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Like most inovations in European musical history, the viol came late to England. The instrument had been developed as a consort or matched set of different sizes in northern Italy in the 1490s, using a bowed version of the Spanish vihuela as a model, hence its five or six strings, its guitar-lite flat back and its frets. Within twenty years the viol was a familiar feature of musical like in the courts and wealthier towns of northern Europe, though the first complete viol consort apparently did not cross the Channel until 1540, when a group of six Jewish-Italian string players arrived at Henry VIII's court from Venice. Its use was largely confined to the court and the households of prominent courtiers until about 1600, when amateurs began to take it up in large numbers. So there are in effect two separate repertories of English viol music. The first, explored in this recording, was developed at Queen Elizabeth's court in the 1570s and 80s by court composers, and was played mainly by professionals. The more familiar second repertory, the so-called "Golden Age" of English viol music developed in the early seventeenth century during the reigns of James I and Charles I, and was intended mainly or amateurs.
The Elizabethan consort repertory essentially consists of three types of music, all represented on this recording. The earliest and simplest type is based on dance forms and idioms. The five groups of dances recorded here all come from a manuscript, now in the British Library, that seems to have been arranged for a professional group of dance musicians in the 1550s. They were partly copied by a Flemish immigrant musician. Derick Gerarde, who may have been in the service of the Earl of Arundel, but some of the pieces, at least, seem to be by court musicians. The "Pavin of Albarti" and its galliard (Nos. 1, 2) are probably by Albert of Venice (d. 1557), one ot the members of the Jewish-Italian court string consort, while the pavan and galliard (Nos, 24, 25) is labelled "Innocents", perhaps a reference to his colleague Innocent of Cremona (d.1603) who joined the group in 1550.
Some of the pieces are clearly derived from, or influenced by, Continental repertories of dance music. The anonymous pavan (No. 19) has a harmonic structure that is little more than an elaboration of two Italian ground basses, the Passamezzo antico and the Romanesca while Albert of Venice's pavan is a variant of a popular French piece, called "Si je m'en vois" in 1555 by Gervaise and "Belle qui tiens ma vie" in Arbeau's Orchesographie, and "Allemana d'amor" (No.15) is a version of a piece found in Flemish and German sources from the 1560s to the 1590s. Several of the others, such as the "Desperada" (No.5), the "Ronda" and its represa (nos. 10, 11), and the "Brandeberges" and its represa (Nos.20, 21), are similar to the rondes and recoupes in Tielman Susato's dance collection, published in 1551. Nevertheless, there are also some distinctively English pieces, such as the tuneful allemande (No.7), with its characteristic false relations, or the expansive galliard (No. 12), which anticipates the rhythmically-complex galliards of the later Elizabethan period.
Although dance music was undoubtedly played on viols at the time, most of the repertory was derived in some way from vocal music. The earliest Italian viol consorts had played chansons and motets, and the tradition was continued in England. John Taverner's "Quemadmodum" (No. 17) is evindently a transcription of a six-part motet, a setting of Psalm 41 "Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum", though it does not survive in a version with words. Similarly, the five-part, "O mater mundi" (No. 23) may also have been a motet, a setting of a Marian text, though its title could just be a pun on the composer's name; it is ascribed to "Mr. Mundy", which is problably the Chapel Royal composer William (d. 1591) rather than his son John (d. 1630), organist of St. George's Chapel, Windsor.
The best illustration of how vocal music was adapted for the viols is the In Nomine. About 150 pieces with his title service, all based on the same plainsong cantus firmus, derived from a section of the Benedictus of John Taverner's mass "Gloria tibi Trinitas" at the words "In nomine Donini". Taverner's orginal piece, probably written in the late 1520s whan the composer was working at Cardinal College (now Christ Church), Oxford, was detached from the rest of the mass and survives in instrumental transcriptions, and some of the early In Nomines, such as the anonymous five-part setting (No. 3) or the five-part setting by Robert White (No. 9), are clearly direct imitations of it. Later In Nomines, such as the five-part one by the Canterbury composer Clement Woodcock (No. 13) or the five-and six-part ones by the London organist Nicholas Strogers (Nos. 4,.22), are further removed from the prototype, and sorround the cantus firmus with livelier and faster-movig imitative counterpoint. Perhaps the high point of the Elizabethan In Nomine repertory is the pair of sonorous pieces in seven parts (No.27,29) attributed to Robert Parsons , the great Chapel Royal composer who was problably only in his thirties when he drowned in the River Trent in January 1570.
The third and most sophisticated type of Elizabethan consort music is represented here by three contrapuntal pieces that are not tied to vocal models, and are written idiomatically for instruments. Woodcock's "Browning my dear" (No. 8) is one of several Elizabethan pieces based on a popular tune, also known as "The leaves be green". The tune, heard in lowest part the the opening, is continually passed from instrument to instrument. "The sang called trumpets" (No. 28) is a remarkable piece that evokes
the antiphonal fanfares and simple harmonies, of Renaissance trumpet bands, though the piece is clearly not actually written for trumpets, for Parsons does not restrict himself to the restricted notes available on the natural trumpet. William Daman's "Di sei soprani" (No. 18) in an extraordinary tour deforce, a sonorous, densely imitative piece written for six soprano instruments. Daman seems to have been an Italian from Lucca who served in the court recorder consort from 1576 until his death in March 1591. Like the fantasias of William Byrd, the piece marks the moment when English consort music finally outgrew it dependence on vocal music, dance music or imitative effects.
- Peter Holman