Viol consort Fretwork and mezzo soprano Helen Charlston explore the more reflective and sombre Christmas celebrations of Elizabethan England, in a collection of works by William Byrd, Anthony Holborne, Orlando Gibbons and Martin Peerson.
With celebrations confined strictly to the 12 days from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, the preceding Advent was regarded as a time of religious introspection, with music composed to mark both fasting and feasting. Byrd’s consort songs for voice and 5 viols encompass this range, from the joyous Out of the Orient Crystal Skies – ending with an exuberant ‘Falantidingdido’, a word whose meaning is lost to history – to his Lullaby, a ‘song of sadnes and pietie’ that became one of Byrd’s most enduringly famous songs
In 2021, Fretwork celebrates its 35th anniversary. In the past three and a half decades they have explored the core repertory of great English consort music, from Taverner to Purcell, and made classic recordings against which others are judged. In addition to this, Fretwork have become known as pioneers of contemporary music for viols, having commissioned over 40 new works.
Acclaimed for her musical interpretation, presence and “warmly distinctive tone” (The Telegraph), Helen Charlston is quickly cementing herself as a key performer in the next generation of British singers. Helen won first prize in the 2018 Handel Singing Competition and was a finalist in the Hurn Court Opera Competition, and the Grange Festival International Singing Competition.
In 2021 Fretwork celebrated its 35th anniversary. In these last three and a half decades, they have explored the core repertory of great English consort music, from Taverner to Purcell, and made classic recordings against which others are judged.
In addition to this, Fretwork have become known as pioneers of contemporary music for viols, having commissioned nearly 50 new works. The list of composers is like the role call of the most prominent writers of our time: George Benjamin, Michael Nyman, Sir John Tavener, Gavin Bryars, Elvis Costello, Alexander Goehr, John Woolrich, Orlando Gough, Fabrice Fitch, Peter Sculthorpe, Sally Beamish, Tan Dun, Barry Guy, Andrew Keeling, Thea Musgrave, Simon Bainbridge, Poul Ruders, John Joubert, Duncan Druce & Nico Muhly.
In 2010 they also curated a week-long concert series of concerts at Kings Place which culminated in the world premier of The World Encompassed by Orlando Gough, a 70-minute piece describing in musical terms Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1577-80.
In 2011, The National Centre for Early Music, in collaboration with the BBC, hosted a competition for young composers to create a four-minute piece for Fretwork. They workshopped the shortlisted pieces at the NCEM in York in October, and then the winning entries were premiered in Kings Place in December 2011. In 2014 they concentrated on the music of John Dowland with a major tour of the UK with one of today’s greatest tenors: Ian Bostridge. They also spent a week in the Britten Studio in Aldeburgh re-working The World Encompassed to incorporate a spoken narrative drawn from contemporary accounts.
Slow: an In Nomine by Nico Muhly was premiered in 2015 at Kings Place in London, and they collaborated with celebrated actor Simon Callow in the revised version of The World Encompassed and recorded it for Signum Classics.
They celebrated their 30th anniversary with a star-studded concert at Kings Place in June 2016. They also recorded four new albums, including The World Encompassed, and later that year they made their longest tour of America, taking in the USA, Canada and Colombia.
In 2018 they performed and recorded a programme celebrating the music of Michael Nyman – who turned 75 in 2019 – with the exceptional counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies. In 2019 they toured North America with this programme.
That year they also began a series of concerts at Wigmore Hall, called Musick’s Monument, presenting the greatest English consort music from the Golden Age – six concerts ranging from Taverner to Purcell. The 2020 pandemic curtailed most groups plans and activities, and Fretwork saw its fair share of cancellations; but it was fortunate to receive support from Arts Council England’s Emergency fund, and then to be able to present a live-streamed concert with Iestyn Davies from the National Centre for Early Music in York, a programme of Dowland’s Lachrimae from Wigmore Hall and premier a new work by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones in the Early Music Festival in Blackheath. They also pressed ahead with more recording once lockdown restrictions were eased.
They performed at Wigmore Hall twice in 2021, including a performance on Good Friday, the first from Wigmore on that date for many decades, of Johann Sebastiani’s St Matthew Passion. They have also been awarded a substantial grant from Arts Council England to continue and maintain the continuity of their work.
They premiered their new project, Albion, in Kings Place in November 2021. It is a reflection on English identity as seen through the musics of various ages and ethnicities. They invited ten composers – Orlando Gough, Yfat Soul Zisso, Sally Beamish, Gabriel Prokofiev, Sarah Dacey, Talvin Singh, Blasio Kavuma and others – to arrange iconic pieces of English music. This included works such as Overload by the Sugababes, Land of Hope and Glory, London Calling by The Clash, Sailing By by Ronald Binge and When All Is Said and Done by Napalm Death. These are then linked and amplified with live electronics, creating an impressionistic tableau that explores and questions English identity. While they used to fly all over the globe, they have now committed to reducing their carbon footprint by travelling in Europe only by train or electric cars - this year they have toured Germany, France & Spain, Austria & Slovenia in their two Teslas.
William Byrd was an English composer. He was one of the greatest composers of his generation. Hiis name is sometimes spelled as Bird, Byrde, or Byred. The exact dates of his birth and death are not known, and even his place of birth (Lincoln) is merely guesswork, based on the fact that several families named Byrd lived in Lincolnshire during the 17th century.
As a child, Byrd received music lessons from the renowned Thomas Tallis in the Chapel Royal in London. Byrd is part of the so-called virginalists. In 1563, he was appointed as organist of the cathedral in Lincoln, even though he must have only been around 20 years old and in 1572 he was appointed as organist of Chapel Royal together with Tallis. In 1575, again with Tallis, he received the rights to publish and sell his music by Queen Elizabeth I. In honour of the Queen, the two composers dedicated their Cantiones Sacrae in the same year.
On multiple occasions, Byrd was prosecuted in court. As a catholic, he was repeatedly prosecuted for the rejection of Anglicanism. Nonetheless, he remained in favour of the Queen, probably because he composed music for both religious branches. Moreover, he wrote both secular and sacred music, and both vocal and instrumental pieces.