IN: Reviews

Carthage Consort Glows from Fledgling Viol Consort to 16th-Century Fantasias


Each of the three Chamber Music by Candlelight programs presented annually by the 57-year-old Cambridge Society for Early Music reaches intimate audiences in five venues in Boston and environs. First-rate ensembles and soloists at all stages of their careers bring carefully conceived, painstakingly rehearsed programs to audiences that, even when they fill the evening’s hall, salon, or church, are comparable in size to those that first heard the music. CSEM president James Nicolson, a busy and familiar figure on both banks of the Charles for a good few decades, delivered his customary well-prepared commentary and introduction with the humor and inclusive language that have kept the Society’s geographically scattered audiences loyal, even devoted.  His printed preface to the program also afforded the coming music welcome historical and cultural perspective. Attention to what matters has made these concerts, initiated in 1953 by scholar Irwin Bodky, a valuable resource in Boston’s vigorous early music scene.

The Carthage Consort of Viols, formed by popular area performers Jane Hershey, Laura Jeppeson, and Emily Walhout in 2005, made the first of their five performances for this program at Carlisle’s First Religious Society, on Thursday, 14 January.

Christopher Greenleaf Photo
Laura Jeppeson, Jane Hershey, Emily Walhout- The Carthage Consort of Viols in rehearsal (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

They set about the intriguing task of presenting a healthy sampling of the first body of English viol consort music with conviction and sureness. We today are unavoidably ignorant of the social and linguistic fabric out of which these many styles arose, of course. The Carthage Consort invested these diverse approaches to writing for the early but already full-fledged viola da gamba with elegance and dynamic nuance that irresistibly invited listeners to soar over opulent, complex, sometimes severely restrained soundscapes that are otherwise but faded ink on yellowed paper and parchment.

Scott Metcalfe’s exceptionally fine notes unfolded for program readers the transition from Moorish Spain’s vihuela de mano, an ancestor/cousin of the early guitar, to the upright and bowed vihuela de arco. This metamorphosis is likely to have taken place in Italy around the mid-15th century. The new instrument, initially in just one size, quickly evolved into a family of three principal sizes—treble, tenor, bass— that persisted until the viol’s ultimate decline in the middle decades of the 18th century. The princely wedding that brought Catalina de Aragón y Castilla to Tudor England in 1501 may have caused or coincided with the arrival of the first viols, or at least the introduction of the first highly visible ones, in a land on the verge of a veritable explosion of sumptuous musical activities at court and in noble households. An overview of the astonishing richness of this first burgeoning of English string consorts has been wonderfully frozen in time in a large assemblage of manuscripts known as Henry’s Book. When Catherine, first and highest-born of the celebrated six wives, was still young and at court, would she have not heard those parts of this collection already extant by then? Glorious, poignant solace for her following quarter-century of kingly disfavor!

The treasure trove in the Book encompasses music from geographically diverse sources by great musical minds of two centuries. Some of the works are likely to have been text-based originally, others are clearly adaptations of music for other instruments, and a good many of the later additions are original compositions for viol consort. Wealth!

The first masters to write extensively for the viol drew on an impressive range of styles with individualistic textures, at times idiosyncratic elective ornament, delicate internal tempo relationships, and consciously anachronistic borrows from older repertoire. The earliest composer on the program, John Dunstable, was born (ca. 1390) while a generation who knew Crown defender Owen Tudor, founder of what became the successor royal dynasty, was still alive. Song transcriptions, Netherlandish-Flemish imports, and chapel polyphony that took wing into profane environs sounded forth, explaining vividly why the likes of Agricola, Isaac, Ockeghem, and Obrecht (with the irrepressibly fruitful “anonymous”) remained big names in later generations. Among the most heartfelt and appealing pieces of the first half was William Cornysh’s Fa-la-sol. Sure-fingered, beautiful phrasing by the players conferred a memorable glow on this extended work by a supreme polyphonic master. The Carthage Consort again demonstrated the exquisite refinement and polish of musical minds in the 15th century with a work hesitantly ascribed to the shadowy late-15th-c. French or Walloon figure, Malcort, his haunting Malor me bat.

In this concert, duos for two tenors or for tenor and treble leavened the predominant threesome textures, which were similarly varied. To follow two tenor viols dancing among changeful tessituras while a treble soars above them, or as the keening high instrument plunges to intertwine almost lasciviously with them is to be challenged, as a listener, to participate in the unfolding of the score in ways exactly comparable with the mingled coursing of voices in the polyphonic choral music of that age. This is rewarding in the extreme. It also leads one to quick realization of the investment in stylistic fluency, mechanical agility, and matching of interpretive approaches necessary to pull off what is, after all, music of sustained virtuosity. It is not the virtuosity of cascading 32nds, but the skill required when bow and string weave strands whose every note must match the gesture, the precise contextual tuning of the moment, the fey hand-off of leading or commenting voices. This the mesdames Walhout, Jeppeson, and Hershey did with visible ease. Their deft, subtle playing spread smiles and shared delight among the audience.

