Instrumental Forms in England through 1635: Keyboard Music

Instrumental music in the late Renaissance can be divided into three main classes, keyboard, lute, and ensemble, and it is in the first of these that English composers were pre-eminent. From Hugh Aston to John Bull, the greatest virtuoso of them all, they show a far clearer and more imaginative grasp of keyboard technique and style than any of their contemporaries abroad, and a greater feeling for the distinctive characteristics of stringed keyboard as opposed to organ music. Thus while most keyboard music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was played indiscriminately on either organ, harpsichord, or clavichord, those pieces, far commoner in England than elsewhere, in which very rapid scale passages and, more especially, broken chord figures, arpeggios, and brilliant ornamentation occur, are much more effective and were clearly intended for the latter two instruments, while pieces containing a melody in long notes with elaborate figuration above or below, or in which the style is basically vocal, are more suitable for the organ. These last predominate in the earlier sources of English keyboard music, not only because most of the composers represented were organists, but also because it is simpler and usually wiser to proceed from the known (in this case vocal techniques) to the unknown (characteristic keyboard style).

The vocal technique that occurs most frequently in the early keyboard sources stems from the cantus firmus mass and motet; in other words, a Gregorian chant is either written in long notes with a florid accompaniment or else paraphrased and shared between three or four equally important parts. For example, in the Mulliner Book, compiled by an organist, Thomas Mulliner, between c. 1545 and c. 1585 and the most important of the earlier collections of keyboard music, over half of the 121 pieces are based on chants, and nearly all the remaining ones are vocal in style, even when they are not simple transcriptions of actual part-songs and anthems. Nearly one quarter are by John Redford; Thomas Tallis and William Blitheman have considerably fewer, while John Taverner and Christopher Tye have only one each.

The chant most widely used in the Mulliner Book is 'Gloria tibi Trinitas', an antiphon for second vespers on Trinity Sunday. This melody became more popular than any other as the cantus firmus of a whole class of compositions, unique to England, written for lute and strings as well as keyboard, and called 'In nomines'. The explanation of this title has only recently been discovered, and is as follows: one of Taverner's masses is based on the above chant, and in the Benedictus section, at the words 'in nomine Domini', it is presented complete and unelaborated in notes of equal value in the alto part, while the other voices weave points of imitation above and below. This is a particularly beautiful passage, and doubtless Taverner was as anxious to make the most of it as many later composers have been with pieces they have regarded as more than usually attractive, and so he arranged it for the organ. But Taverner was not alone in thinking highly of this passage, for not only is his organ arrangement included in the Mulliner Book, but it was also transcribed for both lute and string ensemble and, moreover, twice adapted to English words and sung as an anthem, one of these adaptations being printed in Day's Certaine notes. The enormous popularity of the piece itself led other composers to set the same cantus firmus, and during the succeeding 150 years or so literally hundreds of In nomines were written, the last and among the finest examples being Purcell's two settings in six and seven parts. It is worth noting, in view of the claim made earlier concerning the exceptionally prominent position of instrumental music in England, that the In nomine for strings was the only type of composition in Europe in which a beginner could participate with experts, for the vast majority of these, by presenting the chant melody in long notes and placing it in one part throughout, make this part extremely easy to play.

About a fifth of the Mulliner Book consists of arrangements of secular vocal pieces, but this does not mean that they were not played on the organ, for while this was probably the case with the great organ (used exclusively in churches and chapels) it was certainly not true of the positive or the regal, as both these instruments were used as much outside the church as in. (The portative had fallen into disuse during the. fifteenth century because it was virtually impossible to play part-music on it.)

The most striking thing about the Mulliner Book is that there are only two dances and no variations--the two most popular types of keyboard composition with later composers, as is shown by the contents of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, the most important source of English keyboard music in the late Renaissance. This was compiled by a Catholic Cornishman, Francis Tregian, during a term of imprisonment between 1609 and his death in 1619, and of its nearly 300 pieces, which include every type of English keyboard composition of the time, nearly half are dances and almost an eighth are variations. This latter fraction, however, does not take into account the widespread application of variation technique, for almost all the dances are made up of several sections, each of which is followed by a varied and often elaborate repeat.

