Music for viola da gamba
Paolo Pandolfo, violas da gamba
Recorded in San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Finca El Campillo), Spain, in September 1997
Produced by Sigrid Lee and Paolo Pandolfo
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A Solo: un viaggio
A Solo: a journey, a spatial-temporal itinerary across the many languages which have been given life by one of the most fascinating instruments of western music. Born at the beginning of the 16th century from the union between two families, both of Arab extraction, the lute (plucked) and the rebec (bowed), the viola da gamba brings together their characteristics, managing both to make harmony, like the lute, and to sing in imitation of the human voice, like the rebec. Renaissance Italy and Spain were the places of its first appearance and immediate splendour.
In the golden age of polyphony, the Concerto di Viole, or the family of violas da gamba from the bass to the treble, was the group of instruments which more than any other came close to the expressiveness of a vocal group, a link joining vocal and instrumental polyphony. Music of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries always has polyphony as the basis of its very structure, harmony made by several voices singing at the same time: a synthesis between the many and the one, between individual freedom and mutual interest, between the world of the "I" and the world of "all". The challenge of polyphony is the reconciliation of the freedom of single lines with the progressive unfolding of an overall architecture, a "common project" to which all the voices with their own characteristics may contribute in equal measure: the "many" which become "one".
It was predictable that the opposite challenge should also immediately arise, that of the "one" which becomes "many". Thus, practically contemporaneously with the flowering of the families of instruments appropriate for the performance of polyphonic works (flutes, trombones, cornettos, lutes, viols, etc.) there appeared single instruments able to master several voices on their own. The lute, the organ, the harpsichord and the viola da gamba, with different characteristics, were able to take up the challenge of single-instrument polyphony: the lute, which thanks to its many strings, to its frets and to its tuning in fourths, made it possible for the hand to play "chords", rich in dynamics but poor in legato, or in other words, vocal characteristics. The organ, which could reduce the most complex polyphony on the keyboard, with sustained sounds and perhaps much more legato than the lute, but deprived of dynamics (if one excludes those obtained by changes of register). The harpsichord, which, like the organ, brings the advantages of a large keyboard, but incapable of either dynamics or of legato. Finally, the viola da gamba, which, as a "lute played with the bow" was able both to "sing" and to make harmony. It is true that its polyphonic ability could not be as rigorous as that of the organ or the lute (it is obliged by the curvature of the bridge to play chords of more than two notes, and besides, the taut horsehair of the bow in a straight line would prevent it from playing at the same time low and high notes without "playing" the intermediate ones), but the "stylization" of the polyphonic fabric is amply compensated for by the intensity with which one may sing melodic lines, charged with all the legato and dynamics of the human voice. The instrumental limitations become moreover immediately "idiomatic", so that arpeggiated chords are one of the fascinating peculiarities of the viol.
Within the family of viols, the bass gradually established its identity without from the outset being obviously the instrument most appropriate for the performance of solo music. Its range in fact allowed it to play not only the bass voice, but with the progressive perfecting of technique, also the others, up to the treble, and it could therefore pass from one to the other evoking the game of polyphonic imitation with a display of virtuosity and agility, or to play full chords which would recall the sound of the Concerto di Viole.
The Spirit of Gambo (from the title of a piece by Tobias Hume1), the soul of the viol, is therefore made up of paradoxes, of unattainable utopias. The West which meets the East, the total freedom of song which is overlaid upon the rational game of polyphonic thought, the polyphony in fact which is contained within a single instrument. It is this continuous interweaving of these characteristics, of the unceasing dialectic between these manifold qualities, which gives life to the exceptional variety of sensations evoked then and still today by the sound of the viol..
From Diego Ortiz, born in Toledo in around 1510, viol player and master of the Chapel of the Spanish Viceroy, in Naples between 1558 and 1570, to Karl Friedrich Abel (Koeten 1723 - London 1787), at the same time the last of the players of the viola da gamba and prefiguring the classical style, is not a short step, containing, rather, practically the entire history of the viola da gamba, told here in its guise as an unaccompanied solo instrument...
