mico pavan a4 4

At consort rehearsals, we’ve been looking at the Mico Pavans for four viols. Number 1 is rather severe; number 2 is more melodious and things are quite lively for the two treble parts in Numbers 3 and 4. The key is not to take too fast a tempo if you don’t want to come unstuck in the busy second and third sections.

Of particular note is the two treble parts in the opening of the final section of the fourth Pavan. Like a good student, I’ve been playing them slowly and playing against myself by recording one of the parts. The key here is to play them over and over until they are almost memorised.

There’s a big difference between 5mins 52secs and 3mins 37secs. Those are the total times at which this fantasy is played by viol consorts L’Acheron and Phantasm respectively.

Bars 1-25 establish a mood of quiet confidence, not with a lot of hubris but there’s a certain grimness in the moving harmonies and gentle defiance in the cadences (e.g. bar 13). However, thereafter, some doubt starts to creep in, though the upper parts maintain a grim determination in their interval leaps.

Subtly from bar 25 onwards, the mind of Man, the rhetoric of human thought, seems to be overtaken by, or blend into, the natural world. I see Nature and the World as reflected in the increasing swirls of descending notes. For L’Acheron, these quaver patterns fall like autumn leaves, steady and lingering in the air, while for Phantasm they have more of the scamper of squirrels. It’s hard to decide whether or not Phantasm’s tempo flits to the final cadence or whether L’Acheron’s overall tempo, slow to the point of a rare and crystalline stillness, reveals or conceals.

For both though there is the evocation of the wondrous light of Nature. I see the whole as a commentary on the affairs of human kind, the rise and fall of greatness, the passing of reputation and good intentions. Personally I prefer the L’Acheron tempo, but although it evokes the woods of Kent in Autumn and of the Auvergne in Winter as much as it does the woods of Massachusetts in Summer, I’m sure that when it comes up on the music stands of the consort I play with, we will take it a faster clip.


lacheron.blogspot.fr: Fantasia a6 in c (YouTube.com; 2012)

John Jenkins, Six-Part Consorts. Phantasm, AV2099 (2006)

John Ward, Fantasies a4

July 12, 2013

Up on my music stand today is the treble part of the PRB edition of John Ward’s Six Fantasias for Four Viols. These are the “Oxford” fantasias, scored for trTTB. Many years ago, I managed to play some delightful four-part Ward fantasies as background music for a public reception, but these were not they. They couldn’t have been – the ones played on that occasion were accessible.

I regard playing through these by myself as training for viol playing in the Next Life. Just as Rugby Union is considered by many as the game they play in Heaven, I’m sure John Ward’s viol fantasies are the music one listens to in Heaven. I doubt I’ll ever get to play any of the six-part fantasies in this lifetime because it’s simply too hard to get six viol players in the one room.  However, I can get a very clear idea of what Ward sounds like from the recordings of the five- and six-part consort pieces by the Consort of Musicke and Phantasm. My tackling the individual parts of the four-part fantasies means they are as equally beyond my reach as the six-part because the four-part pieces never been recorded, not even by amateurs on YouTube.

No recordings and no likelihood of ever playing the ‘complete’ thing makes for pretty grim stuff. What’s worse, as editor Virginia Brookes notes, these look like mature works, “with more extreme chromaticism, a greater sense of key relationship and much agile, specifically instrumental writing”. They appear, certainly on paper, to be far more difficult than the six-part works.

A safe bet in tackling these is to consider them as technical practice: getting finger agility by isolating particular themes, rather than trying to understand the whole. And playing them extremely slowly.

So, in practising these for the Next Life, I note the following:

Fantasia a4 no.1 in G minor. Very good practice for playing ascending scales in this key. From b.35, there are the characteristic demisemiquaver ‘ornaments’ to contend with.

Fantasia a4 no.2 in C minor. Again, very good practice for dashing at speed between strings with all the incidentals inherent in the key.

Fantasia a4 no.3  in Dminor(-ish). Treble 1 starts off this Fantasia so it really sets the mood as well as the tempo. Dotted demisemiquavers (bb.18-19) mean it should be light but not too fast.

Fantasia a4 no.4 in A minor: By now, the common features of Ward are shining through – curly scalar runs of semiquavers. A characteristic homophony/”choral” section in bb.15-20 contrasts wildly with the following imitative scraps to the cadence at p.28.

Fantasia a4 no.5 in A minor: Yet more ascending scale passages with frightening leaps between strings.

Fantasia a4 no.6 in C. Treble 1 starts the piece. The opening theme has octave leaps. Watch for the demisemiquaver run in b18!

This lively music, full of twists and turns, looks terribly off-putting. What keeps me going is the memory of the soaring melodies and curtains of harmonies recalled from hearing the six-part Fantasies played by the experts!
ward a4 fantasies PRB

On my music stand today is the first of William Byrd’s two In nomines in four parts, another in the current series of consort pieces scored for trTTB.

