- Joel Frederiksen, Emma-Lisa Roux, Hille Perl, Domen Marincic: “A Day with Suzanne: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen” (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)
- Stile Antico: “The Golden Renaissance: William Byrd” (Decca)
- The King’s Singers, Fretwork: “Tom and Will” (Signum Classics)
For all of the secrecy, holiness, and exquisite pain of the medieval troubadour songs, the stories they profess to tell are one-sided. Rarely are we offered the woman’s perspective, or even any supporting evidence for the emotional evisceration that’s often at the heart of these ballads of forbidden and unconsummated love. Not so for contemporary troubadours. Take Leonard Cohen, whose early ballads like “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne” are based on his real-life paramours Suzanne Verdal and Marianne Ihlen. They could easily be rendered into Old Occitan, transcribed from guitar to lute, and sound like lost tales of courtly love; worlds in which lovers hold onto each other like crucifixes and feed each other tea and oranges that come all the way from China, until they—inevitably—come apart. As the narrator of these relationships, Cohen sounds like a postmodernist Tristan, enchanted, seduced, and ultimately alone.
These two songs take on added contextual baggage when you read a letter sent from Cohen to Ihlen in the summer of 1972:
As you’ve probably heard, Suzanne is pregnant, expecting in October. This is not something I prayed for but it has happened and so be it. This won’t change anything between us. Our curious relations will continue.
The curious relations didn’t continue. Ihlen, who had been staying in Cohen’s house on the Greek island of Hydra, was unceremoniously evicted one day when Verdal showed up with her and Cohen’s young son. But Cohen and Ihlen also stayed in each other’s lives, adding layers of curiosity to their relationship. Letters between the two that went up for auction at Christie’s in 2019 detail financial arrangements (as his career gained surer financial footing, he continued to pay for things like her children’s education) and arguments over their joint-custody of the house in Hydra. Their story came full circle when, upon learning Ihlen was dying from leukemia in the summer of 2016, Cohen sent her one last note that she read on her deathbed. “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand,” he said. She died on July 28. He died a few months later, on November 7.
Connecting Cohen to the medieval troubadours isn’t a game of historical ping-pong; plenty of nodes connect these two points on the timeline, forming another matrix of curious relations. Much like the latter-day High Priest of Pathos’s songs, 15th- and 16th-century chansons have a plainspoken elegance in delivery paired with unusual and unusually expressive rhythms. It’s at the crossroads of Cohen and the likes of Josquin des Prez and Orlande de Lassus that singer and lutenist Joel Frederiksen places a pin in his album “A Day with Suzanne.”
No stranger to pairing old and new—his 2012 album for Harmonia Mundi, “Requiem for a Pink Moon,” matched Nick Drake with Elizabethan court music—Frederiksen finds an unforced harmony between Cohen and his French Renaissance forebears. The connections make sense on a subliminal level. Combining one song from each era into a fresh arrangement also works on a technical level: Cohen’s preference for an acoustic guitar with nylon strings (he once likened a flirtation with steel strings to “changing from underwear to armor”) complements Frederiksen’s arrangements for lute (played by himself and Emma-Lisa Roux) and viola da gamba (Hille Perl and Domen Marinčič). Melodic lines from des Prez and de Lassus flow easily into Cohen’s music, each side of the coin feeding into the other. Frederiksen also taps into a rich vein of intertextuality, acknowledging the literary importance of both song traditions. Like Cohen’s own debut album, he opens with “Suzanne,” in an arrangement that blends it with de Lasso’s “Susanne un jour.” Cohen’s delphic poetry in homage to Verdal contrasts with de Lasso’s account of Susannah and the Elders. The latter begins:
One day, Susanne’s love was solicited
by two old men coveting her beauty.
She became sad and discomforted at heart,
Seeing the attempt on her chastity.
There’s something translucent about layering these lyrics with a refrain like:
And you want to travel with her
and you want to travel blind
and you know that she will trust you
for you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.
It doesn’t lead to a straightforward poetic interpretation. Perhaps the objectification of Susannah in the Biblical story is balanced out by the autonomy and control of Cohen’s Suzanne. Perhaps they are the same person. Perhaps not much at all has changed between Susannah’s story and the commodification of women like Verdal and Ihlen as the muses of Great Men. Cohen was never one to shy away from fuzzy truths or hazy meanings. Nor does Frederiksen offer answers to these comparisons. They’re departure points for philosophical cruises through the sacred and profane, running the gamut from “Suzanne” to the title track of the last album released in Cohen’s lifetime, “You Want It Darker,” and drawing on just as many of Cohen’s thematic touchpoints: love, sex, religion, and death. It’s intellectual catnip, but it’s also a simple pleasure to hear these arrangements performed. Frederiksen’s redwood bass and Roux’s snowy egret of a soprano weave in and out of each other, making conversations of what would otherwise be monologues, and blending especially well in the melismatic double-hitter of des Prez’s “Adieu, mes amours” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”
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Because classical music loves nothing more than a death anniversary, 2023 is turning out to be a year for the sacred and the shrouded as ensembles mark the 400th anniversary of William Byrd shuffling off his own mortal coil. Having devoted the first installment of their “Golden Renaissance” trilogy in 2021 to des Prez, Stile Antico has hopped on that bandwagon with a collection of works from the composer’s final years.