In the Italy of the Renaissance, the viol was at the peak of its splendour as a general musical instrument, but it had also just discovered its determining role as a solo instrument. Diego Ortiz's own Tratado de Glosas (Rome, 1553) is among the most important texts in this respect: indeed, it includes the information necessary for the 16th century gamba player to learn to do diminutions or glosas, or to improvise either on the given lines of written polyphony (madrigals, chansons) or on the rhythms of dances such as the Passemezzo, the Folia, the Romanesca. Like any good improvisation manual, it supplies many written examples, which are astonishing for the modernity with which the rhythm is treated and for the rigour with which the polyphonic structure is respected. I offer here two Recercadas on bassi ostinati (tenors) in a version which, bringing together on the same viol both the bass and Ortiz's variations, yet being arbitrary does justice to that spirit of the "lute played with the bow", and the viola da gamba which played them from the beginning; in addition, numerous lutenists also took up the viol - nothing more likely therefore than that they did upon the viol that which was common practice on the lute, that is to say "intabulate" more voices of a composition, joining them all on the same instrument, and particularly the soprano and the bass... La Monicha, a song whose origins are lost in the Middle Ages and in popular tradition, known with slightly different texts in all European languages (Aria della Monicha, La jeune fillette, Ich ging einmal spazieren...), was amongst the best-known melodies between 1500 and 1600, and inspired generations of musicians between the renaissance and the baroque (one only has to think of Frescobaldi's Messa sopra la Monicha). In creating these "variations", I have sought to submerge myself in that improvisatory spirit which was a constant in the making of "variations upon a theme" during the whole of the renaissance (and not only...), and which is nowadays payed little heed. What I have done is simply to improvise lengthily on the Monicha theme, and these hours of pure improvisatory pleasure afterwards became the basis for a "definitive version" thanks to the "photographic" ability of recording, of some of the most successful variations; these are not, therefore, variations worked out theoretically, but of passages first improvised and then written down...
Its "journey" begun in Spain and Italy, the viol became widely diffused throughout Europe. It enjoyed its second period of splendour in England, where it was by far the most okayed instrument (together with the lute) for about a century, from the mid-16th century to the mid-17th, whether in groups or as a solo instrument, at the courts and palaces of the nobility. Tobias Hume is an example of just how far music and the viol at the beginning of the 17th century, were an integral part of the education of any Englishman of a certain social level. Hume was not a "professional" musician, but a "magnificent dilettante" who sought refuge in the sweet sounds of the viol when, tired of the clamour of war (he was in fact a captain in the army), he returned home to his castle. His being "non-professional" freed him, moreover, from intellectual constrictions and superstructures, making his compositions sometimes modern and sometimes archaizing, but always very lively and never academic. He published in 1605 Musicall Humors and in 1607 Poeticall Musicke1. Music for the viola da gamba in England was linked to a technique of scordatura curiously similar to that in use in Italy at the same time... In Italy, indeed, there flourished between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th music for the viola bastarda, which made ample use of scordatura in order to obtain within the limits of the six strings the widest compass possible, alternating the intervals of the fifth and the fourth on the open strings. The same tuning (like many others) may be found in the sources of music for the "lyra-viol", in which by "lyra" was doubtless understood a predominantly (if not exclusively) harmonic, chordal instrument (lirone da gamba...).
