Last night, the Library of Congress offered a perfect gesture of welcome for the British royal couple: a concert of music from the time of the first Queen Elizabeth, a period still rightly called the "Golden Age" of English music.
Titled "Welcome Sweet Pleasure" and performed by the six singers and four instrumentalists of the Waverly Consort, the program included a fair share of courtly delights and pretty conceits. Variations on the "fa-la-la" type of madrigal, with lovers romping on the grass and tumbling in the hay, were sweetly sung in the opening segment. But the most striking material came at the end, in a musical survey of the daily life of the common people, who made England great in the first Elizabethan age.
"The Pleugh Plow Song," for unaccompanied tenor, baritone and bass, presents a dramatic though not unusual situation in splendidly rustic, rough-hewn counterpoint. Various free-lance plowmen of the neighborhood are assembled to offer the lord of the manor their services and their advice. One of his oxen is old and sick and likely to drop dead in the middle of the plowing; better to hire their team and plow, they advise -- and quickly, because others are eager to hire them.
Viewed against a "fa-la-la" background, the vitality of this music was specially impressive, as was the closing number: an anonymous madrigal with a text based on the street cries of London. This was a common theme of the period, and with music giving energy and accent to the words, it plunges the audience into the frantic life of the city's narrow, bustling streets. Dozens of voices bubble to the top of the music, selling oranges and onions, mops and cloaks, boat rides and glassware; offering a reward to find a missing person; peddling mackerel, smelts, herring and "Cod, cod, great cod . . . fresh cod."
Such a diverse selection of music required a variety of performing styles, but the versatile musicians of the Waverly Consort were equally at home in music of the court, theater or countryside. Most of the singing was smoothly blended ensemble work, but several singers soloed impressively. Instrumental music was well represented: in lively or stately dances and variations (some improvised) on popular tunes of the day. Everything was smoothly and charmingly presented in this wide-ranging, well-balanced program.