A Listener’s Guide to the Renaissance Consort
The renaissance consort enlivened musical life at church, court, and beyond in the 15th and 16th centuries. A consort combines different sized instruments of the same family or mixes instruments from different families. On this edition of Harmonia, as part of an ongoing exploration of the renaissance consort, we’re focusing on the viola da gamba.
The viola da gamba is a bowed and fretted string instrument with origins in the second half of the 15th century. During that time, players of the vihuela, a precursor of today’s guitar, began to experiment with bowing. This led to the formulation of a new instrumental family whose members had up to six strings and were played either between the legs or upon the lap.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the viola da gamba became one of the most popular instruments. Any renaissance part music could be played on viols, though English music for consorts of viols particularly flourished.
Musician and musicologist Marcel Pérès
Ensemble Organum’s Marcel Pérès has changed the modern sound of medieval singing. His approach to the chant genre through various medieval traditions, and this search for a deeper understanding has often challenged conventions in the field of early music performance. His work has changed the modern sound of medieval singing by exploring links between living chant practices and those of the distant past.
Pérès was raised in Nice, where he studied music from an early age. An avid interest in plainchant led him to Paris, where he studied medieval music with Michel Huglo. Pérès founded Ensemble Organum in 1982, and since 2001, he and the ensemble have worked at the Abbey of Saint-Pierre in the south of France. There, Pérès also directs the research efforts of CIRMA: the Itinerant Centre for Research into Ancient Music.
In one project, Marcel Pérès and Ensemble Organum undertook the recording of an anonymous 14th-century Mass setting known as the Messe de Tournai, a mass which may have been intended for Marian services at Our Lady of Tournai Cathedral in present-day Belgium.
The Messe de Tournai is one of the earliest complete polyphonic settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, but stylistic differences among the movements suggest that it is very likely not the work of a single composer but rather a compilation of movements composed at different times.
The Mass’s final movement, the Ite missa est, combines Latin and French vernacular texts, and includes a chant tenor for the feast of the Annunciation. This unusual combination of features suggests a connection between the Messe de Tournai and Annunciation plays performed apart from the liturgy.
Our featured release witnesses La Nascita del Violoncello (“the birth of the cello”). Continuo band Les Basses Reunies performs some of the earliest works highlighting the unique capabilities of the cello. Interestingly, the instrument for which Domenico Gabrieli, Giovanni Battista Degli Antoni, Tomas Antonio Vitali, and others wrote may not have been the one familiar to us today.
Throughout the 17th century, the cello was known by a number of names: bassetto di viola, basso da brazzo, basso viola da brazzo, to name three. These names were often particular to one place or another—meaning that the instrument, while widely used, had not yet been standardized in construction. The cello existed in different sizes and different tunings. Only in the first years of the 18th century did a single instrument become standard in Italy, along with its name. Translated from Italian, violoncello literally means a “small large violin.”