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Sweelinck and the English virginalists

[I] William BYRD (c1543 - 1623): "Walsingham"
Jean-Luc Ho, harpsichorda, organb
rec: June 1 - 4, 2014, Saint-Amant-de-Boixe (Charente), Abbaye
Encelade - ECL 1401 (© 2015) (70'14")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Clarifica me, Pater (III)b (MB 49); Fantasia in Da (MB 46); Fantasia in Gb (arr Thomas Tomkins?); Fantasia in Aa (MB 13); In nomineb (MB 51); Memento salutis auctor a 3a [2]; My Lady Nevell's Groundb (MB 57); Pavan in Aa (MB 17); Sir William Petre Pavan & Galliardb (MB 3); Susanna Fair a 3a (arr anon) [1]; The Maiden's Songb (MB 82); The Queen's Almana (MB 10); Ut re mi fa sol lab (MB 64); Walsinghama (MB 8)

Sources: [1] William Forster's Virginal Book, n.d.; [2] William Byrd, Gradualia, ac Cantiones Sacrae, liber primus, 1605

[II] "Ruckers 1604"
Marco Vitale, spinet
rec: Oct 2012, Schiedam, Oud-Katholieke Kerk
Ayros - AY-RA01 (55'03")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

William BYRD: Fortune (MB 6); Jhon come kisse me now (MB 81); La Volta (MB 91); The Bells (MB 38); Martin PEERSON (1571-1650): The Fall of the Leafe (FVB CCLXXII); The Primerose (FVB CCLXXI); Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621): Ballo del Granduca (SwWV 319); Engelse Fortuyn (SwWV 320); Fantasia chromatica (SwWV 258); Onder een linde groene (SwWV 325); More Palatino (Almande gratie) (SwWV 318); Paduana lachrymae (SwWV 328)
[FWV: Fitzwilliam Virginal Book]

[III] Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562 - 1621): "Ma jeune vie a une fin"
Sébastien Wonner, harpsichord
rec: August 6 - 9, 2013, Sarrebourg, Couvent de Saint Ulrich (auditorium)
K617 - K617247 (© 2014) (75'25")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Christe qui lux es et dies (SwWV 301); Engelsche Fortuyn (Von der Fortuna werd ich getrieben) (SwWV 320); Fantasia à 3 in g minor (SwWV 271); Fantasia re re re sol ut mi fa sol (SwWV 269); Ich fuhr mich uber Rheine (Ick voer al over Rhijn) (SwWV 322); Malle Sijmen (SwWV 323); Mein junges Leben hat ein Endt (SwWV 324); Pavana Hispanica (SwWV 327); Psalm 23 (Mein Hüter und mein Hirt) (SwWV 310); Paduana Lachrymae (SwWV 328); Pavana Philippi (SwWV 329); Puer nobis nascitur (SwWV 315); Soll es sein (Poolsche Almande) (SwWV 330); Toccata 1. toni (SwWV 286)

Scores Byrd
Scores Sweelinck
Fitzwilliam Virginal Book

One of the major movements in the history of European keyboard music is the art of the virginalists, named after the instrument which was probably most characteristic for England during the renaissance. It was a relatively cheap instrument, in comparison to the harpsichord. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, mentions that during the Great Fire of London in 1661, when people were trying to rescue their furniture by boat, there was a virginal in almost one in three of them.

One of the major exponents of the school of English virginalists was William Byrd. His reputation is largely based on his vocal oeuvre, but he also wrote a considerable number of keyboard works which reflect his mastery of counterpoint. The largest collection is My Ladye Nevells Booke; the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book also includes a number of his keyboard works. All genres are represented in his keyboard oeuvre: dances, variations on popular tunes, grounds, character pieces, fantasias and preludes. Pavans and galliards figure prominently in English instrumental music of the late renaissance, and these forms are especially well represented in another important collection, Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls, printed at the occasion of the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick V, Count Palatinate of the Rhine, which was to take place in February 1613. It was the first printed collection of English keyboard music in history. As Byrd was considered one of the three great keyboard virtuosos of his time the inclusion of compositions from his pen in Parthenia is obvious. The other two virtuosos were John Bull and Orlando Gibbons.

Although Byrd can't be considered the founder of this 'school' of virginalists, he played a crucial role in its development as he was the first to write large-scale fantasias for keyboard and created a specific idiom which was different from music for other instruments or for consort. According to Thomas Morley, in his A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597), "[the] most principall and chiefest kind of musicke which is made without a dittie [text] is the fantasie, that is, when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure, and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seeme best in his own conceit. In this may more art be showne then in any other musicke, because the composer is tide to nothing but that he may adde, deminish, and alter at his pleasure." The programme which Jean-Luc Ho has recorded, includes three fine specimens of Byrd's "art" in this department.

The other works fall among the category of variations. This is one of the main musical forms in history since the 16th century until the present day. The English virginalists loved to write variations on all sorts of tunes, especially popular songs, such as The Maiden's Song, Walsingham and The Queen's Alman. The latter is one of the tunes which was also known elsewhere in Europe, for instance in Italy (La Monica), in France (Une jeune fillette) and Germany (Von Gott will ich nicht lassen). But there are also other forms of variations. An important category is represented by In nomine, a subject which was varied many times by composers from the mid-16th to the end of the 17th-century, for keyboard or for a consort of viols. The programme includes more pieces based on sacred subjects, such as Clarifica me, Pater (III). Dennis Collins, in his liner-notes, states that "[even] the pavans and galliards (and other dance forms) are based on the principle of a varied repeat of each of the three strains they comprise. Variation is the opportunity for the composer to demonstrate both his invention and his virtuosity." The programme ends with Ho's own transcription of Memento salutis auctor which is taken from the collection Gradualia of 1605.

