This hour on Harmonia, we begin a 3-part celebration of the British-based viol consort Fretwork. In honor of its thirtieth anniversary, we’re exploring Fretwork’s experiences with 500 or so years of rich repertory, ripe for viols. Our featured release is William Lawes: Complete Music for solo lyra viol, performed by one of Fretwork’s founding members, Richard Boothby.
We heard a “fancy,” by William Byrd, performed on the organ by Paul Nicholson, from the 1988 Fretwork recording, Heart’s Ease.
The Early Years
On June 24, 2016, the British-based viol consort Fretwork presented a gala 30th anniversary concert at King’s Place, London, featuring both former and current members of Fretwork, as well as some of its most frequent collaborators, including countertenor Michael Chance, soprano Susan Bickley, and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny. The concert began with the first piece that the incipient ensemble ever performed, the early 16th century composer William Cornyshe’s trio Fa la sol. The music featured ranged from that piece to The Garden of Cyrus, composed some five hundred years later, by contemporary English composer and musicologist Duncan Druce.
We heard early 16th century composer William Cornyshe’s trio Fa la sol, performed by the ensemble Fretwork, from their 1987 recording In Nomine: 16th Century English Music for Viols.
Return with us now to Barcelona in the year 1985, for a semi-staged production of Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo. Three violas da gamba feature in an inferno scene, playing about 3 minutes of music total, thus viol players Richard Boothby, Richard Campbell, and Bill Hunt had time on their hands. They used it to go hat shopping…and to jam on some of the rich repertory of music for an ensemble of violas da gamba, or a consort of viols, as it is often known. They realized that there was a place in the musical universe for a professional consort of viols playing the spectacular and little known repertory of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for 3-7 viols. Their timing was excellent: it was the heyday of recordings of early music in London. Various names for the ensemble were bandied about, but finally, the name “Fretwork” – luckily not “Gut Bucket,” another strong contender – won out.
After months of rehearsal, Fretwork, now a consort of five with the addition of the English viol player Julia Hodgson and a transplanted American, performed a less than formal concert in the Palladian villa called Orleans House, just outside of London. Here is a piece from that very first performance, a fantasia by John Ward in four parts. The recording you’re about to hear is very rare – it is, indeed, taken directly from an elderly cassette tape, which is the only audible evidence of that concert that remains.
That was Fretwork at their very first performance ever, on December 21, 1985, at Orleans House, outside of London. The event was attended almost exclusively by an audience of hard-core viola da gamba players, some of whom were much more intimately familiar than the performers were with the repertory! Afterwards, it was back to the drawing board and rehearsals in Bill’s house. The ensemble counts their Wigmore Hall debut, on June 25, 1986, as their official start, so there were six intervening months during which to let the situation develop musically.
Getting Paid to Play
In 1985, Fretwork had just 2 concerts, and in 1988, when Susanna Pell was welcomed as the sixth member of the ensemble, 22. Fretwork’s early recordings focused on 16th and 17th century music of Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd, and John Dowland, to name some of the better-known composers.
We’ll hear music from one of Fretwork’s earliest recordings, Heart’s Ease, a 1988 release by Virgin Classics.
From the 1988 Virgin Classics disc, Heart’s Ease, three pieces by Anthony Holborne, played by the same people that you heard earlier in a live situation, but several years later, when they were carefully placed and pointed toward microphones in an empty church. The era of working with the fabulous Nick Parker as producer of Fretwork’s recordings had begun, and the ensemble was actually being paid to play music that they were thoroughly enjoying!
1989 saw the release of Dowland: Lachrimae or Seaven Teares 1604from which we’ll hear M. John Langton’s pavan, complete with ornamentation drawn whole cloth from Dowland’s lute version of the same music.
Welcome back. On this edition of Harmonia, we’re celebrating thirty years of the British-based viol consort Fretwork. In addition to the Dowland: Lachrimae recording, 1989 also brought a call from the composer George Benjamin, who had heard one of Fretwork’s discs and was interested in writing a piece for the group. The result was “Upon Silence,” an extraordinary work for 5 viols and mezzo-soprano, setting a poem by W.B. Yeats. Suddenly Fretwork was plunged into the deep end of contemporary music: the technical demands made on the players were like nothing they had experienced before on the viol; and the exactitude demanded by the composer was shocking – it took most of a decade to really get to grips with the piece.
We heard “Upon Silence,” a setting by contemporary English composer George Benjamin of a poem by W.B. Yeats, performed by the viol consort Fretwork, with mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley.
William Lawes: Complete Music for Solo Lyra Viol
Our featured release is the 2016 recording William Lawes: Complete Music for Solo Lyra Viol, performed by none other than founding Fretwork member, Richard Boothby, the only one of the original five who remains in the ensemble. We’ll hear a selection of dances from that recording.
We heard a selection of dances from the 2016 recording William Lawes: Complete Music for Solo Lyra Viol, performed by founding – and current – Fretwork member, Richard Boothby.
Break and theme music
:30, Heart’s Ease, Fretwork, Virgin 1988, Tr. 12 Fantasy a 4 for the ‘Great Dooble Base’ (excerpt of 4:34)
:60, Dowland: Lachrimae (1604), Fretwork, Virgin 1989, Tr. 21 M. George Whitehead his Almand (excerpt of 1:32)
:30, Lawes: Complete Music for Solo Lyra Viol, Richard Boothby, harmonia mundi 2016, Tr. 23 Coranto (excerpt of 1:07)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Wendy Gillespie.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.