Review: MUSIC / POETRY Crye Purcell Room, London

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The Independent Culture
Collaborations between poets and musicians are relatively common, but the kind of music that's generally thought fit to set alongside poetry stays much the same - free-form jazz. On Monday, at the Purcell Room, there was a much more unusual marriage of music and poetry, and thus a much more unusual answer to the question: what are these two forms supposed to do for each other anyway?

The music, courtesy of the viol consort Concordia, consisted of pieces written between the last quarter of the 16th century and the start of the Civil War. The poet, Glyn Maxwell, had been asked to create a text that would work as a kind of exploration of its dominant mood: melancholia. In calling the evening "Crye", allusion was being made both to Dowland's great Lachrimae and, more specifically, to a chant-based "In nomine" named Crye by that peevish and troubled Elizabethan soul Christopher Tye.

Interestingly, the event did not draw the usual poetry crowd: the sharp dressing and the general air of fastidiousness - even fussiness - were quite different from the sloppy and rather booze-soaked bonhomie that one usually associates with poets and their rag-tag-and-bobtailish followers. There was a generalised atmosphere of emotional restraint - which was entirely in keeping with what was happening on the stage, for although the programme was a general call to weeping and emotional outpouring for grievous wrongs suffered, those Elizabethans and Jacobeans did this sort of thing within extremely constraining forms, musical and literary.

Music and poetry alternated for the most part (unlike when poets and jazzos get together: they usually try to drown each other out in wave upon wave of gloriously unrestrained feeling). First the head of Maxwell would appear, illuminated in a fierce orange halo of light. Having said his piece, he would disappear and the viol consort seated to his left would be lit, so dimly and quasi-religiously that they looked rather like over-serious night-watchmen huddled around a vat of home-made minestrone soup.

Maxwell's sequence of nine poems, loosely set at the time of the Civil War, concentrates entirely upon the emotional predicament of a village woman, called Rachell, who is expecting news of the Royalist husband who has gone off to war. Is he alive or dead? Will the wounded soldier who has turned up in the village reveal his fate to her? All is fear, fantasy and emotional perturbation, constrained within the formal rigour of Maxwell's verse form.

On a couple of occasions, words and music overlapped to great emotional effect - when, for example, the consort played William Lawes' passionately baroque Consort Set in C Minor immediately after "A Tale Told Once", the long narrative poem that finally reveals the terrible fate of the village men. Lawes himself, a great favourite of Charles I, was shot at the siege of Chester in 1645.

The whole evening was a scrupulous and moving demonstration of the fact that, although poets and classical musicians may occupy different worlds of discourse, these are nevertheless contiguous, and civilised behaviour is the least that can be expected of them.

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