Monday, 23 January 2017

Sex, Lies & Parchment; The Pepys' Motet - Benjamin Till; Elisabeth (1640-1669) and Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) St Olaves, Hart Street


Elizabeth's (sic) entry in the burial register of St Olaves, Hart Street

The entry in St Olaves’ burial register for November 13 1669 read:  “Elizabeth wife of Samuel Pepys, Esqe, one of his Matis  Comission rs  of ye navy, obit X Novem r , & buryed in ye Chauncell viij instant.”   Elizabeth was only 29 when she died unexpectedly of typhoid fever; her death left her husband shocked and bereft. He commissioned an elaborate and costly memorial with a bust of his young wife leaning out as if to watch over him as he sat in his pew (perhaps even Samuel was aware that he was  one of those errant husbands who needs to have a close eye kept on him). Her unusually long epitaph reads:
Wife of Samuel Pepys who serves the Royal Navy

Elisabeth Pepys
She was educated first in a convent, and then in a seminary of France.
She was distinguished by the excellence of both at once,
Gifted with beauty, accomplishments, tongues,
She bore no offspring, for she could not have borne her life.
At length when she had bidden this world a gentle farewell,
After a journey completed through, we may say, the lovelier sights of Europe --
A returning pilgrim, she took her departure to wander through a grander world.

The 15 year Elizabeth de St Michel married Samuel Pepys at St Margaret’s in Westminster in December 1655. Despite taking place in a church this was a civil ceremony; the religious ceremony had probably taken place in October shortly before the bride’s birthday. Samuel always fondly remembered his wedding day and Elizabeth’s petticoat trimmed with gold lace. She was from a poor Huguenot family (her penniless relatives later became a source of friction between husband and wife) but at the time of the marriage the 22 year old Samuel was almost as impoverished as his wife. The couple separated temporarily in the early days of their marriage, possibly became of Samuel’s jealousy, an episode he didn’t like to be reminded of. At the time the up and coming Naval administrator started his diary the couple were living together again. During the ten year period of the diaries Elisabeth is mentioned no less than 2022 times. ‘My wife’ must be the single most common phrase in his million word epic; despite his obsessive philandering Pepys clearly loved Elisabeth.


The man himself, Sam Pepys
In 1669, shortly after failing eyesight forced him to bring his diary to a close, Samuel took Elisabeth on a tour to France and probably the Low Countries. Elisabeth came back from the trip ill; the sickness worsened rapidly leaving her husband frantic with worry. On 2 November he wrote to a close friend to apologise for failing to get in touch since his return from the continent:   “I beg you to believe that I would not have been tens days returned into England without waiting on you, had it not pleased God to afflict mee by the sickness of my wife., who, from the first day of her coming back to London, hath layn under a fever so severe as at this hour to render her recoverie desperate; which affliction hath very much unfitted me for those acts of civilities and respect which, amongst the first of my friends, I should have paid to yourselfe.”  On 10 November Elisabeth died, leaving her workaholic husband so stricken with grief that he failed to attend his office or deal with any Navy Board business for four weeks. Five months later, in May 1670 he wrote to a Captain Elliot apologising for failing to thank him for his help in an election: “I beg you earnestly to believe that nothing but the sorrow and distraction I have been in by the death of my wife, increased by the suddenness with which it pleased God to surprise me with therewith, after a voyage so full of health and content, could have forced me to so long a neglect of my private concernments; this being, I do assure you, the very first day that my affliction, together with my daily attendance on other public occasions of his Majesty’s, has suffered me to apply myself to the considering any part of my private concernments.” A man of Pepys passion and amiability was never going to spend the rest of his life alone (and he was only 36 when Elisabeth died) and he later met and lived with Mary Skinner. Despite living as his wife until his death Pepys never regularised Mary’s position and Elisabeth remained his one and only legal spouse. He also made sure that when he died at Clapham in 1703 his body was taken back to the city and buried with Elisabeth at St Olaves, “in a vault by ye communion table,” according to the burial register.

