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WHO SHALL HAVE MY LADY FAIR?


Gurt Lush bring it all back home with a song by a Bristol composer. Robert Lucas Pearsall was born in Clifton in 1795, and in his early adult years lived at Willsbridge Mill, working as a barrister in Bristol. In 1825 he moved to Germany, and later settled in Switzerland. He had no formal musical education, but as an enthusiast for Renaissance musical styles he started composing part-songs and madrigals on an amateur basis. He continued to visit Bristol and was a founder member of the Bristol Madrigal Society, the forerunner of today's Bristol Chamber Choir. Pearsall composed Who Shall Have My Lady Fair in 1839 and took it to the Bristol Madrigal Society; but he didn’t think it a success and did not even keep a copy for himself. However, the Madrigal Society persisted with it and the song gained considerable popularity.

The published score carries the following note, presumably from Pearsall himself: "Founded upon an ancient ditty in the library of the British Museum". It appears that the ditty concerned was a four-part song from the late 15th or early 16th century, a little before the golden age of the English madrigal. Pearsall wrote to a friend, " 'Oh, ho', thought I, 'here is something that may be dished up afresh!' Accordingly, I went to work, took some words which I found in the book, altered them and licked them into proper form, and then I wrote a four-part song, imitating as well as I could the characteristics of the ancient model." (From 'Robert Lucas Pearsall: The Compleat Gentleman and His Music, 1795-1856' by Edgar Hunt.)

There are surprisingly few performances of the song on the internet, other than a couple of professional recordings by Guildford Cathedral Choir and Berlin's Vokalensemble Cantico Nuovo. By far the best filmed performance, unfortunately incomplete, is from Paramabira in Gorizia, Italy.