Byrd’s rendering of the In nomine is as clear and limpid as the Taverner original in four parts. It relies for its beauty on the delicate scale passages, descending (thoughtful) in the first half and rising (hopeful) in the second, with intermittent dissonances along the way.

My preferred tempo is a lilting, gliding two-in-the-bar. Any slower and the sense of momentum, of  “speaking” clearly to the audience, is lost.

Players need to be aware of the long, vocal-like phrases: split up, they look and sound like something out of a psalm or a chorale. The odd ornamental touches at cadences (bb.4, 20, 21, 23, 37, 39, 59) need to be unrushed.

byrd in nomine a4 no1

coperario fantasia a4 no2

On the music stand today is the bass part of the Coperario Fantasia a4 no.2 in a. The main reason I like Coperario is that his style is very vocal and not overly cerebral. He demands the viol adopt a very vocal quality; the playing has to imitate the voice. Grounded in the Renaissance vocal style, it’s quite different from the later ‘instrumental’ style characteristic of John Jenkins or William Lawes. Subsequently, there’s a tendency then to consider his work quite light and unsubstantial and superficial, which is unjustified in my opinion. Like a lot of viol consort music, Coperario’s work is “intermittently impressive”. The structure of Coperario’s fantasias differs quite a lot from the later Jenkins’. There is no slow build to a climax. Rather, Coperario orders his fantasias around half-a-dozen vocal-like themes, roughly “equal” from beginning to end.

Unlike Coperario’s fantasias in five- and six-parts, the seven four-part fantasias bear no Italian titles.

In terms of tempo, this fantasy revolves around the third theme (bb.21-25) which is a choppy one using semiquavers, quite at odds with the other themes. The French consort L’Acheron plays this fantasy on YouTube and they’ve stressed the “searching” quality of the vocal lines – the opening sounds tentative (in a good way) but the tempo is maintained to the end so, to my mind, the potential for aural colour is diminished somewhat. For example, the brilliant rising “sunshine” of bar 19 in 20 sounds laboured. Mind you, The way they interpret the “semiquaver” Theme 3 is as if they are temporarily “shaking off” an increasingly encroaching, cloying melancholy. This is followed by the boppy crochets to bar 37. Theme 4 starting in b.37 is an entirely different mood – Coperario moves around ’emotionally’ quite a lot!

With an ambit tempo in mind, what’s required next is to clearly identify the five separate themes, starting bars (in the bass) 5, 13, 21, 37, (b.44 is a repeat/variation of theme 4) and 51, I have to play each theme as a single phrase, more or less. Almost all start with a pull bow and this is particularly the case in the leaps of a fourth – see bb.27 and 34. Apparently this is common for English fantasias of 1600-1625: start with a very melodic “point”, respond to it in imitation in the other instruments and move, after cadences, through four or five contrasting musical sections to a final cadence.

These themes are often quite short: much more ‘distinct’ than in other composers. Players don’t have to wait ages while their colleagues introduce the themes, as is the case with French imitators like Moulinie and LeJeune.

It’s important to note where the cadences fall. For example, there’s a cadence (in the bass part again) on the first beat of bar 21, so the following three notes need to be quieter yet decisive because they underpin the start of Theme 3. The same thing happens in b.37: the bottom A marks a cadence, while the A an octave above in the next note is the (strong) start of Theme 4. Theme 5 (bar 51) is a lovely bell-like downwards scale, a lovely way to finish.

Coperario is “difficult” for consort players because, as amateurs, we tend to play our parts more at less at the same volume throughout. What should happen of course, and this is particular the case with Coperario, is that each of us “sings out” as we introduce or re-state the theme on our instruments, then “fall off” as our colleagues enter with the theme. This fairly frenetic  give-and-take in volume is quite demanding but creates a much more energetic performance: they are largely sung madrigals played on instruments, after all.

I commend L’Acheron’s performance to anyone interested in how Coperario can be interpreted – and frankly their other masterly performances (Byrd, Locke) available on the Net. Theirs is one of the few performances of any Coperario a4 ever put into the public domain.



John Coprario, Fantasias of Four Parts. Edited by George Hunter. Northwood Music, JC-4.

This post has nothing to do with viols, though Richard Mills used them in the last opera I saw of his, “Batavia”. For those interested only in viols, it’s best to turn away now.

This is not a review, merely a messy, personal response, not the ‘first draft of history’ as poor newspaper journalists are paid to create. I say “poor” because it’s a devilish job trying to assess something as complex as an opera on first hearing. Momentarily as I took in this opera – and how many operas do we go to without having listened to them or watched them on DVD before attending? – I kept wondering which aria or arias would go down in history, since it’s always the music which seems to last and not the libretto.

