Rare & Wondrous – consort playing session

January 18, 2010

Viol consort playing has its own peculiar risks in January and February, with mid-summer extremes of heat and humidity. Today’s four-hour session produced playing that was a shade on the ordinary side, somewhat rushed if anything, but the repertoire for trtrTTB was unusual and challenging. By the time afternoon tea came along, we were all quite ready for the Cabernet-Merlot and coffee on offer. I think the room is ideally better suited to a quartet than a quintet; we were all a bit playing over each other. I was separated again from the other treble which meant I felt a bit like drowing-not-waving. The lush deep sound is intense and velvetty. Not to complain though – these are Distract’d Times for me and the Viol Consort is a great Refuge – , these sessions are rare and wondrous!


Amner(*). Pavan a5. Cambridge Consorts. Really very good. I ought to have got us to play a final chord before starting since the tuning of my top string on Treble 1 can sour the exerpience if it’s a shade flat, as it was here. Shades of Tomkins’ severity as well as Gibbons’ openness in this music.

Mogens Pederson(#). Two Pavans a5. His only works for viol consort. From the Cambridge Consort collection. Good characterful writing!

Picforth. In nomine a5. At least one In nomine per session seems to be part of the action these days. Each part played a separate rhythm, but in addition each part plays the same rhythm continuously from start to finish. So Tr1 played crochets throughout, Tr2 played a dotted crochet syncopation, T played the whole-note-to-the-bar In Nomine part, B1 played minims and B2 played dotted minims. It sounded all the world like a 20th-century minimalist piece; both trebles tried the syncopation but the tactus was impossible to grab hold of (with every second bar starting on the main pulse) – or at least not easily heard with the others. One immediately started wondering exactly what bowing might make it more interesting. Obviously a 16thc teaching piece for choir boys learning viol and musical rhythms, but thoroughly engaging. Anticipated Fretwork might have included this one on their anthology, In Nomine (CD, Amon Ra SAR 29) but it’s not there. I would have been interested in their phrasing and tempo and creating viable structure.

Jenkins. Fantasy no.1 a5. We eventually did this justice. Heavy duty bass parts. The three-part structure was clear enough, but the aural differences between them were not. I need to know this aurally to do justice to the bowing in the treble parts and have a much better feel for the flow of phrases. Given the technical difficulty in playing the piece, it’s difficult to stand back and appreciate the structure, but in terms of my own strategy in conquering it there’s obviously two big chunks to contend with: bb.1-26 based on a Point essentially in Gmajor starting with a rising perfect fifth. Bars 27-55 start off in Cmaj and end up in Gmajor via a falling motif, more tender and langorous than the very confident initial theme. Perhaps not langorous exactly but certainly more considered and introverted, in contrast to the earnest extrovert nature of the start. The ‘knottiest’ bit is where Jenkins becomes extremely complex in his cascades of close imitation in bb.19-26. I guess once this small section is understood and appreciated and tackled without too much angst, then the sections on either side fall into place. Jenkins is extremely clever in the positioning of his fugal entries and I guess really good consorts are able to control and vary the volume to bring out everyone’s individual entries and the “shimmers” across all parts, e.g. bb.18-19 from top to bottom, and the rising tension in the fugue from bottom to top in bb.32-35. 

Hingeston. Fantasy and Corant from a Suite a5. A remarkable lot of rests in the Tr parts of the fantasy; I was busier counting six bars of rest at a time than actual playing. Not a bad sound though, obviously later in style than the normal consort compositions. Surprisingly problematic editing in the Tenor part (only) where whole sections are noted with repeat signs; will have to make allowances for this in future since it’s a bugbear with counting bars.

Vincentino – as in the maker of early keyboards.  Canzon a sonar “Bella” a5. Quite nice with tricky dotted rhythms.

Ward. Fantasy a5 Dolce languir. Apparently made famous by the Dolmetsch family a hundred years ago. We got the discordant middle section terribly terribly wrong the first time, but it evened itself out reasonably quickly. I really like Ward; either that or we tend to understand him. We always eventually make a good fist of Mr Ward – a great pity my sheet music doesn’t match up with my recordings.

Dumont. An Allemande a5 I think, as a replacement for a Byrd which some of us would have liked, had we gone into Extra Time.

(*) Answers.com provides the following biographical information. (b Ely, bap. 24 Aug 1579; d there, bur. 28 July 1641). English composer. From a family with connections with Ely Cathedral he was informator choristarum at Ely from 1610 until his death. He studied at Oxford (BMus 1613) and graduated MusB of Cambridge in 1640. A contemporary of Gibbons and Tomkins, he wrote mainly English service music and anthems (mostly MS, some in Sacred Hymnes, 1615). His early pieces are simple and syllabic; later he used more intricate verse-anthem and polyphonic choral styles showing his skill in matching text with music. He also wrote a Pavan and Galliard for viols and keyboard variations.

