The viols, the dominant instruments in Renaissance and Baroque Europe, nearly became extinct in the early 19th century, replaced decisively by the violin family. Why? The recent season opener of the Orpheus Band, local specialist in Baroque string and vocal music, offered some tantalizing clues.
The viola da gamba–a generic name, though now applied most often to the bass member of the viol clan–looks much like the modern cello: long-necked, with a pear-shaped body, held vertically between the player’s knees (gamba means leg). But the earliest viols appeared in Aragon in the late 15th century, while the violin, which was developed in the early 15th century, is believed to have descended from the rebec, an Arabic instrument introduced to Europe around the time of the Crusades. The Spanish-born viols spread across the Mediterranean to Italy, where they quickly emerged as the instruments of choice for early practitioners of polyphony. Of course what the Italians liked became the rage in the northern countries, and soon viol music of considerable sophistication was introduced to the court of Henry VIII by Flemish and Italian players.
Nowhere did the viol enjoy a greater vogue than in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Aristocrats were charmed by it and eagerly took lessons from the pros. Composers from Byrd to Purcell wrote first-rate music for the viol consort, quite often designed to showcase the virtuosi of the day or flatter the wealthy amateur. For more than a century the viol reigned supreme as a symbol of status and cultivation.
In the Orpheus Band’s program, given at two venues on consecutive evenings, the heyday of the English viol consort was represented by the music of Christopher Simpson (1605-1669) and some of his near contemporaries. By all accounts Simpson was a great virtuoso; certainly he was an avid and talented self-promoter, composing prolifically to show off his own grasp of technique. Toward the end of his life he wrote two treatises on music, one a compendium of tips for the violist, the other a guide for the “practical musician.” (The Orpheus provided no program notes, as if expecting their audiences to be conversant with such arcana.)
One of the three Simpson pieces performed by the Orpheus, Divisions on a Ground for Bass Viol, was obviously intended to be a crowd dazzler. When playing “divisions,” the violist splits up the notes of a tune in a dizzying display of finger work (a modern equivalent might be Jimi Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner). John Rozendaal–accompanied by Kevin Mason, Orpheus’s director, on the theorbo, a lute with a giraffelike neck–demonstrated plenty of pyrotechnics, yet the music wasn’t quite what one might have expected of virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. It came across as quaint and polite musing, with only brief spells of high-spiritedness. The other divisions on the program, by John Jenkins (1592-1678), didn’t even try to be lively. Skillfully played by Rozendaal and Mary Springfels (with theorbo continuo from Mason), this short piece delved into the melancholic. Was gloomy contemplation a yardstick for seriousness back then?
The four suites on the program were more substantial and more varied in style, yet the graceful, dainty, almost flirtatious steps of courtly dances dominated their gait. The Flat Consort for My Cousin Kemble by Matthew Locke (1621-1677)–a favorite composer of Mason’s–is named for its unusually large number of flat notes. The excerpt performed by the Orpheus members and guest Wendy Gillespie unfolded leisurely; its rustic charm reminded me of Mozart’s earliest divertimenti. But after a while it started to sound monotonous and whiny, weighed down by heavy-handed counterpoint.
Intricate counterpoint also dominates John Hingeston’s Suite for Three Bass Viols. The pace set by the three violists was more ferocious, more emphatic than that of the previous suite, but structurally Hingeston’s work is a mess: a fantasia followed by four allemandes. The composer was much more a self-aggrandizing improviser than a thoughtful virtuoso. A similar observation can be made regarding Simpson’s second suite from Mr. Simpson’s Little Consort and “Winter” from his Four Seasons–though he did tone down the polyphony and perk up the rhythm in places, as if trying to address the impending threat of the far livelier violin dances. Simpson didn’t quite know how to tidy up his structure either: the second suite has four airs interrupted by one courante.
Overall the Orpheus Band’s selections created the impression that even during its ascendancy viol music was really a backdrop for aristocratic chattering. Unobtrusive and undemanding, a sort of highbrow Baroque Muzak, it was doomed by the versatility and richer rhythms of violins, which were beginning to attract the attention of composers interested in reform.