This hour, we’ll spend time with composers who played and loved to write for the bass instruments—those you can’t fit in the overhead compartment of an airplane! We’ll also explore music written for three violins rather than two, and on our featured recording we’ll hear chant from a 14th-century manuscript called the Thomas Gradual.
That was music from a manuscript called the Thomas Gradual performed by the ensemble Amarcord. We’ll hear more from this recording later in the hour.
A “bass” kind of love
Every musician thrills, at least a little, to the sound of his or her own instrument. Violinists love the sound of the violin; harpists enjoy the multiple sound colors of the harp. Composers are no exception: the history of music is full of flutists crafting new tunes for the flute, or pianists composing piano music.
It’s especially easy to love a melody: that high, sweet voice that carries the tune. But a few composers aim lower, writing solo and chamber works for instruments that spend most of their time in the depths.
This hour on Harmonia, we’ll explore some early composers who wrote music for bass instruments.
Let’s start with the sackbut! The instrument with the hilarious name is a relative of the modern trombone. It was often used to carry the baseline in sacred music and secular fanfares during the Renaissance and early baroque eras. But some composers, particularly those with an affinity for brass, wrote wonderful chamber works for sackbut.
Dario Castello, who may have been a brass player himself, wrote sonatas that could be performed by a variety of instruments, and the combination of cornetto and sackbut on solo lines would not have been unusual.
Bartolome de Selma y Salaverde came to Innsbruck from Spain in 1628 to enter the service of the Archduke Leopold as a virtuoso bassoonist.
Let’s listen to a composition for dulcian (an early basooon-like instrument) by Salaverde, who wrote what are probably the first solo works for his instrument. Salaverde’s works, filled with difficult, wide-ranging passagework, still challenge today’s players.
The cello was still a relatively new instrument in the 1600s when the Italian virtuoso Domenico Gabrielli began composing some of the first solo works for his preferred instrument. The difficulty of Gabrielli’s compositions, including double, triple, and even quadruple stops, suggests he was a master player.
We’ll hear two pieces by Gabrielli for cello, a solo ricercar in C followed by a short canon for two cellos. The cellists Richard Tunnicliffe and Sabastian Comberti stand in for the composer.
The cello may have been making inroads in Italy, but in England in the 1600s, the bass viol was still king. The composer and viol player Christopher Simpson celebrated his chosen instrument by publishing The Division Viol, a popular viol tutor including instructions on how to make variations, or divisions, on popular tunes.
Simpson also composed rich “Fantasie Suites” for treble viol, two bass violes, and basso continuo inspired by the four seasons.
Across the channel in France, one of the most celebrated viol players of the day was fast becoming one of the most celebrated viol composers of all time. Marin Marais was the son of a shoemaker who rose to prominence in Paris on the strength of skill with the viol.
Let’s start with a piece in which two bass viols partner one another in a gigue from Marais’s Concerto No. 59. Then we’ll hear something stranger, a present-day arrangement of two musette by Marais performed by the Australian group The Marais Project.
We began this hour with music for a lower range. Now, let’s move on to something higher.
Ménage à trois
Like turtledoves and socks, violins travel in pairs. In orchestras, there are first violins and second violins. In chamber music, there are trio sonatas of two high instruments, often violins, playing together over a baseline. But what happens when a third violin gets in on the action?
In 1661, London found out when King Charles II brought German violinist Thomas Baltzar to court for the then-exorbitant annual salary of 110 pounds. Baltzar made a splash in England: after hearing the German perform, diarist John Evelyn wrote: “I stand to this houre amaz’d that God should give so greate perfection to so young a person.”
But at court, Baltzar was the extra man. He joined the elite group of musicians called The King’s Private Musick, which already contained two fine violinists.
Fortunately, a handful of composers rose to the challenge, writing pieces for not two, but three violins. We’ll hear some of these rare three-violin pieces, but first, let’s listen to one of Baltzar’s catchiest compositions, divisions on the popular tune “John Come Kiss Me Now.”
Inspired by his new employment, Baltzar also wrote a ten movement Suite for Three Violins that inspired other composers to get in on the fun.
One of these was the Italian immigrant and violin virtuoso Nicola Matteis. Diarist Roger North wrote of Matteis that “his pride and arrogance was incomparable.” Nevertheless, Matteis took England by storm. “He had a stroak so sweete,” wrote John Evelyn, “and made it speake like the Voice of a man”; Matteis’s Divisions in D Minor, written for three violins and bass, is as fiery as its creator.
The most celebrated violin threesome was written by a native Englishman. Henry Purcell’s Three Parts on a Ground features three violins cartwheeling over a repeated baseline. Purcell wrote the work in 1678, 15 years after Baltzar, a notorious drunkard, died, once again reducing the number of violinists in The King’s Private Musick to two.
[See the full playlist by clicking on the “Music on this episode” tab just above the image at the top of this web post.]
Featured recording: Music from the Thomas Gradual
Our featured release contains two fourteenth-century masses that have recently been recorded by the ensemble Amarcord. The music on this recording comes from a manuscript known as the Thomas Gradual—a valuable source of German medieval liturgical music.
We’ll hear some music from a mass named for the Leipzig Thomaskirche’s patron saint. The Apostle mass for St. Thomas would have been a high point of celebration each year for the local parish.
This particular Leipzig church has a long musical tradition: its boys choir was founded in 1212 and is still going strong! In fact, Amarcord—itself founded in 1992—is made up of former members of the St. Thomas Boys Choir and thus connected to its music by a long lineage. Let’s hear them perform again.
Break and Theme music
:30, Italian Music for Cornets and Trombones, Concerto Palatino, Accent Records 1999, D 2: Tr. 12: Giuseppe Scarini: Sonata Decima Quinta à 3. Basso, e due Canti (excerpt of 4:28)
:60, Italian Music for Cornets and Trombones, Concerto Palatino, Accent Records 1999, D. 1 Tr 10: Ascanio Trombetti: Da Pacem (excerpt of 3:44)
:30, Purcell’s London, The Parley of Instruments, Hyperion UK (1993) B000002ZHA, Tr. 3: Thomas Baltzar) Pavan and Galliard in C (excerpt of 6:12)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writers for this edition of Harmonia are Anne Timberlake and Janelle Davis.
Curious about what’s new in recordings of early music? We review recordings new and old each week on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.