Richard Mico: Consort Music.
As early as 1667 a musical authority such as Christopher Simpson could already observe regretfully that `This kind of Musick (the more is the pity) is now much neglected, by reason of the scarcity of Auditors that understand it: their ears being better acquainted and more delighted with light and airy Musick.' If the situation is perhaps a little better today, we have to thank for it a small band of indefatigable enthusiasts, connoisseurs and performers, not least among them the editors and authors of the music and books under review here. But if, as one might suspect, millenium fever is just around the corner, ready to sweep away interest in any old music that has limited popular appeal, there is a growing urgency in the task of establishing the beauties of this wonderful repertory in the consciousness of a wider musical public; a warm welcome, therefore, to all six of these volumes.
Pride of place has to go to the Royall Consorts of William Lawes--a major collection of music from which only excerpts have previously been published--in a new edition by David Pinto. Perhaps one should say two new editions, as separate volumes give the so-called `new version', scored for two violins, two bass viols and two theorbos, and based principally on Lawes's autograph scorebook, and the `old version', for two treble, one tenor and one bass viols (or perhaps violins), with continuo, which is preserved only in later sources but which, according to a note on one of the manuscripts, represents Lawes's original conception. The exact status of the `old version' is a vexed question, but even those who diagnose a case of "editorial correctness gone mad' here can enjoy the is extra pieces in the same scoring added to the end of the `old' volume.
The music in this collection is so exciting that I would like to write about it straight away, but Pinto's extreme recourse to two completely separate editions obviously demands comment. The editor's task is certainly not an easy one here. The reason given for the supposed rescoring of the `old' version is that `tine Middle part could not bee performd with equall advantage to bee heard as the trebles were'; but the middle (i.e. tenor) part of this version lies low and is sometimes crudely written (in places one would be more than happy not to hear too much of it) and looks suspiciously like a botched reduction of the elegant tenor-register passages from the two bass viol parts of the `new' version. On the other hand, the tenor part is sometimes so crude, proceeding in blatant unisons with other parts, that, Pinto suggests, only the composer would have dared to write it. Perhaps most importantly, it is surprisingly consistent in style with other pieces in the same scoring which survive in Lawes's own autograph; if Pinto had stressed this last point more strongly I would have been left feeling more comfortable with the `old' version as genuine Lawes.
As far as the `new' version goes, it is a delight to see some of my favourite pieces in print at last. The Royall Consort in this form consists of a set of ten suites, the best of them consisting of an extended Fantazy or Pavan followed by half a dozen dance movements. These opening movements, the `imposing triumphal arches that lead one into the smaller-scale domestic menage', as Pinto memorably describes them in For ye Violls, contain some of the strangest and most enjoyable moments in 17th-century music, such as the explosive divisions in all six parts in the Pavan in C major, which throw up a kaleidoscope of shifting dissonance and sonority, or the climactic bars of the Fantazy in D major, where, with what was perhaps the most muscular musical gesture yet penned by an Englishman, the theorbos strike and restrike a contrabass pedal note. The lighter dances too, in which the theorbos revert to a continuo role, come richly to life in performance as the presence of four bass instruments lends a lovely warmth to the music and allows Lawes to indulge his fondness for tone clusters, as in the closing moments of the Corant from the same Suite in D. Parts for the `new' Royall Consort are available (sadly, several years too late for the five intrepid colleagues whom I persuaded to play these pieces from photocopies of partly legible, unbarred manuscript partbooks, for a concert recorded live by BBC Radio), and I would urge anyone who can muster the required forces to try this music: they will not be disappointed. The extra dance movements appended to the `old version' are also very worthwhile, particularly the powerful opening pavan, and the volume as a whole provides a useful introduction to Lawes for those with access to nothing more obscure than a string quartet.
The outstanding book on 17th-century English instrumental music of the last few years, Peter Holman's compellingly argued history of the violin at the English court, Four and Twenty Fiddlers, has done little to help the marginal position of consort music, as Holman's stated focus naturally relegates the viol and its repertory to the fringes. Book-length studies of consort music have anyway been few and far between, and so I was particularly pleased to see the appearance of two recent volumes--Pinto's monograph on Lawes, and Andrew Ashbee's account of the prolific John Jenkins and his fantasies for viols--giving centre stage to this repertory, so much richer and more extensive than the scraps from which Holman had to work for much of his history. Both Pinto and Ashbee follow a `life and some works' format, but what I think will strike readers most forcibly are their contrasting writing styles, which, perhaps as owners come to resemble their pets, seem to take after the music of their subjects: Lawes can be mannered and quirky, giving up his secrets only with difficulty; Jenkins is sometimes craftsmanlike to a fault, and shy of taking creative gambles. I hone our authors will forgive me if I suggest that they may recognize a little of themselves in these descriptions.
