Saturday 23 March 2024

Writing Italian-influenced music in the depths of Northamptonshire: organist William Whitehead on the music of English Baroque composer George Jeffreys

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

The Baroque collective, Solomon's Knot's recent disc on Prospero Classical [see my review] showcased the music of the almost forgotten 17th-century English composer George Jeffreys, revealing him as a remarkable talent, writing Italian-influenced music in the depths of darkest Northamptonshire during the Civil War. Born around 1610 and living until 1683, his lifetime coincided with a complex piece of English history; for most of his life he worked for Lord Hatton, much of the time at Hatton's seat of Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire. For the recent recording, featuring 16 pieces by Jeffreys, Solomon's Knot included organist William Whitehead for recording sessions at Kirby Hall (now in the care of English Heritage). I recently chatted to William about Jeffreys' and his music, and how the recording came about, as well as touching on William's passion project, the Orgelbuchlein project, a modern-day completion of Bach's youthful collection of chorale preludes.

William Whitehead
William Whitehead

William describes George Jeffreys (c1610-1685) as the first English Baroque composer, writing music in a radical new style. So why have we not heard much about him?

William points out that it is fatally easy to write a history of English music where, during the Civil War music gets killed off. But as with other such political situations, when you put pressure on an art form, out pop interesting and fascinating things, and William cites the Soviet era and the example of Shostakovich.

William first heard some of Jeffreys's music 20 years ago. Composer and conductor Peter Aston did seminal work on Jeffreys at the University of East Anglia and recorded some of the music with his students. When William came across the recordings he found it vibrant, deep and colourful music, so for the last 15 years or so he has been rattling cages about performing Jeffreys' music. Unfortunately, with an unknown name, it proved difficult to get any interest, until finally Jonathan Sells of Solomon's Knot came on board. William plays the keyboard regularly with the ensemble and so helped to put the recording together.

From the outset, William thought it important to get an academic involved in the project and they were lucky enough to get advice from Jonathan Wainwright from York University, and by some neat synchronicity, the first volume of Wainwright's edition of Jeffreys's works for Musica Britannica (of the complete English Sacred Music) came out before the recording. Further volumes of Jeffreys's music are planned for Musica Brittanica, so the composer's music will be out there.

Jeffreys wrote some service music, though none is on the disc, but the majority of his choral music is settings of poetic and Biblical texts. During the Civil War and after, public worship became deeply Puritan and public sung worship came to an end. In private, there were still enclaves based in Royal circles; until King Charles I's capture, the King's household preserved some musical traditions whilst Queen Henrietta Maria had dispensation to have sung Roman Catholic services.

Jeffreys sets both Biblical texts and poetical texts, though we don't know all the poets. These settings were probably sung for Jeffrey's patron, Christopher Hatton (who was descended from a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth I's favourite, another Christopher Hatton). We don't have much detail, though we know that they had a chest of viols at Kirby Hall, and the sounding board for an organ from this date survives, so we know they had an organ. This was a household that was cultured and culturally inquisitive, and that enjoyed music.

Jeffreys' musical activities for the Hatton family also included copying, and there is an extensive collection of Italian motets that Jeffreys copies based on printed books acquired by Hatton from London booksellers. And by copying this music, Jeffreys seems to have acquired an understanding the techniques of contemporary Italian music which he then applied in his own pieces, something that gives Jeffreys a distinctive voice in English music of the period.

As to who the performers were, we can only guess. George Jeffreys was actually Christopher Hatton's steward, so no doubt other servants doubled as musicians. The Hattons also had a London residence (the present-day Hatton Garden is named for it), so presumably there they would have access to more able, professionalised musicians, but this is all conjecture.

Some seven or eight hours of music by Jeffreys survives, a not insignificant amount of music though much less than the surviving works by William Byrd. And of course, more could be discovered. William admits that though he loves digging around in archives, he just doesn't have time for it and that they were lucky that the spadework was done by Jonathan Wainwright. 

Further ahead, William has a rich mix of musical projects to look forward to. With Easter just coming up, he has Bach's Passions to look forward to. He has solo recitals in Vienna and Hamburg, will be playing keyboard with the Gabrieli Consort & Players and La Nuova Music, and in the Autumn he will be back at Wigmore Hall with Solomon's Knot for Monteverdi's Vespers. . There is talk of performing George Jeffreys' piece in concert. This is music that needs to be heard, discussions at the moment centre on how to make it a good concert experience, and what music works with Jeffreys' pieces.

Recording session at Kirby Hall for Solomon's Knot's disc of music by George Jeffreys
Recording session at Kirby Hall for Solomon's Knot's disc of music by George Jeffreys

As to repertoire, he regards himself as a generalist partly because he has to teach the whole range, though he admits that his knowledge is deeper in some areas than others. He is finding himself drawn to Bach more and more, but this is partly because of his Orgelbüchlein project, of which more anon. And de has recently been working his way through Duruflé's organ works.

Bach's Orgelbuchlein was a project Bach conceived for over 160 chorale preludes. He managed to complete only 46 and William has been inviting contemporary composers to write chorale preludes to fill in the gaps. 

William is currently editing the first volume for publication [see the project website] and there are six volumes planned. In theory, he has all the gaps covered, but when it comes to publication there are occasional copyright issues, and in some cases, there are multiple works filling a particular gap.

There are 118 gaps in all, filled by an eclectic mix of contemporary composers. William regards the collection as an historical marker representing the beginning of the 21st century, featuring all the styles composers are using, along with some viewed retrospectively. There are a couple of Bach imitators, and William cites John Scott Whiteley's contribution as being very close to Bach, and a couple of good Brahms imitators, along with some who are sui generis, and then there are works influenced by Cage, Serialism, Jazz, Reggae and much more, each individual composer's free response to the task.

Lost Majesty: Sacred Songs and Anthems by George Jeffreys - Solomon's Knot - PROSPERO 

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