Simon Ives, Bass viol duet – no.9

February 5, 2010

We know Simon Ives as a minor English composer of the seventeenth century, born 1600 and died 1662, which puts him smack in the middle of the Jacobean and Caroline periods. His music was perpetuated in the music collection of Playford, for example, and we know he composed vocal and instrumental music. His Ayres for two bass viols (British Library Add MS 31424) are important for those of us interested in bass viol music, and especially music for two unaccompanied bass viols. I’ve previously referred to the likes of Michael East and John Ward in this regard, with links to similar duets accompanied by organ, as in the case of Coperario.

 So what are the characteristics of this music that appeal to viol players? Viol players like eighth-note runs of short motive imitation, moments contrasting with chordal passages, with passages in thirds to jolly things along. Ives works to this pattern, commencing his ayres with fluid melodies broken up into very short imitative passages and contrasting them with a second repeated section (the structure being most often AABB) with strident chords. As with John Ward, Ives “splits” the melody and bass lines, so players swap them between themselves every few bars. From an aural perspective, it sounds (or is supposed to sound) like a vocal-like, lute song. In practical terms of course, the players are in fact darting from melodic fragment to supporting bass line: hence the challenge or ‘conceit’ of playing these duets. To add to the fun, and we’re talking here about music-making as primarily social, players would swap parts at every repeat.  Players and composers alike obviously took pleasure in ‘working at’ their music; there is no room for complacency or predictability. The pieces are incredibly short as a consequence, few longer than 20 measures, so it is all about short sprints to a finish line rather than considered, drawn-out ‘conversation’ between many voices as in viol consorts. Obviously players will have paid very close attention to their quaver run passage and ‘eased up’ at the chords and double-stops, a sort of psychological stop-start pressure-on pressure-off effect. 

We know Ives wrote tablature music, so it’s not surprising that these duets feature chords and double-stops. Unlike tab though, these duets feature no ornaments. The transferability of ornamentation from tablature lyra-viol music to these duets and consort music in general is of course the subject of conjecture. Is Ives after the suavite of melodic line (short as they are in this case) over complex ornamentation? Certainly on the face of it, there can be little difference – and here I’m thinking about intended audiencces and performances – between playing duets as lyra-viols and playing these duets (aside of course from the fact that tab and lyra-viol are associated with alternate tunings).

I’ve “flattened out” number 9 from the set, so that the melody line appears in one stave and the bass in the other. Basically the A Section of Ayre No.9 is in a simple 8 bars, while the B Section pushes the imitation a bit more and runs out to thirteen bars or so. Both sections start with a crochet upbeat, as is the case with Ayre no.8. Ayre No.8 looks almost identical, but in that one he has included three and five-note chords, not used at all in no.9. If you’re wondering, Ayre no.7 is something straight out of the helter-skelter ‘running’ style of Michael East and No.3 is an extended piece closer to the style of a consort fantasy, with lots of imitation (including scale passages in dotted notes) to measure 50, with a tirumphalist ‘slow’ finale section of white-note chords for a further ten bars.



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