Thanks to scordatura the Italians obtained a large compass, but continued to utilize the viol as an essentially monodic instrument (Rognioni, Dalla Casa, Bassani, Bonizzi, etc.). In England, on the other hand, by means of the same scordature a taste for the incantatory sound of full chords, rich in resonance, which scordature allowed, was developed. There was an incredible flowering of compositions for lyra-viol, in which the taste for this almost private and rich sound with popular overtones was perhaps the real centre of compositional interest. William Corkine (who lived in England during the first half of the 16th century) and Tobias Hume (c. 1569 - c. 1645) are two of the most outstanding names of this current. Among the pieces in this programme, those by Corkine (taken from Ayres to sing and to play to the Lute and the Bass Viol..., London 1612) employ scordatura while those of Hume (A Pavan, taken from Musicall Humors, London 1605) and of Richard Sumarte (taken from one of the principal sources of music for the lyra-viol, the Manchester Gamba Book, Ms Brm/832) are conceived for the canonical tuning for the viol, but played in the "lyra-way", that is, with chords and ample use of dialogue between several voices. All these, with the exception perhaps of Hume's Pavan (of which the third part is in reality a Romanesca), have a strong popular component, and are based on famous vocal pieces of the time (Daphne, Woope doe me no harm, Come live with me) or on dances of clearly popular inspiration (The Punckes delight).
The third stage of the viol's "journey" was France, where between the mid-1600s and the first thirty years of the 1700s, it was the instrument par excellence of the aristocracy, in which the grandeur and the fragility of the most magnificent of the European courts found its greatest expression through viol players such as Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray2. During their lifetimes, these were able to oppose a completely "French" style of playing and musical thought to the invasion of the new Italian violinistic instrumental style (Corelli...). The querelle between French music and Italian music, as well as the decadence of the viola da gamba, are described and illustrated in a booklet published by Henry Le Blanc in 1740 in Amsterdam, entitled La D?fense de la Basse de Viole contre les Entreprises du Violon et les Pr?tensions du Violoncel.
French music for the basse de viole (bass viol), of the highest artistic level, of great refinement and of a similarly high instrumental level, marked the height of the splendour of the viola da gamba, which, as often happens, coincided with its inevitable and unstoppable decline. Already Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, son of Antoine and just as much a virtuoso, turned to other courts in order to communicate the art itself to men more sensitive to the fascination of the viol, and around the mid 1700s he had as his illustrious pupil the future King Frederick William II of Prussia. The latter, however, after some years of application, abandoned the viol for the violoncello, and was in 1796 the dedicatee of the Sonate per Violoncello of Ludwig van Beethoven.
If there is a word to express a characteristic common to almost all French viol music, it is "synthesis": synthesis of the various idioms which were proper to the viol up to that point (Italian, English, melodic, harmonic...). The viol is a complete, self-sufficient instrument, rich in expressive means as few others are. A consistent share of this repertory is made up of Suites of dances, in which the viol is the rhythmic motor of movements (real or merely suggested...), steps, gestures. Another, equally important, part of the French repertory, is made up of so-called pi?ces de caract?re, descriptive pieces which, without a fixed rhythmic or formal structure (such as that of the dances), left ample space for the invention of atmosphere and colours... Le Badinage and Les Voix Humaines belong to this last category. Though they appear in the publications of Marin Marais (respectively Quatri?me Livre, Paris 1717 and Deuxi?me Livre, 1701) with a basso continuo, they turn out to be complete even without accompaniment, in that the "solo viol" brings together in itself the entire harmonic fabric; a certain fragility and emotionalism innate to them is thus greatly emphasized by performance "on solo viol" which I often prefer, as a performer, to the fuller version with the basso continuo, even the most discreet...
De Machy's Pr?lude (from Pi?ces de Viole, Paris 1685) is, in my opinion, among the most important of all compositions for viola da gamba: in it the entire musical heritage is elaborated and set out anew in a language in such a convincingly "violistic" language that it is a real point of reference both on the compositional level and that of the aesthetics of sound. In the form of a fantasia, it explores the registers of the viol from the lowest to the highest, with a naturalness of gesture and movement which truly make of the viol "the queen of instruments". The Aire en rondeau by Mr St. Colombe le Fils (from Durham, Ms A27) won me over by its extreme simplicity and consummate delicacy, and for that reason I wished it to be part of the very select group of French pi?ces which are at the centre of this programme.
