English Consort Music

The difficulty of aligning the notes on two staves that bedevilled the printing of keyboard music did not arise with lute or ensemble music, the former being set in tablature and the latter being printed in part-books, as in vocal music. We should therefore expect more publications in these two fields, and so indeed there are, and during the thirty years or so from Whythorne's Duos, or Songs for two voices(1590) --the first print of English instrumental music, as all the items were intended to be either played or sung--a number of pieces for ensemble were published, some of them in madrigal books, likeThomas Morley's nine two-part fantasias contained in his Canzonets for Two Voyces, and some of them as separate collections, like Orlando Gibbons' nine three-part fantasias (c. 1610), his first published work and the earliest example in England of music engraved on copper.

The instrumental ensembles of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were called in England 'consorts', a misspelling of 'concert' which, like 'concerto', probably comes from the Latin verb consererewith its past participle consertus,meaning 'to combine together'. Consorts were either 'whole' or 'broken,' the former and by far the most popular consisting of members of the same family, as 'consort of viols' or 'consort of recorders', and the latter of various instruments, as in Morley's Booke of Consort Lessons (1599), which is 'scored' for treble and bass viols, flute (=recorder), lute, cittern, and pandora. The practice of playing in 'whole consort' began in fact in the latter part of the fifteenth century, but this did not become widespread until the following century. Most consort music is for treble, alto, tenor, and bass viols, and the two main types of composition are the fantasia, and that based on a cantus firmus. Of the latter the In nomines easily exceed not only other cantus firmus pieces, but also the number of In nomines written for the keyboard or lute , the reason being that this type of composition is a fundamentally polyphonic one, and hence lends itself more naturally to, and indeed sounds better on, a group of strings than on a single instrument, even an organ. Polyphony, in fact, is a far more essential constituent of extended string writing (as Haydn discovered after he had written a number of string quartets) than any other class of vocal or instrumental composition, because, being completely abstract (i.e. no words) and with only a limited range of timbre, the ear requires more than just accompanied melody, although this is perfectly satisfactory in short pieces, such as dance movements. This fact also explains the greater number of fantasias for strings than for keyboard or lute, because the. fantasia consists, in the main, of imitative polyphony and, like the cantus-firmus type, usually differs little in technique and style from the contemporary motet or madrigal. In some of the later fantasias, however, especially those of Gibbons--the greatest master of this type of composition--the writing is decidedly instrumental in character, with rapid, repeated notes and wide leaps, and with more complex cross-rhythms and frequent use of sequence than in any vocal music of the time.

Several of Gibbons's fantasias are divided into two or more contrasting sections; for instance, an imitative first section in duple time will be followed by a simple, minuet-like second section in triple time, and a final imitative section in duple time, sometimes thematically related to the first section. Thematic relationship between different parts of an instrumental work, which occurs in fantasias by composers other than Gibbons, may well have developed from the practice of pairing pavanes and galliards, many of which are linked by similarity of melody and harmony.

Dance pieces for consorts are few compared either to the number of fantasia and cantus-firmus compositions or to the number written for the virginal (the organ can be counted out for this kind of music), probably because viols lack the rhythmic 'bite' which the plucking action of the virginal gives, even though it is less capable of producing strong and weak accents. Admittedly, much of the dance music from the late sixteenth century onwards, because of its melodic, rhythmic, and polyphonic complexity, was not meant to be danced to, just as in the suites of Bach or the symphonic minuets of Haydn and Mozart, but its fundamentally rhythmic nature was still felt, and rightly so, to be more effective on a plucked or hit stringed instrument than on one that was bowed, hence the enormous number of dance suites for the harpsichord in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The leading composers of consort music, apart from Gibbons, were Byrd,Morley, Coperario, Thomas Lupo, an Italian who settled in England, and Alfonso Ferrabosco II. Coperario, the most prolific writer of fantasias, visited Italy c. 1604 and acquired a lyricism and lightness that influenced his compatriots on his return home, and it is noteworthy and typical of Continental influence that, compared to their output, A far higher proportion of his pieces are arrangements of vocal compositions. Ferrabosco, a better composer than Coperario, has left us some exquisite dances and extremely fine fantasias, two being of exceptional interest, one for four and the other for five viols. In both pieces Ferrabosco manages his modulations more smoothly than does Bull.

The intimate polyphonic nature of music for viol consort gives much greater pleasure to the performers for whom, as in the normal madrigal, it was primarily intended than to the listener, for although the viol is, within a limited range, a most expressive instrument, the lack of brilliance and resonance and the fact that the beauty and structure of the music are only fully revealed to those who commune together in performing it make it less acceptable to the 'outsider' than the less sensitive but more brilliant virginal.

In addition to the four viols mentioned earlier and the violone, there were two solo instruments, a small bass called the 'division viol' because it was chiefly used to play divisions (i.e. variations) on a ground, and the 'lyra viol', an even smaller bass which, with its flatter bridge that decreases the difference in level between the strings and its slacker bow, is capable of playing several strings simultaneously, and hence can perform part-music more effectively than can the other viols.

The Research Periods   |  IV M: England Through 1635