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Lecture-Recital Report for Seen&Heard

A Wider Role for the Tenor Violin? Agnes Kory with Bridget Cunningham (harpsichord) & Ildiko Allen (soprano) at Trinity College of Music, Greenwich. 20 May 2002 (PGW)

Trinity College of Music
is now firmly installed in the magnificence of the King Charles Court of the Old Royal Naval College, one of London's finest architectural complexes (Wren, Hawksmoor & Vanbrugh) overlooking the Thames and opposite the cluster of skyscrapers now beginning to surround Canary Wharf in the Isle of Dogs. There are many daytime events open to the public at all the London music colleges, with regular Tuesday lunchtime music at Trinity. This lecture recital, in the elegantly restored and acoustically excellent Peacock Room, was followed by a lunch reception for all who came to hear Agnes Kory share with us her research on the unaccountable eclipse of the ‘tenor violin', an instrument rather like a small cello, tuned midway between the viola and the standard cello and held between the knees.

Agnes Kory at Trinity College of Music

(photo by Catherine Wyatt)

Agnes Kory believes that this instrument played a more significant role than is generally realised today and that our contemporary 'authentic' baroque movement falls short of its claims to authenticity unless it is prepared to provide for the permanent revival of the tenor violin. The nomenclature of string instruments is a minefield. She contends that the small bass violin, in effect the tenor violin, lived on well into the eighteenth century under a thoroughly confusing multitude of names, and that by the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century it was generally referred to as the violoncello.

J. S. Bach composed for violoncello, violoncello piccolo and for viola da gamba. His violoncello suites remain in the lower registers (except in the sixth suite where he composes for a five-string instrument); while for the virtuoso obbligato cello parts of the cantatas Bach uses the five-string violoncello piccolo or, as she argues, the tenor violin. Arnold Dolmetsch found it incomprehensible that the tenor violin ever came to be discarded - ' The instrumental tenor part, like the tenor part in the vocal quartet, is indispensable in music...the tenor violin, being tuned an octave below the treble, would quite naturally double the melody of the violins in octaves'. Problems of higher registers were solved by the tenor violin (smaller cellos designed to facilitate more demanding solos) until such times when the violoncello technique had become more developed.

After the publication of Ms Kory's Galpin Society Journal paper ‘A Wider Role for the Tenor Violin?’ (1994), she purchased her small cello, which was demonstrated in her recital (Stoss, early 19th century, restored by Dietrich Kessler, who authenticated it as a tenor violin). The G-f# compass of Torelli's Sonata for violoncello and continuo is within the first position of the tenor violin and its technical demands practically exclude the large bass violin. Marcello's well known sonatas for violoncello and basso continuo are extremely difficult on the violoncello, their compass (G-g', G-g', A-a', G-a flat’ G-a', G-g') suggesting the first position on the tenor violin, upon which they are far easier. In conclusion, Ms. Kory's proposition is that the cello-type tenor violin was regarded by many composers as the cello; therefore our contemporary 'authentic Baroque' movement is not fully authentic without reviving the tenor violin as an ensemble/solo instrument.

Her presentation was followed by performances of four 'exercises' by Caldara, the Torelli sonata and one of Marcello's, seated on a low chair with the small instrument held between her knees, her tenor violin having a distinctive, rich tone, very even in quality from string to string. She was accompanied sympathetically by Bridget Cunningham on harpsichord and finally they were joined by Ildiko Allen for a Bach aria with obbligato tenor violin. A delightful little concert to follow this illuminating and convincing presentation.

An updated version of Ms Kory's Galpin Society paper is due to appear this year in "Raccolta di studi musicali, Ed. R. Carnevale, Nuove Edizioni Neopoiesis, 2002". Agnes Kory is Director of the Bela Bartok Centre of Musicianship and can be contacted by anyone interested at or on 020 7435 3685.

A timely release of virtuoso violoncello sonatas by Barrière (1707-47) (Alpha 015 - Independent Distributors ) has one sonata played by Bruno Cocset on the 'ténor de violoncelle' and another on 'basse de violon'. It can be warmly recommended and that fairly new label has some impressive releases of early and baroque music.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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