(#) Naxos’ website gives the following biographical information. Christian IV’s vicekapelmester or Deputy Master of the Royal Chapel, Mogens Pedersøn is the first composer in the history of Danish music from whom we have a large, collected body of work, and about whom we have, if not a complete biography, at least a number of items of biographical information. In addition – and crucially – he emerges as a composer of international format, perhaps the most significant Danish composer before the breakthrough of bourgeois musical culture in Denmark in 1800 with names like Kunzen, Schultz, Weyse and others. Finally, he is the earliest Danish composer whose music has been the object of detailed musical analysis. Although he did not hold the very highest musical post at the court of Christian IV, he was the most important Danish composer at the court and a composer whose light does not dim in comparison with the many big names who had been brought in from abroad. The first time we hear of Mogens Pedersøn is in 1599 when, as a young apprentice in the King’s cantori, he was sent on a one-year study trip to Venice accompanied by the fifteen-year-older Melchior Borchgrevinck, who had already by that time achieved a certain status among the King’s musicians, and who was later to rise rapidly in the hierarchy until, in 1618, he reached the top as the King’s kapelmester – incidentally the same year as his presumed former pupil Mogens Pedersøn became vicekapelmester. The study period of the Danes with Gabrieli in Venice was the start of a succession of such visits to the Venetian master, making him almost the permanent tutor for talented Danish composers at the court of Christian IV. Just five years after coming home in 1605, Mogens Pedersøn again went to Venice, this time to stay there for four years. In 1608, his first book of 21 madrigals was published. In the course of his last year in Venice Mogens Pedersøn may have met another composer who was later to win European fame, for in that year Heinrich Schütz too was studying in Venice. He too had published a collection of madrigals, and Pedersøn and Schütz may well have wandered around along the canals of Venice eagerly discussing some difficult detail in one of Gabrieli’s exercise madrigals. Many years later, when Schütz came to Copenhagen, Pedersøn had long since died. Just two years after his return from Venice, Mogens Pedersøn was again sent out into the world, this time with his fellow composers Jacob Ørn and Hans Brachrogge to England. It is unlikely that this was for training – perhaps it was rather to make contact with the King’s sister, Queen Anne, who was married to the English King James I, and who perhaps missed a little Danish conversation and culture. There is some suggestion that Pedersøn worked there on his previously promised second book of madrigals. At all events we find a source with ten Pedersøn madrigals, copied by an English convict, dated 1611 with an added remark that this was a kind of second collection of Magno Petreio Dano. Safely returned from England, Mogens Pedersøn must have gradually risen through the ranks of the musicians, for in 1618, when Melchior Borchgrevinck’s work as kapelmester had grown too much for him, the King decided to appoint a deputy chapelmaster to relieve him, and Mogens Pedersøn became the first to hold this office, the duties of which are meticulously recorded in a Royal licence dated 6th February 1618 – he held the post until his early death in 1623. Mogens Pedersøn’s principal work, which is also a major work of Danish musical history, was printed in Copenhagen in 1620 under the poetic title Pratum Spirituale (“The Spiritual Meadow”). The collection consists of 21 Danish hymns in five-part settings, a mass in five parts, three Latin motets and a number of Danish and Latin choral responses. The collection was intended for use by the professional choirs in the larger churches, and parts of it provide evidence that in the Danish church, almost a century after the Reformation, there was still room in the liturgy for certain remnants of Catholicism. Performances in concerts in our own time and recordings on CD show that the pieces in Pratum Spirituale are fully up to the standard of better known composers of the age in the rest of Europe. It shows Mogens Pedersøn as the master he is.


I can’t say my week of choral singing improved my playing, but may have subtly improved sight-reading and holding my own line. Convinced more than ever that this has to be my Jenkins year, when I become fully conversant, at least aurally, with the consorts a5 and a6. I won’t feel happy about trying to join The Other Consort in town – now playing on Saturdays instead of late on Friday nights – unless I’m on top of my Jenkins. Same goes for Easter Viol School, for which it is pre-requisite.


2 Responses to “Rare & Wondrous – consort playing session”

  1. Allen Garvin Says:

    I love the Picforth In Nomine! But it is very hard to play the second treble. I’m pretty good at keeping my place, but part of that piece is tricky if you lose your place even once. In the single manuscript source of the piece, it’s notated with a major prolation time signature, with everyone else in minor prolation.

    Fretwork does have a recording of it, but more recent than the early In Nomine album. It was on their “Hidden Face” album. It has a very fetching final section, with a single viol playing the cantus firmus while the others play their parts in pizzicato.

    Also, ugh, Dumont. If he wrote anything particularly musical, I haven’t seen it.

    • rodbyatt Says:

      Glad to hear someone out there appreciates the Picforth In Nomine!
      Trust Fretwork not to shy away from it and do something wonderful with, to boot.
      I’m the first to admit Dumont is an acquired taste, never seems to work completely when I’m playing it and probably requires the presence of a theorbo to pull it all together.

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