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ClassicsOnline Home » TOMKINS / GIBBONS / BYRD: Consort and Keyboard Music
Thomas Tomkins (1572 - 1656)
Orlando Gibbons (1583 - 1625)
William Byrd (1543 - 1623)
Consort and Keyboard Music, Songs and Anthems
In some ways Thomas Tomkins was a man born just too late. As a composer drawn to the contrapuntal forms and styles established by Byrd and Gibbons he suffered the indignation of watching the demise of church organs and the rich choral tradition under the Puritans, and in his last years withdrew from public life to study the music of his predecessors and write largely unfashionable keyboard music. Tomkins was born in 1572 in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, where his father was vicar-choral in the cathedral, later moving to Gloucester. He was appointed 'instructor choristarum' at Worcester cathedral in 1596, but may have worked in London prior to this, as he referred to William Byrd as 'my ancient, & much reverenced Master'. By the 1620s he was combining his duties at Worcester with membership of the Chapel Royal, and was involved with the musical ceremonies for the coronation of Charles I. But the final decade before his death in 1656 must have been a period of frustration, with few opportunities for performance of his music, and little inclination to write in the new lighter styles emanating from the continent. Tomkins' reputation until the rediscovery of his keyboard and consort works largely rested on the magnificent edition of his church music published in 1668 under the title Musica Deo Sacra.
By 1600 the viols, hitherto largely the domain of professional instrumentalists at court, were being cultivated by wealthy amateurs, and Tomkins' fantasias. In Nomines and dances were copied and circulated by such connoisseurs. The most significant form available to a consort composer, and the one most highly represented in Tomkins' output, was the fantasia, in which a number of musical phrases were treated to contrapuntal development: contrast was an important feature, with each section having characteristic melodic or harmonic ideas.
Fantasia No. 1 features a modern-sounding texture, like the Italian trio sonata, of two trebles and bass, and has a competitive feeling with each instrument trying to outdo the others in its flamboyant patterning of notes.
The other forms available to composers for viol consort were dances, the In Nomine, and variations. Tomkins seems to have preferred the 'serious' pavan to the lighter forms of dance music, although the Almain is a rare example of his writing in a more earthy, vigorous style, with a singing melodic line underpinned by some virtuoso writing for the bass viol. More typical is the stately poise of the Pavan, a form which he used for music of intimate passions.
The In Nomine was a uniquely English phenomenon: a fantasia based on a cantus firmus which used the plainsong Gloria tibi Trinitas. A section of the Benedictus of the mass of that name by John Taverner was taken out of context as an instrumental piece, then imitated by most great English composers down to Henry Purcell. Tomkins' three part setting is unusual, since not only is it in triple time, but it places the plainsong part in the bass, thus restricting the choice of harmony. Above it are two treble parts which vie with each other for supremacy as they scurry in decorative scale-patterns.
In his own lifetime, Tomkins was highly regarded for his skill as a keyboard player. In 1621 he was appointed organist at the Chapel Royal, where his senior partner was Orlando Gibbons, and he would have succeeded to the senior post on Gibbons' death in 1625. It was also largely due to Tomkins' influence that a fine Dallam organ was installed in Worcester Cathedral in 1614, sadly to be removed by the Puritans in 1646, when choral services in the cathedral were also abolished. Much of Tomkins' keyboard music is dated in the last few years of his life when he had retired from public musical functions, and reflects his interest in the old forms and styles cultivated by player- composers such as Byrd and Gibbons, but which were now going out of fashion, superseded by the lighter dance forms from the continent.
In the Pavan and Galliard dedicated to the memory of Earl Strafford Tomkins uses the 'classic' English dance pair as a vehicle for an act of homage to a Royalist executed by the Parliamentarians in the early stages of the Civil War. Its heartfelt gravity and sincerity are not undermined by the highly embellished repeats, which were added at a later stage.
O Lord, let me know mine end has required some reconstruction, since one of the original part-books is missing. The urgent supplications of the text are convincingly set by Tomkins, with almost neurotic repetitions of short phrases.
The music and reputation of Orlando Gibbons have survived the ravages of time rather better than those of some of his contemporaries. His services and unaccompanied anthems have been a part of the central repertory of English cathedral choirs since his death, The silver swan was quickly recognised as a classic madrigal by early twentieth century singers, and some of his keyboard music was already available in a 'modern' if rather faulty edition by 1847. It is, however, only relatively recently that his superb contributions to the tradition of English viol consort music have been fully recognised, as well as his important position in the development of the verse anthem. This recording represents most of the main areas of Gibbons' output, apart from the music for the English liturgy, and shows not only his consummate skill in handling complex contrapuntal textures, but also the variety of mood of his work, and the directly evocative response to the texts he set.
