John Dowland and the lost English Consort School of chamber music

Clockwise from upper left: William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Matthew Locke, William Lawes

In 2006, Sting came out with Songs from the Labyrinth, an album devoted to the Elizabethan composer John Dowland. It was an unlikely choice of musical material for a rock star, yet Sting approached Dowland with enthusiasm and respect, refraining from rendering his songs into pop or setting them to a rock beat (as Richard Thompson for example has done with various Renaissance tunes and Italian madrigals). He employed a professional lutenist, Edin Karamazov, and accompanied some of the pieces on the lute himself, a new passion of his acquired for the recording project. And showing restraint and taste, Sting did not attempt to sing the songs in the stylized “classical” manner but used his voice’s natural register to adopt at times a relaxed and conversational, at times a more hushed or emphatic tone to suit each song’s occasion.

The result was oddly compelling and delightful. In the decade since the recording was released, the album’s Amazon page has accumulated over 200 largely favorable customer reviews. The minority of negative reviewers are not, as one might suspect, regular Sting fans baffled by his newfound classical preoccupation, but finicky classical purists upset with his vocal incompetence, his nerve in attempting something out of his league. Yet they missed the point. The rocker’s homespun approach revealed the music’s texture in a fresh way, and moreover reflected the actual conditions in which Dowland’s music was often performed, namely by musician friends in a relaxed and intimate setting.

Dowland appeals to us in that he shares certain affinities with the modern notion of the artist — the artist as alienated, rebellious iconoclast, misunderstood by society, striking out on his own in proud defiance of convention. The English long for a Caravaggio, Beethoven or Van Gogh to call their own (actually they do have one: Shakespeare, but he’s not neurotic enough). Dowland can, partially at any rate, be said to fit the bill. He is indeed an enigmatic and somewhat tragic figure, in the Greek sense, his fate largely self-inflicted. Before we investigate the reasons for this, and what it all has to do with the point of this essay, we need to slip some decades back in time, to the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the extraordinary story of her chief court musician, Alfonso Ferrabosco.

Elizabeth and Ferrabosco

The Tudors took music very seriously. Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII was a composer. To ensure the court was surrounded by cutting-edge musicians of the highest caliber, he hired them from Italy, the musical center of Europe. Two musical families of Jewish heritage, the Bassano’s and the Lupo’s, permanently established themselves at the English court in the 1540s, when Elizabeth was a young girl (the tradition of Jewish excellence in classical music carries on even today). She herself had thorough musical training. Music was taken for granted in royal life; any man not skilled on the lute, or woman on the virginal, was uncultivated and boorish. It was constantly at hand, performed by musicians of the court and the church, by courtiers and the Queen herself — an endless stream of hymns, dances, songs, anthems. It’s hard to imagine the like in our time, as if the most important item on the resume of White House staffers up to the President himself was proficiency on a musical instrument (a vestige of this survives in the popular musical acts given the honor of performing at White House state dinners). Incidentally, two recent books explore the possibility that Amelia Bassano, born in 1569 of the same family, was the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Sally O’Reilly, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady) or that she was actually the author of Shakespeare’s plays (John Hudson, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady).

Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1558 at the age of 25. Not long after this, a few years perhaps, we find a teenage musician from Italy, Alfonso Ferrabosco, suddenly appearing at the English court. By 1562, his status was such that at the age of 19 he was hired full-time at the generous annual salary of £66 (raised to £100 five years later, or about USD $40,000 in modern currency). This must have been humiliating for the established court musicians, normally regarded as menial workers and paid on a part-time basis. The circumstances of the boy’s hiring aren’t known, whether, that is, a young musician of fresh blood had been sought after by Elizabeth, or Ferrabosco’s family had sent him there on rumors of handsome employment opportunities; in any case there was no apparent involvement by the Bassano or Lupo families.

