John Coprario, Twelve Fantasias for two bass viols and organ, and eleven pieces for three lyra viols. Edited by Richard Charteris. Madison: A-R Editions. Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, vol. 41.

Okay, so these fantasies are for two bass viols, but the organ seems to be required since it fills out the harmonies, and since Coprario is playing around with major and minor key colourings in each of these pieces, the organ seems pretty indispensable.

Most experienced consort players would rather be playing Jenkins, Lawes or Purcell than Coprario. For some, he’s a bit too daggy and a bit too ‘vocal’. Too much of the mad-wriggle and not enough of the pure abstract instrumental.  I however could play Coperario till kingdom come, but that’s just me.  The 5-part consorts are the most familiar to us and I think he has important things to say. I keep coming back to Illicita cosa, with its forbidden tritones, as recorded by the New York Consort of Viols as a bridge between Renaissance and contemporary viol music on the CD of the same name. It’s enormously challenging to get viols to sound like voices and when not playing Monteverdi, Coperario is the one to experiment with.

What has put me off for ages about these pieces (and they vary in length from 70 to 90 bars) is Coperario’s going off the deep end, above the frets on the top string. Sooner or later, one has to come to grips with the Higher Octave, those scale passages from top A last fret to D, so here’s one’s chance. You only stay up there for a phrase or two and one could chicken out by playing an octave lower, though that seems to be missing the point somewhat. It’s a big like John Catch advocating beginner viol players tackle the Fmin scale as their first: get going with the hard stuff and everything after that looks easy.

However,  there are at least three, nos. 7, 8 and 12, which do not feature the Call of the Soprano. At just 77 bars or four pages (the A-R Editions are full scores), No.7 (RC 87) is the most accessible. I’ve included the incipit to show how important the organ is in establishing major/minor as well as the brooding imitation in the viols.

There is the close imitation of short motives one expects both from Coperario and the fantasia. Both 7 and 8 are in Gmin/maj and 12 is in Amin/maj. Apart from exploring drifting between major and minor, I think Mr Cooper seems to be exploring tessitura and creating a lot of fun for us by so doing. I’m not aware of any other composers for viol of this time featuring the Top Octave, his dates being c1575 to 1626. At least in England. Italians would have brought over the virtuosity of the bastarda style and all that jumping around the instrument. At a deeper level,  I have enormous respect for composers who push the boundaries and exploit the outer ends of any instrument’s sound potential, whether they be Bach or Chopin or Scarlatti on keyboard, or Marais or Coprario on viol.

These pieces are such ‘Basic Units’ that I’m not aware of them ever having been recorded much, except for a YouTube clip made by Ernst Stolz, Den Haag, in April. He recorded the first one in Amaj/min against a very strong, silvery-sounding organ. The impact of the top octave can be held around the 2minute mark. For the record, one was recorded on LP: Anthony Rooley’s Consort of Musicke, L’Oiseau-Lyre, LP DSLO 511, Coprario, Songs of Mourning, Consort Music.

Apart from the games with tessitura and modality, there is no great rhythmic virtuosity and no great showing-off in these pieces, just that nice mellow plainness one associates with Coperario.


Working through Siblin at the moment and coming up with references, far and wide, to the Bach ‘cello suites. For example, in the inspiring website of Ben Torrey ( who not only plays the first movement of the G major, but also a William Kinglake Saraband (III-13) from the Manchester Gamba book (see also Stephen Yates’ transcriptions for lute).

The VdGSA website has at the moment a transcription of Sheep may safely graze for five viols. The top treble line is interesting because to get the slurs right you play open strings but rarely. The fast notes from C to A on the A string are particularly useful.

Marin Marais – Book V, No.92: Prelude

While I’ve raved before about Minuets 99 and 100 from Marin Marais’ Pieces de viole Book 5, one prelude I’ve done some work on under Jenny Ericksson’s past direction is No.92 from the same book. The harmony/bass line really pulls the soloist along, so it really only makes sense when played with another viol or continuo. Everything is clearly marked by Monsieur Marais in the original and John Hsu’s book explains those markings. Today’s practice was limited to the small bass; will take out the 7-string tomorrow. I baulk at the extension required on my 7-string, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve taken time out to strengthen the left hand by playing guitar and oud, with little effect.

My other favourite Prelude is the very first in the book, No.1. Prelude le Soligni. It precedes the delightful Allemande la Facile and the even more spectacular Sarabande. I rely heavily on the recording by Mieneke van der Velden to bring the score to life.


Caix d’Hervelois – Book V, Suite No.1 in D: Menuet

 With Siblin uppermost in my mind, somewhat more straightforward than any solo dance movements by Bach are ones similar to Caix d”Hervelois from his Book 5, Suite 1 in D.

