By Robert Hugill
MYNSTRELLES WITH STRAUNGE SOUNDS: THE EARLIEST CONSORT MUSIC FOR VIOLS
Clare Wilkinson, Rose Consort of Viols
The consort of viols developed around the turn of the 15th century, in the years before and after 1500. This new disc on Delphian presents music from some of the earliest manuscripts surviving as performed by the Rose Consort of Viols (John Bryan, Alison Crum, Andrew Kerr, Roy Marks) playing a set of modern instruments reconstructing those earliest of viols; joining them is mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson. The music ranges from the earliest Italian manuscript to the Spanish court and eventually to England. Several pieces are anonymous, but among the listed composers are Josquin des Prez, Francisco de Penalosa, Alexander Agricola, Juan del Encina, Johannes Martini, Joan Ponce, William Cornysh, Juan de Ancieta, Henricus Isaac and, yes, Henry VIII.
In Te Domine Spervai, composed by Josquin des Prez. Rose Consort of Viols with Clare Wilkinson (vocal), from Mynstrelles with Straunge Sounds: The Earliest Consort Music for Viols
Early viol consorts apparently developed at the court of Ferrara and involved members of the ruling d’Este family. The court at Ferrara was always rather advanced musically–later in the 1500s the Concerto delle donne, the consort of virtuosic singing ladies, would come to the fore there. These early viols have not survived, but we have a painting of some by Lorenzo Costa for an altarpiece in Bologna. Costa was in fact Ferrara trained and worked for Isabella d’Este. For this disc, Roger Rose and students on the early music instrument-building course at West Dean have reconstructed a viol consort.
One of the earliest surviving manuscripts was written in Bologna slightly before 1506, probably for the ruling family, which had links to Ferrara. But music was also transmitted in print, and from the 1500s the editions of Ottaviano Petrucci in Venice enabled other courts to experiment with this music. Most of the works in the Bologna manuscript have song titles but no words, so some of them on this disc have had the correct text added with Clare Wilkinson singing.
Music in use at the Spanish court is preserved in a manuscript known as the Cancionero de Palacio; this inevitably leads to speculation about how and when this type of music come to England. Did Catherine of Aragon, who was known to be very musical, bring a consort with her? We don’t know, but by the time the so-called Henry VIII book came to be compiled this music was current, with textless songs similar to those in the Bologna manuscript as well as music by Agricola and Isaac.
The repertoire was initially only song-based, but composers tried to expand the pieces much in the way the rondel form was used in vocal music. On this disc there are pieces such as Agricola’s Cecus non iudicat de coloribus that expand the short pieces into something far more complex.
Con Amores, La Mi Madre, composed by Juan de Anchieta. Rose Consort of Viols with Clare Wilkinson (vocal), from Mynstrelles with Straunge Sounds: The Earliest Consort Music for Viols
Cecus Non ludicat De Coloribus, composed by Alexander Agricola. Rose Consort of Viols, from Mynstrelles with Straunge Sounds: The Earliest Consort Music for Viols
Many of the pieces here are indeed short, and often quite folk-ish in sound. The overall sense is of lyric melancholy, doubtless due to the viols’ mournful sound. Juan del Encina’s Triste espana, possibly a lament for the death of Prince Juan in 1497, is one of the finest of the hauntingly elegiac pieces. Other songs, such as the anonymous Fortuna desperata, have clear links to the French chansons. The accompaniments are not homophonic and you sense composers using polyphonic vocal music as a model, so that one part sometimes shadows the voice and sometimes there is a strong counter-melody in the tenor. The livelier pieces, like Josquin’s Fortuna desperata, use the viols’ superb articulation to surround a quite lyrical vocal line with a lively accompaniment. Some of the later items on the disc are in fact positively upbeat, such as William Cornysh’s Fa la sol, which uses the example of Agricola and others to create a substantial piece. We have to imagine Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII sitting listening to this, or perhaps joining in…or even dancing!
Adieu Mes Amours, composed by Josquin des Prez. Rose Consort of Viols with Clare Wilkinson (vocal), from Mynstrelles with Straunge Sounds: The Earliest Consort Music for Viols
And I Were a Maiden (traditional). Rose Consort of Viols with Clare Wilkinson (vocal), from Mynstrelles with Straunge Sounds: The Earliest Consort Music for Viols
Clare Wilkinson makes a fabulous sound–clear, even and bright, forming a lovely contrast with the viols. But I had to scurry back to the disc’s booklet as her words are largely rather occluded. The Rose Consort of Viols make the music seem as fresh as it must have to those 15th and 16th century listeners.
This is perhaps a slightly bitty disc, with many of the items rather short. Though it works well at one sitting, it might be better dipped into. But it sheds an intriguing light on the early development of this fascinating musical genre.
Reprinted by permission of Robert Hugill, a contemporary classical composer based in London. Recent performances of his works have included sacred motets, orchestral music and a one-act opera. Click here for his full biography. For more of Mr. Hugill’s classical reviews and interviews, visit Planet Hugill—A World of Classical Music.