Despite his great position of privilege as the Queen’s top musician, Ferrabosco bumbled his way throughout his career with one misstep and mishap after another. A year later in 1563, he was back in Italy to deal with unknown family matters. Forbidden from leaving Italy (due to England’s apostate status with the Church), Ferrabosco snuck back. At this point he had grown friendly with the Queen’s favorite (and alleged lover) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who made him master of his horse. Leicester himself had become the Queen’s Master of the Horse in 1558 and was frequently seen riding with her; I imagine the three of them often rode together. Dudley and Ferrabosco would certainly have been useful to each other, Ferrabosco conveying Dudley’s messages to the Queen whenever out of favor with her, and Dudley speaking on Ferrabosco’s behalf when the Queen grew impatient over his frequent absences abroad.

In 1569 the Queen legally bound Ferrabosco to her in perpetual service as chief musician of the court. In the same year Ferrabosco was in Italy again, where he remained for the next two years. He wrote letters to the Secretary of State William Cecil with various excuses for his delays; he was in danger of losing his family inheritance due to his previous unlicensed trip to England (this indeed transpired upon his father’s death in 1574), he was robbed, etc. Back in England by 1572, he published his first compositions. Around that time he married a woman from Antwerp named Susanna and had a girl and a boy by her, the latter also named Alfonso. Perhaps because the children were born out of wedlock before their marriage took place, or the Church refused to recognize the marriage (Ferrabosco was Catholic), or Susanna wasn’t the actual mother of the two children, they were declared illegitimate.

Music was taken for granted in royal life; any man not skilled on the lute, or woman on the virginal, was uncultivated and boorish.

By 1575 his musical fame in England was such that he earned the praise of the two most prominent English composers at the time, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Meanwhile, some Venetian diplomats on a visit to the English court were struck by the fact they could only receive communications from the Queen through Ferrabosco, now serving as groom of her privy chamber. In 1577 word got out of secret visits by Ferrabosco to the French Ambassador to attend mass, scandalizing the court and embarrassing the Queen (Ferrabosco’s Catholicism had not been an issue as long as he maintained the pretense of no longer professing it). Two weeks later he was accused of killing a musician employed by the poet courtier Sir Philip Sidney, but had probably been framed by his enemies. Around this time, his annual salary was cut by half, and he succumbed to pressure to leave England, this time for good. A year later, the Queen hired Englishman John Johnson to take Ferrabosco’s place as chief court lutenist.

Remarkably, in spite of these events, Ferrabosco’s relationship with the Queen remained in good standing. A letter from Robert Dudley reassured him that she believed in his innocence regarding the murder. In fact she seemed to rely on him for many important matters of national security. While in France, he was entrusted by English officials acting on the Queen’s behalf to deliver thousands of pounds worth of currency and jewels (totaling as much as several million USD in today’s currency) to certain highly placed Englishmen living in Italy; he proceeded to sell one of the jewels to pay off various debts of his. We next hear of Ferrabosco’s imprisonment in Italy on the Pope’s orders, accused of spying for England.

Suspicions had been rife among diplomatic circles in Italy and France that Ferrabosco was the Queen’s spy, and his proximity to her indeed makes this possible. He may also have been her lover. No portraits survive to indicate whether he was handsome, but he was young enough when first established at court in his role as fashionable and exotic Italian musician to have had a strong symbolic, if not physical sex appeal. Historians have conjectured much on Elizabeth’s hypothetical love life, often doubtfully, given that her ladies in waiting surrounded her 24 hours a day to safeguard her status as the “virgin queen.” Others suggest that she was after all the one who was in charge and could easily have met privately with anyone she chose. There is no reason to rule out the possibility she and Ferrabosco were intimately involved. It’s no more implausible than the widely held assumption she had slept with the Earl of Leicester or any of the other lover candidates with whom she had frequent association; rumors at the time of her sexual involvement with favorites were rife enough.

The Queen enlisted the Queen Mother of France, Catherine de’ Medici, to seek Ferrabosco’s release through the French Ambassador in Rome. He was set free in 1582 and thereafter employed by the Duke of Savoy. At this time Ferrabosco petitioned the Queen through her secretary Sir Francis Walsingham to have his two children sent to him (who had been in the care of a guardian). She refused, evidently holding them as ransom to force his return to England. He continued to receive his annuity, which he instructed to be distributed to his children; the payments stopped in 1583. By 1586 he was still petitioning for the release of his children. And then, suddenly, in 1588 he died. Meanwhile, Ferrabosco the younger was now in his teens, and had been receiving musical training. In 1592 he was appointed musician in the Queen’s Viols. Yet he never managed to attract her personal attention, perhaps because she was resentful of his father’s betrayal. In 1594 court lutenist John Johnson died, and the post of court lutenist opened up again. This is where Dowland enters the picture.

