The so-called sacred madrigal, which flourished in the late-Elizabethan and Jacobean periods with composers such as Byrd, Weelkes, Tomkins (c.1572-1656) and Michael East, may be defined as a vocal setting of a sacred text for extra-liturgical, often devotional, use. The English madrigal flourished briefly between the last decade or so of the sixteenth century and 1612 when Gibbons's volume appeared. This, the penultimate set of high quality, was followed, ten years later, by Thomas Tomkins's distinctive and important 'Songs of 3, 4, 5 and 6 parts'. Although best known for his church music Tomkins contributed to all the principal genres of the day.
The 'Songs' had evidently been assembled over several years. 'When David heard' first appeared in Thomas Myriell's manuscript collection Tristitiae Remedium of 1616; in Tomkins's 1622 collection it was dedicated to Myriell. In all no fewer than eight composers contributed settings of this text in the years following the death of James I's highly regarded son, Prince Henry in 1612. It has been suggested that these and similar works were written as part of a continuing outpouring of grief at his death.
All twenty-eight pieces in the 1622 Songs are dedicated to a friend or member of Tomkins's family, including Woe is me which bears the subtitle 'To my Brother, John Tomkins'. John in turn penned a eulogy for the volume headed 'To my Brother, the Author'. An able and precocious musician, he became Organist of King's College, Cambridge, in 1606 before being appointed Organist of St Paul's Cathedral in 1619 and, eight years later, a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. It has been suggested that Woe is me may have been written in 1619 to reflect Thomas's anguish at his brother's departure from Cambridge for London. Two years later Tomkins was appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal so the two would then have found it easier to meet. Like a number of Thomas's late works, it might be seen as reflecting a personal response to events. This practice, unusual for its time, recalls several such motets by his 'ancient, & much reverenced Master, William Byrd' to whom the madrigal 'Too much I once lamented' was dedicated. Woe is me is one of four contemporary settings of the poignant text drawn from Psalm 120, verse 4. It is a heartfelt work with anguished suspensions and a mood of desolation at the opening. It evidently made a strong impression at the time since it was copied into two sets of secular partbooks in the early 1620s. The distinctive final cadence also occurs in the composer's keyboard duet 'Fancy: for two to play'.
Two sacred madrigals by Tomkins survive in secular sets of partbooks: 'Dear Lord of life' and From deepest horror of sad penitence which, too, was included in Myriell's 1616 collection. The opening bars of the evocative text by an unknown contemporary author make suitably lugubrious use of two altos in their very lowest register; a little judicious support from the tenors may be appropriate in some cases. The work ends with a repeated refrain, reflecting this practice in the late sixteenth-century English anthem.
This edition marks the first appearance in modern edition of Tomkins's sacred madrigal From deepest horror of sad penitence.