MEDIA PARTNER

Monday, June 19, 2017

PROGRAM SCHEDULE  •  SUN 18  •  MON 19  •  WED 21  •  FRI 23  •  SUN 25

Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church, 8 p.m.

Four Viols at Play

Julie Jeffrey, viola da gamba
Mary Springfels, viola da gamba
Heather Vorwerck, viola da gamba
Leif Woodward, viola da gamba


Hugh Aston (1485-1558)
Hugh Aston’s Masque

Elway Bevin (1554-1638)
Browning

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656)
Ut re me fa sol


Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
Fantasy a 2

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
Fantasy a 4


Tobias Hume (1569-1645)
The Virgin’s Muse
from Captain Hume’s Poeticall Musick, 1605

Tobias Hume (1569-1645)
Captain Hume’s Pavin
from Musicall Humors, 1609

Tobias Hume (1569-1645)
A Merry Conceit
from Captain Hume’s Poeticall Musick, 1605


Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
Suite in C
from Ludi Musici, 1621

Paduan — Galliard — Alamande

 

Intermission

 


Biagio Marini (c. 1594-1663)
Canzon terza a 4

Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690)
Sonata in C major
from La Cetra, 1673


John Jenkins (1592-1678)
Pavan and Fantasia
for two basses

John Jenkins (1592-1678)
Fantasia a 4


Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Fantazia a 3

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Fantazia a 4

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Hornpipe on a Ground
from The Married Beau, 1694


Reception on the Patio


If this performance marks the first time you have listened to a consort of viols, there will be several things you’ll notice about the instruments themselves and the sounds they make. All members of the viol family are held vertically, on or between the knees; the bow is held with an underhand grip; and the soft, silvery, homogenous sound is the acoustical product of its fretted fingerboard, deep ribs and flat back.

The word “consort” could not better describe an ensemble of viols. The combined effect of their consorting is a true marriage of voices. In the 17th century, Dutch painters used the family of viols, played by fathers, mothers and their children, as an emblem of domestic harmony. Unlike the typical early modern human family, however, the viol consort was devoid of hierarchy. Every voice had an equal vote in the destiny of the music.

The viol, or viola da gamba (“viol of the leg”), seems to have appeared on the musical scene in the late 15th century. By about 1540, it was an important solo and ensemble instrument. In England at that time, viols were court instruments played by professionals. By around 1590, the viol became the chosen instrument of wealthy amateurs at court and in rural stately mansions. A solitary player could entertain him- or herself on the viol played “lyra-way,” a highly chordal Four Viols at Play: Notes style that imitated the lute. Adventurous musicians might attempt to master the art of virtuosic improvisation, called “division viol” playing.

However, at the center of the violist’s repertoire was the fantasy, also known as the fancy or fantazia, depending on the whims of Tudor/Stuart spelling.

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The composer and theorist Thomas Morley described the fantasy as the most important English instrumental genre of the era. Between 1580 and 1680, thousands of these concise, densely written compositions for two to six instruments were carefully copied by hand and circulated among friends. If you wished to compose a fantasy, you would hold up as an example the free association of ideas of a human mind at play. According to Morley, “The musician [composer] taking a point [musical idea] at his pleasure, wresting and turning it as he will, making either as much or as little of it as seems to him best. In this more art may be shown than in any other music, because the composter is tied to nothing but that to which he may add, diminish or alter at his pleasure.” Of course, the effect of spontaneous artlessness is illusory. Incredible skill goes into the making of a beautifully composed, natural-sounding fantasy.

Early Tudor composers built fantasies on any number of organizing principles perfected by Franco-Flemish composers in the 15th century. These included simple repeating grounds, as in the case of the dreamy Masque by Hugh Aston, or the writer could construct a set of variations based on a folk tune, like Elway Bevin’s charming, ornate Browning.

Tone rows, like the simple scale Ut re me fa sol, can be turned into a tour de force by a late Tudor composer of the stature of Thomas Tomkins. BACK

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The next generation of musicians who wrote for viols wrote pure counterpoint. However, the “madrigal fantasy,” as this new form was known, was not without shape. These pieces should be thought of as songs without words — fluid, conversational, rhetorical and grammatical — very much in the style of the Italian madrigal as perfected by Luca Marenzio. In England, the craze for madrigal singing (in Italian or English) was short-lived. However, by adapting the conventions of the vocal model to the idioms of the viol, English musicians created a unique and enduring form. No contemporary European culture produced so much counterpoint of such high quality.

In classic form, the madrigal fantasy tended to fall into three large sections: the exordium, in which each voice introduces what it has to say; a series of five to seven short “arguments’” or contrasting sections; and a peroration or conclusion. In the pieces by Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell, contrasting sections are very clearly outlined, while John Jenkins manipulated the form with more subtlety. BACK

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In contrast to these examples of polyphonic virtuosity, we have included a sampling of other music for the viol. Tobias Hume was by profession a private soldier and passionate apologist for the viol. It’s likely that Shakespeare took a jab at him in the person of the lovably inept Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who was a soldier of sorts, and played at the “viol de gamboys” in Twelfth Night. Hume was an autodidact and, while his music is idiosyncratic, it is also deeply felt. At its best, it supplies unusual insight into a lost emotional/ musical world that a more polished music cannot give us. BACK

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On the Continent, the viol was used quite differently. Due to the presence of English expat actors and musicians in German courts, native composers got a taste of the British aesthetic. Samuel Scheidt and his contemporaries avoided the fantasia, and instead produced richly textured dance suites that were apt for any instrumental ensemble. It’s hard to know whether these were meant for practical performance — they are very intricate — or were “art” dance music, intended for the pleasure of the players and a stationary listening audience. Scheidt’s wonderful dance sets are among the best of the genre. BACK

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Italian music for viol consorts was relatively rare, given that the violin and its music held primacy in Italy from the first quarter of the 17th century. The stately Canzon by Biagio Marini can be played by any ensemble of low instruments, while Legrenzi’s marvelously evocative church sonata from La Cetra was specifically scored for viols and therefore is something of a novelty. BACK

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Henry Purcell’s 14 astonishing fantasias were all written in the summer of 1680, when he was 21 years old and already established as a professional musician. He began singing with the Chapel Royal at the age of 10, composing for the court violins at the age of 18, and serving as an organist at Westminster Abbey by the age of 20. It is surmised the fantasies were written for the private entertainment of his singing friends at the Abbey, who were perhaps members of a vanishing tribe of consort players.

While the fantasies follow a traditional structure — a stately exordium followed by a series of contrasting sections — their sheer brilliance of invention could have been matched by few earlier composers. BACK

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The violin as an art instrument was first received with caution in England. But by 1700, the instrument and its music had thoroughly supplanted the old consort. In the 1720s, biographer Roger North famously wrote: “Of these fancys whole volumes are left, scarce ever to be made use of but either in the Ayres for Kites or in ye fire for singeing pullets… In a short time none will be left.” Happily for us, North was overly gloomy in his predictions of the extinction of this wonderful music.

Notes by Mary Springfels

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