Elizabeth and Dowland

Dowland had displayed attributes of the artist from early on — restlessness, individualism and curiosity, a strong desire to wander, to travel. At the mere age of seventeen, he was in France serving under the English ambassador. Something kindled his interest in music, and a few years later he returned home to pursue a musical career. By 1590 we first hear of his accomplishments on the lute, and in 1592 he managed to perform before the Queen. On the basis of this minor triumph, he might have convinced himself he was the foremost lutenist in England. Two years later, he applied for Johnson’s post and was rejected. In evident despair, he abandoned his country and traveled to Rome, with the intention of meeting (or studying under) the great madrigalist Luca Marenzio, whose fame had spread to England, but the meeting never took place.

Dowland proceeded to Florence, where he mingled with Catholic English agitators conspiring to overthrow the Queen. Though he himself had converted to Catholicism on his previous stay in France, he quickly distanced himself from them. He took the occasion to gain the Queen’s favor with a letter to her Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, providing details of the plot (Sting reads excerpts from this letter between songs on his Dowland album). Nothing came of it, but a year later the courtier Henry Noel, a long-time friend, offered to plead on Dowland’s behalf before the Queen and urged him back to England. Dowland returned, but Noel unfortunately died before he could be of any help. Dowland’s reputation throughout Europe meanwhile had been growing. He was offered employment in Germany but accepted a position as court lutenist in Denmark instead. This position lasted until 1606, when for unknown reasons he was fired, and despite the high salary he had received, left penniless and in debt. He returned once again to England, where he spent his remaining years, finally being appointed court lutenist under King James in 1612, and dying in 1625.

Belated success notwithstanding, Dowland likely never got over his 1594 rejection for the post of court lutenist. It’s interesting to speculate as to why he was passed over. He himself told Robert Cecil it was due to his Catholicism (this is unlikely considering it never subsequently became an issue). More probably, to the extent that the Queen had been involved in the decision at all, she was weary of court lutenists since the Ferrabosco affair and indifferent. A simpler explanation is that Dowland was never more than a peripheral figure at court. To Elizabethan ears at the time, there was nothing about his music which particularly stood out, and he had no musical publications to his name (his First Book of Songs wasn’t published till 1597); he was a non-entity. Ferrabosco, on the other hand, despite his erratic tenure, had been held in the highest esteem; his early departure from England was perceived as a significant loss for English music. The lutenist succeeding him for the next fifteen years, John Johnson, was himself a fine musician and composer (as his recorded compositions testify today). These musicians were probably deemed irreplaceable, and any new talent difficult to discern, least of all by the aging Elizabeth.

Dowland and contemporaries

The parallels between the Dowland and Ferrabosco stories are striking, and the contrasts telling. Both were Catholics who spent years away from their homeland, alienated loners who despite the popularity of their music and successes in the courts of Europe never seemed to fit in anywhere or call any place home, stumbling through their careers blindly from one accident to the next. Though they received high salaries, they mismanaged both their finances and their friends and grew resentful, even paranoid, toward the very people who were trying to help them. Ironically, their sense of inadequacy only seemed to increase as their popularity grew. And ironically too, whereas Dowland, the superior composer, longed for proximity to the Queen, Ferrabosco, the inferior composer, fled the very same Queen. (It’s tempting to add a third notorious Catholic composer to the group, John Bull, whose intrigues got him kicked out of England despite a former friendship with Elizabeth.)