The sixteenth century has well been called the 'century of the dance', for just as society in the fourteenth century rebelled against the suppression of dancing by the Church in the previous century, so did that of the late Renaissance after ecclesiastical authority had reinforced its ban during the fifteenth century. The result was a whole host of new dances, of which the most important were the 'pavane' (the first printed example appearing in 1508), a slow dance in duple time almost certainly of Spanish origin, which virtually replaced the earlier French basse danse in European esteem; the 'gaillarde' (English 'galliard'), a fairly quick dance in triple time first printed in 1530; and the 'passamezzo' or 'step and a half', an Italian dance in duple time and slightly quicker than the pavane, which it replaced in Italy during the second half of the century. The passamezzo, like the basse danse, is constructed on a simple series of notes that are repeated a number of times and placed in the lowest part (in England this was called a 'ground'); unlike the earlier dance, however, which is based on one of several grounds, the passamezzo had only a choice of two. The use of a ground as the basis for a set of variations was later applied to many pavanes and galliards after c. 1560, and represents the earliest and one of the most popular types of variation writing in the late Renaissance. In addition there was the Italian saltarello, a quicker dance than in the fourteenth century, but not so quick as the modern type, as exemplified, for instance, in the last movement of Mendelssohn's 'Italian' Symphony; it is in triple time, and in Italy was sometimes used as an alternative for the galliard. The allemande, of German origin, was a moderately slow dance in duple time that became popular after c.1550, as did the French courante--a quick dance in triple time.

Examples of all the above dances except the saltarello are in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and nearly two-thirds of these are pavanes and galliards, many of them based on the passamezzo technique of variations on a ground. In addition, there are a handful of dances not mentioned above, including the English jig.

As already stated, the earliest type of keyboard variation is that constructed on a ground bass, and the oldest example we have is a piece entitled My Lady Carey's Dompe, contained in the same manuscript as Hugh Aston's Hornpype. 'Dompe' or 'dump' most likely means a composition written in memory of someone-at any rate, most of the dumps that have survived are associated with some usually high-ranking personage, as in the example mentioned, where the lady in question is probably the sister of Anne Boleyn and wife of Henry Carey; she died in 1543. The bass 'themes' of the dumps, like most other grounds, are extremely simple and sometimes consist of two notes only-tonic and dominant.

Other types of variation are those in which the tune is kept in the top part all through, often being considerably elaborated, while the accompaniment changes, or in which the tune wanders from part to part rather like the old cantus-firmus mass technique, or in which the figuration, which may elaborate the tune itself or provide an ornamental accompaniment, is placed, usually alternately, in either bass or treble.

The rest of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is made up, in order of frequency, of fantasias, cantus-firmus pieces, pieces with descriptive titles, and transcriptions of vocal part-music. The fantasias, with their successive points of imitation and essentially strict part-writing, are the most closely allied to vocal style of all the keyboard types of composition, and are as effective, if not more so, on the organ as on the virginal. This also applies to most of those pieces based on a cantus firmus, among which are two by Thomas Tallis based on the chant Felix namque and dated 1562 and 1564 respectively. In both the cantus firmus is repeated a number of times, switched from part to part, and accompanied by figuration which becomes increasingly complex; indeed, some of the figuration is not only unique among contemporary English pieces, but quite astonishing in its complexity and sense of keyboard style, and may, in part at any rate, have been inspired by the Spanish composer Cabezón. The cantus-firmus pieces also include a number of In nomines, and several which use part or whole of the hexachord scale. William Byrd, for example, constructed an entire composition on ut, mi, re, which, in terms of actual notes, becomes G B A, or C E D, or F A G, but he does not keep strictly to these three note groups, as he starts the motif and its inversion on various degrees of the scale. John Bull went much further than this in a now famous piece in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book also based on the hexachord that could only have been played on a keyboard tuned to something like our present system of equal temperament, in which the octave is divided into twelve. equal semitones, and all the intervals except the octave are slightly mistuned compared to the natural scale. Most of the chromatic notes in, the above pieces had been recognized theoretically since the beginning of the fifteenth century, but only a limited number were used in practice, and even by Bull's time no other keyboard work contained such a wide range, although a few sixteenth-century lute and viol pieces employed even more out-of-the-way notes.

The widespread practice of word-painting in vocal music was reflected in keyboard compositions with descriptive and fanciful titles. These were particularly popular in England and range from delightfully whimsical little pieces, such as Giles Farnaby's Dreame, His Rest, and His Humour, to more elaborate and frankly programmatic works, such as the fantasia by John Mundy, which describes a succession of thunderstorms ending with 'A Cleare Day', Byrd's charming and most skilfully written The Bells, and the same composer's suite, The Battell. This last may well have been inspired by Janequin's famous chanson, La Guerre. Such arrangements of vocal music, however, were comparatively rare in England, and most of these are by the Catholic Peter Philips, a fine composer of motets and to a lesser extent madrigals, who left England c. 1590 and spent the rest of his life abroad, mostly in the Netherlands, and who, as a result, was considerably more influenced by Continental practices than his compatriots.