If it’s odd to commemorate death anniversaries as much as we do in this world, this approach centers Byrd in a critical part of English history. He died roughly two decades into the reign of James I, who inherited the throne from his cousin, Elizabeth I (prior to his coronation in England, James had held the throne as King of Scotland for more than 35 years after Elizabeth beheaded his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots). Byrd was born into the reign of Henry VIII, long after the Tudor king had broken with the Catholic church in order to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. A few years later, Henry died and the successive reigns of his three children (Edward VI, Mary I—not to be confused with James’s mother—and Elizabeth I) launched a tumultuous religious volley between the Protestants Edward and Elizabeth and Catholic Mary.
It’s not hard to see how Byrd’s childhood, which most agree was spent studying under Tudor composer Thomas Tallis, would have been affected by this backdrop. While a student, he composed music for the Catholic rites that Mary I reintroduced into England. Still, under the following reign of Elizabeth, he also held a prominent post as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and found fellow travelers at the Virgin Queen’s court, with many members of the English nobility leaning Catholic. While Elizabeth killed as many Catholics as her half-sister killed Protestants (earning the latter the nickname “Bloody Mary”), she was also wary of the most extreme Protestants—the Puritans—and, much like her father, seemed to have a soft spot for the pageantry of Catholic rites. Her direct order protected Byrd from persecution for his Catholic activities and refusal to attend Protestant services, which allowed him a freedom of expression denied to many of his compatriots.
Byrd’s protection ended with the death of Elizabeth in 1603. James, whose earlier reign in Scotland was marked by religious paranoia, was far more stringent—and became even more so two years into his rule, when a Catholic dissident by the name of Guy Fawkes was, along with several other conspirators, caught attempting to literally burn it all down. Byrd had been prudent enough to more or less retire from his role in Elizabeth’s court, living a bit more capaciously in Essex rather than under the microscope of London society. As anti-Catholic laws gained renewed momentum in the final years of Elizabeth and became even less forgiving under James’s rule, Byrd responded with secret, cloak-and-dagger settings (culminating in the “Gradualia”). His musical style, unadorned and reticent, was a good fit for the context. The “Mass for Four Voices,” for example, is intimate and reflective, an inward expression of faith in a time where external expression was tantamount to treason.
No strangers to the musical history of this era, Stile Antico’s warmth and depth illuminate the full force of meaning behind Byrd’s settings. The clarity of their individual voices and rich collective blending create a realm of the sacred and the clandestine. Opening with “Retire My Soul,” first published in 1611, Stile Antico gives us a setting of “You Want It Darker”-esque contemplation:
Retire my soul, consider thine estate,
And justly sum thy lavish sin’s account.
Time’s dear expense, and costly pleasures rate,
How follies grow, how vanities amount.
Write all these down, in pale Death’s reckoning tables,
Thy days will seem but dreams, thy hopes but fables.
This opening gambit invites Cohen-like contemplation of the works that follow. Whose follies, pleasures, and vanities is Byrd tracking in his reckoning tables? The aristocracy’s, or his own? Stile Antico revels in the mystery. If you only have the bandwidth for one Byrd tribute this year, this is it. If, however, you’re keen to go deeper into the Byrd bath, the beginning of 2023 is not short on options.
Written in the same year as “Retire My Soul,” Byrd’s “Praise Our Lord All Ye Gentiles” is more adulatory than autumnal, all exterior in lieu of interior. It’s a contrast to Stile Antico for the King’s Singers to open their own Byrd compendium with this offering, one that they follow up with the decidedly secular “If Women Could Be Fair” (1588). It’s a boisterous tune, set to lyrics by Edward de Vere, an Earl of Oxford and former ward of Queen Elizabeth, with couplets like: “But when I see, how frail these creatures are / I laugh, that men forget themselves so far.” In setting this, Byrd doesn’t extend his reach past the grasp of his lyricist.
More interesting on “Tom and Will,” however, is a composer who followed Byrd closely in death, Thomas Weelkes (Byrd died in July of 1623, Weelkes in October). While Byrd lived into his 80s, Weelkes died at just 47, and the contrast between their styles—from Byrd’s early Elizabethan proclivities to Weelke’s Italianate idioms—is palpable. Weelkes’s own rebellions were also less subdued; while Byrd was writing secret Catholic services, his younger counterpart was fired from church gigs for “notorious drunkenness and outrageous blaspheming,” as David Skinner puts it in the liner notes. “Weelkes was unreformed the remainder of his life, and it was noted that he continued to ‘utter curses and oaths that both profaned the service and outraged those who were present.’”
This friction comes through in the selections from Weelkes that the King’s Singers and Fretwork—another textural contrast of ethereal voices and earthy strings—present. Following the demure bawdiness of “If Women Could Be Fair,” there’s a crackling layer of harmony and dissonance in Weelkes’s “Say Dear, When Will Your Frowning Leave?” The vocal lines become more muddied; it’s harder to separate each layer from the others and see clear to the bottom. There’s a Byrd-ian sense of mystery, but also a lustiness that sets even his secular works in stark contrast. As it dies down, you can’t help but want to stoke the embers to watch it reignite. ¶
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