In certain respects Dowland’s life parallels that of Shakespeare’s as well. They were born only a year apart. Both had rapid career success, culminating in performances at Court by their late twenties, though neither succeeded in garnering the Queen’s sustained interest. Both fared better under James, whose reign saw more frequent artistic activity at court. Shakespeare wrote his last plays in 1612 (or 1613) before retiring to Stratford, the same year Dowland was appointed court lutenist. Shakespeare died a decade before Dowland, probably contentedly, at the knowledge of his magnificent achievement in the theater along with his wise real estate investments, which enabled him and his family to retire comfortably. And there the similarities end. Dowland too ceased composing and seems to have wiled away his remaining years of cushy sinecure in increasing obscurity — and melancholy, as popular attention shifted to a new generation of composers.

We can picture Dowland possibly stewing in resentment at two younger upstarts in particular. One was Robert Johnson, son of the court lutenist John Johnson whose vacant position Dowland failed to secure two decades earlier; the other was the viol player Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger (it’s known Dowland derided the growing fashion for the viol). Innovative collaborations in masque productions were now taking place in the Jacobean theater under director Inigo Jones, playwright Ben Jonson, and the younger Johnson and Ferrabosco, both highly talented at song writing. This was when secular music in England was beginning to migrate away from the court to the public and ultimately, into the homes of amateur players. The Italian madrigal had been all the rage in England since the late 1580s, with a new school of composers such as Thomas Morley, John Wilbye and Thomas Weelkes writing English madrigals designed for amateur singers. Dowland too had his hand at the English madrigal, scoring many of his songs optionally for four or five voices instead of instrumental accompaniment. But around the time of Elizabeth’s death, the madrigal craze came to a halt.

Cast as unlikely genius composer from England, Dowland’s reputation on the Continent was stronger than in his homeland (the last English composer to have achieved such renown was John Dunstable two centuries before). This reputation rested largely on a single song, “Flow my teares” (published in his Second Book of Songs in 1600); the same melody was scored for solo lute and elaborated in a consort set for viols, the Lachrimae or Sevean Teares of 1604. The melody’s seductive little descending theme, representing the falling of tears, struck a powerful chord. It rapidly spread and was soon borrowed or plagiarized by composers throughout Europe, riding on the current fashion for the “melancholic” (the black bile of the four humors, or the depressive cast). It was an early example of the rapid international dissemination of a meme, centuries before electronic media. The aestheticization of despair prefigured the Romantic hysteria that greeted Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther two centuries later, when a rash of young men imitated Werther’s dress and actions and shot themselves. The cult-hit status of Dowland’s song has survived into the present; it was the inspiration for Philip K. Dick’s 1974 science fiction novel, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, as well as figuring in Sting’s album, among other influences.

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Opening theme from Dowland’s “Flow my teares”

Retrospect allows us to judge the relative merits of past composers more objectively. While employed in Spain in the mid-1580s, Ferrabosco had published two sets of madrigals to widespread acclaim. Some of these were included in Nicholas Yonge’s 1588 collection Musica Transalpina, which took the English musical world by storm. Most of the madrigals in the collection were by Ferrabosco and Marenzio. That these two figures were liberally represented side by side reveals much about the era’s misapprehension of musical worth. The verdict today is that Ferrabosco the elder is an undistinguished composer, with a modest output of accomplished but uninspired music. While he was an important conduit of Italian musical ideas into the country, his biggest contribution had nothing to do with Italy; it was his son, a much better composer, wholly brought up and trained in England.

Over a 35-year musical career, Dowland composed some 200 songs and lute pieces, a modest body of work overall, not especially prolific. He was innovative but not radical or revolutionary. Many of his songs have memorable melodic hooks and a distinct individuality (e.g., the starkly sublime “In darknesse let mee dwell” from 1610). He had the artist’s obsessiveness and attention to detail required to lift his product above the swamp of mediocrity, and his reputation beyond provincial borders to wider Europe. Nevertheless, though he attained amazing success with his “Flow my teares,” he never replicated it. Distinguished as many of his songs are, he is remembered as a one-hit composer. At most he could be described as having achieved for English secular music the same gravitas and respectability enjoyed by sacred music, and thus he shares the stage with his contemporaries Byrd and Tallis. But he was no Marenzio.

