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Saturday morning quotes 8.12: O Death rock me asleep

February 20, 2021

“O Death rocke me asleep” is an interesting example of a lute song originating from the sixteenth century that bears a distinctive accompaniment of an instrumental character, rather than a distilled arrangement of vocal polyphony. The piece also fits into the category of mid- to late-century consort songs, or solo songs with accompaniment in multiple parts for bowed strings like those of William Byrd. But it was also arranged for solo voice and lute in British Library Add MS 15117 (circa 1599), “a collection, mostly comprising compositions for the lute, as well as songs, anthems, madrigals, duets, and an extract from an opera, all with lute accompaniment.”

A digitized version of Add. MS. 15117 can be examined on the British Library site, with the lute song appearing on folio 3 verso. The historical consort song version of “O Death rocke me asleep” is available in the Musica Britannica series Volume 22, Consort Songs, edited by Philip Brett, Stainer and Bell, London, 1967, with an additional version seen on the Choral Public Domain site.

An historically significant resource often overlooked today is William Chappell’s, Popular Music of the Olden Time, published in two volumes in 1855-1856. Chappell transcribed and printed “O Death rocke me asleep” in its version from British Library Add. MS. 15117, but, as was often the case in early musicology, the editor filled out the rather sparse lute accompaniment in an adaptation meant for the keyboard.

“The accompaniment here given is little more than a translation of that written in tablature for the lute under the song in the MS…A few chords have been filled up, where they were disagreeably bare in the original, but in form and substance the composition is given practically as found. I draw attention to the fact, because the song affords the earliest example, so far as I know, of an independent accompaniment; which, moreover, in this case is an accompaniment in the most modern sense of the word, the knell supplying a kind of comment throughout.”
– Chappell, 1855, Volume 1, p. 113.

Certainly, the lute part as transcribed by Chappell could appear to be chordal (vertical) but, as usual, effective realization of the lute tablature demands a more horizontal (contrapuntal) point of view. The consort version exhibits a great deal of interplay among the parts, with frequent passing of the tolling knell figure from one part to the next.

The text of the song is attributed to Anne Boleyn (c. 1501 – 1536 ), or possibly to her brother George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford (c. 1503 – 1536). The poetry is found in British Library Additional MS 17492, and while the conjectural attribution lends an interesting dimension to the death by separation of head from body of Henry VIII’s number two wife, the attribution appears to have no supporting evidence.

O Death, rock me asleep,
Bring me to quiet rest,
Let pass my weary guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

My pains who can express?
Alas, they are so strong;
My dolour will not suffer strength
My life for to prolong.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

Alone in prison strong
I wait my destiny.
Woe worth this cruel hap that I
Should taste this misery!

Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

Farewell, my pleasures past,
Welcome, my present pain!
I feel my torments so increase
That life cannot remain.
Cease now, thou passing bell;
Rung is my doleful knell;
For the sound my death doth tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

We created a performing version of the song toward the end of the last century, and augmented the accompaniment as Chappell did, but filled out the sparse lute part by adding notes from the consort song version to create a more contrapuntal realization than that of Chappell. Over a quarter-century, our particular version has been passed around and fallen into the hands of that discourteous brand of unappreciative lutenists who willfully neglect to cite the source of their music, but we will now make our version freely available to any who bother to write and ask via the contact form at the top of this page.

As far as we can tell, no other scholar has mentioned that the tolling knell accompaniment figure of the 16th-century “O Death rocke me asleep” was used by 18th-century composer Marin Marais in his Sonnerie de Ste. Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris from La Gamme et Autres Morceaux de Symphonie, No.3, (1723). Marais picked up precisely where the original song left off, adding instrumental filigree for violin and viola da gamba but creating the same somber effect.

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