The very different and, to the modern ear, easily accessible tone of the 16th century asserted itself in the second half. Purely instrumental Fantasias (Byrd, Holborne, Blankes, Bull) and Duos (Ferrabosco, Harding) counterweighted the numerous songs and borrowed dance tunes. A passionately personal voice predominated, a romantic self-awareness that was comfortable pining—always in good company, of course—for the sweet death of love, and of sustaining literary states of longing that bore no resemblance to the dire, poignant wasting away of love-struck 13th-century trouvères.

Christopher Greenleaf Photo
Christopher Greenleaf photo

Most of the program’s final third was much later than the music preserved in Henry’s Book. These near-modern settings completed the Carthage Consort’s overview of the viol’s beginnings in Henry’s and Elizabeth’s days, which were also the instrument’s glorious apogee. Henry VII himself was the author of the evening’s bookend pieces, indeed of some 33 scores in his Book. As the performers remarked during one of their amusing and informative introductions, this king of England made a tremendous impression on all who knew him. He was a good deal more intelligent than crowned heads are wont to be, announced a number of contemporary accounts, and his musical skills of execution were apparently on a par with those of many a professional.

Think on this: The composers of the first half were the last generations to guarantee their fleeting musical thought a degree of permanence by committing it to parchment, the finely scraped skin that had borne England’s famed medieval wool. The new and still rather costly, not to mention socially revolutionary, medium of paper began to serve Henry’s generation and was universal by the death of his feisty daughter Elizabeth in 1602. Henry’s Book and the viol consort scores of the Elizabethans hold more than just a snapshot of a suite of musical ages.

The English instrumental voice, a cautious and slow thing to develop in the early to mid-16th century, swelled into a richness and vibrancy capable of touching 21st-century listeners directly and powerfully. The viol consort was at the very heart of this upward surge. This was a splendidly researched and played program, a credit to the Carthage Consort of Viols and to the Cambridge Society for Early Music.

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. “Scott Metcalfe’s exceptionally fine notes unfolded for program readers the transition from Moorish Spain’s vihuela de mano, an ancestor/cousin of the early guitar, to the upright and bowed vihuela de arco.”

    Scott’s notes, and the Grove article I just consulted, raise an interesting point of music history. The viol, the lute, and the vihuela da mano, Renaissance versions, all share the same basic setup — six courses, tuned in fourths with the exceptional major third between course three and four. I remain to be convinced, however, that the viol is at heart a bowed version of a plucked Spanish vihuela. I would tend to think that there was more of a parallel evolution shared among the plucked and bowed viol/vihuela families. Who has some additional expertise to post?

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 20, 2010 at 5:31 pm

  2. In the portion of his notes devoted to the viola da gamba as an instrument, Scott Metcalfe proposes the developmental path I guiltlessly condensed and paraphrased in my review. He does not exclude the possibility of parallel origins, and he doesn’t suggest alternative readings of what is obviously a sketchily documented genesis. Joel Cohen proposes that colleagues familiar with the topic and, one supposes, with primary sources of historical fact, weigh in with their thoughts on the matter.

    Scholars, researchers, performers dusty from rootling in southern European archives, private and institutional owners of viols and plucked instruments made before 1500, grad students who’ve turned up fat worms in library resources in which they thought they’d find dry earth…?

    Arriving at an unassailable viol genealogy is not a likely outcome for an online forum, but the discussion would provide all who read it with a fuller understanding of how an important instrument came to be. I can provide no relevant facts in such an exchange, so I will, as NPR call-ins love to say, take my answer off the air.

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — January 20, 2010 at 8:09 pm

  3. I tend to assume (perhaps wrongly) that the plain vanilla, default definition of “viol” in its many European variants (viola in old Provençal and Italian, vielle in old French, vihuela in Spanish, fiedel in German, fiddle in English, and surely there are other permutations as well)is: “A string instrument played with a bow.”

    And I further assume that oddball viol mutants get special names when they are NOT played with bows: a vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy) is, literally, a wheel fiddle; a vihuela da mano is a viol played by the hand, i.e. plucked, so I think of that instrument as a spinoff somehow from the bowed viols. Please someone correct this latter notion if it is wrong.

    Viols rule, of every sort. A violin is a little viol. A violone is a big viol. A violoncello is a small big viol. A violoncello piccolo is a small small big viol. And so on, to the word lover’s delight….

    A large bouquet of violets to whomever straightens out this family tree.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 21, 2010 at 4:20 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.