Another Englishman who spent much of his creative life abroad was John Bull, and such was the reputation he made as a keyboard player and composer during his visits to the Netherlands, France, and Germany in 1601 that he was recalled by Elizabeth, who feared he might accept a position at one of the foreign courts. Twelve years later, however, he left England for good, and in 1617 was appointed organist of Antwerp Cathedral, a post he held till his death. Bull was the most virtuosic of all the Renaissance writers for the keyboard, and played the leading part in transmitting English keyboard style to Continental musicians. In fact, there is a direct line of succession from him to Bach. Much of his music, while fascinating to the student of keyboard technique, is rather dry, even downright dull, but occasionally, as in the well-known The King's Hunt, usually ascribed to him, or in the Walsingham variations, the music is both brilliant and attractive, and some of his simpler pieces are perfectly exquisite in their strangely delicate harmony and melody.

That Bull's reputation as a keyboard composer exceeded William Byrd's was undoubtedly due to his virtuosity as a performer and the technical difficulty of much of his music (he has, indeed, been called the Liszt of his age), for neither in quantity nor quality does it equal that of the older man. Admittedly, there are many pieces by Byrd which are tedious or commonplace harmonically, or in which stock rhythmic and melodic figures are used mechanically, but in most of these there are movements of beauty' and a greater number than in Bull's output show a high level of inspiration. Other important writers for the keyboard were Giles Farnaby, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins, Thomas Morley, and Peter Philips; all of them, while composing far fewer works than either Byrd or Bull, contributed many fine pieces, some of which are perfect gems.

The two most outstanding features of English keyboard music, apart from its advanced technique, are melodic freshness and harmonic clarity. Both have already been mentioned in connexion with the madrigal and ayre, but, compared to Continental examples, they are much more distinctive in compositions for the virginal than in any other sphere. Another feature (and one that applies to other countries as well) is the inevitable intrusion of imitative part-writing, even though the instrument does not take kindly to polyphony, and the vast majority of keyboard pieces are shot through with brief and often telling rhythmic or melodic motives which are passed from part to part. As we should expect, this feature is particularly evident in Byrd's output, much less so in Bull's, and as a result, when inspiration flags, Byrd's polyphonic skill keeps our interest alive, whereas with Bull we tend to tire of mere brilliance. The combination of this imitative by-play with the melodic, harmonic, and technical characteristics mentioned above result at its best in music that is ravishing to the ear and fascinating to the mind, and which in general ranks higher than any other instrumental music of the time, either English or Continental.

Most of this music was played on the virginal rather than the clavichord, for the latter was never as popular as the former either in England or abroad, and only in Germany during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did it in any way rival the virginal; while the delicate, sensuous beauty of clavichord tone and its expressive subtlety is superior to that of the harpsichord, its lack of volume is probably the main reason why it was overshadowed by the latter instrument. Another reason may well have been the impossibility of re-tuning easily certain notes, because to alter the position of the tangent would be a major operation; moreover, if the pair of strings was tightened in order to sound one note, then the other note or notes produced from the same pair would be thrown out of tune.

During the latter part of the sixteenth century another set of strings tuned an octave higher than the original unison sets was added to Italian harpsichords, and slightly later another row of jacks was so placed that the plectra plucked one of the unison sets near the end, producing a hard but brilliant tone (lute stop). There were thus four rows of jacks, two for the unison strings and one each for the octave set and lute stop, and as these could be operated either alone or with any of the others a number of variations of both timbre and volume were possible.

This large harpsichord does not seem to have been made in England, but it is certain that the English definition of virginal included it as well as the simple type with only two unison sets of strings, because many of the pieces by the later virginalists were undoubtedly written for the larger instrument, this being imported from abroad, especially from Antwerp, where the most famous family of harpsichord-makers, the Ruckers, whose instruments have never been surpassed in purity and beauty of tone, flourished from c. 1550 to c.1670.

Almost the entire corpus of English keyboard composition remained in manuscript, the only exceptions being Parthenia, or the Maydenhead of the First Musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalles (1611), containing twenty-one pieces by Byrd, Bull, and Gibbons, and its sequel, Parthenia In-violata or Mayden-Musicke for the Virginalls and Bass-Viol (c. 1614), containing twenty anonymous pieces. The chief reason why so little was published was almost certainly the difficulty of setting up movable type so that clusters of short notes, particularly semiquavers and dernisemiquavers, were accurately aligned with the longer ones, and although this difficulty could be partially overcome by engraving, as in the two prints mentioned above (though even here the notes are very badly spaced), this was a much more costly process. Contributory reasons, already referred to in connexion with Anglican music, were the widespread habit of copying and the likelihood of a small sale, the number of people who could afford or play a virginal being small.

Index of Keyboard Composers   |   The Research Periods   |   IV M: England Through 1635