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Saturday morning quotes 5.19: Philip Van Wilder

September 26, 2015

notHolbeinWhenever the subject of Philip van Wilder (c.1500 – 1553) is broached, the conversation inevitably must turn toward things he was not, or the music he did not compose.  For instance, the portrait, “Unknown Man with Lute” by Hans Holbein the younger that is preserved in the Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin is not Philip Van Wilder, as many would wish it to be.  David Van Edwards has identified the object hanging on a gold chain around the sitter’s neck as the insignia of office of the Lord High Admiral of England.  While it would be nice to put a face to Van Wilder’s illustrious name, the office of Lord High Admiral was not among the few but lavish benefices bestowed by Van Wilder’s sometimes generous patron, Henry VIII.

Van Wilder’s surviving music consists mainly of a handful of sacred motets and some 31 French chansons in four or more parts, ably edited and anthologized in Philip Van Wilder, Collected Works, Parts I and II, ed. Jane A. Bernstein. “Masters and Monuments of the Renaissance”, iv. The Broude Trust, New York, 1991.  According to the New Grove article by Bernstein and John Ward:

Van Wilder’s wages and rewards reflect not only his special status but also the various services he performed at court. He played at royal ceremonies, entertained the king in his private apartments, supervised the purchase of musical instruments and lute strings (later he was named Keeper of the Royal Collection of Musical Instruments at Westminster), and gave lute lessons to the royal children (Princess Mary in 1537–43, Prince Edward in 1546). He also accompanied the king on his various journeys within and outside of England. One of the most important was the meeting in late October of 1532 between Henry and the French king François I at the Field of Cloth of Gold between Calais and Boulogne, where musicians from both the English and French courts entertained the royal retinues.

John Ward devotes an entire chapter to Philip Van Wilder and his music in Music for Elizabethan Lutes, Clarendon / Oxford University Press, 1992.  While ever so slightly more generous with his speculative attributions than Bernstein, Ward dismissed the works commonly ascribed to him by today’s wishfully thinking lutenists. Of the conjectural possibilities, Bernstein’s collected works includes only a single lute piece as attributable to the man who was first described as a “lewter” at the Tudor court.  A Fantasia found in the earliest of Mathew Holmes’ vast lute manuscript, Dd.2. 11, now in the Cambridge University Library, bears the stamp of a lutenist immersed in heady realm of vocal polyphony but possessing an understanding of the resources of the lute.

The set of variations on a tonic/dominant ground found in the Marsh lute manuscript titled “Dump Phili” is certainly not by Van Wilder.  While an attractive piece in its own right, attribution of this piece to Van Wilder is wishful thinking in the extreme.  The first clue lies in the very “Englishness” of the piece, as well as its stylistic commonality with the many other sets of anonymous variations in the book.  Van Wilder was valued as a musician and composer for his Continental sophistication and, as a highly-placed courtier, he was unlikely to have “dumbed-down” his style in order to pander to a royal court that still mainly spoke French.

Van Wilder’s reputation as a lutenist was recorded for posterity in Tottel’s Miscellany or Songes and Sonettes, written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other…(1557–87), which includes an elegy for Philip Van Wilder penned by an unnamed poet.

“On the death of Phillips”:

The stringe is broke, the lute is dispossest,
The hand is colde, the bodye in the grounde.
The lowring lute lamenteth now therfore
Philips her frende that can touche her no more.

But in our vain search to discover Philip Van Wilder’s surviving music for the lute, we need only examine his vocal polyphony.  Our appreciation of Van Wilder’s music stems from performance of his four- and five-part chansons, in vocal ensemble and in beguiling arrangements for solo voice and lute.  As a composer of secular polyphony, Van Wilder’s style is both delicate and engaging, elegant and sensitive.  You can hear our recorded version of his setting of the popular text, Pour un plaisir que si peu dure, here, and his unique setting of Puisqu’ ainsi est que suis escondit here.

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