coperario fantasia a4 no2

On the music stand today is the bass part of the Coperario Fantasia a4 no.2 in a. The main reason I like Coperario is that his style is very vocal and not overly cerebral. He demands the viol adopt a very vocal quality; the playing has to imitate the voice. Grounded in the Renaissance vocal style, it’s quite different from the later ‘instrumental’ style characteristic of John Jenkins or William Lawes. Subsequently, there’s a tendency then to consider his work quite light and unsubstantial and superficial, which is unjustified in my opinion. Like a lot of viol consort music, Coperario’s work is “intermittently impressive”. The structure of Coperario’s fantasias differs quite a lot from the later Jenkins’. There is no slow build to a climax. Rather, Coperario orders his fantasias around half-a-dozen vocal-like themes, roughly “equal” from beginning to end.

Unlike Coperario’s fantasias in five- and six-parts, the seven four-part fantasias bear no Italian titles.

In terms of tempo, this fantasy revolves around the third theme (bb.21-25) which is a choppy one using semiquavers, quite at odds with the other themes. The French consort L’Acheron plays this fantasy on YouTube and they’ve stressed the “searching” quality of the vocal lines – the opening sounds tentative (in a good way) but the tempo is maintained to the end so, to my mind, the potential for aural colour is diminished somewhat. For example, the brilliant rising “sunshine” of bar 19 in 20 sounds laboured. Mind you, The way they interpret the “semiquaver” Theme 3 is as if they are temporarily “shaking off” an increasingly encroaching, cloying melancholy. This is followed by the boppy crochets to bar 37. Theme 4 starting in b.37 is an entirely different mood – Coperario moves around ’emotionally’ quite a lot!

With an ambit tempo in mind, what’s required next is to clearly identify the five separate themes, starting bars (in the bass) 5, 13, 21, 37, (b.44 is a repeat/variation of theme 4) and 51, I have to play each theme as a single phrase, more or less. Almost all start with a pull bow and this is particularly the case in the leaps of a fourth – see bb.27 and 34. Apparently this is common for English fantasias of 1600-1625: start with a very melodic “point”, respond to it in imitation in the other instruments and move, after cadences, through four or five contrasting musical sections to a final cadence.

These themes are often quite short: much more ‘distinct’ than in other composers. Players don’t have to wait ages while their colleagues introduce the themes, as is the case with French imitators like Moulinie and LeJeune.

It’s important to note where the cadences fall. For example, there’s a cadence (in the bass part again) on the first beat of bar 21, so the following three notes need to be quieter yet decisive because they underpin the start of Theme 3. The same thing happens in b.37: the bottom A marks a cadence, while the A an octave above in the next note is the (strong) start of Theme 4. Theme 5 (bar 51) is a lovely bell-like downwards scale, a lovely way to finish.

Coperario is “difficult” for consort players because, as amateurs, we tend to play our parts more at less at the same volume throughout. What should happen of course, and this is particular the case with Coperario, is that each of us “sings out” as we introduce or re-state the theme on our instruments, then “fall off” as our colleagues enter with the theme. This fairly frenetic  give-and-take in volume is quite demanding but creates a much more energetic performance: they are largely sung madrigals played on instruments, after all.

I commend L’Acheron’s performance to anyone interested in how Coperario can be interpreted – and frankly their other masterly performances (Byrd, Locke) available on the Net. Theirs is one of the few performances of any Coperario a4 ever put into the public domain.


John Coprario, Fantasias of Four Parts. Edited by George Hunter. Northwood Music, JC-4.