I’ve read the ‘official’ reviews of the opera as published in newspapers. I’ve also seen Mills’ iconoclastic call on television for more funding for opera, as wonderfully brazen as the sports industry asking the government for more money. Love it! I’ve seen interviews with the two female vocalists for whom the toll of performing such roles as the two sisters in Nightingale is so heavy. Opera singing is surely a vocation, a calling, not for mere mortals who want to live normal lives. I took in Virginia Trioli’s forum on television debating a new National Arts Policy for the country, with an appearance by Adrian Colette. Reviewing the reviews is what you’re supposed to do if you go to the opera. Opera is always such hard work. It means buying the CDs or DVDs and reading as much as possible beforehand. It means consulting the Form Guide of the singers, so you know which singer is likely to bring what quality to the production. There is also the nap in the afternoon beforehand (hell if you are coming straight from work), an additional dose of vitamin pills since the night will be long. I don’t take a packed lunch as I’ve known others to do attending the pre-concert recital or pre-concert talk). It means arriving at the Opera House at 6.45, taking in the harbour at sunset before the first bell, a limbering up meditation of sorts, and carefully organising the timing of reaching one’s seat depending on how far you are into the row. Patrons persist in entering by the wrong door but like those who no longer clap at the opera (perhaps their arms are too weak), I no longer stand to let other patrons pass by. I acknowledge the patrons sitting beside me with a polite “Good evening” but I’ve learned it never does to engage with other patrons – that way disaster lies, with wide gulfs of social background and personal politics far too close to the surface. Clothes are never a problem because you will see everything from black tie to shorts-and-sandals. I am a mess for 24 hours after the performance, best for lying down in a darkened room. A day at work after an opera is a day lost completely.

Opera and Occupy Sydney

A funny thing happened on the way to this opera. Invariably an opera performance mimics or mirrors the Sydney around me at the time. Walking through Martin Place, we almost tripped over a loose assembly of people, some sitting in consciousness-raising circles, outside the Reserve Bank of Australia. Occupy Sydney has not lost its momentum. There were no placards or signs; they were being surveilled by a single police car parked nearby, complete with four police, in case the RBA building might be stormed by the people on a balmy Saturday night. I recognised myself in the people sitting in circles, engaged in consciousness-raising. As a young person, a lifetime away, I attended marches along George Street demonstrating for the rights of women and Aborigines. Seeing what women have become and what they’ve done with feminism since makes me regret my marching. Very deeply.

But on the 1%/99% divide. Nightingale might be about myth, but it’s about reality. For many, the 1%/99% is a myth in Australia, a mirage borrowed from Occupy Wall Street or the Spanish ‘indignados’ but its manifestation is as real as Mills’ opera within the Australian opera industry or the broader Australian arts community. There is a very heavy irony in the fact that opera is entertainment for the 1% and that the 99% have The Slap, currently on television, to look forward to. Love of The Nightingale and The Slap are incredibly close in subject matter, despite the former being set up as myth and the latter as a ‘real’ depiction of John Howard’s Australia. The Slap would certainly identify with the public relations spiel put out about Nightingale: “Where does violence come from? Why women? When will the voices of victims be heard?” Everyone who takes The Slap seriously will.

I love the serendipity of the Greekness of Nightingale and Slap. Fascinating that our Australian stories are trapped like amber in the Greek experience. Those of us with fractious Macdeonians in our local neighbourhood – the sort who refuse to attend their children’s wedddings when they marry, God forbid, a Greek – identify with Mills’ Thracians. We have heard the ‘rough music’ on Saturday mornings when a traditional wedding is in the offing. A sound which is disappearing as the neighbourhood gentrifies and barbarians are at the gates: sunglassed Skip mothers with toddlers, sunglassed fathers with 4WDs.

Mills says he doesn’t provide answers to the Great Questions. Participants in Occupy Sydney and Occupy Melbourne have no answers; they further confused and confound the media commentators (themselves belonging to the 1% with fashionable North Shore addresses and salaries which contradict their earnest on-camera grimaces) by saying they had no clear agenda. In this world of social media, where everyone is shouting out their own personal messages, to not have an agenda is almost immoral. In shouting, we’ve forgotten how to listen. In being silent, we’ve forgotten how to talk. I’m not sure about Mills resolving his questions by resorting to a vocalise in the final moments of the opera, which metamorphoses into a recorded nightingale. Such a transformation reminded me instantly of Respighi. It verged (for me) on the glib to resort to Nature and the natural, the very same force which human beings were trying to overcome through ‘civilisation’, the base insticints which all the characters in the opera were seeking to rise above. But to end the opera ‘properly’ in the myth context, Mills had few options.

