhat old-fashioned style. Yet the reality is remarkably different.

Born around 1610 and living until 1683, his lifetime coincided with a complex piece of English history and for most of his life he worked for Lord Hatton, much of the time at Hatton's seat of Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire. Now, the spotlight is turning onto Jeffreys and rightly finding a composer who has been unjustly neglected. His music is being made available via Musica Britannica and this new disc on Prospero Classical, Lost Majesty: Sacred Songs and Anthems by George Jeffreys, from Solomon's Knot (artistic director Jonathan Sells) including Josep Maria Martí Duran (theorbo) and William Whitehead (organ), not only features Jeffreys' sacred songs and anthems for four- and five-part voices and continuo, but was recorded in the great hall of Kirby Hall.

Solomon's Knot at Kirby Hall
Solomon's Knot at Kirby Hall

Not much is known about Jeffreys' early life and he first shows up in Cambridge in the 1630s where he may well have come into contact with the Hatton family but from this period until his death he was in the family's service. This was mainly as Steward at Kirby Hall, where he remained during the Civil War with Lady Hatton whilst Lord Hatton fled to France. Despite the fact that Jeffreys was employed by Christopher Hatton primarily as a secretary/steward and not as a musician, he maintained a passionate interest in music throughout his life and music manuscripts in his hand survive from the 1630s through to the 1680s. What is perhaps most significant is that Jeffreys, who was born around 50 years before Purcell, was one of the few English composers of the period to be influenced by contemporary Italian styles and to write in a forward-looking style.

One of the Hattons (Sir Christopher Hatton III) had been an avid collection of Italian music, the stile nuovo was highly popular in Court circles even if Anglican church music remained somewhat old-fashioned. London bookseller Robert Martin thought it worthwhile to publish five catalogues of Venetian music between 1633 and 1650,and Sir Christopher was an customer. Jeffreys seems to have had both interest and opportunity, with the result that he copied music from the Kirby collection and was influenced by it. The anthems on this disc are far more Italianate in style than the contemporary verse anthems.

We have declamation contrasting with virtuoso solo writing, homophonic ensemble passages, unexpected harmonies and a general sense of freedom that would not be seen again until Purcell. Virtually none of Jeffreys' music was published during his lifetime and he seems not to have visited London much, even though the Hattons maintained a house there. His only official function was as organist to the Royal Court during the brief period when King Charles I was in Oxford. This music seems to have been entirely for the personal delectation and devotions of the Hatton family at Kirby, and clearly Jeffreys had the freedom to experiment in terms of style.

Being as the Hattons maintained a Steward who has also a composer, it is reasonable to assume that their establishment included a selection of singing men (and women?) who doubled as musicians and servants, thus providing the wherewithal to perform this music when all religious establishments were closed down. As Jonathan Wainwright explains in his booklet note, "Although there was no chapel, there was an organ at Kirby Hall: Jeffreys’ small-scale concertato music (most of which – by the 1650s – avoided the treble voice) would have been most suitable for performance with only a handful of voices and a chamber organ."

The first disc features Jeffreys' sequence of five-voice anthems which cycle over the Church year. These are mostly early compositions, with largely anonymous poetical texts (though one uses George Herbert). The second disc features four-voice anthems described by Jeffreys as 'Songs of 4. Parts For the Church', these set largely sacred texts culled from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

The music is performed by the eight singers of Solomon's Knot, Zoë Brookshaw and Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, soprano, James Laing and Kate Symonds-Joy, alto, Thomas Herford and Andrew Tortise, tenor Alex Ashworth and Jonathan Sells, bass with theorbo and organ, performing one voice to a part. 

Throughout they perform with flexibility, freedom and virtuosity, this is rightly given as music for a virtuoso vocal consort rather than solos with large choral ensemble. The result has a compelling vividness that makes the music really sing. That the performers have experience with the more virtuoso Italian style is a great help. This disc more than makes a case for Jeffreys music, in this vital performances the sheer presence of the singers makes the whole recital more than enjoyable.

This disc forces us into a reassessment of Jeffreys and his position in English music, no long a petit-maître whose music was only for consumption by a small group, it is clear that whilst Jeffreys may not have had a large audience, he was a significant talent. And Wainwright soberingly points out "The realization that fifty-eight of Jeffreys’ concertato anthems, devotional songs and motets date from the period 1638–48 necessitates a reassessment of the composer’s position in the history of seventeenth-century English music".

George Jeffreys (c1610-1685) - Sacred Songs and Anthems
Hark, shepherd swains - For the Nativity of our most Blessed Saviour
Busy time this day - For the Blessed Innocents’ Day
Brightest of days - For the Epiphany
Whisper it easily - On the Passion of our Blessed Saviour
Rise heart; thy Lord is risen - For the Resurrection of our Blessed Saviour
Look up, all eyes - For the Ascension of our Blessed Saviour
The Lord in thy adversity
A music strange - For Whitsunday
What praise can reach thy clemency
Turn thee again
Awake my soul
How wretched is the state you all are in
In the midst of life
Turn thou us, O good Lord
Great and marvellous are thy works
He beheld the city
Solomon's Knot
Josep Maria Martí Duran (theorbo)
William Whitehead (organ) 
Recorded: 20–23 August 2022, Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, UK
PROSPERO PROSP0086 2CDs [46:53, 39:08]

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