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DVD Review

John Wilbye

Capriol DVD 9

Draw on Sweet Night

  • Mark Arends (John Wilbye)
  • Doon Mackichan (Lady Elizabeth Kytson)
  • Nicky Henson (Sir Thomas Kytson)
  • Sophia Di Martino (Lady Mary Darcy)
  • Christian McKay (George Kirbye)
  • Ania Sowinski (Ann Sixye)
  • Simon Wilding (John Dowland)
I Fagiolini/Robert Hollingworth
Fretwork
The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble/Gawain Glenton
Benyounes Quartet
Capriol Films DVD CAP09 1:24:00 drama+documentary
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Tony Britten's study of John Wilbye (1574-1638) is in the best tradition of British films about music. It's impressionistic but focused. It has taken pains to recreate or set scenes in "likely" locations. It uses engaged and engaging actors and it draws on specialist musicians. It balances known facts with plausible conjecture. It's neither straight documentary with a narrator, "evidence" graphics, excerpts and illustrative sequences. Nor a drama where all the material is "constructed" and presented fictively by actors. Draw on Sweet Night is a hybrid to suggest explanations for the otherwise unknown course of one of the English Renaissance's greatest madrigalists. It is likely to satisfy those looking for both or either.

The nearly hour-and-a-half long Draw on Sweet Night on this DVD from Capriol films, which is available in stereo and 5.1 surround sound, is Britten's attempt to speculate on the many questions about Wilbye's life to which we have no answers. Epitomizing for Britten the special flowering of culture – and music in particular – during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, Wilbye was brought to Hengrave Hall in Suffolk (East Anglia) as composer in residence by Lady Elizabeth Kytson in 1592. He stayed for the most of the rest of his life.

But there are several intriguing aspects of the composer's life while he was at Hengrave. Why did Kytson bestow lavish gifts (of land) upon Wilbye? Why did he write so little sacred music for her despite the precedent set by William Byrd, who composed masses in secret for other local recusant Roman Catholics? Why was Lady Arbella Stuart and not Kytson the dedicatee of Wilbye's second book of madrigals in 1609, after which he wrote no more? Lastly, convention would have had Wilbye (how and why did he work with Dowland too?) retire to his farm on Lady Elizabeth Kytson's death (in 1628); instead he went to live with her divorced daughter, Lady Mary Darcy, in nearby Colchester. Presumably they were lovers.

Britten's contention is that the unusual talent of Wilbye acted as an "aphrodisiac" to the women in his life and that his charisma and musical prowess opened doors and situations which would otherwise have kept him back, as a "mere servant". Probably, though, all this is to no avail if the music – the reason why we are likely to be attracted to the film – is not front and center, and is not well-played, well-selected and inspiring in its own right. Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini, Fretwork, the English Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble (directed by Gawain Glenton), and the Benyounes Quartet make sure that the music is as successful as the storyline.

The bulk of Draw on Sweet Night (actually filmed not at Hengrave but the nearby Kentwell Hall) suggests and recreates events in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries with a gentle pace and lightly-"painted" set of intercut scenes. These in turn are interleaved with modern performance by singers and players from the twenty-first century of Wilbye's music, and adaptations of it. "Painted" because this is not a linear, sequential DVD; rather a more "abstractly"-constructed assessment of how the relationship between the composer and his admirers, lovers, collaborators and patrons could well have developed if Britten's thesis is correct. Yet the film lacks any kind of interruptive choppiness or sense of being disjointed. There are moments (for instance when Arbella Stewart is being coached by Wilbye before they perform on the night of her stay at Hengrave Hall and their dialog immediately turns to mutual exploration of what we would call their "availability" these days) when we find the dialog (and events) introduced specifically to make an explanatory point to recall Britten's central thesis about Wilbye's life.

There are some aspects of the filmic technique which may jar… farm hands patting the pigs while singing the madrigals, and a style of dialog which we have to take on faith as authentically Elizabethan. And the twanging of electric guitars and the like in "modernized" versions of Wilbye's extremely subtle marriage of words and music is strikingly out of place and adds nothing to our understanding and appreciation of Wilbye himself. More appropriate and useful here would have been greater focus on Wilbye's own actual composing technique and style. That would have added power to the music-as-aphrodisiac motif.

