John Ward, Fantasies a4

July 12, 2013

Up on my music stand today is the treble part of the PRB edition of John Ward’s Six Fantasias for Four Viols. These are the “Oxford” fantasias, scored for trTTB. Many years ago, I managed to play some delightful four-part Ward fantasies as background music for a public reception, but these were not they. They couldn’t have been – the ones played on that occasion were accessible.

I regard playing through these by myself as training for viol playing in the Next Life. Just as Rugby Union is considered by many as the game they play in Heaven, I’m sure John Ward’s viol fantasies are the music one listens to in Heaven. I doubt I’ll ever get to play any of the six-part fantasies in this lifetime because it’s simply too hard to get six viol players in the one room.  However, I can get a very clear idea of what Ward sounds like from the recordings of the five- and six-part consort pieces by the Consort of Musicke and Phantasm. My tackling the individual parts of the four-part fantasies means they are as equally beyond my reach as the six-part because the four-part pieces never been recorded, not even by amateurs on YouTube.

No recordings and no likelihood of ever playing the ‘complete’ thing makes for pretty grim stuff. What’s worse, as editor Virginia Brookes notes, these look like mature works, “with more extreme chromaticism, a greater sense of key relationship and much agile, specifically instrumental writing”. They appear, certainly on paper, to be far more difficult than the six-part works.

A safe bet in tackling these is to consider them as technical practice: getting finger agility by isolating particular themes, rather than trying to understand the whole. And playing them extremely slowly.

So, in practising these for the Next Life, I note the following:

Fantasia a4 no.1 in G minor. Very good practice for playing ascending scales in this key. From b.35, there are the characteristic demisemiquaver ‘ornaments’ to contend with.

Fantasia a4 no.2 in C minor. Again, very good practice for dashing at speed between strings with all the incidentals inherent in the key.

Fantasia a4 no.3  in Dminor(-ish). Treble 1 starts off this Fantasia so it really sets the mood as well as the tempo. Dotted demisemiquavers (bb.18-19) mean it should be light but not too fast.

Fantasia a4 no.4 in A minor: By now, the common features of Ward are shining through – curly scalar runs of semiquavers. A characteristic homophony/”choral” section in bb.15-20 contrasts wildly with the following imitative scraps to the cadence at p.28.

Fantasia a4 no.5 in A minor: Yet more ascending scale passages with frightening leaps between strings.

Fantasia a4 no.6 in C. Treble 1 starts the piece. The opening theme has octave leaps. Watch for the demisemiquaver run in b18!

This lively music, full of twists and turns, looks terribly off-putting. What keeps me going is the memory of the soaring melodies and curtains of harmonies recalled from hearing the six-part Fantasies played by the experts!
ward a4 fantasies PRB


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.

John Ward, Six Airs for two bass viols & keyboard. Dove House Editions, Canada. Ed. Donald Beecher and Brian Gillingham. Viola da gamba series no.5

No.6 in d is in two sections of eight bars each. One needs to adjust initially to jumping from low to high tessitura in their own part, then making the jumps seamless, making the whole come together musically as a whole.  Ward has kept the jumping-around quite predictable – you’re in the limelight for 2-2.5 bars, then you drop back. Obviously one alternates parts at the repeats. Tempo not too fast, otherwise the quaver runs towards the cadences sound cramped. Much can be made of the rhetorical question-and-answer structure I think. And of course it’s an air or ayre, so the top line needs to ‘sing’ a bit more than normal.

I can’t over-emphasise the points about this music so wonderfully put by the editors in their introduction. Absolutely essential reading on gaining a deep appreciation for what’s going on here.

The organ part is by Ward himself, not a realisation by an editor. Not that anyone actually plays with a chamber organ or harpsichord. Mark Caudle dares to record his bass viol duets with accompaniment – I’ve never seen this in real life though. Partly because having viol players in the same room as an A415 chamber organ is such a remote possibility, partly because the viol players would feel it ‘wasn’t quite right’… I mean, have you ever heard of amateurs playing Jenkins with organ accompaniment?