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Lyke Wake Dirge

For the 2017 exhibition ‘In Concert’  at the Snape Maltings concert hall gallery

curated by Mark Frith for the Lettering and Commemorative Arts Trust

This editioned print is a typographic setting of the Lyke Wake Dirge, a 14th-century funeral-chant originating in Cleveland, North Yorkshire, where it was sung during the traditional watch at the side of the corpse (lyke). 

Benjamin Britten created a new musical arrangement as part of his 1943 Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and later in his 1952 Cantata on Old English Texts. It was also adopted in the folk music revival of the 50s and 60s, and I think that I would have first heard the version recorded by Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1967, before becoming more familiar with the Pentangle recording from 1969.

The dirge recounts the stages of the soul’s journey earth to purgatory. Though it makes reference to Christianity, much of the symbolism is thought to be of pagan origin.

The letterforms are derived from vernacular lettering on headstones in both Cleveland and Suffolk: the primary birthplace of the song, and the site of its re-interpretation by Britten. The chorus text uses the idiom described by Bartram as ‘Primitive’: a subtractive raised letter, which I have reconstructed from a variety of sources including a remembered example at Gisborough Priory in North Yorkshire. The verses are set ‘polyphonically’ in multiple lines of overlaid fonts – derived from letters found at churches around Snape and Aldeburgh – to suggest the interweaving of distinct voices into a whole.

Music and typography share a concern for rhythmic structure and patterns of fixed interval. These ideas, along with an ongoing fascination with letters as resonant cultural artefacts, shaped the development of the print.

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