I’ve said it before, but I feel honoured to be in a position to be exploring the voices/viols literature. As instrumentalists it’s easy for us to shut ourselves in with instrumental versions of choral music. With a lot of ingenuity it’s possible to underlay the Main Singing Part under the remaining parts as well for a whole new experience of optional singing while playing.

I’m currently following up a line of enquiry originating with the Dow Partbooks (Christ Church, Mus, MSS 984-88). Viol players with any experience will be familiar, in one way or another, with the works by the English composers represented in the collection. Given the importance of the anthology, many have probably played the pieces without knowing their origin – just about all have been published in modern editions. The Dow Partbooks are renowned for the clarity of the calligraphy and are an excellent introduction in playing direct from partbooks in terms of the Tudor repertoire; some of us have gained similar insights in playing from facsimiles of the early printed editions of English songs.

I can’t say I’m quite ready to play in consort direct from the Dow partbooks. so I’m leaning on modern editions to give me a context. I was intrigued by the 10% or so of the pieces in the parbooks from Continental Europe: a small number of pieces by Orlando di Lasso, Philippe Van Wilder, Giacomo Fogliano and Vincenzo Ruffo.  There’s also a five-park work (the partbooks are an a5 collection) by an unknown French composer by the name of Jean Maillard or Maillart. Not surprisingly, there are several by this name in France at the time. We have though a picture of a widely-published composer, certainly by the French musical publishing companies of the day (Moderne in Lyons and Attaignant in Paris); his work was also copied out in ultra-Catholic Spain after the French had published him. About a third of his extant motets are for five voices, thus linking him in terms of texture to the Dow partbooks; flourishing about 1538 to 1570 puts him a little before the Dow partbooks were written out in 1551-1588 – the latter date being the time of the Spanish Armada. I’m not confident about why his Ascendo might have ended up in the Dow partbooks, but having looked at Allen Garvin’s modern edition, newly uploaded to Werner Icking’s Music Archive, I like the part writing and I like to think the players of the period would have appreciated the tumbling, rolling happiness of the piece. There is a certain deftness in the use of tied notes and the extended ending, the final bars, fits into a conception of English style. it starts well for English players enamoured of church bells, and ends well: those two things already put in a preferred class of music. In order to get greater familiarity with the musical conventions used by Dow, I have to know compare Garvin’s edition with the original partbook.

Regarding the text of Ascendo in Patrem (the Dow partbooks are textless), I’ve found that used by Palestrina in 1609:

Ascendo ad patrem meum et patrem vestrum, alleluia.

Deum meum et Deum vestrum, alleluia.

Et dum assumptus fuero a vobis mittam vobis Spiritum veritatis

et gaudebit et gaudebit cor vestrum, alleluia.

Ego rogabo Patrem et alium Paracletum dabit vobis

Spiritum veritatis et gaudebit et gaudebit cor vestrum, alleluia.

The Maillard piece certainly reflects the joy of this text. Harmonically it’s not overly brave, but the interplay of parts, the solid part-writing is fetching.


In me transierunt, a4

One of my next tasks is to look at this four-part work by Mailalrd, edited in a modern edition from a German anthology (they seemed to have liked Maillard beyond France). The edition has text underly for all the parts:

Dignare me laudare te

Domine salvum fac

In me transierunt

Praeparate corda vestra.


Missa Je suis desheritee

Also, in a rather different vein, I’ve looked today at one of his masses, this one mainly in four parts (though some sections it drops to two). The Agnus Dei starts in four parts (section 1) but finishes in six (an extra bass is added, for example, and there’s a lot of imitation between the two bass parts). Judging from the Rosenstock edition, Institute of Mediaeval Studies (Ottawa, Canada), if the music was put up on a music stand with no indication that it came from a Mass 9e.g. with the original French text underlay of the chanson from which it was developed), players would think it merely a somewhat elaborate song. It needs to go at a sunny, reasonably brisk pace. I need to have a look at the Kyrie. Different commentators point to different sections of this mass as close to the original chanson, leaving me a bit confused. The Agnus Dei has however left me with a clear notion of the melodic line of the original song. I need to look at more chanson-derived Masses – the music certainly seems to be more “popular” than “religious”.

The text of the original chanson goes as follows:

             Je suis déshéritée,

Puisque j’ai perdu mon ami.

Seullet’ il m’a laissée,

Pleine de pleurs et de souci.

Rossignol du bois joli,

Sans point faire demeurée,

Va t‘en dire à mon ami

Que pour lui suis tourmentée.

And here’s an English translation by Dick Wursten,

I’m broke,

because I lost my friend.

He left me, now I’m alone,

full of tears and sorrow.

Nightingale in the woods

go immediately

and tell my friend’

tha I’m tormented for his sake.


I’ve been attending these sessions regularly this year on the basis that I can expect manageable sight-reading, as well as the support provided by more than one instrument on any given line. My big love is playing up to singers; the voice makes the string lines come alive.

What I keep underestimating is what I learn about the music and the sheer power of this specific type of musical experience. Every session always seems to far exceed expectations. Each session builds on the next, so it’s an ever more powerful hit or high.

While turning up is important and giving one’s best at the time works to the common good, I’ve been depriving myself of the full benefits on offer. They’ve become a minimal foot-in-the-door for my viol playing, but  I need to practice before the day, look more closely at the texts and think more about appropriate tempi and bowing – in a word, honouring what’s put before me a bit more.

I’m on Cloud Nine still, several days after the weekend’s run-through of works, on this occasion more from the Baroque. I’m re-living the moments by turning to clips on YouTube.

One of the wonderful things about this group is that it’s full of surprises, no two sessions are exactly the same, making it a wonderful kaleidoscope of musical experiences. I know that sounds like a cliche, but you’d think with more or less the same lineup each session, things would be predictable. Today’s three little wonders: lacking our lute, an organ was substituted (good for Baroque); in addition to our lineup of female singers, a countertenor (a whole new sound world), and thirdly no less than ten viols – a proper little viol orchestra (this happens, outside Easter Viol School, perhaps once a decade?).

While blessed with the singers who turn up to endure somewhat raggedy viol playing on occasion, the countertenor presented a totally different tone colour to the singing that we’ve been used to. Viol bowing changed dramatically depending on who was singing and how they sung.

John Bull, “Fraile man”, vocal overlay to his Dorick Fancy No.1

The ten viols provided a full, rolling sound which took me by surprise, made even more magnificent by the addition of voices. A somewhat faint and tricky viol piece (it’s hard to put John Bull’s style into words, apart from it being very much at odds with others like Byrd and Taverner or Tye) was transformed into something quite unexpected; a lot of the harmonic shifts became more pronounced and the full beauty of the writing became much more obvious.

Johnson, “Defiled is my name”

A change in style and mood obviously. Though lighter overall than the Bull, it had pointed moments of resignation and pathos.

Leopold I, Il virtu della cruce. Bass recit and aria, “Ah, peccato…” and Soprano aria, “Spera, spera”

I did take time to look briefly at the lyrics before the session: sinful, lethal monstrous Averno (entrance to the Underworld as indicated by Virgil) certainly sets the scene. The highly wrought poetry escapes me somewhat, apart from the hubris of Man trying to outshine God, Man stripping off Glory and God doing likewise, taking it off as well. A great introduction to the sepolcro style. Our singers took turns with the aria and this really allowed the viols to change their approach to fit each voice.

Vivaldi, Mundi rector and Somno profondo

Having spent a lot of time earlier this year looking at Juditha from a literary perspective (Anna Banti’s Artemisia and that circle of books written as part of her revival), visiting the drama in the musical dimension was very powerful for me.  The Mundi rector can appear easy, almost flippant. Taken too slowly or too fast and a lot of its subtlety gets lost. It comes across more as a player’s piece than one for the audience. We kept it reasonably slow and pensive which worked for me, though as someone suggested it has to go at one-in-the-bar. Too fast though and it becomes too fluffy. I thought we did well with it.

Our singers took turns with the Somno. Viols imitated and supported the different voices and their timbres in different ways: short and spikey and terrified for the soprano, mor growly/torn up/distracted/foreboding for the countertenor. The writing for the treble viols was in the stratosphere (including a single D) but was very manageable after two or three goes. You get the feeling Vivaldi wasn;’t challenging the viol players so much technically that the overall effect might suffer. A lot depends on the contrast everyone is able to make with the middle section of the da capo aria – not especially easy or obvious here. Creating colour around the octave leaps in the treble viols is very influential on the whole emotional impact.

Days after, I’m sitting here re-living the afternoon through YouTube filmclips: the Venice Baroque Orchestra (with cellos providing added fullness) and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur/Modo Antiquo (great middle section by soprano Anna Hallenberg), all true to the haunting (sometimes to the point of screeching, but nicely!) gambas.

A natural extension to the sepolcro and the Vivaldi would be his Cum dederit (Nisi Dominus). I know it unfortunately rubs hard up against the parameters and voices and viols, but I’d certainly like to hear viols substitute for viols and to hear our singers give it a go. On the YouTube performances, it’s interesting to compare the Malgloire and Alessandrini versions with Paul Dyer’s especially in the treatment of the string accompaniment.

Buxtehude, two sopranos and six viols. Laudate Pueri.

A move away from the Venetian, I really enjoyed playing Treble II especially in those bits where it breaks away from the first treble. The top string parts contrast gloriously well with the singers. There are several recordings on YouTube which demonstrate different approaches that can be taken: a nice one by the Ricercar Consort, another with Emma Kirkby and Fretwork (includes Great Dooble bass and organ, faster with more clipped dotted notes, a more golden sound in the viols and tuned higher than the Ricercar Consort’s). Our version came closest to the one given by the Buxtehude Consort (with organ and cello added to the viols) with its rich, full singing, and longer at 6min 42secs.

An exceptional afternoon’s music.

I ought not dismiss yesterday as a complete failure. At the very least, I’ve discovered:

* Jean Maillard (“T.Dies”), Ascendo. A nice bright and bouncy piece to be taken at a goodly tempo for five viols without words. Some motets for 4+ voices published by A&R. 

* Anon. In terrors trapp’d. Need to check out Musica Britannica vol.22 and compare with partbooks.

* William Byrd, If women could be fair. Another bouncy tune of engaging complexity (cross-rhythms based on 6/2) from the master.

* William Byrd, Deus venerunt gentes. The Dow Partbooks include the Tercia pars (“Effuderunt”) of this extended piece for five voices.

I thought I’d edit a straight-forward piece for voices and viols from The Dow Partbooks, Oxford Christ Church, Mus.984-988, renowned for their very clear calligraphy. I thought I’d pick one with a Latin text, with words underlaid in all parts, that hadn’t been published previously in a modern edition: a Christus resurgens by a Mr Tayler.

A complete waste of a day, as shown by the relatively simple Alleluia close. Perhaps the several “unpublished” pieces are unpublished for very good reason.

Spring has returned, with temperatures during the day edging up to around 20 degrees. This also means sufficient light on Saturday afternoons in the church for the Voices & Vyalls group to meet, since the afternoon light in Winter closes in too early to provide much playing beyond a 3.30pm teabreak.

A blissful four hours of five-part music, with two sopranos and several male voices (alternating with their instruments), supported by two treble viols, two tenor viols and a bass viol and lute, and a violinist, we sightread the following:

Angelus autem, for five voices by Alonso de Tejeda (c1556-1628). A straight-forward warm-up piece from a continental Spaniard, given we’ve been in the habit of running through the music of New World Spanish composers. Very nice 50 bars with a lovely drawn out five-bar resolution at the end.

O Death, rock me asleep. An anonymous viol consort song. One of our editors lay the words under each of the parts, as per extant part books despite printed editions usually having the words under only the top part, i.e. the “main singing part” which clearly doesn’t rule out other singing parts. Gorgeous descending phrases throughout.

Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg, by North German composer, Matthias Weckmann (1616-1674). This specifies (bass) viola da gamba and worked well with the baroque violinist on hand to keep the playing short and ‘edgy’. There is a certain amount of trickiness involved in the changing tactus, but it was an excellent contrast to the English and Spanish pieces. On treble viol, there was still some way to go in terms of polish, especially with matching the top violin part, but you could feel the beginnings of the German Baroque swirling around in this music.

This was concentrated enough of  a dose to be followed by a tea break. 

My choice for voice and lute by Pilkington. The tendency was to let this drag, though it’s definitely a Sarabande in form. With such large forces to hand, its essential chamber quality got a little swamped, but it was so delightful everyone had to participate. We did this a couple of times, including sitting around a facsimile of the music in original ‘table format. The close physical proximity required to read the music helped re-create the feeling of the original. Apparently there was a standard requirement of 20 pieces in the printed editions; this contained an extra piece for lute and bass viol.

The silver swan, by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). We do this standard from time to time and it seems to get better with every playing. Again it can’t drag too much. For me, Gibbons never put a foot wrong!

O, that the learned poets of this time by Orland Gibbons. This will have been a commentary on poets of the time, including John Donne. It was a truly delightful piece. Gibbons always manages to produce sequences of notes which fit so naturally under the bowhand. Lovely wordplay in the final phrase “How would it sound if strung with heavenly strings?”

Dum transisset Sabbatum by Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585). I go along to these Voices & Vyalls sessions not only because the music is simple and relatively straight-forward (I almost never have to run through the music beforehand though of course I ought) but because it invariably includes pieces by my all-time favourites: Byrd, Gibbons and Tallis. Any hardship involves melts away when these come up on the music stand. On this occasion, we worked from two different editions, complete with plainchant opening, but true to form, this piece of Tallis’ was marvellous and a great finish to a great afternoon.

Okay, so this is not exactly mid-winter because we are starting at 1.30pm and going through till sunset. The last session had to start at 1pm in order to eke out at least an extra 30 minutes of daylight before the church interior became too dark. Before teabreak we played at A415 and after tea, A440 when the Instruments Hauts arrived.

Salomone Rossi, Barechu. Better known for his violin works, this is a short three-voiced piece. We’re honouring the viol players known to be working at various synagogues (Mantua, etc.) at the time. A great warm-up piece.

Peter Porter, Thus sang Orpheus to his strings. This is a madrigal by an English student of Monteverdi. Published I think around 1632, this particular piece starts off with a three-part instrumental intro, for two violins and bass; there is a strongly declamatory style for the voice (“Ah, dear Euridice!” expressed in a minum followed by four quavers) but the string writing accompanying is quite Baroque and always tasteful. My ‘violin’ part was quite independent in parts, that is to say, not strictly following the voices as much as in Monteverdi madrigals. Not exactly operatic, but really quite dramatic; an absolute delight to play. The instrumental intro worked well on two viols, bass viol and lute.

Pierre Sandrin, Douce memoire. For at least two of us, this will be a very pleasant reprise of the intense workout we did at the Orpheus Music summer school at Armidale NSW last January on Ganassi and Ortiz, where we spent days examining both texts in very great detail and ‘vocalising’ appropriately the part-songs in our instrumental approach. Obviously viols only take it at a sombre pace. The divisionists want it taken very much faster. So we ran through it several times on viols, then adding the divisionists (both bass and treble viols) and then the singers. Of course it’s extremely low for the singers – A466 for male voices? – and there was some exciting talk at Armidale about playing it in a much more Renaissance style – tenor and bass viols only.

Giovanni Gabrieli. Sancta Maria sucurre miseris. This is a smart Venetian piece for (single) choir and instruments, and at 86 bars not overly long, with the obligatory 3/2 towards the end. For some odd reason we seemed to get bogged down in the middle, between bars 40 and 54; not sure in hindsight what the reason was exactly, but there was more ‘space’ between some of the entries. In any case, the full grandeur of the sound eventuated. Before the teabreak and at A415, we had the viols (trtrTTTTBB) plus violin, lute and tenor recorder, with two sopranos. After the teabreak at A440, we had a shawm and a recorder with viols (TTBBB), violin, theorbo and curtal, plus sopranos.

Senfl, Patientiam.  For two voices and instruments. With the same resources as the A440 Gabrieli, we did extremely well with this intricate piece. We had a little difficulty in the very beginning where one voice starts on a D to be joined a few bars later by the other on E, but an admirable piece of quiet beauty and poise. Senfl apparently was specific in his instrumentation, either calling for grosse Geige or kleine Geige, the former Big Strings being the viols as here, and the littlies being the violins.

Heinrich Schutz, Du Schalksnecht. Oviously the hardest thing has been getting five bass viols (curtal on the bottom part) in the one room together. Obviously too Schutz has a real affinity with the viol. I’m not sure some of the pointed harmonies came out as well as they might (moving to major chords amidst a whole of lot of writing in the minor), but we did more than get through it. It’s written for tenor and trombones (one first which works closely with the voice; a quartet of others providing harmonic support and two bass trombones providing the bass line). We swapped around the voice between tenor and sopranos, curtal on the lowest, viols spread out in between with shawm/recorder elsewhere. When our tenor was not singing, he played trombone.

Moritz (1572-1632). Various pavanas (Rose e Gigli and d’Alto monte) despite the rapidly fading light. Two bars intro on an improved drum, the shawm and recorder playing the top two lines. This was real waits stuff and highly enjoyable! We’re intrigued by the Pavan titled “Yellow Cow” in this series!

My playing is a lot more ‘matter-of-fact’ these days. I play the very best I possibly can at the time, but I don’t dwell on mistakes. It’s a time-based medium, it’s here now and then gone in a second’s time. If I make mistakes (but don’t necessarily crash the whole event), then I simply “move on” as they say. Any individual performance can’t (and won’t) cause me to despair. I’m coming to think that what’s important is that we are all participating (and coming to grips with the music) not looking to criticise each others’ performances. There’s a certain gratefulness that we take time out of our busy lives to make this music, rather than just listen to it. What I find particularly curious and interesting is that everyone is so caught up in their own part, they don’t necessarily hear if others are faltering – everyone is so intent on making sense of the whole that they don’t necessarily ‘hear’ individuals’ difficulties. Only when the whole thing breaks down as a team effort is their major cause for concern. It’s like an Amish roof-lifting ceremony: we’re all there, we’re all lifting, we’re not so much interested in how much any one person is lifting or not because we’re concentrating solely on the team goal. Ultimately too, I’m simply not turning down opportunities to play anymore, not allowing doubts to creep in to make me nervous or trepidatious. I know the stylistic requirements of the music, I know how to ‘get on’ with others in a musical team effort – that’s plenty enough for me to appear at the starting line.

For the sake of completeness, I mention the playlist of the voices (sopranos, mezzos and tenors) and viols – trTTTTBB (with theorbo, recorder, etc.) of a previous session, some months ago during Autumn:

* Juan Cornago, Ayo visto il mappa mundo. Part of a focus on the Baroque in South America. The last 40 or so bars.

* Thomas Ravenscroft, Ah, helpless wretch. An English verse anthem form with text based on Savonarola.

* Hans Leo Hassler, Angelus Domini descendit. Two-choir piece.

* Luza Marenzio, Quand’io miro le rose. One of those short five-part songs which comes in handy when interpolated among longer vocal works.

* Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Les Neufs Lecons de Tenebre: Premiere Lecon du Vendredi Saint, for dessus de viole, soprano and basse continue. Today played on baroque violin and treble viol, with soprano and bass viol/theorbo continuo.