Like many sixteenth century composers, Orlando Gibbons came from a family of musicians. His father William was a wait (town band musician) in both Oxford and Cambridge, his eldest brother Edward was Master of the Choristers at King's College, Cambridge, and then Succentor (responsible for the organ and choir) at Exeter Cathedral, and another brother Ellis contributed two madrigals to The Triumphes of Oriana in 1601. It was not surprising then that Orlando, born in Oxford in 1583, should follow in their footsteps. He sang as a chorister at King's College, Cambridge and later took the degree of Bachelor of Music there as well as receiving a Doctorate of Music from Oxford. It was, however, his move to London to become a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal around 1603 that must have brought him to wider public notice, and the rest of his career was centred upon his duties as a 'royal' musician. By 1615 he was one of the two organists of the Chapel Royal, and by 1625 had been promoted to be senior organist (his junior was Thomas Tomkins). In the meantime he had also accumulated the positions of 'one of his Majesty's musicians for the virginals to attend in his highness privy chamber' and that of organist of Westminster Abbey. Gibbons' sudden death (in 1625) of an apoplectic fit while attending with the rest of the court upon Charles I as he greeted his new wife Henrietta Maria at Canterbury, deprived the nation of one of its most renowned and respected musicians.
We have no documentary evidence to suggest that Gibbons played the viol himself, but his family background must surely have provided him with opportunities to become familiar with the instruments and their music. Town waits like his father were normally competent viol and violin players as well as wind players, and brother Edward certainly encouraged viol playing amongst the Exeter choristers. As a senior court musician, Orlando Gibbons may even have been a member of the King's Private Musick, and would certainly have worked with its number, who included some of the most forward-looking players and composers of their time: Ferrabosco, Lupo (descendents of itinerant Italian musical families), and the thoroughly English Coprario (born plain John Cooper). These musicians , under the patronage of the future Charles I who apparently played bass viol with them, were in a position to experiment with new musical styles and genres.
By 1600 the viols, hitherto largely the domain of such professional instrumentalists at court, were being cultivated by wealthy amateurs, and Gibbons' fantasias. In Nomines and dances were circulated widely.
Several of Gibbons viol consorts make use of the extraordinary low register of 'the Great Double Bass', an instrument a fourth lower than the conventional bass viol. We include a fantasia and galliard which combine this with a treble and bass viol, the organ binding together these rather disparate elements.
The six part pavan and galliard show how functional dance forms could be elevated in the hands of a master: although they pay lip-service to the conventions these are fully fledged fantasias in all but name.
In his own lifetime, Gibbons was perhaps most renowned for his skill as a keyboard player. In 1624 the French ambassador referred to his playing at Westminster Abbey: 'the organ was touched by the best finger of that age, Mr. Orlando Gibbons', and the esteem he enjoyed as composer for keyboard is acknowledged by the inclusion of six pieces in Parthenia published about 1613, alongside works by the much older Byrd and Bull.
In The silver swan imitative counterpoint gives way to an almost hymn-like simplicity which throws the emphasis onto the finely moulded and heartfelt vocal line. Behold, thou hast made my days was written for the funeral of Anthony Maxey, Dean of Windsor in 1618. The solo verses, for tenor, are reiterated by the chorus, the final pleas of '0 spare me little' being highly affecting as they pass around the group of singers. In contrast Glorious and powerful God is a rousing piece with solos for bass and tenor, with Italianate flourishes on the word 'arise' and building to a vigorous 'amen' with apparently unstoppable energy wholly appropriate to the anthem's title. The combination of drama, majesty and sincerity which mark these verse anthems is a fitting tribute to this master of English polyphony.
William Byrd is one of that select body of composers who was recognised as a genius, and an influential one, during his own lifetime. His contemporaries referred to him as' a Father of Musick' and' our Phoenix', perhaps alluding to his role in bringing Elizabethan music to a peak of perfection, particularly in terms of his understanding of the way continental polyphony could be used for effective expressive ends. Having learned through the influence of his older colleague Thomas Tallis, and the example of foreigners such as Alfonso Ferrabosco, whose music was much copied and eventually published in England, Byrd developed his distinctive language into one capable of infinite variety of mood and character. The outline of Byrd's early career is not well documented, but he must have been born in 1543, possibly in London where he may have been taught by Tallis. At the age of nineteen he was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, but it was not long before he was sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, taking up residence in London in 1572, and sharing the duties of organist with Tallis. It was soon after this that the two composers received a monopoly from Queen Elizabeth for the publishing and printing of music. Byrd was now at the hub of English musical life, composing services and anthems for the reformed English liturgy, songs with viols for court entertainment, as well as keyboard music which bears witness to his own prowess as a virtuoso performer, and publishing songs for the growing amateur market.
