Thomas Weelkes: As Vesta Was Descending

Throughout the 16th-century, Italian composers became increasingly attracted to a secular genre called the madrigal. In this genre, an emotionally expressive poem, often dealing with love, was set to vocal music that attempted to musically illustrate the words or their emotional content through a technique known as word painting. Madrigals were the musical counterpart of the literature and visual arts of humanistic movement. Members of the courts and other upper class citizens performed madrigals for each other as entertainment, sometimes without any audience other than the performers. The popularity of madrigals in Italy, and the resulting translation and publication of a number of them in England, resulted in the rise of a school of English madrigal composers. Among these composers was Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), who served as the organist at Chichester Cathedral until his dismissal from his post on grounds of being a habitual common drunkard and a notorious swearer and blasphemer.

As Vesta Was Descending comes from The Triumphes of Oriana (1601), an anthology of English madrigals written to honor Queen Elizabeth, referred to as Oriana in the poem. (Note the reference in Vesta to the “maiden queen.”) Although the Italian version of word painting often served the purpose of amplifying the emotional content of the text, English composers wrote music similar to that in Vesta, in which the music attempts to illustrate individual words especially those that indicated number or direction. The variety in a music setting such as Vesta produced a musical composition requiring skill to perform and pleasing to the performers.

Listening Tips:

As Vesta Was Descending has the light mood typical of English madrigals. Word painting is plentiful, e.g., the word “descending” is sung to downward scales and “ascending” to upward ones. When Vesta's attendants run down the hill in twos, threes, and larger groups, the setting is for two voices, then three voices, then six voices. A solo voice proclaims that the goddess is left “all alone.” In the extended concluding section, “Long live fair Oriana,” a joyous phrase is imitated among the voices. In the bass this phrase is sung in long notes, with the longest note on the word long. The length of time dedicated to this proclamation, one third of the composition, is indicative of the ultimate purpose of the composition, to flatter the Queen.

Listening Guide:

00:00

As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending,

Descending scales on “descending”

00:15

she spied a maiden queen the same ascending,

Ascending scales on “ascending”

00:38

attended on by all the shepherds swain,

Melody gently undulates, neither ascending nor descending.

00:58

to whom Diana's darlings came running down amain.

Rapid imitative descending figures on running down

01:25

Two, three then solo voice

First two by two, then three by three together,

Two voices, three voices, and then all voices

01:36

leaving their goddess all alone, hasted thither,

solo voice

01:51

and mingling with the shepherds of her train with mirthful tunes her presence entertain.

All voices in delicate polyphony

02:15

Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana,

All voices unite to introduce the final proclamation

02:29

Long live fair Oriana!

Brief, joyful phrase imitated among voices is repeated over and over

03:40 End