Samuel's 1703 entry in the burial register

306 years after his death the authorities at St Olave’s commissioned Benjamin Till (composer of the impressive ‘London Requiem’) to write a piece of choral music to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Pepys first putting pen to paper. Never a man to do anything by halves, Benjamin came up with a six movement, 40 voice motet (according to Merriam-Webster a motet is ‘a polyphonic choral composition on a sacred text usually without instrumental accompaniment’)  producing a piece of music so complex it took him almost six years to get it all recorded. He says;


I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of this recording. It took four years to record and studio sessions happened as and when we could afford them. We ran quizzes to pay for extra studio time. The music is daring and incredibly complicated and we spent over 200 hours mixing the piece. It’s recorded unlike any other classical piece of music with each of the 20 singers individually close-mic’d in separate recording booths. The singers on the album come from every conceivable vocal tradition from gospel and folk through to musical theatre and opera. The work itself is a fusion of different forms of music. Sound engineer, Paul Kendall has an astounding ear for detail, and the work is best heard whilst wearing headphones for the full unique, engulfing sonic experience.


The words to the motet are all Pepys’ own, drawn from the diary so that the motet is, for my money, the most concise and entertaining abridgement you can buy. I don’t know if the composer read the entire opus cover to cover or, Jack Horner like he just stuck in a thumb to pull out the plums, but it is a brilliant selection with set pieces covering the plague and the great fire (and Deb Willets) and an extraordinary collage of words depicting the rest of Pepys’ life.  The first movement starts with words from the very first entry of the diary; “My wife after the absence of her terms for seven weeks gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year she hath them again.” As in the diaries Elisabeth’s unnamed presence (she is always ‘my wife’) looms large over the Motet (and as for the thwarted hopes of pregnancy, Pepys felt strongly enough about his childlessness to mention it on Elisabeth’s epitaph). My own, personal favourite quote concerns an argument over a dog presented to Elisabeth by her wastrel (but well loved) brother Balty; “my wife and I had some high words upon my telling her that I would fling the dog which her brother gave her out of the window if he pissed the house any more.”


Words and music gel perfectly in the motet. One man’s words sung by so many different voices could become confusing but the words are skilfully chosen and the music so skilfully done that it never threatens to become a cacophony; the man shines through the words and the words glow in their musical setting. As in the diaries all human life is here and the music complements the changes of mood and tempo from low comedy to high tragedy. My favourite movement is number 5, ‘Deb Willets’ which cleverly sets the scene with a vignette of Pepys the sex pest “St. Dunstan’s Church, where I heard an able sermon of the minister of the place; and stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again — which seeing I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design.” After this timely reminder that Samuel was a man willing to take the liberties he felt his sex and position in society entitled him to we get the story of his romance with his wife’s servant girl Deb from the day she calls him back from the office to see her pretty new maid to his increasingly bold attacks upon her virtue that culminate in the famous, and still shocking, episode when Elisabeth stumbles upon her husband and maid in a compromising position; “after supper, to have my head combed by Deb., which occasioned the greatest sorrow to me that ever I knew in this world, for my wife, coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed, I was with my main in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it, and the girle also.” The music for this episode is as sexy, sleazy and painful as the events it accompanies, at times with an irresistible swing, swelling in full throated, joyful climax or descending into stammered, staccato justifications and excuses.  Pepys was a great music lover and it is hard not to wonder what he would make of his most private words and thoughts being set to music – personally I think he would be immensely gratified. And I think he would adore the Motet, even if it is rather modern for his tastes.

According to the fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia) “the late 13th-century theorist Johannes de Grocheo believed that the motet was "not to be celebrated in the presence of common people, because they do not notice its subtlety, nor are they delighted in hearing it, but in the presence of the educated and of those who are seeking out subtleties in the arts." So are you common? Or are you cultured? Pepys Motet can be purchased as a digital download from Amazon and itunes or, if you would like a tangible rather than a virtual copy, on CD from the composer. There are no discounts for buying two CD’s but I would have no hesitation in recommending that you get yourself a copy of the ‘London Requiem’ while you are at it.