‘Just grief, heart’s tears, plaint worthy’

Posted on: 22 June 2020, by :

By this week the UK has the highest number of deaths from the COVID-19 virus — now more than 43,000 — and the highest mortality rate per capita of all our neighbour countries in Europe. How do we mourn for so many lives lost when such vast numbers become statistics that leave us numb, tone-deaf to the personal sorrow? How do we lament in the right way — with a ‘plaint worthy’, as the text (below) of the song by William Byrd puts it — and when it matters? How do we properly remember the lives of those who have died when attention is being directed instead towards positive thinking for the reopening of society and economic recovery? How does one ever bridge the chasm of difference between mourning for someone known to us personally and mourning for countless people of whole nations? Can our sorrow for the UK’s loss of life be disentangled from the deep grief that many of us feel over badly mismanaged politics and the tragic loss of Britain from the European Union? There are no answers — except that mourning for an individual has sometimes been cathartic for releasing the collective grief of many. One hundred years ago, in November 1920, Britain and France gave state funerals, with tombs erected in Westminster Abbey and the Arc de Triomphe, for the ‘unknown warrior’ of the Great War who represented a multitude of soldiers with no identified graves of their own. Another example occurred in the 1580s when the untimely death of Sir Philip Sidney, the renowned Elizabethan poet, was fashioned — through literature and music, as well as a funeral — as a national tragedy, the loss of the ‘flower of England’, in the perilous years prior to the defeat in 1588 of the Spanish Armada.

The grand funerals, elegies and other kinds of memorials devised for such occasions inevitably become, in their content and scheduling, acts of political significance. Sidney, already widely celebrated in his 20s for his brilliance as a poet, scholar and courtier and for the qualities of his character, died on 18 October 1586, at the age of 31, fighting in the Netherlands for the Protestant cause against the Spanish. His death, from gangrene infection in a thigh wound, was quickly framed as a heroic, selfless one, apparently for lack of PPE (personal protective equipment): the story goes that he had given away his own thigh armour to help another soldier. But it was not until 25 February 1587, almost four months since his body had been returned to London by 2 November, that he was given a hugely elaborate and costly funeral before his burial in St Paul’s. One theory about that extraordinary delay is that the funeral and extensive memorializing for Sidney were deliberately eked out as a great public distraction from the outcry and memorializing going on in Paris and other parts of Europe over what Catholics regarded as the martyrdom of Mary, Queen of Scots and dowager queen of France, held captive in England since 1568. Mary had been convicted of treason on 25 October 1586, a week after Sidney’s death, and was executed on 8 February, two weeks before his magnificent funeral.

The composer William Byrd probably had his own ulterior motive for joining in the effusive praise of Sidney. His first published collection of vocal music in English, Psalms, Sonnets and Songs of Sadness and Pietie (1588), was perhaps designed as a demonstration of his loyalty to the regime of Queen Elizabeth whom he served, following suspicions of him that had arisen from his acquaintance with Catholics associated with the Throckmorton Plot of 1583 to depose Elizabeth and install Mary as England’s monarch. This is an album of 35 exceedingly fine pieces, many with a direct or indirect connection with Sidney, his poetry and his literary circle. No. 34, Come to me, grief, for ever, is the first of the two songs that close the collection, headed ‘The funeral songs of that honorable Gent. Sir Philip Sidney’ (it is most unlikely, however, that they were sung at the actual funeral). The lyrics, by a poet who has not yet been identified, are themselves a tribute to Sidney: a quantitative poem in Aristophanic metre modelled on Sidney’s love poem When to my deadlie pleasure. Byrd copperfastened that technical feature by his strophic setting (requiring the same music to work for each stanza in turn), creating in the process some jolting incongruity between literary and musical accents; this persistent awkwardness, together with the plaintive harmonies (notably in falling thirds for the binaries ‘just grief’, ‘heart’s tears’, ‘Sidney’, ‘is dead’), seems to convey the bewilderment and helplessness of grief. This song composed in five vocal parts may, like all of Byrd’s consort songs, be performed when preferred by a single singer with instruments, typically viols, taking the other parts.

This post is in the songs of sadness series.

Come to me, grief, for ever sung by Emily van Evera with The Musicians of Swanne Alley (CD recording, 2008).

Come to me, grief, for ever,
Come to me, tears, day and night,
Come to me, plaint, ah helpless,
Just grief, heart's tears, plaint worthy.

Go from me, dread, to die now;
Go from me, care, to live more;
Go from me, joys, all on earth;
Sidney, O Sidney is dead.

He whom the Court adorned,
He whom the country courtis'd,
He who made happy his friends,
He that did good to all men.

Sidney, the hope of lands strange,
Sidney, the flower of England,
Sidney, the sp'rit heroic,
Sidney is dead, O dead, dead.

Dead? No, no, but renomed
With the anointed oned:
Honour on earth at his feet,
Bliss everlasting his seat.

Come to me, grief, for ever,
Come to me, tears, day and night,
Come to me, plaint, ah helpless,
Just grief, heart's tears, plaint worthy.

Sir Philip’s reputation continued to be nurtured, and his literary legacy expanded, by his sister Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke — highly regarded as a poet and patron of the arts in her own right. In her service was the composer and lutenist Anthony Holborne, who in 1599 published a collection of Pavans, galliards, almains, and other short æirs both grave and light, for viols, violins, or other musicall winde instruments. One of the pavans carries the curious title ‘The Funerals’ in the plural: its special significance — if it was employed for particular personages like Sidney — remains unexplained, although it is obvious that this is an exceptional example of a sad pavan designed for mourning or a funeral procession. Any pavan is always a slow affair, danced at a pedestrian pace, and for that reason alone it can mistakenly be assumed to be sad when it is not intentionally so, but by the 1590s it had taken on connotations of melancholy of a peculiarly English kind, with weeping and the symbolism of tears: in 1604 John Dowland would publish his famous seven lachrimae pavans together with a funeral pavan modelled closely on this one by Holborne. Slowing the tempo down from its norm, as these two performances do, enhances the heavy sadness.

‘The Funerals’ performed by Ensemble Rinascere (2017).

‘The Funerals’ performed by Capriccio Stravagante, directed by Skip Sempé, in the church of Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, Paris, 30 November 2015.