As with all Minuets of this period, the bowing needs to be consistently strict, push and two pulls in each bar. Inegal in the quavers.As with the aforementioned Marais minuets too, the angularity of the melody requires seamless string-crossing, which feels like jumping off a cliff. Perhaps I should have climbed more trees as a boy. There’s nothing like dancing a minuet and recalling the physical sensations of it: incredibly fast with a giddying sense of dragging the body around, with a strong one beat to the bar! While the beauty of this minuet is singular enough, the addition of the bass continuo makes it even more memorable.

Have reacquainted myself today with no.63 from Book II (1701) via alarob’s link to Les Voix Humaines (Montreal) and via the recording by Savall, accompanied by Anne Gallet and Hopkinson Smith. In the liner notes for the Savall recording, Marie-Madeleine Krynen justifiably spends more time discussing the Folies d’Espagne, which not only heads up the recording but is everyone’s obsession. For me, it’s the voice of his teacher Ste-Colombe speaking in Les Voix Humaines, a re-establishment of Marais’ musical roots. Was the Folies a public statement on publicly-popular music, a case of whatever they (Italians) can do, we (French) can do better and Les VH a commentary on personal predicament? I can’t help being impressed by the rhetoric and adulation of the Sun King (endless in the cantatas and other vocal works of praise) on the one hand and the private intimacy inherent in so much of Marais and Couperin’s solo pieces. Surely this is in part irony and disdain for the tedium of bowing-and-scraping, for the endless waiting around, whether it be for a court official business or the tedious presentation and dancing of couples before the king? The finger-nail scratching at doors, the quiet despair – aptly conveyed in the film version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Obviously Marais had the stamina to put up with and flourish at court, and have 19 children, but at what cost? We’re aware of the cost of not being at court – that’s perfectly well summed-up in the life and work of Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Better to be an insider than an outsider, perhaps.

Coincidentally, I’ve opened up again John Hsu’s book on the technique required to tackle the music and I’m (again) overwhelmed as well as challenged. Little wonder few came after Marais and that his contemporaries whinged about the technique the music demanded. For me, it’s like the gouffre between 19thc Chopin (of the Etudes for example) and 20thc Debussy (of similar Etudes). In order to encourage myself to ‘get back into Marais’, I hit upon the List of Requirements  for Tackling Marais – a seven-string bass, the scores in facsimile, the Savall recordings, John Hsu’s book. Of course you need an abiding interest in things French and more than a passing knowledge in French viol music before Marais. As well, someone to play the basso continuo line – a strongly sympathetic person able to endure your musical torture playing the solo melodies, overcoming the tangles of ornament, the slurs without number and the dashed pousser or tirer bow stroke. I’m blessed in possessing most of these but I  say to myself that the lack of a playing partner to work on this repertoire is my failing, but I can’t let that stop me. Savall at his masterclass in Sydney exhorted us not to learn the pieces by dumbing them down, but to learn it in totality, with the ornaments present from the beginning. The flourishes are not add-ons; they are as essential as vowels are to speech, you’re not going to get far with consonants alone.

I’ll have to try and find out more about the context of these pieces, who the continuo players were, what his court duties exactly were, for example. We assume they were played at court and followed up with interest afar in the salons of Alternative Versailles back in Paris, which I imagine to be where the workhouse of musical teaching and learning must have been located. Student players are mentioned in the Forewards of the published Books. I’m not aware of any nobility or aristocracy actually learning at Versailles, from Marais or others. Did Marais spend most of his time playing in Lully’s orchestra, preparing for the next opera? Obviously he would have come into his own a lot more after Lully’s death, especially with J.-F. Couperin around on clavecin. And certainly his opera writing is of the time of Books 1 and 2.

I have thought about re-visiting the Minuets as a way back into Marais. They are short, regrettably fast though, and make musical sense in their brevity. Like a sprint, one can dash to the barlines and recover – they’re not so far away. The musicality of some of them – my favourites are 99 and 100 from Book V – can be extraordinarily moving. And I find Roland Marais’ work sometimes less dense and more accessible – I’m a big fan of the La Barrengue rondeau with its clumpy heavy-handedness. The tempi required of the Courantes and Gigues are a disincentive, as is the ‘soul’ required for Sarabandes and Preludes. Savall incidentally makes very nice work of the Minuet #94 in his recording of Book II.

I’ll dust off the score of Les Voix Humaines and report back. But no promises on any great shakes with progress. The top line sounds as if it doesn’t go off the top frets… They say among amateur viol players that only a dozen or so pieces are playable out of the 500+ and really why should one bother? The same can be said for amateur pianists tackling Chopin – a waltz or nocture here or there, while we look on in wonder at the Ballades and Etudes as recorded by The Greats.

Simon Ives: ayres for two bass viols (British Library Add MS 31424). Ed. Gordon Sandford. PRB Productions, 1990.

Nine short airs, around 30 bars each, all AABB in form, at the easy end of the bass duet repertoire, from the first half of the 17th century. The top ‘melody’ line alternates between both players every couple of bars, so there is much more to think about than first meets the eye. If not already fluent in alto and bass clefs, then they certainly assist in making one so. The suspensions have the flavour of the organ about them, so it’s not surprising to read Ives was an organist. There are also some nice motifs recalling church bells, probably what the editor had in mind when he mentioned “musical felicities” to be found in the work. To keep the momentum going through the long notes, they need to be played at more 80 to the crochet than 60. But if not’s a steady bow on the long notes that’s required, it’s an equally airy light bow that’s needed for the quaver runs. Being ayres, it’s not hard to imagine them as textless songs. Good jumping-off pieces for Coperario and company, without the old sacred vocal character of duets from the previous century and looking ahead to a more instrumental baroque quality as per Withy and Gorton.

Jakob Richmann (c.1685-1718) Six Sonatas vol.1 for viola da gamba and basso continuo. Dove House Editions, Canada. Ed. Karl Heinz Pauls. Viola da gamba series no.55

Jacob Richmann (ca.1680-1726), Sechs Sonaten fur Viola da gamba und Basso continuo op.1. Sabina Lehrmann, vdg. Cavalli Records CCD 277.

Summarising edition notes by Pauls, translated by Donald Beecher, we have here two virtuoso suites for 6-string bass and organ continuo realised by Pauls, published by Roger in Amsterdam c1710. The six-sring bass ( in contrast to the seven-string well established by this time in France) is consistent with the gamba as we know it in Germany at this time. The strictness of the suite structure is somewhat conservative for this time however. The organ continuo is somewhat at odds with what we might expect, especially if the continuo part is going to try and stay below the solo part. Great to see our knowledge of the German repertoire of this time blossoming in and around the staples of the Bach and Telemann gamba sonatas with the publication of works like these. Okay, so really technically difficult…

Op.1 no.1-6 are recorded with basso continuo made up of violone, chitarrone, organ and harpsichord

By the time the compositions of Corelli and Vivaldi swept across Europe and subsequently changed the musical language of the period, the viol had long fallen out of use in Italy and the violin reigned supreme, notwithstanding moulds for viols found in Stradivarius’ studio.  In terms of 18th-century French music, the gamba was prominent in basso continuo till quite late – perhaps up to but not including Rameau, since we’re aware of the intense struggle between French music (and the gamba’s central position at the time of Louis XIV) and Italian music, culminating in the LeBlanc essay defending the viol from the predations of Sultan violin and Signor ‘cello.

Since the wave of Early Music of the 1970s, Vivaldi and his Italian and German contemporaries have been “gamba-free” – we’ve left the field of battle to the baroque violin and the ‘cello, and latterly the basse de violon. But things have obviously mellowed somewhat in this new century, whereby Pandolfo has ‘dared’ to record the Bach ‘cello suites on gamba and Savall has recorded some Vivaldi concertos using gamba. We know that Bach introduced the gamba into his Passions for their special tone-colour, just as Monteverdi drew on a wide range of instruments for their special effects in his operatic works, so it’s hardly surprising we see the same thing at work in Vivaldi. It was grand to see Richard Mills used gambas in his contemporary opera, Batavia, for generally similar reasons.

With the passing of time comes more musicological research. In the case of Vivaldi, the operas have come under greater scrutiny lately (including the pastiches) and we’ve dug deeper into the diversity of instruments for which Vivaldi composed. In investigating tone color, it seems that Vivaldi used English viols at a poignant moment in Juditha Triumphans. It’s since come to light that during Vivaldi’s time in Venice, a certain Prudenza played gamba, probably along with ‘cello, and that the Ospedale had no less than seven gambas in its battery of instruments, probably as a mark of the institution’s conservatism if not its breadth and all-inclusiveness when it came to things musical. There is talk of a Vivaldi sonata in funebre drawing on the traditional links between viols and the funereal, not dissimilar to the associations the pastoral has with the recorder.

On his website, Ernst Stolz dares to play the ‘cello sonata R.43 on gamba, which in turns puts the spotlight on the authorship of some of these sonatas. 

At the end of the day, Vivaldi is great to play and noone except my neighbours are going to know that I am having some fun playing his works on gamba. I’ve enjoyed playing bass viol in scratch orchestra read-throughs of the Gloria and a newly discovered Nunc dimittis; it’s a great feeling to have the harmonies move under your feet. This comes across strongly in the DVD excerpts attached to the Biondi recording of the opera, Bajazet.

