Listener’s Guide to the Renaissance Consort: Sackbut
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 sackbut.
Okay, to start, we know that the sackbut is the brunt of many early music jokes because it is called a sackbut. That said, this early trombone, some believe got its name from a combination of the French words sacquer “to push,” and bouter, “to pull.” English and Spanish variants on the name appeared throughout the 15th through 17th centuries, revealing widespread usage of the instrument throughout Europe.
The sackbut most likely developed from the early trumpet. There are 15th century images showing a slide attached to the trumpet’s straight and cylindrical body. This single development allowed for greater ease in playing. By varying the length of the tube, a player of the sackbut could swiftly change pitch.
The sackbut played an essential role in civic wind bands alongside shawms and dulcians. Its sound also helped define the alta capella in embellishing polyphonic music for the liturgy.
Catchy Tunes: Gloria tibi Trinitas
Sometime in the middle of the sixteenth century, John Taverner composed a virtuosic 6-part mass that was based on the antiphon Gloria tibi Trinitas. An example is in the second section of the Sanctus from the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. Listen for the words “in nomine,” which uses four of the six voices. One of those voices is a cornetto playing the Gloria tibi Trinitas in equal notes in this performance by the Orchestra of the Renaissance (see bottom of the full playlist for recording details).
Nobody knows why, but sometime between 1545 and 1579, pieces called “in nomine” appeared in a book of keyboard and cittern music compiled by one Thomas Mulliner and now owned by the British Library. More than 150 other pieces of the same title followed. It seems that every composer worth his salt in England from the mid-16th to the end of the 17th century composed at least one, and sometimes many “In nomines.”
Most “In nomines” are in five parts, and in duple meter, yet, as you might expect, no two sound alike. Here is a typical early “In nomine,” composed by William Byrd, followed by an atypical early one by Christopher Tye (entitled “Trust”). [Notice that the notes of Gloria tibi Trinitas were each given five beats in the piece by Tye? No wonder it is subtitled “Trust” – music in five has never been common in Europe!]
For many years, musicologists searched their chant books in vain for a plainchant called “In nomine.” It was not until 1950 that they rediscovered the Taverner Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, with the antiphon upon which so many fantastic pieces of music were composed. After some 300 years, the mystery of the “In nomine” was at least partially solved!
Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger combined two musical forms—the In nomine and the fantasia—in his aptly named In nomine through all the parts, a fantasia in which the antiphon is passed successively from the top voice to the bottom one, twisted rhythmically and melodically this way and that.
Orlando Gibbons used the antiphon as a backdrop for an extraordinary polyphonic piece for voices and viols called “The Cries of London,” for reasons that will be obvious.
Why did this “In nomine” phenomenon occur? One theory is that early “In nomines” were a sort of secret handshake for Catholics. (After all, is it just coincidence that the Jewish Thomas Lupo, who composed lots of consort music, composed no “In nomines”?) Another is that the form was a way for English composers to display their technical prowess by setting an antiphon that many others had already set.
The instrumentation for “In nomines” is almost never specified. Though they are most often played on consorts of viols, they fit on other renaissance consorts, and are also composed for chordal instruments like the lute or harpsichord. Here is an example of an “In nomine” for lute by John Dowland, and after it, one of two late “In nomines” composed by Henry Purcell in 1680, (performed by Phantasm, recording details can be found at the bottom of the full playlist).
So there you have it, just a few of more than 150 interesting and varied pieces called “In nomine,” spawned by one tiny part of a mass, and to this day nobody is quite sure why!
Featured release: Bruce Haynes’ re-orchestrations of the Brandenburg Concertos
Our featured release presents music by Johann Sebastian Bach with a twist! Nouveaux Brandebourgeois began as an extensive project undertaken by the late baroque oboist and musicologist Bruce Haynes. Inspired by knowledge that 17th– and 18th– century compositions were often recycled or reinvented to suit the occasion, Haynes drew movements from Bach’s cantatas and arranged them for various instrumental ensembles, including the viola da gamba and oboe da caccia, (which hearken back to orchestrations in Bach’s original six concertos).
The result was six new Brandenburg concertos premiered at the 2011 Montreal Baroque Festival performed by Bande Montréal Baroque, directed by Eric Milnes.