Of course the ‘answer’ to the question in literature is Candide’s weary homecoming to ‘cultivate his garden’. I shouldn’t be so surprised Mills provides no answers because I find no answers either in the battle of gender politics interpretations in Art that I’ve personally been confronted by lately: Anna Banti’s portrayal of Artemisia Gentileschi (the narrator caught up in the Fascist bombing of Florence while she wrestles with her principal artist-character) and all the Artemisia Gentileschi literature that attends it. The Anna Banti literature website where the word “rape” is spelled “rxxx” in order to align it to that other four-letter word. More recently, Driss Chraibi’s novel about women in Morocco (“La civilisation, ma mere!”) – the education sentimentale as the ignorant heroine comes to grip with the geniet in the radio talking to her, going to the movies for the first time, leaving the house for the first time, working things out with her husband who, through an arranged marriage, took her at age thirteen.  Woman as colonised country; male politics performed on the female body. There are no answers in any of these works of story-telling. After my mandatory opera nap yesterday afternoon, I caught snatches of a tv documentary on Singer and Sargent and their depictions of the music hall chanteuses. The age of consent then was thirteen. And don’t get me started on Degas and the hideousness of middle-aged men preying on student ballerinas. We jump up and down about other countries abusing women, but we were doing it ourselves only yesterday.

Myth as subject matter

I’m not sure about the power of telling the myth. Certainly one feels the gravity of the Greek tragedy in the opening scene of the two sisters. I thought Mills treatment of the silence/noise, silence/music dichotomy quite brilliant, tailor-made as it is for music. Just as Anni Banti’s narrator as novelist who has lost her manuscript in the midst of war is forced to re-tell the story, battered as she is by the ‘voice’ in her mind of the artist-character. I like very much the portrayal of the Athenian steretotypical woman as chatty and loquacious, the essence of the character, Philomele: the constant bane of men that women talk about their feelings and emotions.  Tereseus curiously adopts the non-male position at one point of wanting his wife to talk to him, which seemed independent of his having fallen up the spell of Aphrodite, a godly character on a stage. In re-telling the plot here, I’m struck by that same thin tiredness that I associate with early 20th century French drama portraying Greek myths. I liked the play-within-a-play of Act 1 (because it was another twist-and-turn in telling the backstory – and Mills has so much backstory to tell it almost fights against the music and loses) because it reminded me of 18thcentury France: the audience being educated as Monsieur Jourdain is in the Moliere farce, the preoccupation of French composers and dramatists with re-creating Ancient Greek in order to appease their patron Louis XIV. The Love of the Nightingale translates as L’Amour du Rossignol and I’m reminded of nightingales in musical literature: was Francois Couperin aware of the myth? What of Respighi? I’m coming to grips with the French chanson 16th-century Je suis desheritee, which in its second part, talks of the nightingale.

I’m broke, because I lost my friend. He left me, now I’m alone, full of tears and sorrow. Nightingale in the woods go immediately and tell my friend that I’m tormented for his sake. (Trans. by Dick Wursten)

Was it the soundbyte-conditioned part of me to look for key phrases in the libretto, those lines which would go down in opera history? I liked very much the business of keeping quiet and getting on with one’s lot in life. I thought the chorus of Thracian women not helping Procne very interesting. What’s the phrase? “Before women call each other sister, they’ve called each other a lot of other names beforehand.” Women both support each other in the opera and distrust and work against each other. There’s a strong contrast between the two sisters and the reception the first gets from the Thracian women. Silencing the Other. Nothing is clear cut. I thought for an instant that the words “Consume, Obey, Die” – words from the political street poster – were going to be thrown up by the yellow subtitles above our heads. Certainly “Who can resist power?” was excellent – for men it’s irresistible, can’t get enough of it; for women, it’s impossible to fight against. Was the diatribe about power – about rape in city carparks (Anita Cobby was suggested to me) among others – too obvious and explicit at the opera’s end?

A final note on the myth. Audience members behind me mumbled, at the close of the performance as they rose from their seats,  that “it was only a myth”. I’d like to think they were in denial about the relevance of the subject matter to real life and we letting each other off the hook by feeling they could dismiss the whole experience as a fable. I wonder how corporate heavies, those who support opera financially, will come to grips with this opera. Is some subversion, on the side, tolerated? Is Occupy Wall Street or St Paul’s Cathedral tolerated till the northern Winter drives them off the streets?

The Music

Musically the most thrilling moments were at the end. I was prepared for ‘better’ music in the second Act, based on the musical journey provided by Batavia. Not that it’s not engaging throughout, it is. Again, the difficulty of trying to assess music on a single first hearing! I have no idea how Emma Matthews was able to pace herself right until the end with her highest and loudest notes saved till then. I thought the passage near the end of the stuttering vocals, a Monterverdian in gola sound, brilliant in its portrayal of horror and suffering. Reviewers have talked about the maritime quality. Plainly the sea and wind are important to Mills. The staggering horrific spectacle of watching Batavia unfold in the Sydney Opera House was that the set, a giant ship, projected ominously forward at one stage, taking in the borrowed environment, the sails of the Opera House building. We were all in the ship or a ship operating on so many levels. And for many of us the 2009 production of Peter Grimes is still front-of-mind, and before that, Billy Budd – with which the moving floating stages of Nightingale has in common. An opera operates in the context of others performed in the same space and with others with similar themes.


