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Friday, October 23, 2009


Elizabethan music brought wonderfully alive by visiting English musician. (Report by Michael Green)

Elizabethan music is a fairly rarefied field of study and entertainment, but a visiting English musician and scholar, Peter Medhurst, brought it wonderfully alive in a recent lecture in Durban. He was speaking (and singing and playing) at a meeting of the Decorative Arts Society, before an audience that must have run to close on 200 people (I attended as a guest of one of the society’s members, Jean Hooper). He has spoken before to this group about music. This time he took the title of his two-hour lecture from a song of the period: Eliza is the Fairest Queen.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was one of remarkable artistic achievement in England, and the queen herself was a reasonably accomplished singer and performer on the lute and the virginal (an early keyboard instrument). According to Peter Medhurst, she danced six galliards (an energetic type of dance) every morning before breakfast to keep fit.

The flattering contemporary song about “the fairest queen” said her eyes were “crystal bright”. Maybe they were, but her teeth became yellow with age and several of them were missing. She looked as if she had been “surprised by time”, said one of her most distinguished subjects, Francis Bacon, in a memorable phrase.

Peter Medhurst is particularly well qualified to discuss the music of this period. He graduated at the Royal College of Music in London in 1977 and studied later at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He is a professional singer, pianist and harpsichordist, and he has lectured on music and the arts in many parts of the world. Best of all, he has an uninhibited sense of humour and is an expert communicator.

He played several pieces on a splendid harpsichord made in Durban by Chris Brouckaert, quoting at the outset the irrepressible Sir Thomas Beecham, who said that a harpsichord sounded like “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a hailstorm”.

Peter Medhurst’s playing didn’t sound in the least like that. He gave us music by John Dowland, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and the Dutch composer Jan Sweelinck, including several songs in which he displayed a fine baritone voice (in England he sings on the concert platform in oratorio and in recitals of German lieder). And he played recordings of ensemble music of the period, much of it by “the best known composer of the time, Anon”. And, of course, he played Greensleeves.

He illustrated his lecture with on-screen projections of famous paintings depicting Elizabethan musical instruments. And he had his audience in stitches as he danced the pavane, showing how it could progress from simple steps to courtly flourishes.

It was a total pleasure to listen to someone who wears his learning so lightly, and with such grace and humour. – Michael Green