Indeed, For ye Violls opens with a few pages in the style of a historical novel; Pinto is no Rose Tremain or Peter Ackroyd, but this bold gambit offers an intriguing picture of a recital by royal musicians on the eve of civil war. This is much more than simply a dash of period colour, as Pinto makes a significant case in the course of his study that the consort music of Lawes and his colleagues was written for concert performance, a timely rebuff to the idea that this repertory is and always was for the enjoyment of the players only. Similarly thought-provoking is Pinto's suggestion that the old guild system under which musicians were apprenticed, so that they could not practise independently of their masters, meant that they did not begin composing until the age of 24 or thereabouts, so explaining the scarcity of information from any earlier in the musical life of such figures as Lawes and Jenkins.
Pinto's key section on the young Lawes draws attention to a set of partbooks of consort music copied by the composer at exactly this age, which show an interesting cross-section of the music with which he must have grown up--both English fantasies and, significantly, untexted versions of madrigals by Italians such as Marenzio and Monteverdi, as well as what must be (if Pinto's theory is right) Lawes's own earliest compositions. Two fascinating themes emerge from Pinto's discussion of these, the music of the Royall Consort and the works for five viols: first, the way in which Lawes fused influences from the nascent Italian Baroque (both taken directly from the source and filtered through his mentor Coprario--the first English composer to teach harmony as working from the bass up) with the native polyphonic style; and second, the place in his output of reworkings, often in five parts, using material from a series of early four-part pieces (somewhat as Handel was to use his own early cantatas as a creative gene-pool). These two traits can often be seen working hand-in-hand, as some of Lawes's most characteristic moments result from forcing an extra imitative part into a texture that is either already self-sufficient, or was not originally conceived in contrapuntal terms; the resulting dissonance and distortion of phrase-lengths are clearly not just effects to be tolerated, rather they are the very essence of his style.
Pinto has a tendency to scatter his discussion of such issues among thickets of dense historical reference, and, as he avowedly has no interest in any type of musical analysis, I was left with a slight sense of an opportunity missed to draw some exciting conclusions about what it is that makes Lawes such a good composer. Similarly, Pinto teases the reader with occasional references to a scheme of key-related affects in Lawes's music: C major is virile or warlike, G minor represents doom and death, A minor languor and passion, etc. If he has evidence for this--say, Lawes's choice of keys for setting particular texts--I would have liked to see it set out in one place. Questions arising from his edition of the Royall Consort re-emerge in For ye Violls, and here we find Pinto at his most engaging, explaining the development of the dance suite in relation to contemporary politics, and at his most frustrating, introducing ever more complex and equivocal arguments about the relationship between the `old' and `new' versions (purchasers of the edition only should take note). But if Pinto is better at highlighting details than he is at drawing incisive generalizations, one forgives him immediately on coming across a turn of phrase that seems to capture perfectly the music in question, be it the `elemental forces, felt with Lear-like intensity' of the six-part Pavan in G minor, or the fragmented lines which `stagger against each other like the derelict shells of bombed housing' in the In Nomine in C minor, a piece written only shortly before the outbreak of war.
Ashbee's The harmonious musick of John Jenkins begins with an impressively thorough biographical account of its subject, one which puts some much needed speculative flesh on the bones of the surviving evidence connecting Jenkins with London and the court, as well as detailing his better known employment in various wealthy East Anglian households. This is followed by a brief history of `The English consort fantasia before Jenkins' with a generous remit, reaching as far back, indeed, as the time of Henry VIII. As a result, Ashbee has to skate dangerously quickly over the Tudor repertory of In Nomines and other untexted pieces, and the thin ice presented by the difficulty of knowing where vocal music ends and consort music begins; but once on the firmer ground of the 17th century he is an expert guide to a musical landscape that can appear somewhat featureless to a less experienced eye. If you want to grasp quickly the relationship of, say, Ferrabosco, Lupo and Coprario, in the fantasy repertory, this is a very good place to start.
In particular, Ashbee traces the influence of the Italian madrigal on Jacobean instrumental music, absorbed as it was in this field in such a peculiarly English way--i.e. by simply ignoring the words and original scoring. Jenkins's special achievement was to write pieces with the eventfully varied texture of madrigals, but with a thematic economy made possible by mastery of all the contrapuntal tricks of the trade; as a result, a lot seems to happen in the course of a fantasy, but (as others have observed) all the players feel as if they have the tune all of the time. In the best of Jenkins's music this is allied to melodic invention which seems charmingly spontaneous, and a wide palette of ensemble sonorities, to create music which will assuredly delight listeners as well as performers. I cannot help feeling, however, that Ashbee has over-stretched himself in his effort to convince his readers of the qualities of Jenkins's fantasies. The structure of his narrative--with succeeding chapters dealing in turn with each of the numerous pieces for four, five and six viols, as well as most of those for three, and illustrated with only tantalisingly brief musical examples--does nothing to help his case; rather, as telling general observations begin to be exhausted, the latter stages of this book run dangerously close to becoming a musical souvenir-guide, a list of all the nice bits.
