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Thomas Weelkes (baptised 25 October 1576 – 30 November 1623) was an English composer and organist. He became organist of Winchester College in 1598, moving to Chichester Cathedral. His works are chiefly vocal, and include madrigals, anthems and services.
Weelkes was baptised in the little village church of Elsted near Chichester in West Sussex on 25 October 1576. It has been suggested that his father was John Weeke, rector of Elsted, although there is no documentary evidence of the relationship. In 1597 his first volume of madrigals was published, the preface noting that he was a very young man when they were written; this helps to fix the date of his birth to somewhere in the middle of the 1570s. Early in his life he was in service at the house of the courtier Edward Darcye. At the end of 1598, probably aged 22, Weelkes was appointed organist at Winchester College, where he remained for two or three years, receiving the quarterly salary of 13s 4d (£2 for three quarters). His remuneration included board and lodging.
During his Winchester period, Weelkes composed a further two volumes of madrigals (1598, 1600). He obtained his B. Mus. Degree from New College, Oxford in 1602, and moved to Chichester to take up the position of organist and informator choristarum (instructor of the choristers) at Chichester Cathedral at some time between October 1601 and October 1602. He was also given a lay clerkship at the Cathedral, being paid £15 2s 4d annually alongside his board, lodging and other amenities. The following year he married Elizabeth Sandham, from a wealthy local family. They had three children and it was rumoured that Elizabeth was already pregnant at the time of the marriage.
Weelkes' fourth and final volume of madrigals, published in 1608, carries a title page where he refers to himself as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal; however, records at the Chapel Royal itself do not mention him, so at most he could only have been a Gentleman Extraordinary - one of those who were asked to stand in until a permanent replacement was found.
While Weelkes was there the Choir of Chichester Cathedral was often in trouble with the authorities for poor behaviour. Weelkes appears to have become an alcoholic. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it,
he was not the only disorderly member of the cathedral establishment, though in due course he would become its most celebrated."
In 1609 he was charged with unauthorised absence from Chichester, but no mention of drunken behaviour is made until 1613, and J Shepherd, a Weelkes scholar, has suggested caution in assuming that his decline began before this date. In 1616 he was reported to the Bishop for being ‘noted and famed for a comon drunckard (sic) and notorious swearer & blasphemer’. The Dean and Chapter dismissed him for being drunk at the organ and using bad language during divine service. He was however reinstated and remained in the post until his death, although his behaviour did not improve; in 1619 Weelkes was again reported to the Bishop:
Dyvers tymes & very often come so disguised eyther from the Taverne or Ale house into the quire as is muche to be lamented, for in these humoures he will bothe curse & sweare most dreadfully, & so profane the service of God … and though he hath bene often tymes admonished … to refrayne theis humors and reforme hym selfe, yett he daylye continuse the same, & is rather worse than better therein.
In 1622 Elizabeth Weelkes died. Thomas Weelkes was, by this time, reinstated at Chichester Cathedral, but appeared to be spending a great deal of time in London. He died in London in 1623, in the house of a friend, almost certainly on 30 November and was buried on 1 December 1623 at St Bride's Fleet Street. Weelkes's will, made the day before he died at the house of his friend Henry Drinkwater of St Bride's parish, left his estate to be shared between his three children, with a large 50s legacy left to Drinkwater for his meat, drink and lodging. Weelkes has a memorial stone in Chichester Cathedral.
Thomas Weelkes is best known for his vocal music, especially his madrigals and church music. Weelkes wrote more Anglican services than any other major composer of the time, mostly for evensong. Many of his anthems are verse anthems, which would have suited the small forces available at Chichester Cathedral. It has been suggested that larger-scale pieces were intended for the Chapel Royal.
Only a small amount of instrumental music was written by Weelkes, and it is rarely performed. His consort music is sombre in tone, contrasting with the often gleeful madrigals.
Weelkes's madrigals are often compared to those of John Wilbye (who the Dictionary of National Biography described as the most famous of the English madrigalists): it has been suggested that the personalities of the two men - Wilbye appears to have been a more sober character than Weelkes - are reflected in the music. Both men were interested in word painting. Weelkes' madrigals are very chromatic and use varied organic counterpoint and unconventional rhythm in their construction.
Weelkes was friends with the madrigalist Thomas Morley who died in 1602, when Weelkes was in his mid-twenties (Weelkes commemorated his death in a madrigal-form anthem titled A Remembrance of my Friend Thomas Morley, also known as "Death hath Deprived Me").
Some of Weelkes's madrigals were reprinted in popular collections during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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- His will was dated 30 November, and he was buried on 1 December, which strongly suggests he died on 30 November. See his entry at Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed, 1954, vol. IX, p. 231.
- Collins, Walter S. (April 1963). "Recent discoveries concerning the biography of Thomas Weelkes". Music & Letters (Oxford University Press) 44 (2): 123–131. doi:10.1093/ml/44.2.123. JSTOR 731100.
- David Brown, ‘Weelkes, Thomas (bap. 1576?, d. 1623)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. accessed 15 July 2014 (subscription required).
- Welch, C E (1957). "Two Cathedral Organists". Chichester Papers VIII.
- "Thomas Weelkes biography". HOASM. Retrieved 14 July 2014.
- David Brown "Weelkes, Thomas" in Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 20 Dec. 2006) www.grovemusic.com
- "Thomas Weelkes: a Biographical Caution". MQ lxvi: 505–21. 1980.
- W.K. Ford: ‘Chichester Cathedral and Thomas Weelkes’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, c (1962), 156–72
- Philip Ledger (ed) The Oxford Book of English Madrigals OUP 1978
- Free scores by Thomas Weelkes in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
- Free scores by Thomas Weelkes at the International Music Score Library Project
- The Mutopia Project has compositions by Thomas Weelkes
- Thomas Weelkes biography on Here Of A Sunday Morning website.
- Thomas Weelkes biography on Singers.com website