Brett Weymark enjoys exploring the ripe choral masterpiece that the Countess of Albermarle pronounced “disgusting”.

When Alionora Romyng, a “common tippelar of ale”, was fined tuppence by Leatherhead magistrates in 1525 for selling short measures, she could have little imagined that 400 years later she would become the rumbustious heroine of a 20th-century choral masterpiece. But when Ralph Vaughan Williams set John Skelton’s The Tunning of Elinor Rumming to music as the first of his Five Tudor Portraits, that’s exactly what she did.

Satirical drawing of John Skelton, Elinor Rumming and the Rev. Jonathan Boucher

“Droopy and drowsy, scurvy and lowsy, her face all bowsy,” rhymes Skelton, lampooning the courtly love poetry of his time to draw a vivid picture of a wrinkled slattern with a roguish eye. In one of his kinder reflections he likens her to a roast pig’s ear. “And yet she will jet like a jollivet,” he adds, with a deal of affection for Elinor who he claims dresses to the nines, before mocking her headgear as being “after the Saracen’s guise, with a whim-wham, knit with a trim-tram, upon her brain-pan.”

For his part, Vaughan Williams responds with a great galumphing opening, ripe with musical comedy, slipping into a delicious fast waltz time for the jollivet section, before careering off with side drum snapping as he depicts the ancient strutting dame with the broadest of brushstrokes.

“The first movement is essentially all in praise of binge drinking,” says Brett Weymark with a smile, taking a brief respite from Mahler Three in his dressing room at the Sydney Opera House. “Around the time that Skelton was writing, most of the brewers of ale were women. It was only later on that it became a male dominated thing. In terms of how much they were paid, women were doing really well back then by making ale.”

Vaughan Williams outside The White Gates in Dorking

Weymark, who will conduct the work for Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, first came across Vaughan Williams’ 45-minute choral blockbuster 15 years back when he was looking for a piece that would go with Serenade to Music, the composer’s peerless setting of the love scene from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and a work that is also part of his latest programme. “I thought it was a scream from beginning to end,” he says. “Vaughan Williams at the age of 60 is reinventing himself yet again, but this time in a jazzy idiom, particularly for that first movement, but then doffing his cap to art song in the second movement, My Pretty Bess.”

In fact, Vaughan Williams ranges particularly far and wide over his five settings. The third movement, Epitaph on John Jayberd of Diss, is especially pungent, not just in its text – a scathing attack on a hypocritical cleric who had died 20 years previous but whose malice clearly lingered on – but also in harmonic daring. “A man renowned for malice, two-faced and fork-tongued… suspected of all, loved by none,” patters Skelton’s text, cunningly disguised by being set as dog Latin, before neatly transmuting itself into a rollicking drinking song with its Hey, ho, rumbelow! “Maybe some of the symphonies involve this level of dissonance,” says Weymark, citing the contemporaneous Fourth Symphony as sharing a degree of discordance and a similar element of foreboding.

Then comes what Weymark describes as “the most sincere movement of all”. Jane Scroop (Her Lament for Philip Sparrow) is a ravishing, 20-minute setting of a poem in which a young girl cries over the death of a tame sparrow before summoning all the birds of the air to gather for a Requiem Mass. Set for women’s voices with mezzo solo, it’s a tour de force, which would be entirely able to stand on its own as a concert piece.

“In performance it’s quite a challenge. It’s long and you’ve got this great, flowing, overriding arc, which in itself is quite tightly constructed,” admits Weymark. “Skelton was part of this extraordinary Catholic-Protestant period with four different changes of national religion, and it’s interesting that there’s a certain Catholicism that seems to underline quite a lot of these works – the use of the Latin text particularly. Musically, Vaughan Williams goes into some quite extraordinary harmonic and textural palettes in that movement, which is totally unexpected given the subject matter. He is almost referencing himself in the Tallis Fantasia – which is also part of our programme, along with the psalm upon which it’s based.”

Brett Weymark. Photo © Roland Kay-Smith

Finally comes Jolly Rutterkin, a glittering scherzo depicting what Weymark describes as a prototype Tudor dandy – “I mean, it’s got my name all over it,” he laughs. Full of brass and flashy as hell, Vaughan Williams relishes every flourish, clearly enjoying getting his composerly chops around lines like “my hair brusheth so pleasantly, my robe rusheth so ruttingly.”

In fact, Skelton, a Poet Laureate and tutor to Henry VIII, had a low opinion of his own worth, self-deprecatingly referring to it as doggerel rhyme. It was Elgar who apparently first considered writing an oratorio on Elinor Rumming before passing the idea on to Vaughan Williams who immersed himself in a modern edition of Skelton that ironed out some of the more obliquely Chaucerian language. That helps, Weymark reckons. “It’s getting close enough to Shakespeare and so we understand a lot from a purely aural point of view,” he says. “There’s enough onomatopoeia and context for you to get most of what’s happening. Take “nappy ale”, for example. You sit there and go, ‘Is that ale made from wet nappies?’ But as you start to explore it more, it’s actually a lovely way to describe what is actually a pretty alcoholic brew made from malted barley.”

Although the work was received relatively warmly at its Norwich Festival debut in 1936, it still caused a stir for its bawdy lyrics. The elderly Countess of Albermarle reportedly stalked out before the end of the first movement with a harrumphing expostulation of “disgusting!” But Weymark believes that this edginess now gives the work a genuine contemporary appeal. “Take Elinor Rumming,” he says. “This is a period that we think of as being dominated by drunken men like Falstaff, but what you actually get here is drunken Alice wandering on with her saggy tits.”

Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder – Festival at Bermondsey

Why then is it still a relative rarity on concert programmes? “It’s bloody virtuosic, that’s why,” says Weymark emphatically. “The Symphony Chorus needed a concert by themselves, and I wanted to do something that would really push them. This does do that. Vaughan Williams really knows how to write for choirs, but when you sit down and sing through every line by itself, it’s really challenging. There’s some super fast text in there, but the best way to learn it is together when you realise he’s been very clever. You can always find your notes from somewhere else. There’s always somebody singing a similar line, always some motific imitations happening across the piece. It’s an absolute masterpiece in terms of how to write for chorus.”

SPC will perform the slightly reduced orchestration, but the publishers have allowed them to add the timpani and other percussion parts back in. “That gives it the crispness that it requires,” reckons Weymark. “And by losing some of those high frequencies in the brass and flutes, you tend to hear the text just a little bit clearer, making that an advantage rather than a disadvantage.”

So, for someone coming to Five Tudor Portraits for the first time, what would Weymark like them to come out of it with? “Hopefully, they will realise that Vaughan Williams wrote an absolutely virtuosic piece for chorus and orchestra. Skelton is a poet that people should go back and look at, because he’s bloody good fun! It’s pub humour, it absolutely is, but he also has the ability to pull you up by the collar with something that’s quite profound as well. And then there’s the extraordinary contrast that Vaughan Williams gets between every single movement. Each one could be a standalone concert piece – I’m surprised you don’t hear Jolly Rutterkin at the Last Night of the Proms because it has that real quality about it.”


Sydney Philharmonia Choirs performs Five Tudor Portraits at City Recital Hall, Sydney on August 24 and 27

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