25 sonnet settings taken from Spenser’s Amoretti (1739)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor) Luke Green (harpsichord) Giangiacomo Pinardi (theorbo)
I concede that Maurice Greene is off my beaten track. Like many people I have long-known the anthem ‘Lord let me know my end,’ having heard it performed many times ‘in choirs and places where they sing.’ A few other bits and pieces have crossed my path over the years including a number ‘lessons’ for organ and harpsichord. Yet, for a composer who is often regarded as being one of Handel’s ‘most naturally gifted contemporaries’ I feel that we have hardly been introduced. A few words on his life and achievements may of interest to those who, like me, are a little rusty on his details.
Maurice Greene was born circa 1695, is believed to have inherited money, married well and been on terms of intimacy with the great and good of his day. As a young man he was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral under the great Jeremiah Clark (1674-1707) and the less well known Charles King (1687-1748). He studied organ with Richard Brind (d.1718) during which time he was organist at St Dunstan’s in the West and later St Andrew’s, Holborn. After Brind’s death Greene became the organist at St Pauls. In 1727 he succeeded William Croft as organist and composer to the Chapel Royal. Three years later, he accepted a professorship of music at Cambridge University. In 1735 Greene was appointed Master of the King’s Musick.’ One of his great achievements was the collection of an important corpus of old English sacred music. Greene was friends with Handel, although there was later a ‘rift in the lute’ between the two men because of Greene’s friendship with Handel’s great rival Giovanni Battista Buononcini (1670-1747) the Italian composer and cellist.
Maurice Greene was a prolific composer who wrote in a number of genres, including opera, liturgical, instrumental and vocal music. His organ voluntaries and harpsichord ‘lessons’ are fun to play, although they have been accused of having ‘considerable vigour if little originality.’ One of the Greene’s most important works was his setting of Alexander Pope’s Ode for St Cecilia. The poet, who was also a good friend, is reputed to have emended his text to suit the composer’s requirements. However, Greene had a propensity to write ‘verse anthems’ which rely on solo voices rather than chorus and this is believed to have led to the relatively rare performance of his liturgical music. Maurice Greene died in London on 1 December 1755.
In 1738, Greene wrote a setting of 25 of Spenser’s Amoretti: they were selected from a collection of 89 poems. Edmund Spenser had produced this massive sonnet cycle in the late 16th century. They were written as a description of the poet’s courtship with Elizabeth Boyle, who was later to become his wife. The poetic principle of the sequence was an attempt at ‘immortalizing the name of his bride to be...by devices of word play.’ He gave the name of Amoretti (Little Loves) to this cycle. His ‘heroine ‘is the ‘sweet warrior’ (Sonnet 57) which Greene does not set. There is no doubt that from a literary point of view Spenser has relied heavily on his contemporaries such as the Italian author Tasso and the French poet Ronsard. However, the ultimate inspiration is Petrarch. The sonnet sequence is presented as a biographical adventure; however, it is fair to say that the true facts of the courtship have not been allowed to get in the way of literary convention and the telling of a good tale.
Maurice Greene has largely followed the sequence as written by Spenser: however the opening number of the song-cycle is actually the 80 on the collection of sonnets.
Mathew Gardner in his excellent liner notes sums up the composer’s achievement: ‘The careful choice of sonnets and the [musical] reactions to the texts which Greene displays, makes this collection a treasure…’
Benjamin Hulett sings these songs with an engagement that certainly adds value to the literary subtlety of the text. The sonnets could be regarded as a little ‘dense’ to the modern ear, however he has succeeded in presenting the Elizabethan words in an attractive and engaging manner. A reviewer quoted on the singer’s webpage has suggested that Hulett has ‘truly immersed [himself] in the persona of the male suitor’ in his interpretation of the varying moods. No better can be demanded for a performance of these richly demanding sonnets. The other two soloists must not be forgotten. Luke Green plays the important harpsichord accompaniment and Giangiacomo Pinardi provides the accompaniment on the theorbo. Just in case the reader has forgotten, this is a large bass lute-like instrument with a large number of strings (11-17). A solo repertoire does exist for this instrument, however, it is largely used to accompany singers.
Maurice Greene’s songs are usually regarded as being ‘less trivial’ than a number of his contemporaries. Certainly, these Amoretti display a subtle interpretation of the literary sensibility that demands our attention. Although Thomas Arne and Handel may not be too far away in these sonnets, Greene displays a captivating independent spirit that both moves and entertains. Finally, Amoretti can be regarded as being the first English song cycle. As such, it sets an impressive benchmark that subsequent composers have often failed to better.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.