Ho plays the copy of a harpsichord by Alessandro Trasuntino of 1531 (the original is in the Royal College of Music in London) and an organ which is based on the choir organ of 1511 by Jan van Covelen which is in the St Laurenskerk in Alkmaar (Netherlands). It was a good decision to play pieces in sequences on one of the instruments rather than change the instrument from one piece to the other. This way the ear has time to get accustomed to the different sounds of the respective instruments. I was rather critical about a previous disc of Jean-Luc Ho but I am enthusiastic about this new recording. He delivers very stilish and engaging interpretations of these pieces by Byrd whose brilliance is convincingly displayed here.

Marco Vitale brings William Byrd together with Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. That makes much sense as Sweelinck was strongly influenced by the English virginalists. His oeuvre includes several pieces which show his admiration for his English colleagues. The Pavana Philippi is a set of two variations on a piece by Peter Philips. The Pavana Lachrymae is based on the first of Dowland's Lachrymae or Seven Teares.

The admiration was mutual. In 1593 Philips visited Amsterdam "to sie and heare an excellent man of his faculties" which undoubtedly refers to Sweelinck. John Bull - another emigrant from England - also must have known Sweelinck personally. After the latter's death he wrote a Fantasia on a fugue by M. Jan Pieters. Four of Sweelinck's compositions were included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, one of the main sources of English keyboard music of the renaissance.

It was especially the art of variation which attracted Sweelinck. It is known from witness accounts that he often played variations for friends and members of the higher echelons of society in Amsterdam. Once he had started he hardly could stop and his imagination must have been inexhaustible. The pieces from his pen which have come down to us give us some idea of what these improvisation sessions must have been like. Sweelinck was not only acquainted with the music of the English virginalists but also with what was going on in Italy. Influences from across Europe have found their way in his oeuvre as the variety of subjects for his variations and other keyboard works show. The Ballo del Granduca is based on a dance tune by Emilio de' Cavalieri. More Palatino is a title that was linked to Sweelinck's variations some decades after his death; the more correct title is Almande gratie which refers to a French song. A number of melodies were known across Europe under different names. Engelse Fortuyn is based on the same melody as Byrd's Fortune, known as Fortune my foe. Onder een linde groene (Unter der Linden grune) refers to the English tune All in a garden green.

Byrd was also acquainted with Italian music but probably on a more modest scale than Sweelinck. La Volta is a setting of an Italian melody. The Bells is based on a ground bass and seems also to be inspired by Italian examples. It is an specimen of descriptive music. Other examples are the two pieces by Martin Peerson. He was probably born in March 1572 in Cambridgeshire and was educated as a keyboard player. He took a BMus degree in Oxford, and about 1624/25 became an almoner and Master of the Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral in London. His oeuvre consists of sacred music, both anthems on English texts and motets in Latin, as well as secular vocal music and instrumental pieces.

As interesting as this programme is it is the instrument which seems the raison d'être of this disc. Vitale plays a unique instrument: a virginal, or - more historically correct - a spinet from the Ruckers workshop in Antwerp. The Ruckers family were the leading builders of strung keyboard instruments in the 17th century and their instruments were still highly appreciated in the 18th century, especially in France where they were often extended to meet the demands of the music of the time (known as ravalement). Not that many original Ruckers instruments are extent and certainly not in playable condition. The instrument that Vitale plays dates from 1604 and was discovered in Italy around 2000. It is the only 6 foot Ruckers spinet restored to its original sounding condition. It is a magnificent instrument which is convincingly brought to life by Marco Vitale. His playing is detailed and his tempi moderate; sometimes I would have preferred a faster tempo. His playing of chords and his ornamentation betrays the influence of his teacher Ton Koopman. From a organological and from a musical point of view this is a most impressive disc.

The last disc is then completely devoted to Sweelinck. The programme Sébastien Wonner has recorded delivers a broader picture of Sweelinck's art. Again variations take an important place in the programme but here we not only hear variations on secular melodies but also on sacred tunes (Psalm 23, Christe qui lux es et dies). These are the links between the English virginalists and the north German organ school whose influence would extend as far as Johann Sebastian Bach. Through his many German pupils Sweelinck passed on the English art of variation to Germany.

Also in the programme are various free pieces which have their origin in improvisation, such as the fantasia (Fantasia re re re sol ut mi fa sol, also attributed to John Bull, and Fantasia à 3, based on a basso ostinato) and the toccata (Toccata 1. toni) which again betray the influence of the Italian style. Sweelinck took his material from many different sources: Mein junges Leben hat ein End is from Germany, Soll es sein is based on a Polish allemande and Malle Sijmen is a set of variations on the English song Mal sims.

Sébastien Wonner plays a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord from 1612. He delivers excellent interpretations which are energetic and often pretty dramatic and exciting. His tempi are faster than Vitale's but I don't find them too fast. Especially interesting is that some pieces which are usually played on the organ are performed here on the harpsichord which is a fully legitimate approach. Basically all keyboard music which doesn't require a pedal can be played on a strung keyboard as well. As a portrait of Sweelinck's art this disc is entirely convincing.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Jean-Luc Ho
Marco Vitale

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