The madrigalian revolution

The secular art song, long dominated by the French chanson, had evolved incrementally since the 13th century in glacial step with the conservative pace of sacred music. Now in the latter decades of the 16th century it was time to explode it and see what could be done with the detritus. Beethoven did something analogous at the turn of the 19th century, destabilizing the facile symmetries of the Classical genres, breaking them open, enlarging them, rendering them more asymmetrical and organic, as if modeled on natural forms. At the turn of the 20th century, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Schoenberg likewise took Wagner’s destabilization of tonality to its endpoint and beyond and unleashed soundscapes of ever more daring dissonance. Each musical revolution brings us closer to the sounds of nature, the sound of thunder. The Renaissance Italians set about a similar task, cracking open the madrigal’s stately, measured artifice, pulling it apart, plasticizing its rhythms, making them entwine more tightly with the text, injecting the music with drama and suspense. But by destabilizing the madrigal, they turned it into something else. It blew apart, and out came the panoply of the Baroque.

We might compare Marenzio, his contemporary Giaches de Wert and later Claudio Monteverdi to Da Vinci, Titian and Michelangelo in the visual arts respectively: they moved the state of art forward by the sheer weight of their achievements. Over his twenty-year career, Luca Marenzio wrote 500 madrigals and sacred songs, one wrought gem of concentrated power after another, many a miniature masterpiece. Consider his madrigal “Nè Fero Sdegno Mai, Donna, Mi Mosse” (from Book 4, 1587), where the six overlapping voices manage not just to depict but enact with visceral pull the lover’s frantic rowing of his boat toward his disdainful beloved while buffeted by crashing waves: “Even though from all the foam coming from them…so many Venuses were born….” Or his “Questi vaghi concenti” (Book 7, 1595), where the echo effects of the lover’s shouting “in these lonely and deserted hills” rebound with increasing majesty. The echo was a common cliché of madrigal word-painting (and later of Baroque instrumental music), but it takes a great composer to transfigure a cliché into musical necessity, and to do this again and again in hundreds of madrigals.

By destabilizing the madrigal, they turned it into something else. It blew apart, and out came the panoply of the Baroque.

The madrigalian revolution started in the 1560s under Wert and lasted until the early decades of the 1600s, by which point it had morphed into something else: the aria, and the opera. England’s knowledge of the madrigal had been limited to a narrow collection by Ferrabosco and the early Marenzio, and it took some time for the latest developments coming out of Italy to migrate to England. Meanwhile, some English composers (notably John Ward) were adapting madrigals wordlessly for ensemble or consort of viols, matching the four, five or six voices of the madrigal to the same number of viols. The convenience of dispensing with the Italian language was one motivation; the other was the dawning realization that the huge and growing body of madrigals provided an inexhaustible storehouse of musical ideas — and some of the profoundest music ever heard.

Native works for viol consorts had been written in England since the early 16th century. Most of these were courtly dances and transcriptions of popular tunes and religious pieces. The new Italian influence on viol music was more inspirational than literal, giving composers license to take a musical idea and play with it as they saw fit. The name given to this type of composition was “fantasy” or “fantasia,” and hundreds were written for viol consort and solo instruments in England from the 1590s, with Byrd setting the bar, through much of the next century, along with French-style dances and the enormously popular native English sacred melody, the “In nomine,” which had been appropriated from John Taverner’s mass Gloria tibi Trinitas of the 1520s.

The flourishing of the arts and music in England enabled by Elizabeth’s long and stable reign has earned this era the term “golden age.” Likewise the golden age of English music is usually taken to refer to the generation of composers (Tallis, Byrd, Dowland, and Morley) that flourished in the last decades of her reign; others extend this to the composers under King James (Ferrabosco the younger, Robert Johnson, Orlando Gibbons, etc.). It’s sometimes claimed that no great English music was written between the high points of Byrd and Dowland, and Henry Purcell a century later. Recent advances in period performance standards and recordings are proving these assumptions wrong. On the contrary, the real golden age of English music occupies the space between these high points, from the death of Elizabeth to the death of Purcell.

