Michael East: Amavi

Michael East (1580–1648) is hardly the most celebrated musical figure of the English Renaissance. So it surprised me to learn that he was one of the most published composers of his day, with no fewer than seven books compositions to his name.

That’s what I discovered in the liner notes to Amavi, a new album dedicated to his music by Chelys Consort of Viols in collaboration with Fieri Consort. Chelys and Fieri used crowd-funding to make this project happen, which features the complete set of his eight five-part fantasias, leavened with his madrigals and verse anthems, plus a new commission.

Fantasias for viols were a private form of music played in houses, so they rarely reached the printing press, but circulated in manuscript copies instead. East was therefore unusually enterprising in getting his viol music out into the world, and also unusual is that the fantasias featured here, from his 1610 collection, each have Latin titles. These suggest the traversal of a spiritual journey, Desperavi through to Amavi – despair through to love.

It’s not particularly obvious that this scheme is illustrated by the music. Sure, Desperavi has a slow and solemn opening, and Triumphavi is consistently the most upbeat. But I suspect that East simply contrived a way they could be linked together for publication. It might have been shrewd marketing – perhaps a bit of Christian piety mixed with Classical learning was what the educated music buyer wanted in their collection. (Elsewhere, a set of his fantasias are named after the nine Muses, while others have more whimsical titles, such as Name right your notes).

The  instrumental and sung works are thoughtfully dovetailed on this album, with the choral music linked by mood to the preceding fantasia. There was a flexibility in the domestic musical practices of his day, and his publication lists his songs as ‘apt for viols and voices’. So in addition to the verse anthems, Chelys join in with some of the madrigals too, adding a silvery gilding to the voices.

Listening to the fantasias and choral works side by side, you begin to hear similarities. One common denominator is the fast turnover of texture. East alternates close counterpoint of short phrases with broad chordal passages – elaborate tracery and stately columns. And he also puts lively rhythms into moments of choral homophony that emphasise the words to memorable effect – as I can now attest, you know you’ve been listening to English madrigals can you end up with an ear-worm bearing the words ‘nymphs of Diana’.

I’m so pleased that Chelys and Fieri managed to fund this record. Like the consort music of Byrd and Gibbons, I find this repertoire inexhaustibly listenable. It unfolds without fuss or ego or excessive ambition – simply a beautiful craft of its time wedded to pragmatism, possessed of an unassuming dignity, as dependable and true as an oak table. This is, I feel, less about East in particular than his membership of a flourishing school of composition: a testament to the unpredictable collision of musical elements that came together in his era, and found a magic formula that for a while burned so brightly.

The final track is a new piece for voice and viols by Jill Jarman, setting words of East’s contemporary Henry Wotton. ‘Not wanting to pastiche the era nor stray too far from its sensibility’, as she puts it, Jarman’s approach begins with gently churning viol figurations over which long sung notes soar. It’s an imaginative reworking of the available forces, with some beautiful moments. But nonetheless it’s a jolt – a departure from East’s seemingly effortless craft to the modern composer’s burden: endeavouring, in the face of daunting creative freedoms, to forge something distinctive and meaningful.

Amavi is available from BIS Records.