About this work
Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales and the son of King James VI of Scotland and England, died tragically at age 18. He had already established himself as a vigorous patron of the arts, sponsoring musicians and writers, collecting vast numbers of continental paintings, and giving Inigo Jones his first major commissions. Upon Henry's sudden death in November 1612, artistic memorials to him invoked the grief of the nation, among them testaments by George Herbert, John Donne, and Thomas Campion. Musical offerings also seem to have graced his funeral observances, possibly including several musical settings of King David's biblical lament for Absalom; the six-voiced anthem When David Heard by Thomas Weelkes, organist of Chichester Cathedral, most likely originated in this sad occasion.
Weelkes' When David Heard met several disparate trends in his compositional life. Weelkes, both during his own time and today, was known more for his English madrigals and his verse anthems for the Anglican church. When David Heard is neither: the piece, rather, is a full anthem (that is, one without soloists), which verges on the genre sacred madrigal by the intensity of its musical pathos. Weelkes takes the rather brief and straightforward biblical text (second Samuel 18:33) that describes David going up to his chamber and weeping for the death of his son, and he transforms it into a potent and rending piece of musical drama.
When David Heard consists of two short but distinct sections, one narrative and one discursive; in each, the already-competent madrigal composer deploys every resource of his art. In the first part of the piece, Weelkes illustrates numerous images and actions from the text by musical gestures: an echo effect for David's hearing the news, an increasingly sharp level of dissonance for the deadly nature of the news, an overt rising melody for his "going up," and even a melodic arch subtly evoking the room "above the gate." The musical gestures underscoring David's own words are yet more rhetorical and dramatic: frequent cries by solitary voice parts, passages of poignant harmonic stasis, contrasted to those in which cross-relations and diminished intervals intensify the emotion. Even an apparently direct imitative motive illustrates the father's cry, "Would to God I had died for thee," in the subtly repeated (mirrored and compared) intervals of the melody. In the closing full-choir chords ring the lamentations of singer, composer, and nation at once.