Music for two bass viols and organ

December 30, 2009

John Coprario, Twelve Fantasias for two bass viols and organ, and eleven pieces for three lyra viols. Edited by Richard Charteris. Madison: A-R Editions. Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, vol. 41.

Okay, so these fantasies are for two bass viols, but the organ seems to be required since it fills out the harmonies, and since Coprario is playing around with major and minor key colourings in each of these pieces, the organ seems pretty indispensable.

Most experienced consort players would rather be playing Jenkins, Lawes or Purcell than Coprario. For some, he’s a bit too daggy and a bit too ‘vocal’. Too much of the mad-wriggle and not enough of the pure abstract instrumental.  I however could play Coperario till kingdom come, but that’s just me.  The 5-part consorts are the most familiar to us and I think he has important things to say. I keep coming back to Illicita cosa, with its forbidden tritones, as recorded by the New York Consort of Viols as a bridge between Renaissance and contemporary viol music on the CD of the same name. It’s enormously challenging to get viols to sound like voices and when not playing Monteverdi, Coperario is the one to experiment with.

What has put me off for ages about these pieces (and they vary in length from 70 to 90 bars) is Coperario’s going off the deep end, above the frets on the top string. Sooner or later, one has to come to grips with the Higher Octave, those scale passages from top A last fret to D, so here’s one’s chance. You only stay up there for a phrase or two and one could chicken out by playing an octave lower, though that seems to be missing the point somewhat. It’s a big like John Catch advocating beginner viol players tackle the Fmin scale as their first: get going with the hard stuff and everything after that looks easy.

However,  there are at least three, nos. 7, 8 and 12, which do not feature the Call of the Soprano. At just 77 bars or four pages (the A-R Editions are full scores), No.7 (RC 87) is the most accessible. I’ve included the incipit to show how important the organ is in establishing major/minor as well as the brooding imitation in the viols.

There is the close imitation of short motives one expects both from Coperario and the fantasia. Both 7 and 8 are in Gmin/maj and 12 is in Amin/maj. Apart from exploring drifting between major and minor, I think Mr Cooper seems to be exploring tessitura and creating a lot of fun for us by so doing. I’m not aware of any other composers for viol of this time featuring the Top Octave, his dates being c1575 to 1626. At least in England. Italians would have brought over the virtuosity of the bastarda style and all that jumping around the instrument. At a deeper level,  I have enormous respect for composers who push the boundaries and exploit the outer ends of any instrument’s sound potential, whether they be Bach or Chopin or Scarlatti on keyboard, or Marais or Coprario on viol.

These pieces are such ‘Basic Units’ that I’m not aware of them ever having been recorded much, except for a YouTube clip made by Ernst Stolz, Den Haag, in April. He recorded the first one in Amaj/min against a very strong, silvery-sounding organ. The impact of the top octave can be held around the 2minute mark. For the record, one was recorded on LP: Anthony Rooley’s Consort of Musicke, L’Oiseau-Lyre, LP DSLO 511, Coprario, Songs of Mourning, Consort Music.

Apart from the games with tessitura and modality, there is no great rhythmic virtuosity and no great showing-off in these pieces, just that nice mellow plainness one associates with Coperario.

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