The English consort school

We notice a deepening musical expressiveness and sophistication to viol consort compositions after the madrigal craze ends and James assumes the throne. More than any other musical genre in England in the 17th century, it was consort music that took up the Italian challenge. Not only that, the English consorts form the first great body of chamber music. Until the trio sonata, another import from Italy, finally displaced the fantasia and the viol consort in the latter decades of the century, no other body of chamber music anywhere in Europe sounded the depths of the musical sublime with as much industry.

Unlike the trio sonata, a pragmatic type of composition that readily lent itself to different combinations of instruments to suit whatever musicians were on hand, consorts were dedicated works composed strictly for viols. This is what lends more than passing resemblance to the Classical era’s chamber ensembles for strings, and why the viol consort can be regarded as the ancestor of the string quartet, despite belonging to a different family of instruments. Viols have flat backs, frets and five to seven instead of four strings, and are all played upright between the legs. Still, there is a strong physical correspondence between the two families. Consorts are typically made up of two treble viols, a tenor viol and a bass viol, resembling in appearance, size and function the two violins, viola and cello of the string quartet. Many consorts are written for five or six viols, adding a second tenor and bass viol (thus corresponding to the string quintet or sextet). Thus the viol consort and the string quartet involve a similar distribution of forces for the production of their similar rainbow of sonorities.

There are also significant differences. The viol consort took the Renaissance miniature and extended it with a deeper, more spacious and many-layered resonance; the viol consort is the madrigal writ large. Conversely, the string quartet imitates the large forces of the orchestra in miniature; it’s the symphony writ small, for the drawing room. Yet both strive after and achieve something akin: a more contemplative and abstract form of music-making, the perfect balance of complex forces in an intimate space: an intellectual music. Due to this shared endeavor, English consort music is often uncannily reminiscent of the great body of chamber music that was to follow two centuries later, that of the First Viennese School, the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

Those of the late Beethoven in particular. Some of Orlando Gibbons’ fantasies, such as his Fantasias Nos. 2 and 6 in six parts, unfold with the limpid clarity of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” from Beethoven’s string quartet No. 15. Matthew Locke’s sturdy fantasy-fugue in four parts from his Suite No. 2 recalls the opening fugue from Beethoven’s quartet No. 14. William Lawes’s Fantasy in F minor in six parts (or equally Purcell’s Fantasia No. 2 in three parts) conjures up the bustling drive of the presto from the same Beethoven quartet. Locke’s poignant air from his same Suite No. 2 has the searching beauty of the sixth movement adagio, again, from this Beethoven quartet. It’s as if Beethoven had been familiar with these English composers (which of course he wasn’t), or unconsciously channeled their ghostly presence. The ability of all the great chamber composers to establish at the outset a durable theme or motif, a concise but commanding statement, we find in abundance among the English consort composers as well, examples being the weighty opening phrases of John Jenkins Fantasy No. 7 for five parts, or the opening of Christopher Simpson’s fantasia from “Spring” of his Four Seasons. They rivet the attention the way, say, the opening of the first movement of Brahms’ first cello sonata does.

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Opening theme from Jenkins’ Fantasy No. 7

England’s Civil War which broke out in 1642 swept away the vestiges of the English Renaissance. By the Restoration of 1660, the country was changed in many respects, not least in the arts. The great public theaters that Shakespeare had performed in were demolished, and smaller theaters designed after the Italian opera house took their place. The fashion for the opera soon took off as well, by which time consort music for viols must have seemed quaint and already from another age. Locke wrote one set of consorts, in 1660, as a valedictory gesture to the genre. Twenty years later, at the age of 20 or 21, one foot in the past, Purcell wrote a set of fantasies for the viols as well. The Locke and Purcell sets contain some of the most affecting music for viols ever written. His other foot in the present, Purcell went on to write a set of trio sonatas and a set of quartets, both completed sometime before 1684 or 85. Of these three major chamber works of his, the trio sonatas are the most assured; they occupy the same status as the outstanding chamber works of the late Baroque — J. S. Bach’s flute sonatas, Telemann’s Paris Quartets, Zelenka’s trio sonatas, and Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concert. The viol continued to thrive through the turn of the 18th century in France under masters such as M. de Saint-Colombe and Marin Marais (both featured in the marvelous 1991 film, All the mornings of the world). By then, the English consort school had been long forgotten.

