On John Ward’s Ayres for two bass viols and keyboard

January 26, 2010

John Ward (1591?-1638?), Six Airs for Two Bass Viols & Keyboard. Edited by Donald Beecher & Brian Gillingham. Dove House Editions, Canada, Viola da gamba series no.5.

Donald Beecher in his introduction to this Canadian edition discusses the relationship between these duets and the lute song with strong rhythm and conceived in measured phrases culminating in short repeated sections.

I’ve decided to deconstruct the fourth air. The first of the six is an extended piece, with longer melodies and no repeated sections. The other ayres are set out in two, short repeated sections. No.4 has a first section of 10 bars and a second section of 7 bars. Typical of the bass duets of the period (that is, the early part of the 17th century in England), the bass viols alternate every few bars between the ‘melody’ and the ‘bass line’. In my deconstruction, I’ve differentiated clearly between the melody and the bass line played by the solo viols.

The first section of the air is in ten bars. The first melodic subject, here simplified, is a routine four bars in length. So I’ve truncated the response to that melodic subject down to four bars to match it. The base line is reduced to its harmonic foundation:

Next, I retained the simplified melody line and upgraded the bass line to reflect the one provided by Ward.

But Ward didn’t compose a standard 8-bar dance-like melody split in half. He expanded the second section with an extra two bars. Here I’ve simplified the bass line back to its basics and similarly simplified the melody as well. I personally find the additional two bars a bit clunky, but I’m trying to better understand the composition process.

I’ve developed the melody line a little more, including more half-notes. Also I’ve upgraded the bass to reflect what Ward wrote.

Further, I’ve upgraded the melody line to reflect even more closely what Ward composed.

This process of deconstruction has added to my appreciation and understanding of Ward’s compositional process. Plainly, Ward further enriches this basic structure by introducing more rhythmic variety, adding dotted rhythms, as well as fragmenting the melody and bass lines, splitting them between the two bass viols.

The organ part reinforces the harmony, e.g. providing a Dmajor chord on the final bar of both sections, and provides an additional melody over the top of the solo basses in the treble clef tessitura.

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