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[A] "Greensleeves to a ground"
Lachrimae Consort

rec: March 3 - 5, 2005, Paris, Centre Culturel Irlandais
Ligia Digital - Lidi 0301169-06 (© 2006) (71'22")

[B] "Breaking the Ground"
John Mark Rozendaal, viola da gamba; David Schrader, harpsichord

rec: Feb 7 - 10, 2006, Evanston, Ill., The Music Institute of Chicago (Nichols Concert Hall)
Centaur - CRC 2920 (© 2008) (66'07")

[AB] Christopher SIMPSON (c1605-1669): Ground (Divisions) in D (I) [1]; Ground (Divisions) in D (II) [1]; Ground (Divisions) in d minor (I) [1]; Ground (Divisions) in e minor [1]; Ground (Divisions) in G [1]; Ground (Divisions) in B flat [1];
[A] anon: Callinoe; Dump - Bergamasca; Greensleeves; Greensleves - Divisions on Greensleeves; Robin; William BYRD (1543-1623): Callino casturame; My ladye Nevels grownde; The Bells; Godfrey FINGER (c1660-1730): Greensleeves to a Ground; John JOHNSON (fl c1579-1594): Wakefield on e green; Christopher SIMPSON: Prelude and Ground in C [1];
[B] Mr. ELLIOTT (?-?): Untitled piece [2]; Stephen GOODALL (?-?): 3 Untitled pieces [2]; Christopher SIMPSON: Ground (Divisions) in e minor [1]; Ground (Divisions) in a minor [1]; Ground (Divisions) in a minor (II) [1]; Prelude [1]; Prelude in D [1]; Prelude in B flat [1]; Richard SUMARTE (fl 1630): Daphne [2]; Lachrymae (after John Dowland) [2]; Monsiuer's Allman [2]; Preludium [2]; Preludium [2]; Salte pitts [2]; The Buildings [2]; Whoope doe me no harme [2]; William YOUNG (?-1671): A Sarabande [2]; Untitled piece [2]

[LC] Philipp Foulon, paridon viol, division viol, lute; William Waters, lute; Emer Buckley, virginals

(Sources: [1] Christopher Simpson, The Division-Violist, 1659); [2] The Manchester Gamba Book, late 17th C)

The main subject of these two discs is the music of Christopher Simpson, one of the most prominent theorists and composers in England around 1650. Simpson was born in a family of Roman Catholics who belonged to the recusants. During the Civil Wars he served on the Royalist side. In the late 1740s he went to live at the house of Sir Robert Bolles in Lincolnshire who became his patron. Simpson became the teacher of Sir Robert's son John, who under his guidance developed into a brilliant viol player who in 1661 performed as such in Rome. It was also John Bolles who was the main reason for Simpson to write his treatise The Division-Violist, or An Introduction to the Playing upon a Ground, which was published in 1659. Such was its reputation that it was reprinted in 1665 under the title The Division-viol, or The Art of Playing Extempore upon a Ground. It is this treatise where the pieces by Simpson which are played on these discs come from.

What in the disc of the Lachrimae Consort is referred to as Ground is called Divisions in John Mark Rozendaal's recording. I haven't been able to find out what title Simpson himself has given them. But both are correct descriptions of what these pieces are about: variations on a basso ostinato, which in England was called a ground.

New Grove gives this definition of a ground: "A melody, usually in the bass and hence often called a ground bass (basso ostinato in Italian), recurring many times in succession, accompanied by continuous variation in the upper parts." It adds: "The term 'ground' may refer to the bass melody itself, to an entire musical scheme including the harmonies and upper voices, to the process of repetition in general, or to a composition in which it occurs." Most bassi ostinati find their origin in the renaissance, but in the early 17th century developed from harmonic progressions to bass melodies.

The first English grounds date from the 16th century; one of the best-known is Hornepype by Hugh Aston. William Byrd wrote several keyboard pieces which are grounds, even if the term isn't used, like in The Bells. The ground was used to write variations, so-called divisions. New Grove defines them thus: "A term used in England during the 17th century for a technique of improvised variation in which the notes of a cantus firmus, or Ground, are divided into shorter ones (...)". They are basically the same as what were called diminutions in Italy and diferencias in Spain. In Musick's Monument (1676) Thomas Mace writes: "The Ground, is a set Number of Slow Notes, very Grave, and Stately; which (after It is express’d Once, or Twice, very Plainly) then He that hath Good Brains, and a Good Hand, undertakes to Play several Divisions upon It, Time after Time, till he has shew’d his Bravery, both of Invention, and Hand."

Good brains and a good hand, Christopher Simpson certainly had those. As its title suggests in the treatise mentioned above Simpson gave instructions about how to play divisions on a ground. It also contains 20 sets of divisions for bass viol and basso continuo, among them the pieces played here. The basic principle of creating divisions is described by Simpson thus: "Breaking the Ground is dividing its Notes in to more diminute Notes". The result is the condensation and accelleration of the motif. The next step is the ornamentation of the notes of the motif. In addition the player has to be aware of the chords which the bass provides. Considering the general rejection of the Italian style it is interesting to note that Simpson explores the various possibilities of playing diminutions as the Italian Francesco Rognoni Taeggio had done. In the programme notes Jean-Charles Léon writes: "Christopher Simpson deliberately puts himself in a modern, italianate aesthetics. He leaves the consort music (...) behind him in order to explore the field of pure instrumental virtuosity". In this respect Christopher Simpson is pointing to the future, which makes him a unique in the English musical landscape which was rather conservative and inward-looking.

The performance by the Lachrimae Consort does reflect this more than that of John Mark Rozendaal. Philippe Foulon gives bold and imaginative performances, whereas Rozendaal is more careful, introverted and sometimes tends to be a bit stiff. Foulon's interpretations have a wider dynamic range and are more gestural and theatrical than Rozendaal's. In Foulon's recording Simpson's compositions come close to those by French viol composers like Sainte Colombe and Marais, and I believe that is just right. Six of the pieces on this recording are also played by Rozendaal. About five pieces by Simpson are only on one of them. If anyone is just interested in Simpson I therefore recommend the recording by the Lachrimae Consort.

But as a result one would miss the other things Rozendaal has to offer. He also plays pieces for viol solo from the Manchester Gamba Book, a presumably mid-17th-century source consisting of no less than 246 pieces in 22 different tunings, notated in French tablature. It includes works by well-known composers like William Lawes, John Jenkins, William Young and also Christopher Simpson. Not that much is known about this manuscript, but it is interesting as it reflects the English art of solo viol playing which is mainly represented by the oeuvre of Tobias Hume. With the exception of William Young the composers of the pieces chosen here don't have an entry in New Grove, which probably means nothing is known about them.

The Lachrimae Consort has chosen to put the music by Simpson into a historical perspective by playing pieces which are typical representatives of the English renaissance, including some early examples of grounds. Some pieces are played on two lutes or on the virginals. The way the programme has been put together is well suited to show how the technique of divisions on a ground developed from a style rooting in the prima prattica to a virtuosity which belongs to the seconda prattica.

The booklet of John Mark Rozendaal is a bit philosophical but gives little insight into the art of Simpson, in contrast to the programme notes by Jean-Charles León in the booklet of Lachrimae Consort's recording. Unfortunately the record company didn't bother to translate them into English. This could discourage non-French speakers from purchasing this disc, which would be a great shame.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Lachrimae Consort
John Mark Rozendaal

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