On the other hand, there are many touches of real elegance which advance the cause of the "documentary" (which of course has neither presenter nor explicit pretensions to out-and-out (historical) accuracy): the lines of Wilbye's works fade in and out in an italic script over the scenes; the gentle light; a sense of the East Anglian mists – perhaps a telling analog to the ambiguity, deliberate obfuscation even, with which contraventions of expected behavior were followed. These are both personal, marital, and confessional: Queen Elizabeth famously turned a blind eye to Byrd's infractions of the conventions that forbade composition and celebration of music in service of the Roman Catholic church. But the printed material that comes with the DVD suggests that Wilbye did not do as Byrd did because he felt the threat of execution greater. This, too, might have benefited from closer examination.

The music, though, remains the biggest draw of Draw on Sweet Night. The playing is good, suggestive of the delicacy and yet the power of Wilbye's music. At the same time, the actors are convincing and compelling; for the most part they avoid the addition of spurious gestures, turns of phrase or "fanfare" in an attempt to recreate a "sub-Shakespearean" feel to the interactions and relationships… there are no wordy soliloquies, for instance. Yet the stone, wood and straw of the settings, the crackling fires, lavender and washbasins add immensely to our appreciation of how musicians, the nobility, and the sexes may have built and pursued relationships at the turn of the seventeenth century based on how each saw the relative importance of the others.

Britten examines, for example, the extent to which such a composer as Wilbye both exploits yet judiciously shies away from using the attraction and devotion of those in his circle at Hengrave indiscriminately to advance his purely musical projects. Indeed, Wilbye says to Mary, "Music and love are close companions… Would that thy love for me had kindled ere thy senses had been ravished by my songs." To which she replies, "Would that thou wouldst believe mine eyes were open ere were mine ears, and thy sweet music is divine counterpoint."

This remains, of course, in the aforementioned strong tradition of musical biographies. Britten employs just the right amount of filmic tightness (use of location, dialog, "supernumerary" characters, the length of the musical passages) so that we neither stray from focusing our attention on that counterposition, nor examine it in too isolated a way. At times, perhaps, some will find the inclusion of lines of dialog to introduce one of Wilbye's works a little stilted. The technique doesn't really serve well to knit the action together. Yet it does suggest that Wilbye was inspired to draw on what was happening in his life and to those around him for inspiration.

The same can be said for the sense in which the Hall is these characters' environment and matches a slight claustrophobia with impressive elegance. The same can happily be said about the balance that Britten and his actors achieve between proposing a chiefly musical portrait, and a suggested reconstruction of historical events. This is at its greatest when – as in the scene between Elizabeth Kytson and her husband, Thomas, for instance – the alternative courses of action which would maintaining social propriety are discussed and it is determined that Mary be removed from the Hall (rather than Wilbye) because that remains in the greater interest of the household wishing to retain his musical services. As though public patronage successfully inoculated the aristocracy from too damaging effects of imagined or real scandal. Indeed, the film, when it switches to the modern cast immediately after Mary's departure, has Clare Wilkinson musing on then turning to read David Price's "Patrons and Musicians of the English Renaissance" in the Cambridge Studies in Music series. Exactly!

Aside from the aforementioned introduction of jarring musical elements, both vocal and instrumental performances are for the most part pleasing and competent – although Simon Wilding as Dowland, if it is indeed he who is actually singing – is a little… "rough".

Capriol is to be congratulated for conceiving, designing and producing this DVD… it has to be considered of minority interest. Indeed, Britten makes the point (in the rather sparse four-page booklet) that it would have been appropriate, desirable even, for a public broadcasting organization (presumably the once great, now heavily "compromised" BBC Radio 3) to have financed such an enterprise. In fact it was entirely "crowd-funded". There is next to nothing dealing in this way with this era available on film. Wilbye's own music is hardly recorded in the quantity that it deserves to be. Nor are performances exactly competing with one another for our attendance. What Britten has done is gently advocate the sheer potential for music of such caliber to change people's lives. So, although few would turn to this DVD for a collection of John Wilbye's works, it is well worth a look as an evocation of their power and durability, and a credible explanation of the regard in which the Elizabethans and Jacobeans held their musicians.

Copyright © 2016, Mark Sealey

Trumpet