On the question of rape. Yes, I was surprised to receive in the mail a notification to subscribers of rape depicted in Batavia.  It felt like a legal notice. Everyone has an eye to the lawyers like we’ve never done in the past. Mothers have to send in a pack of lawyers to vet the outdoor children’s playground these days. But more to the point, of course watching a depiction of rape performed by human beings is a world away from film violence or television violence. Depiction of violence is all the more interesting currently with television exposure of Northern Territory cattle being shipped to Indonesian abbatoirs compared to the reverse flow of Afghan refugees taking boats with people smugglers to Christmas Island. The Slap is a depiction of rape by any other name and it’s interesting that Mills takes up the issue of violence towards children, of children as pawns in adult gender politics. The newspaper reviews of the opera seem to gloss over the fact that a child was even on stage. We deny ourselves discussion and depiction of violence and rape, just as we silence ourselves on child violence and, for example, paedophilia – something committed in 80% of cases by heterosexuals, most often within the Family Unit (I notice it’s moving from the Nuclear Family Unit, with its connotations of fission and about-to-explode, to Natural Family Unit – where domestic violence, violence against children, rape, etc.  – are all portrayed as ‘natural’, practically ordained by God and certainly sanctioned by the three major religions of the world as something walled up, silent, inside faith, hope and charity).

It’s very regrettable that corporate Australia will probably not witness many of the four Sydney performances of Nightingale; this narrative of myth has been tucked away behind 19th-century opera warhorses where the gender politics is made less obvious (but nevertheless just as present). The 1% will have subsidised and patronised the vehicle by which Nightingale is allowed to sing. Ultimately, though it’s important that these Australian stories are told. I bite my tongue when I hear of colleagues of mine who won’t and haven’t read the Christos Tsiolkas novel but will rely on the television version. Some find it too earnest and over-acted, without perhaps realising how visceral family life outside the Anglo-Saxon majority can be. Moreover, because they are Working Australians they won’t be at home to see the television drama unfold on consecutive Thursday nights, but will rely on a pirated DVD version instead. This may or may not be deferred till ‘whenever’ – they caught the buzz over the water cooler at work, but may never get around to watching it. So I’m not optimistic about either the Nightingale or The Slap messages ‘cutting through’. At $1m/hour, The Slap doesnt’ come cheap; neither does mounting a performance of Nightingale.  

The newspapers reviews, readily available here on the Internet, discuss the plot and who sang in what role. I liked the Narcissus pose of Hippolytus; I liked the regal presence and choreography of Taryn Fiebig as Aphrodite, whose decolletage looked not like she wearing her dress back to front but echoed those multi-mammaried statues of Minoan Crete. Emma Matthews reprised a lot of the super-human energy we saw in La Somnabula. The presence of the child recalled Madama Butterfly.

Reviews elsewhere have commented on individual singers’ performances. What I found very positive was the overall balance between all the singers, reinforcing the action.

A great operatic experience, an opera of our times and for all time.

At the risk of perpetuating stuff and nonsense about John Bull already on the Internet, I thought I’d summarise what I’ve found in trying to flesh out a recent vocal performance, with viols doubling the sung parts, of one of his Dorick Fantasies with the text “Fraile man”. Playing the music was a delight and I’ve been thinking about the context of the piece.

Years of viol playing haven’t cured me of the notion that John Bull is somehow old-fashioned, stiff and wooden, in his non-keyboard music at least. I have to constantly re-adjust my thinking to take in the fact that William Byrd (1539-1623) belonged to the generation before him and that Bull (1562-1628) was a contemporary of John Dowland (1563-1626). The viol music suggests the opposite.

But judging Bull just by his viol music is to overlook the fact that the good Doctor was essentially a keyboard builder, player and composer – his heart and soul plainly resided in the virginals and organ. Either that or when very late in his life he fled England to the Continent (setting up in Antwerp and dying there), his vocal music back home was destroyed or dispersed or purloined by others, leaving us very little.

Research and recordings have concentrated on his keyboard music. References to vocal music, including music for voices and viols, seem fleeting at best. Either there is not a lot of vocal music by him still extant, or it’s of low quality (which seems surprising given his keyboard brilliance) or it’s problematic research-wise.


John Bull’s viol music  and the Dow Partbooks

Some works for viola da gamba are extant: a fantasia previously attributed to Giovanni Coperario (Meyer #7) which turns out to be one the so-called Dorick Fantasias and set as “Fraile man”; a fantasia for three viols (VdGS E 21) in Musica Britannica Vol.IX no.7.

Of personal interest is the In Nomine a5 in the Dow Partbooks; it’s believed to be a work of his apprenticeship; in modern edition, it is in Musica Britannica vol. IX, #50. The Partbooks (1581-1588) correspond to John Bull’s early years, before 1597. In 1578, he became an apprentice to the Earl of Sussex and was appointed in 1582 to organist at Hereford Cathedral. He was never a vicar-choral, but the new cathedral statutes allowed him to combine the posts of organist and master of the choristers, with his time divided between London and Hereford. Whille little is known of his university career, he graduated in 1586, towards the end of the period of the Dow Partbooks. At this time too, he was appointed a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. So the Partbooks include an example of one of the up-and-coming composers of the period and the biographical context provides some flavour of his early involvement with choral music. 

