Viola da Gamba – Bass duets: William White, Fantasia no.2

April 14, 2009

Source: Dove House Editions, Canada. Jenkins, Whyte & Coleman: four duos, 2 bass viols VDGS-14. 1980

William Whyte isn’t a name that is front-of-mind when comes to top composers for the viol; words like “useful”, “four-square”  and  “teaching pieces” are more likely to come to mind. But one must be grateful, especially given the relatively small number of unaccompanied viol duets that have come down to us, compared to 4,5 and 6-part consort music.  I’m not aware of anyone performing or recording works by White, a ‘singing man’ who worked in the first four decades of the 17th century.  Editor Don Beecher mentions his having sung at Elizabeth’s funeral and there is a strong vocal character in this particular Fantasia. There is also much of the character in his music of Tomkins,  of whose circle he was very likely a member.

This 39-bar Fantasia for is one of two in this anthology taken from a manuscript collection c1640, comprising all the unaccompanied viol duets of the period, featuring the well-known Gibbons, Mico, Jenkins, as well as the ‘also-rans’: Whyte and Coleman. The piece comes down to us relatively error-free, so there is no heavy editing.
Tempo will be set by the quaver runs towards the end. For me, the work is a fantasy in three sections, though unlike other similar consort pieces there is no final section in a different time signature, no double bar lines marking off sections.  There is no use of chords and no attempt at creating the air of other than two voices – the Coleman fantasies also have this characteristic. What we have instead is the chaste simplicity of two ‘pure’ vocal lines.

Section A (bb.1-10) relies on long drawn-out notes, moving from concord to discord back to concord. I envisage this as a teaching piece starting with a focus on creating long, beautiful notes. The relatively straightforward descending scale passages to my mind need to sound bell-like.

Section B (bb.11-26) features crochets with leaps of fifths and octaves, introducing the technical ability to cross strings effectively.

Section C (bb27-39) doubles the note values agaim, with quaver runs giving way to dotted rhythms which can’t be rushed- their insistent urgency (bb.30-34 inclusive) must imitate a phrase from an Italian madrigal.

A useful, four-square teaching piece.


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