During the 1580s and 1590s, however, life for Catholics in England was becoming increasingly hard, and like many of the old faith Byrd tended to withdraw from court life, buying a property in Stondon Massey in Essex, and spending more time with noble Catholic families. He clearly cultivated influential friends, and was spared the worst excesses of persecution, but it was for secret Latin services in the great houses of such families as the Petres of Ingatestone Hall that Byrd wrote his three great Mass settings and the late Latin motets. By now, however, his instrumental works and secular songs were also being avidly received by the rapidly flourishing demand for domestic music.
Byrd's consort music, like that of all his English contemporaries, utilises the forms of the fantasia, which his pupil Thomas Morley described as 'the most principal and chiefest kind of music which is made without a dittie', and the dance forms of the stately pavan and the more vigorous galliard. He included two fantasias, in four and six parts in his 1611 publication Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets, alongside secular songs and those with sacred texts, such as Have mercy upon me. Byrd's interest in music publishing continued with Parthenia, an important collection of keyboard pieces in 1613, and he then spent his last decade in semi-retirement in Essex, dying in 1623 in his eightieth year.
Byrd's consort songs (for solo voice with viols) are mostly serious in outlook - Byrd was described by Henry Peachamin 1622 as 'naturally disposed to Gravitie and Pietie'. The genre probably has its origins in music for court dramatic entertainment produced by the choirboys of St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey, and the Chapel Royal. It was also used, particularly for elegies and laments, in the burgeoning Elizabethan public theatre. Several of Byrd ' s consort songs can be associated with specific events at court: Rejoice unto the Lord celebrates the twenty-eighth anniversary of Elizabeth's accession to the English throne in 1586. Fair Britain isle laments in especially heartfelt manner the passing of Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, in 1612.
The final item included, Christ rising again from his 1589 collection of Songs of Sundrie Natures, shows Byrd's complete mastery of the verse anthem form which he was largely responsible for bringing to fruition. It is a development from the consort song, but here short choruses are interjected into the texture, breaking up the solos into a number of 'verses'. Later to be adopted by the church with organ accompaniment, the verse anthem in domestic devotions would have used viols instead, the instruments weaving a delicately energetic backdrop to the passionate declamations of the solo voices.
Like many of his contemporaries, Byrd was a renowned keyboard player, and he left a large number of works designed for harpsichord, or for the usually single-strung, rectangular virginals with their rather more plummy tone-colour.
Qui passe comes from My Lady Nevell's Book of 1592, a manuscript collection which Byrd seems to have supervised himself. It reflects its origins in an Italian popular song, since despite its contrapuntal ingenuity it never loses sight of the earthy rhythmic verve of its Venetian model.
Rose Consort of Viols
The Rose Consort of Viols takes its name from the celebrated family of viol makers, whose work spanned the growth and flowering of the English consort repertoire. With its unique blend of intimacy, intricacy, passion and flamboyance, this repertoire forms the basis of the Rose Consort's programmes ranging from Taverner and Byrd, to Lawes, Locke and Purcell, and expanding to include singers, lutes and keyboard instruments. The Consort has also commissioned and performed works by contemporary composers, including Sir Harrison Birtwistle. The Consort performs extensively throughout Britain and the continent of Europe, appears regularly on the BBC and in major London concert halls, and has made a number of highly acclaimed recordings. It has received awards for its research and performance of newly devised programmes, some of which have been toured on the Early Music Network, or performed at leading festivals such as York, Utrecht and Bruges.
Red Byrd was founded by John Potter and Richard Wistreich to break new ground in singing both early and contemporary music. They have performed at major festivals in Bremen, Bruges and Utrecht, made a number of significant recordings and commissioned several new works for voices and' old' instruments.
Timothy Roberts read music at Cambridge University and studied early keyboards at the Guildhall School in London. In addition to solo recitals on harpsichord, organ, fortepiano and clavichord he is much in demand as continuo player for the Gabrieli Consort, His Majesty's Sag butts & Cornetts and the West German Radio choir Corona Colonensis.
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