If some readers will nonetheless enjoy this comprehensive approach, a further point, applicable to both studies under consideration here, seems worth making: Ashbee and Pinto treat large groups of pieces written for the same forces as if they were conceived by the composer as a unit, while offering only slim evidence that (in the main) this is anything more than a convenient fiction. Common sense suggests that composers might just as well have preferred the variety of writing a three-part fantasy one week, a six-part pavan the next, and a five-part suite the week after, not to mention works for different forces altogether. Establishing a chronology is very difficult for either Jenkins or Lawes, but taking the obvious way out and grouping pieces by instrumentation means that many interesting questions--such as would arise from comparing all the pieces in the same key, say--are never even asked, let alone answered.
Two recent volumes in the Musica Britannica series bring together significant bodies of music previously published in partial editions only. That said, Ian Payne's edition of the five- and six-part fantasies of John Ward contains only two pieces not included in George Hunter's edition for Northwood Music, published in 1993. Payne's readings are based on a detailed study of a most unusual set of partbooks whose compilers, by recording numerous variants in some dozen sources available to them, effectively produced their own early 17th-century critical edition of Ward's music. This is an interesting piece of textural detective work on Payne's part, but I doubt that it will be enough to tempt players requiring both score and parts away from the less expensive Northwood edition; it is good, though, that this fine collection of pieces will be available in one place in the many libraries that subscribe to Musica Britannica. Payne's edition of fantasies by John Ward brings together for the first time all his five- and six-part music. Ward was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral and trained as a musician before settling down in London as a civil servant; Payne takes the opportunity in his preface to dispose of a current theory that the fantasies in question were written by a different man of the same name, suggesting rather that Ward continued to compose alongside his day job, his style changing as he came under the influence of Italian and Italophile court musicians. The resulting fantasies are very much madrigals without words--in fact a few of them certainly started life with words--and bold figuration only features in the three settings of the In Nomine cantus firmus. However, many of these pieces will make a splendid sound on viols, and the balance between contrasting sections of slow or quick movement, of homophony or counterpoint, or of full or soloistic textures, is often finely judged. I would not want to listen to too many of Ward's fantasies in a row, as he can lapse into madrigalian cliches, such as repeating a decorated cadence around a circle of sties, but the best pieces have a surprising sense of direction. They really do sound like `so many Pathettical Stories, Rhetorical, and Sublime Discourses', to borrow the words of a 17th-century aficionado, Thomas Mace.
The surviving output, all instrumental consort music in two to five parts, of Richard Mico (not an Italian, but an English descendant of the French Micault family) appears in a first complete edition by Andrew Hanley. Mico converted to Catholicism early in life, and worked first for the Petre family (on whose estates he apparently had some contact with another, more famous musician connected with the family, William Byrd), and then, from around 1630, as organist to Queen Henrietta Maria. Mico's music, as one would expect, stands partway between the heritage of Byrd and the influence of Monteverdi. Indeed, a five-part fantasy by Mico forms the second half of `Latral'--Hanley identifies the first part as an untexted transcription of a section of a Monteverdi madrigal, `La tra'l sangu'e le morti'--showing, one might say, to what extent English composers creatively misunderstood their Italian models. Mico's handful of fantasies in two and three parts, while containing a few moments of appealing instrumental brilliance, seem for the most part slight and somewhat academic; but a good number of the four- and five-part pieces are in quite a different class. Mico at his best--and his best is very good indeed--seems close to Gibbons, even to Byrd, emulating the latter's virile sense of rhythm (such as the deployment of punchy triple-time passages within an overriding duple metre), his ability to evolve new themes organically from those that precede them, and his sonorous writing in any number of parts. Several of Mico's pieces also show a striking resemblance to the fantasias of Matthew Lock's Consort of Four Parts. Locke may have come across Mico's music in the queen's Catholic chapel, where Locke was appointed organist at the Restoration; the link between the two men certainly seems worthy of further investigation.
If here and there among these 1,200 pages I have found things to criticize or question, I hope that my great enjoyment in exploring these new pieces, explanations, theories and provocations has also been obvious. I have no doubt that these volumes will mean that more consort music is played, listened to, discussed, written about, perhaps even composed, and that will be a very good thing.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1996|
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