Also dating from John Bull’s early period is his involvement in the Armada thanksgiving celebrations. Marotti and May report two poems by Queen Elizabeth I being set to music for the occasion. Music for the Queen’s first poem (the Queen’s first-person prayer to God to deliver England from the Spanish) occurs among the anthems composed by Bull. From this, it became often performed at the Royal Chapel. The second poem, thanking the Lord for delivering his people and specifically Elizabeth herself from conquest, was set by William Byrd (British Museum, MS Add.31992, fol.43v, of which we have only the incipit with a score in lute tab.


The Dorick Fantasies

I’ve always found these fantasies dark and sombre, but one of them magically came to life with the addition of voices in “Fraile man, despise the treasures of this life”. Now I find out that ‘Doric’ music was invariably defined as solemn theatre music suitable for great personages. A group of ‘Dorian’ pieces appear in Stainer & Bell’s Keyboard Music I: John Bull, vol, XIV.


Manuscript sources

Bull’s keyboard music is preserved in important keyboard collections of the period: the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, Parthenia and so on.

Peter LeHuray in his Music and the Reformation in England 1549-1660 mentions that before leaving England in 1613, Bull had written more than a dozen devotional songs and anthems to English texts. Five of his anthems, all in verse form, being listed in the Chapel Royal anthem book (c.1630) and a further four verse anthems are in pre-Restoration music manuscripts.

I’ve found references to at least two vocal works in the Christ Church musical manuscripts: The Starre Anthem is in Mus.61-66 and his How Joyful and How Glad is in Mus.56-60. LeHuray mentions how popular the first was, the Epiphany Sunday collect and that there is evidence to suggest that it was originally a motet Deus omnipotens or possibly a string fantasia with that title. John Baldwin, the Windsor musician, copied it into his commonplace book in score format leaving the separate parts untexted with the Latin incipit. In the Thomas Myriell books, dated 1616, it appears as a verse anthem for voices and viols, and in two separate versions, one arranged for six singers and instrumentalists. LeHuray also mentions the popularity of another, based on verses from Psalm 38, In Thee O Lord I put my Trust.

A body of Bull’s work exists from his very late years in Antwerp (copied possibly by Guillaume Messaus, GB-Lbl Add 23623) as well as a German organ tablature MS now in Vienna. Apparently the Antwerp MS contains some hymn verses and alleluias attributed to Bull though their authenticity is problematic, given one being known to be by Tallis.


Vocal music, a capella

John Bull apparently contributed to Sir William Leighton’s Teares and Lamentations of a Sorrowul Soule in 1614, including two settings of Attend unto my Tears and an anthem for Passiontide, In the departure of the Lord. They have been praised as “full of beautiful harmony and expressive modulation” and are available in modern SATB editions. Apparently too, one of his own Latin motets, Deus omnipotens, was copied out by John Baldwin; two anthems by him are included in Barnard’s Church Music of 1641. The Baltimore Consort has recorded a piece of his Christmas music: Eebn kindeken is ons geboren.


John Bulls’ choral music involving viols

A modern edition and at least two recordings have been made of one of John Bull’s verse anthems: Almighty God, Who by the Leading of A Starr (also known as The Starre Anthem). Current is the Leonard Pike edition for Novello Tudor Anthems, available with string parts and viol parts. It is said to be the most popular Jacobean verse anthem, occurring in contemporary sources than any other. Why this should be exactly is a mystery to me. It has been recorded by the group Consortium (their CD entitled Verse Anthems) and by the Consort of Voix humaines on ATMA Classique, the CD entitled Rise, O my soul.



Brown, Alan. “Bull, John” in ODNB. A text of the poem in Bodleian Library MS Rawl. poet.23, p.141, is closer to Rhode’s 1605 version than that of 1637. The MS is a mid-17th century anthology of religious verse copied from the songbooks; while it omits the music, it does identify the composers.

Marotti, Arthur and Steven W. May, “Two Lost Ballads of the Armada Thanksgiving Celebration [with texts and illustration]” in English Literary Renaissance, 41/1 (2011).

I’ve said it before, but I feel honoured to be in a position to be exploring the voices/viols literature. As instrumentalists it’s easy for us to shut ourselves in with instrumental versions of choral music. With a lot of ingenuity it’s possible to underlay the Main Singing Part under the remaining parts as well for a whole new experience of optional singing while playing.

I’m currently following up a line of enquiry originating with the Dow Partbooks (Christ Church, Mus, MSS 984-88). Viol players with any experience will be familiar, in one way or another, with the works by the English composers represented in the collection. Given the importance of the anthology, many have probably played the pieces without knowing their origin – just about all have been published in modern editions. The Dow Partbooks are renowned for the clarity of the calligraphy and are an excellent introduction in playing direct from partbooks in terms of the Tudor repertoire; some of us have gained similar insights in playing from facsimiles of the early printed editions of English songs.

I can’t say I’m quite ready to play in consort direct from the Dow partbooks. so I’m leaning on modern editions to give me a context. I was intrigued by the 10% or so of the pieces in the parbooks from Continental Europe: a small number of pieces by Orlando di Lasso, Philippe Van Wilder, Giacomo Fogliano and Vincenzo Ruffo.  There’s also a five-park work (the partbooks are an a5 collection) by an unknown French composer by the name of Jean Maillard or Maillart. Not surprisingly, there are several by this name in France at the time. We have though a picture of a widely-published composer, certainly by the French musical publishing companies of the day (Moderne in Lyons and Attaignant in Paris); his work was also copied out in ultra-Catholic Spain after the French had published him. About a third of his extant motets are for five voices, thus linking him in terms of texture to the Dow partbooks; flourishing about 1538 to 1570 puts him a little before the Dow partbooks were written out in 1551-1588 – the latter date being the time of the Spanish Armada. I’m not confident about why his Ascendo might have ended up in the Dow partbooks, but having looked at Allen Garvin’s modern edition, newly uploaded to Werner Icking’s Music Archive, I like the part writing and I like to think the players of the period would have appreciated the tumbling, rolling happiness of the piece. There is a certain deftness in the use of tied notes and the extended ending, the final bars, fits into a conception of English style. it starts well for English players enamoured of church bells, and ends well: those two things already put in a preferred class of music. In order to get greater familiarity with the musical conventions used by Dow, I have to know compare Garvin’s edition with the original partbook.

Regarding the text of Ascendo in Patrem (the Dow partbooks are textless), I’ve found that used by Palestrina in 1609:

Ascendo ad patrem meum et patrem vestrum, alleluia.

Deum meum et Deum vestrum, alleluia.

Et dum assumptus fuero a vobis mittam vobis Spiritum veritatis

et gaudebit et gaudebit cor vestrum, alleluia.

Ego rogabo Patrem et alium Paracletum dabit vobis

Spiritum veritatis et gaudebit et gaudebit cor vestrum, alleluia.

The Maillard piece certainly reflects the joy of this text. Harmonically it’s not overly brave, but the interplay of parts, the solid part-writing is fetching.


In me transierunt, a4

One of my next tasks is to look at this four-part work by Mailalrd, edited in a modern edition from a German anthology (they seemed to have liked Maillard beyond France). The edition has text underly for all the parts:

Dignare me laudare te

Domine salvum fac

In me transierunt

Praeparate corda vestra.


Missa Je suis desheritee

Also, in a rather different vein, I’ve looked today at one of his masses, this one mainly in four parts (though some sections it drops to two). The Agnus Dei starts in four parts (section 1) but finishes in six (an extra bass is added, for example, and there’s a lot of imitation between the two bass parts). Judging from the Rosenstock edition, Institute of Mediaeval Studies (Ottawa, Canada), if the music was put up on a music stand with no indication that it came from a Mass 9e.g. with the original French text underlay of the chanson from which it was developed), players would think it merely a somewhat elaborate song. It needs to go at a sunny, reasonably brisk pace. I need to have a look at the Kyrie. Different commentators point to different sections of this mass as close to the original chanson, leaving me a bit confused. The Agnus Dei has however left me with a clear notion of the melodic line of the original song. I need to look at more chanson-derived Masses – the music certainly seems to be more “popular” than “religious”.

The text of the original chanson goes as follows:

             Je suis déshéritée,

Puisque j’ai perdu mon ami.

Seullet’ il m’a laissée,

Pleine de pleurs et de souci.

Rossignol du bois joli,

Sans point faire demeurée,

Va t‘en dire à mon ami

Que pour lui suis tourmentée.

And here’s an English translation by Dick Wursten,

I’m broke,

because I lost my friend.

He left me, now I’m alone,

full of tears and sorrow.

Nightingale in the woods

go immediately

and tell my friend’

tha I’m tormented for his sake.

I’ve been attending these sessions regularly this year on the basis that I can expect manageable sight-reading, as well as the support provided by more than one instrument on any given line. My big love is playing up to singers; the voice makes the string lines come alive.

What I keep underestimating is what I learn about the music and the sheer power of this specific type of musical experience. Every session always seems to far exceed expectations. Each session builds on the next, so it’s an ever more powerful hit or high.

While turning up is important and giving one’s best at the time works to the common good, I’ve been depriving myself of the full benefits on offer. They’ve become a minimal foot-in-the-door for my viol playing, but  I need to practice before the day, look more closely at the texts and think more about appropriate tempi and bowing – in a word, honouring what’s put before me a bit more.

I’m on Cloud Nine still, several days after the weekend’s run-through of works, on this occasion more from the Baroque. I’m re-living the moments by turning to clips on YouTube.