(A note on terminology: The “trio sonata” is not to be confused with the “trio” of the Classical era, that is, a chamber work for three instruments, typically the piano trio. The Baroque trio sonata is shorthand for “sonata in three parts,” the instruments dividing three melodies between them; similarly, a Baroque quartet is a sonata in four parts. Added to the melody instruments was a continuo instrument such as lute, theorbo, small organ or harpsichord, providing a rhythmic or background harmony. A trio sonata thus typically employed four instruments, but could also be performed on a single instrument capable of three overlapping melodic lines, e.g., Bach’s trio sonatas for organ.)

A legerdemain of history

If these English consort composers are so great, a fan of classical music might wonder, why haven’t I heard of any of them? Literature and the visual arts of the Renaissance are prominent enough, why not also the music of the same era? Why did it disappear with hardly a trace? The reasons are poignant, and an instructive example of the capricious and arbitrary workings of recorded history — and our own perceptions of history.

The literary and visual arts from past centuries, going as far back as early antiquity, are permanently on display in the form of books, painting, sculpture and architecture. Music, by contrast, must be constantly recreated or it’s lost. One problem is that the musical instruments of Renaissance and early Baroque music fell out of use by the early 18th century. The instruments stopped being made and disappeared. Some survived, of course, but most early instruments in use today are copies made from originals (an important manufacturer of high-quality viols happens to be China). The violin had existed since the early 16th century but did not gain widespread respectability until a century and a half later, when it superseded the viol family once and for all. The piano likewise superseded the harpsichord, the trumpet the cornetto, the guitar the lute and theorbo, and so on. A few instruments carried on but were greatly altered, such as the oboe from the old hautboy and shawm, and the harp from the lyre. The organ survived and thrived, due to its special function as a symbolic orchestra for the Church. The entire array of Western musical instruments from their medieval and Arabic origins, in use for half a millennium in some form or another, was replaced more or less wholesale by the classical orchestra, which stuck and remains in place today, largely unchanged. The only difference between today’s classical orchestras and those of 250 years ago is they are bigger and louder; their core instruments are the same.

With their disappearance, the knowledge of how to play the old instruments, and therefore the music that was written for them, disappeared as well. Scholars in musical historiography had been carrying out research on early music practices since the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s when interest in period instruments spread and a new generation of classical musicians began to bring these traditions back. After being scattered on old library shelves, music academy archives or house attics for centuries, the surviving musical scores needed to be found, and once found, understood. If the instrumental parts were not specified or rhythms and other markings indicated, as was often the case, the music had to be reconstructed and convincingly recreated in performance. Many early recordings of period performances were notorious for being hard-edged and pedantic. It has taken another generation of musicians to grow into the music, and now many recordings are superlative (some are listed below). But it remains a long-term, ongoing project.

More than any other musical genre in England in the 17th century, it was consort music that took up the Italian challenge.

And an uphill battle. There is a built-in bias against the music of the past, and the further into the past, the greater the bias. Before the early music revival of the 1970s, the only people who had kept up any activity in ancient music were amateur madrigal societies who sang a cappella music for fun; a few old choir melodies survived in the Catholic mass as well. The very notion of being interested in the music of previous generations is a fairly recent historical phenomenon, which began among the Romantics in the early 19th century, most famously with Felix Mendelssohn’s performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829. Before that, there was scant enthusiasm among composers and musicians in the history of their craft (Charles Burney’s History of Music (1789) was perhaps the first comprehensive account). The present state of composition was the only thing that mattered. We find similar attitudes among artists and popular musicians (pop, rock, jazz) in our time. Why should they care about what happened in the arts 50 or 100, or even five years ago?

