At around 7:25 last night there was a strange young man using the streets of Marylebone as some sort of obstacle course. He started at Regent’s Park tube station, from which he walked purposefully down Marylebone Road. Once on Harley Street he began running in odd fits. As he approached Wigmore Hall he launched into a sprint, apologising to passers-by and dodging London taxis (who seemed to speed up as he approached). For you see, the exits out of Oxford Circus were closed, and he had a viol concert to attend. He made it with a barely a minute a spare.
This peculiar chap — who ran in such a floppy, gelatinous way, as if running were a concept that had just occurred to him for the first time — was, alas, me. All I can say is that I really wanted to be at that concert.
This was my first time seeing a viol consort (no puns, please!). The performers were Phantasm, who I knew for their recording of John Dowland’s Lachrimae or Seaven Teares for viols and lute. My interest in the lute, particularly English lute music, has naturally led to an interest in Elizabethan music more broadly. Last night’s concert consisted entirely of viol music by William Byrd, possibly better known for his sacred choral music.
Let me back up. A viol is an early string instrument, or rather a family of early string instruments, similar to violins, violas and cellos. Except viols are played upright rather than under the chin (viola de gamba, the instrument’s full name, means ‘viola for the leg’) and most have six strings (rather than four). Like lutes, they use gut tied round the neck as frets, adjustable for different intonations. I suspect most performers also use gut strings, as the members of Phantasm had to tune between every set of pieces.
Viol consorts generally consist of four to six viols, with varying combination of bass, tenor and treble. The instruments blend into one another, creating a more homogeneous sound than a string quartet. Viols have an austere timbre, somewhat lacking in warmth but quite direct. You won’t hear great changes in dynamics or expression; some listeners might at first find it too plain. But with time they will hopefully come to find the viol an especially intense instrument, as I do.
The music is highly polyphonic, and some of the Byrd viol music uses particularly dense polyphony (even his dances seem to). A lot of viol music was imitative of vocal music, as indeed most instrumental music was. Byrd would have written for viols in a similar manner as he wrote for voices. One can only appreciate this music by listening to its separate lines. I think it’s easy for people to mistake it for relaxing, pretty music because they are focused on the vertical aspect of the harmony, the alignment of notes, and not the horizontal movement — the remarkable interplay of the melodies.
But we are fast approaching where my very limited knowledge ends. If you are at all interested in reading more about the English viol consort, I thoroughly recommend this article by Brian Robins on his website Early Music World.
For now, here are Phantasm playing Byrd’s Fantasia No. 2: