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Four and Twenty Fiddlers: The Violin at the English Court 1540-1690.

Some 35 years ago, when I was cutting my musicological teeth, it was customary to read that the violin made little headway in English music until after the Restoration. Basing their comments on the accounts of Anthony Wood, Roger North, Thomas Mace and others, writers held the view that the instrument belonged to the 'common fiddler' and was not worthy of a gentleman's attention. Only Gerald Hayes, in The Viols and Other Bowed Instruments (London, Vol. 2 of his projected work Musical Instruments and their Music, 1500-- 1750), had sounded a note of caution (p. 191): 'Such is the conventional and accepted picture of the violin in England before the days of Purcell, but there are strong reasons for supposing that it is very largely false and that the violin was seriously cultivated in England much earlier than we have been accustomed to think ... The evidence consists entirely of music by composers belonging to the first half of the seventeenth century, and it is extremely probable that only a small proportion of such work has yet come to light.' For further details Hayes asked his readers to await his Vol. 1, Tudor Instrumental Music and its Developments: a Survey of Instrumental Music in England from 1500 to 1650. One would like to know why this fell by the wayside, for it is likely to have covered some of the ground which has occupied scholars in recent years. In one sense the conventional view had been correct, since, as Peter Holman shows in this impressive and exhaustively researched book, violin playing was the prerogative of professional musicians rather than of 'gentlemen'.

Four and Twenty Fiddlers has been in the making for more than twenty years--Holman traces its origin to a challenge thrown down by Thurston Dart in 1969--and no stone has been left unturned in pursuing its objectives. He writes of the need 'for focused studies of particular times and places, relating archival material to the surviving musical repertoire'. The violin and its use in one particular establishment over a period of 150 years fits such a definition, but what astonishes is the diversity of the subject within this limiting framework. It is a long and fascinating journey from the 'Fiddles, Rebecs, and Viols at the Early Tudor Court' (Chap. 3) to '"A Mighty Musique Entertainment at Court": Reform and Retrenchment 1685--1690' (Chap. 17). Inevitably, of course, in setting the court violin band in context, it is sometimes necessary to burst the bounds of time and place.

This is not a book to avoid thorny issues, and Holman boldly plunges straight into a discussion on 'the origin of the violin'. This is a masterly survey of the available evidence, ambiguous and fragmentary though this is at times. Moving on from Ian Woodfield's proposition that the viol originated in the bowed vihuela de mano around Valencia in Spain, Holman stresses the importance of activity in Mantua and Ferrara at the end of the fifteenth century, suggesting that Isabella d'Este encouraged the development of a viol consort, with parallel attention given to violins at Ferrara. The interaction of several factors comes into play: the creation of families of bowed instruments of different sizes, a humanist fondness for 'noble' strings (displacing 'ignoble' winds) and the simultaneous acceptance by the aristocracy that they could participate in and enjoy viol consort playing. Evidence (and terminology) concerning violins is less precise; Holman suggests that one reason for this lack of documentation is 'that the violin, the preserve of professionals, figures less prominently in the correspondence and literature of the time than the viol, which was played by members of the literate classes'. In any event, he makes a convincing case for violins' infiltrating most parts of Europe early in the sixteenth century, linking this with the contemporary realization that violin consorts were 'the best vehicle for courtly dance music'.

The archives of the English court are the richest in the world. But those who tap them soon discover that the complex administrative structure creates a potential minefield through which they have to tread. Peter Holman comments on the good work done by such as Nagel, Lafontaine, stokes and others before the First World War, but they blithely ignored all but the content of documents; we have come to realize that it is necessary to ascertain the purpose and context of the material if we are to interpret it properly. We are still feeling our way towards a definitive evaluation, but in the meantime Holman's survey of 'Place and Patronage at Court' is as succinct as it is valuable. He provides a useful list of the principal documents relating to musicians, from the reigns of Henry VIII to Charles I, although others are already coming to light. Nevertheless it does give some indication of the labour involved in researching this book--and it is greatly to Holman's credit that he has preferred original documents to secondary sources in pursuing his topic.

The remaining chapters present a chronological survey of the development of the string group(s) at court, beginning as early as the reign of Henry VII. References to string players at this period lack precision, until rebecs come on the scene in 1514. Holman traces their activities and suggests what music they may have played. He also draws attention to the possibility of viols coming to England in the employ of Catherine of Aragon, and goes on to note the importance of the van Wilder/Weldre family from 1516. Matthew Weldre served briefly 'upon lutes and veoldes' from December 1516 (the warrant which Holman couldn't find is in the PRO: E101/417/2), the first time the viol is specifically mentioned at the English court. I am not happy about Holman's linking of Peter van Wilder with 'Peter (or "John Peter"?) de Brescia' alias 'Peter Carmelet', but this need not contradict his suggestion that Peter served as an 'extraordinary' player at court from about 1515, before taking up paid employment in 1519. Carmelet, incidentally, could be added to the list of court dancing-masters who feature later in the book. Research is handicapped by an almost total lack of relevant documents for the 1520s and parts of the 1530s, but Philip van Wilder had taken up service by 1525 in company with Hans Hossenet and Hans Highorne, both specialist viol-players. When a new group of six string players arrived from Venice in 1540, the records refer to 'old' and 'new vialles'. This part of the story is reworked from Holman's paper 'The English Royal Violin Consort in the Sixteenth Century' (Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, cix (1982--3), 39--59), but there is much new material, including discussion of contemporary music manuscripts and their instrumental repertory. Again 'viol' and 'violin' terminology is used flexibly by the scribes, and Holman exercises due caution in his commentary; 'violin' first appears in a document of 1545. It is likely that the instrument first came to England with the Lupo--Kellim--Galliardello ensemble from Venice.

It is a feature of each chapter of this book that following historical discussion of the violin band, its grouping and its personnel, Holman searches for likely music manuscripts to illustrate their repertory at that particular time. He is less concerned with musical forms (which naturally tended to be simple dances) than with the evidence presented by the format and make-up of volumes: hands, grouping, clefs, titles and other annotations. To take one example: British Library, Royal App. MSS 74--76 (usually known as the 'Lumley' books), has hitherto received considerable attention as a source of church music, but, apart from Paul Doe's edition in Musica Britannica xliv, the instrumental contents have evoked relatively little comment. Holman explores their provenance, including the possibility that the books were already begun before Arundel acquired them; the contributions of Derick Gerarde and of the other, unknown scribes; the repertory, offering new views on likely composers; the scoring; the relationship to contemporary French and Italian practice and bastarda technique; and implications for performance. He includes a comprehensive inventory of the instrumental pieces, recording the number of parts, format, hands, and comment on concordances and other matters.

Some routine livery warrants from Edward VI's reign have recently revealed that one Jasper Gaffoyne, an Italian, was then dancing-master, and further research indicates that he was appointed by Henry VIII in 1542, presumably to teach dancing to Mary, Edward and Elizabeth. This confirms Holman's suspicions that Elizabeth was instructed by an Italian, but, along with Peter Carmelet, mentioned earlier, suggests that the idea of a separate post for the court dancingmasters was in place much earlier than he proposes.

Chapters 6 and 7 focus respectively on the violin outside the court and on the problems of retrieving late Elizabethan dance music from extant sources. The latter examines not only the few consort sources but keyboard, lute and published material too, stressing in particular the importance of German publications of English music. Holman then moves on to the Jacobean string group, noting its expansion, and the increasing involvement of French musicians like Bochan, Adam Vallet, Hearne/Heron and Confesse in court music and in the masques. The seminal importance of music in the households of Prince Henry and Prince Charles quite rightly receives separate treatment, for here the traditional mould of court music-making is broken. In place of the separate and rigid grouping of flutes, recorders, wind instruments and violins, Prince Henry's taste for and awareness of recent Italian music lead to the constitution of a more flexible group, comprising violins, viols, keyboard, lutes, harp and singers. (In passing, I am actually beginning to wonder whether this was quite the novelty it seems, or whether we should see it rather as a longawaited challenge to the sterile and becalmed music-making of the English court for the previous 40 years. Looking back to the 1540s and '50s, there is clear evidence of a singing group other than the Chapel, and of singers, string players and lutenists led by Philip (and later Peter) van Wilder which served in the Privy Chamber. No evidence has come to light to show this functioning in Elizabeth's reign.) One of the puzzles still to be unravelled is how a unique group of bastarda-like pieces which seem to have originated in Prince Henry's household are now preserved uniquely in Bodleian, MS Mus. Sch. D.246, copied in the 1630s by John Merro, a singing-man at Gloucester. Prince Charles's group, as Holman emphasizes, was particularly renowned for its string consort music. Thomas Lupo, Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, John Coprario and Orlando Gibbons between them produced innovative new pieces, including sparkling new three-part fantasias and airs, and the pioneering sets of fantasia-suites which so influenced Caroline composers such as William Lawes and Jenkins. There are side-issues here--the publication of Gibbons's set of fantasias in England and later in Holland--which receive an airing. (Further, more detailed discussions by David Pinto and by Rudolf Rasch are 'in the press'.)

At his accession, Charles I retained most of the musicians he had employed as prince, forming a new group known as 'The Lutes, Viols and Voices' which served alongside the violins. The French element at court was boosted by the creation of a group of fifteen musicians serving Queen Henrietta Maria. Discussion of the latter is excluded from Holman's book, but with violins employed in both of the other groups, he sensibly provides a chapter on each. Again contemporary manuscript collections of dances are raided for evidence of court usage. Holman suggests that the presence of Maurice Webster at court from 1623 influenced the development of English airs with two treble parts, consolidating the work of Lupo and Gibbons, and leading to similar pieces by Coleman, Jenkins, Lawes and others. Lawes's Royal Consort, Harp Consorts and fantasia-suites are singled out for special comment. The esoteric nature of Lawes's major pieces underlines Charles's own remarkable artistic tastes, but it is the emergence of the suite and of the 'promotion' of the violin to a place in such substantial pieces that is Holman's particular interest here.

Having touched on the Civil War years, when it is difficult to pin down the activities of most of the royal musicians, we are introduced to the principal players of the Restoration years: Davis Mell, Baltzar and the elder John Banister, and to an enlarged grouping of 24 violins, emulating Lully's orchestra, which Charles had heard at the French court. Politics and religion play their part in the comings and goings of the musicians: Banister, appointed to form a 'select band' from within the 24 violins, was subsequently dismisssed as their director for abusing his position--not helped by the chronic lack of money which bedevilled all the court servants; his successor, Grabu, was forced to resign because he was a Catholic; the English violinists were affronted because the king stopped them playing and called instead for French musicians. Holman shows that the 'Broken Consort' of the early 1660s was an important vehicle for fine music, but after Baltzar's death it was itself 'broken' and the king's preference for music to which he could beat time held sway.

Holman was among the very first scholars to recognize that an important distinction should be made between musicians who performed in the public areas of the court and those few allowed into the Privy Chamber. It is a subject which has not yet been fully investigated, partly because the musicians within the Privy Chamber tend to be called 'Grooms' rather than 'musicians', and partly because the research involves different groups of documents beyond those normally referring to the court music. Nevertheless, a picture is emerging of Grooms who were lutenists (Litchfield, Mathias Mason, Robert Hales, Daniel Bachelor) or keyboard players (Mark Smeaton, Walter Earle, Ferdinando Heybourne/Richardson, Orlando Gibbons) during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (and which probably continued later), but from Charles I's accession it seems probable that the 'Lutes, Viols and Voices' served in the Privy Chamber as required. After the Restoration, the 'Broken Consort' took up the role, but passed it to the 'select band' of violins about 1663.

Documentation of the years after 1660 is plentiful, which is more than can be said of the music, most of which must have perished in the White-hall fire of 1698. Enough survives for Holman to discuss the relative merits of music by Staggins, Draghi, Smith and Beckett, alongside the better-known (and better) pieces by Locke, one of the official court composers. Holman's knowledge of the surviving string repertory for both centuries is unsurpassed; indeed, there is no more eloquent testimony to its diversity and relative qualities than the series of recordings which he has made with the Parley of Instruments on the Hyperion label.

In his own way Charles II is perhaps the most influential of all the royal patrons, for it was his tastes which governed some striking new developments in the employment of the court musicians and which, ultimately, was to knock them from their pedestal as the pre-eminent group of English musicians. The seeds for this decline were sown in the king's patronage of the theatre. In Chapter 14, Holman traces the involvement of the 24 violins in the London theatrical productions, concluding moreover that for some fifteen years Locke and Banister between them had a virtual monopoly of writing the instrumental music. (Other composers provided the vocal music.) Again he is able to point to the survival of some pieces before discussing how other instruments from the King's Musick, in particular French members, were employed there. Evidence for music for 23 plays given by the Duke's Company at Lincoln's Inn Fields and by the King's Company at Bridges Street between 1660 and 1669 is presented as a table. After the death of Locke in 1677, the court musicians had little further to do with commercial theatres but continued to participate in the masques and operas staged at court. Holman is concerned with more than just the role of the 24 violins here and sets out the evidence concerning the original productions. He suggests that more hitherto unidentified music for Calisto can be found in New York Public Library Drexel MS 3849.

In his penultimate chapter Holman presents a perceptive and valuable account of the workings of the Chapel Royal after the Restoration. To my knowledge this is the most substantial attempt yet published to explore the relationship between the architecture, performance practice and actual music. He is particularly concerned, of course, with the replacement of wind instruments by strings (of which the king surely approved), pointing out that some of the evidence regarding the timing of this is both contradictory and somewhat incomplete. He notes how the scoring of string symphonies in the anthems changes from a three-part group early on to a four- and eventually five-part one later (1670).

At his accession James II took the opportunity to reform the ordering of the court music. The violin band, like all the extant court groups, was absorbed into a new single unit of some 34 musicians called 'The Private Musick', and indeed formed its basis. Using known performances of the court odes, Holman discusses how the new group was employed. But about this time the court instrumental music went into decline, thereafter to play second fiddle to the companies of players employed in the theatres and to the emergence of public concerts (from which the court musicians themselves were not entirely excluded).

This book will undoubtedly stimulate further argument and enquiry into the many questions it tackles. It is comprehensively documented, and commendably up to date in its references, so that the reader can easily follow up whatever aspects take his fancy. For all working in the field of English music during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it will be an indispensable companion.
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Author:Ashbee, Andrew
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1994
Words:2959
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