The history of the viol in Germany is that of a nation which between the 17th and 18th centuries went in search of its own cultural identity. The great producers of culture were actually Italy and France, and the German Courts were nourished by Italian and French art and philosophy while they prepared that process of synthesis which had given impetus to the explosion of the new German culture, begun in around the mid-1700s and continued by the whole romantic movement.
Johann Sebastian Bach, with the objectivity of an "external" observer, was able to synthesize the two great musical schools of the baroque, the French and the Italian, giving life to an absolutely original style, which was the starting point for the movement on from the baroque style. In the context of Bach's output, the viola da gamba would undergo a singular treatment: the Sonate per Viola da Gamba e Clavicembalo (BWV 1027-1029)3 actually belong to the genre of the trio sonata, that is, concertante sonatas for two instruments or "voices" and basso continuo, a composition for ensemble in general, therefore, in which Bach employs the viol on a par with any other monodic instrument, completely ignoring the typical "gambistic" style of alternation between chords and melody, and making use of the viol therefore in only one of its capacities. For the rest, the aria Komm, s??es Kreuz from the St Matthew Passion provides proof that he knew to perfection that instrumental style. This is, however, the only example of genuinely "gambistic" writing in his work. In my opinion this is a question of great importance, since Bach, with his Suites for Violoncello (BWV 1007-1012) uses a polyphonic (and therefore gambistic) style of writing for the 'cello, which had been used until then almost exclusively as an ensemble instrument and always employing rigorously monodic writing. It is not only the style of writing which is of interest, but also the very form in which Bach organized his pieces: the suite of dances was in fact the most usual form in the viol's solo repertoire, the for m through which the "gambistic" instrumental idiom became defined and characterized in France in the 17th-18th centuries. We are therefore in the presence of two characteristics typical of pieces for the viola da gamba which are transferred in one fell swoop to the 'cello. Paradoxically, one might say that the six Suites for Violoncello are Bach's real compositions for viol: ideal transcriptions of the hypothetical Suites for Viola da Gamba, carried out with the precise intention of transferring the extremely rich instrumental and musical heritage of the viol to the 'cello; from an instrument which had known the splendour of expansion to another which was destined to replace it. If it is true that for Suite 1011(2) there also exists an autograph version for lute which makes transcription for gamba even more inviting, and also true that the practice of transcribing works from one instrument to another was so common in the baroque (Bach himself transcribed an enormous amount, from others and from himself...), one may be more than certain that one is not committing any transgression in transcribing the Suite n? 4 BWV 1010 for viol, if it thereby affords the now numerous gamba players of the 20th century an enrichment of the repertory thanks to a composition of great expressive strength and compositional rigour, which adapts itself perfectly to the viol, almost as if it were conceived for thie instrument...
It was with the classical style that Germany came to the world's attention as a great producer of art and culture, and Karl Friedrich Abel, apart from being one of the very last virtuosos of the gamba, was one of the most interesting exponents of that transitional style which yet had its roots well within the baroque and capable of astonishing intuitions worthy of the greatest names of "classical" and "romantic" music (and I am thinking in particular of the Adagio in d minor, a masterly example of formal balance, pathos, gestual grace, singability...). The pieces in this programme are taken from Ms Drexel 5871 (New York Public Library). Staddling the baroque and the classical, Empfindsamkeit and Sturm und Drang, galant style and romanticism, Abel holds out the gamba towards the future, at the same time writing the "swansong" and the "spiritual will" of an instrument which, born in the South of Europe from contact with Islamic cultures, had ridden the currents of western music marking with its song another three centuries of history...
A Solo is a short piece for solo viol. Already conceived as a Tombeau, it acquired its definitive meaning when, having to finish this recording, I was unfortunately unable to be present to address my last greeting to Angela. I am pleased to be able to suggest with this a "present" life for the viol, now present in our musical panorama as an "early music" instrument, but still very little as an instrument able to express our life as humans at the end of the millennium.
-Paolo Pandolfo (Translated by Ivan Moody)