One of the wonderful things about this group is that it’s full of surprises, no two sessions are exactly the same, making it a wonderful kaleidoscope of musical experiences. I know that sounds like a cliche, but you’d think with more or less the same lineup each session, things would be predictable. Today’s three little wonders: lacking our lute, an organ was substituted (good for Baroque); in addition to our lineup of female singers, a countertenor (a whole new sound world), and thirdly no less than ten viols – a proper little viol orchestra (this happens, outside Easter Viol School, perhaps once a decade?).

While blessed with the singers who turn up to endure somewhat raggedy viol playing on occasion, the countertenor presented a totally different tone colour to the singing that we’ve been used to. Viol bowing changed dramatically depending on who was singing and how they sung.

John Bull, “Fraile man”, vocal overlay to his Dorick Fancy No.1

The ten viols provided a full, rolling sound which took me by surprise, made even more magnificent by the addition of voices. A somewhat faint and tricky viol piece (it’s hard to put John Bull’s style into words, apart from it being very much at odds with others like Byrd and Taverner or Tye) was transformed into something quite unexpected; a lot of the harmonic shifts became more pronounced and the full beauty of the writing became much more obvious.

Johnson, “Defiled is my name”

A change in style and mood obviously. Though lighter overall than the Bull, it had pointed moments of resignation and pathos.

Leopold I, Il virtu della cruce. Bass recit and aria, “Ah, peccato…” and Soprano aria, “Spera, spera”

I did take time to look briefly at the lyrics before the session: sinful, lethal monstrous Averno (entrance to the Underworld as indicated by Virgil) certainly sets the scene. The highly wrought poetry escapes me somewhat, apart from the hubris of Man trying to outshine God, Man stripping off Glory and God doing likewise, taking it off as well. A great introduction to the sepolcro style. Our singers took turns with the aria and this really allowed the viols to change their approach to fit each voice.

Vivaldi, Mundi rector and Somno profondo

Having spent a lot of time earlier this year looking at Juditha from a literary perspective (Anna Banti’s Artemisia and that circle of books written as part of her revival), visiting the drama in the musical dimension was very powerful for me.  The Mundi rector can appear easy, almost flippant. Taken too slowly or too fast and a lot of its subtlety gets lost. It comes across more as a player’s piece than one for the audience. We kept it reasonably slow and pensive which worked for me, though as someone suggested it has to go at one-in-the-bar. Too fast though and it becomes too fluffy. I thought we did well with it.

Our singers took turns with the Somno. Viols imitated and supported the different voices and their timbres in different ways: short and spikey and terrified for the soprano, mor growly/torn up/distracted/foreboding for the countertenor. The writing for the treble viols was in the stratosphere (including a single D) but was very manageable after two or three goes. You get the feeling Vivaldi wasn;’t challenging the viol players so much technically that the overall effect might suffer. A lot depends on the contrast everyone is able to make with the middle section of the da capo aria – not especially easy or obvious here. Creating colour around the octave leaps in the treble viols is very influential on the whole emotional impact.

Days after, I’m sitting here re-living the afternoon through YouTube filmclips: the Venice Baroque Orchestra (with cellos providing added fullness) and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur/Modo Antiquo (great middle section by soprano Anna Hallenberg), all true to the haunting (sometimes to the point of screeching, but nicely!) gambas.

A natural extension to the sepolcro and the Vivaldi would be his Cum dederit (Nisi Dominus). I know it unfortunately rubs hard up against the parameters and voices and viols, but I’d certainly like to hear viols substitute for viols and to hear our singers give it a go. On the YouTube performances, it’s interesting to compare the Malgloire and Alessandrini versions with Paul Dyer’s especially in the treatment of the string accompaniment.

Buxtehude, two sopranos and six viols. Laudate Pueri.

A move away from the Venetian, I really enjoyed playing Treble II especially in those bits where it breaks away from the first treble. The top string parts contrast gloriously well with the singers. There are several recordings on YouTube which demonstrate different approaches that can be taken: a nice one by the Ricercar Consort, another with Emma Kirkby and Fretwork (includes Great Dooble bass and organ, faster with more clipped dotted notes, a more golden sound in the viols and tuned higher than the Ricercar Consort’s). Our version came closest to the one given by the Buxtehude Consort (with organ and cello added to the viols) with its rich, full singing, and longer at 6min 42secs.

An exceptional afternoon’s music.

I ought not dismiss yesterday as a complete failure. At the very least, I’ve discovered:

* Jean Maillard (“T.Dies”), Ascendo. A nice bright and bouncy piece to be taken at a goodly tempo for five viols without words. Some motets for 4+ voices published by A&R. 

* Anon. In terrors trapp’d. Need to check out Musica Britannica vol.22 and compare with partbooks.

* William Byrd, If women could be fair. Another bouncy tune of engaging complexity (cross-rhythms based on 6/2) from the master.

* William Byrd, Deus venerunt gentes. The Dow Partbooks include the Tercia pars (“Effuderunt”) of this extended piece for five voices.