The default assumption among classical audiences today is that the Western musical legacy reaches back only some 300 years, with Bach, Handel and Vivaldi suddenly appearing on the scene out of an obscure historical vacuum. This historical shortsightedness has resulted from a self-reinforcing ideology. As the size of the orchestra grew from the modest chamber ensembles of the Renaissance, through the gradually larger Baroque and Classical orchestras, to the standard 90-piece orchestra of the late Romantic era, the prejudice took hold that bigger is better. Classical music is thus generally felt to have reached its peak of development at this time. If the great tradition of 19th-century composers — Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Bruckner, Verdi, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Mahler and R. Strauss — are the ones who are most often performed today, it’s because modern concertgoers like their classical music on the grandest of scales. The big concert halls and opera houses capable of performing these “standard repertoire” works are happy to oblige, because they can draw the largest audiences. Orchestras, star conductors and performers, recording artists and companies, all conspire to shore up this celebration of the Romantics (and those Modernists such as Sibelius, Bartok, Shostakovich and Prokofiev that carried on this tradition in the 20th century), while Early Music is consigned to a niche market.

In sum, as the prevailing historical paradigm would have it, Western music flowered only gradually from modest, murky origins, reaching its apogee two centuries ago, before declining a century later once again into the murk of Modernist dissonance and atonality. In reality, the development is more uniform, occupying a much longer span of time. As more and more knowledge of early music is uncovered and understood, the notion of Western music keeps being pushed back in time to an earlier starting date. When each earlier era is newly discovered and appreciated, whole new vistas of music open up, radically realigning our assessment of succeeding eras.

English consort composers


For more information on the Ferrabosco affair see Richard Charteris, “New information about the life of Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder (1543-1588),” Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, No. 17 (1981), pp. 97-114.

For more historical context on the English consort school, see the entry under “Fantasia” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians (Ed. Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1980).

Recommended recordings:

Anthologies and 16th-century consort music:
Elizabethan consort music 1558-1603 (Hesperion XX, AliaVox 1998)
In Nomine: 16thC. English music for viols including the complete music of Thomas Tallis (Fretwork, Amon Ra, 1987)
Four Temperaments: Byrd, Ferrabosco, Parsons, Tallis (Phantasm, Avie, 2004)
Birds on fire: Jewish music for viols (Fretwork, Harmonia Mundi, 2008)
Music for viols: Purcell, Lawes, Locke, Jenkins (Fretwork, Virgin, 1988-96)
Christopher Tye: Lawdes Deo (Hesperion XX, Astree, 1988)
William Byrd: Complete consort music (Phantasm, Linn, 2011)
Anthony Holborne: The teares of the muses 1599 (Hesperion XXI, AliaVox, 2000)

17th century:
John Dowland: Lachrimae or Seaven Teares 1604 (Hesperion XX, Astree, 1988)
John Ward: Consort music for five and six viols (Phantasm, Linn, 2009)
John Coprario: Consort music (Savall, Coin, Casademunt, Astree, 1980)
Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger: Consort music to the viols in 4, 5 & 6 parts (Hesperion XXI, AliaVox, 2003)
Orlando Gibbons: Consorts for viols (Phantasm, Avie, 2004)
John Jenkins: Consort music for viols in six parts (Hesperion XX, Astree, 1991)
John Jenkins: Five-part consorts (Phantasm, Avie, 2007)
John Jenkins: Six-part consorts (Phantasm, Avie, 2006)
William Lawes: Consort sets in five & six parts (Hesperion XXI, AliaVox, 2002)
William Lawes: Consorts in four and five parts (Phantasm, Channel Classics, 2000)
William Lawes: Consorts in six parts (Phantasm, Channel Classics, 2002)
William Lawes: Consort music for viols, lutes and theorbos (Rose Consort of Viols, Naxos, 1992)
William Lawes: The royall consorts (Les Voix Humaines, Atma, 2012)
Matthew Locke: Consort of fower parts (Hesperion XX, Astree, 1994)
Christopher Simpson: The monthes (Sonnerie, Veritas, 1998)
Christopher Simpson: The 4 seasons (Les Voix Humaines, Atma, 1998)
Christopher Simpson: The Seasons, The Monthes & other divisions of Time (Watillon, etc., Alpha, 2005)
Henry Purcell: Fantasias for the Viols 1680 (Hesperion XX, Astree, 1995)

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