Will we see works by Vivaldi for violin(s) transcribed for viols? If professional violinists can play Bach keyboard concertos, then anything’s possible. PRB Productions have come up with the Four Seasons for flute, seven-string gamba and continuo. Transcriptions are supposed to ‘add’ to the insights provided by the music; it’s awkward for the players and the listeners when the idiomatic writing of one instrument doesn’t translate to another. But in adding to one’s personal understanding of Affekt and Baroque music in general, I’m happy to gain greater understanding by looking at the scores and for example playing one of the solo lines of the slow movement from the double mandolin concerto, RV 532, for its very Italian rocking rhythms.  I doubt any amateur trio of bass gambas would tackle such a thing, but I like it and it feeds into my knowledge of exactly what the French of the Louis XIV and XV courts were coming to grips with in terms of Italian music. That, and the Corelli Concerti grossi.



Richard Mills and Peter Golsworthy, Batavia, Opera Australia, August 2006.

Antonio Vivaldi:

‘Cello sonata, R43; Peter Wispelwey & Florilegium Channel Classics CCS 6294 (Sonatas 4,5,6,7,8,9).

Juditha Triumphans – sacrum militare oratorium (Venice 1716). Modo Antiquo. Tactus TC67290, where five viol players have been organised into a ‘Concerto de’ Viole all’inglese’ which includes the likes of Bettina Hoffman and Nanneke Schaap.

Bajazet (Verona, 1735) RV 703. Virgin Classics, 7243 5 45676 2 9.

Jordi Savall, La viola da gamba in concerto. Le Concert des Nations, dir Jordi Savall. Alia Vox, AV 9835.

Concerto in C for two recorders, oboe, chalumeau, violin, two viola all’inglese, two violins ‘in tromba marina’, two harpsichords and strings, RV 555. Europa Galante, dir. Fabio Biondi. Virgin Veritas 7243-5-45527-2, also King’s Consort dir Robert King on Hyperion CDA 67073, also Le Concert des Nations dir Jordi Savall.

Concerto for violin and gamba obbligato, strings and continuo in a, La Maggiore, RV 546.
Concerto to two violins and gamba obbligato, strings and continuo in d, RV 565 (op.3 no.11)
Concerto Il Proteo o sia il mondo al rovescio in F, RV 544.
Concerto for two violins and gamba obbligato, strings and continuo in g, RV 578 (op.3 no.2 – Venice, 1711)

Funeral concerto for violin, oboe, clarinet, three violas “all’inglese”, strings and basso continuo, in B-flat,  RV 579. Concerto Italiano, dir. Rinaldo Alessandrini. Opus 111, also Le Concert des Nations, dir. Jordi Savall, Alia Vox AV 9835.

Nicholas Hotman (?-1663) Three Suites (c.1660) for bass viol. Dove House Editions Canada, edited by Donald Beecher. Viola da gamba series no.47

Hotman was the leading figure of the Frenchviol school between the early part of the 17th century (Maugars) and the late (Ste-Colombe and Marais). The overall effect of these dance suites unaccompanied bass viol solos is of elegant simplicity; Ste-Colombe by contrast seems to explore a more programmatic, flexible and free-form approach. The presence of the gigue movements put these particular suites suggest they were written late in his career – we know he died in April 1663. His works form an incredibly important insight into bass viol music of this period, since none survives of his teacher Maugars and alongside those of Dubuisson and Sieur DeMachy, this is all we have prior to Ste-Colombe’s works for two bass viols and work composed for the newly-added seventh A string; Louis Couperin and Jean Nicholas Geoffroy tell us a good deal about the treble viol of roughly the same period.

Suite II – Ballet, Allemande, Courante wth 2 variations, Sarabande with variation, Gigue. Key of D minor. The second Suite comes from a manuscript in Poland (like the third); the first comes from Oxford. Both second and third suites start with a very simple Ballet movement – something of a warm-up prelude before the formal dance suite proper. No 2 starts with a theme so English it could have been composed by Tobias Hume and seems to have been in fact ascribed to Hugh Facie – the first movement of a suite entitled Skolding Wife. Some ‘trills’  – a single ornament sign in the manuscript – are specified and there are chords at cadences; mostly in bass clef with moves into alto. The Ballet is in an ABC form, where A and B are just four bars each and C is 8. Beautiful variations follow – elegant rather than dazzling. Great for string-crossing and clef-reading; something of a blessed relief from the highly-wrought lyra work from England and the virtuosic division-playing of the times.  A particularly beautiful Sarabande – noble without being dramatic. Once the Ballet and Sarabande are established, the remaining trickier movements fall into place (the Courante with its double-stops and the fast tempo of the Allemande and Gigue), given the thematic similarity and continuity. Incredibly subtle music. Compare and contrast with Hume’s solo dance movements for their brevity and with Dubuisson for more of the French artlessness. 

Brilliantly played by Sophie Watillon on her recording of several of the suites. A Russian viol player has recorded a different Ballet movement on YouTube.