On Martha Bishop, Weeping Viols

January 26, 2010

Martha Bishop, Weeping Viols. June 2006, for three viols: T/B, T/B and B. Available on the Pacific NorthWest Viols website.

Unlikely to ever either hear this live or play it, I copied it out in NoteWorthy Composer today to hear out it would sound and to get a firmer understanding of the compositional structure.

It’s a relatively short lyric for three low viols. It resembles a traditional English viol fantasy, with its strong cadence and fermata over the rest in bar 23 marking off a first section ending in complex counterpoint, and a strong finale from bar 38 to the end, worked over a descending chromatic scale over two octaves, starting in bar 35.

The first section establishes a strong sense of the key of Gminor with a duet in the two lower viols. The third viol has  a rest for four bars. This structure is similar to that opening the second section, the four bars from bar 24, except there the ‘duet’ is in the two two viols. The three viols enter in a 5/4 time signature passage in bar 5 and this time signature features again in bars 28-30.

There is a strong melody line from bar 9 in the top viol which becomes chromatic from bar14. The writing becomes more complex from a 5/4 section starting 14 with a long descending chromatic scale passage ending in bar17 for the middle part. This strong chromatic descent is very similar to that of the lowest viol from bar 35 to the end also. 

There is a lot of melodic invention amid the harmonic complexity; I noticed only one melodic fragment repeated – middle part, bar 4 and again top part bar. 27. There is some rhythmic play with triplets in bars 17-22 and triplets are echoed though more briefly later in bar 37.

There is something dark and inexorable about the descending chromatic passages throughout, magnified by the Largo tempo indication, all amplifying the Weeping Viols of the title.

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