One of the main genres of music which came into existence in the late 16th century was the diminution: a variation on a melody or bass pattern. In England this was known as division: Christopher Simpson was one of the most important contributors to the genre. He devoted a book to the writing and playing of divisions: The Division-Viol
which appeared in 1659 and was again published in a revised edition in 1665. The latter was reprinted as late as 1712. Originally divisions were intended for the viola da gamba, more specifically the division viol
, but soon they were also written for the violin and the recorder. The genre remained in vogue until the first quarter of the 18th century. A book with divisions for the violin, The Division-Violin,
was published in 1684 and saw the last reprint in 1730.
It was common practice to improvise divisions. As the practice of playing divisions spread, there was an increasing demand for material for less-skilled players and amateurs. Simpson's book bears witness to that: it includes extended instructions for creating divisions and a number of compositions as illustration material. These are often quite virtuosic, but Simpson also composed less complicated music, aimed at amateurs. He wasn't the only composer - let alone the first - to write divisions. In his treatise he specifically mentions John Jenkins, calling him "the ever Famous, and most Excellent Composer
, in all Sorts of Modern Musick
". The three lyra consorts
which are included in the programme are examples of divisions which are not based on a ground. Jenkins was one of England's most important composers of the 17th century about whose personal life very little is known; we don't even have a portrait. More than 800 of his compositions have survived, and show a great versatility. That is partly due to his long life: he saw the shift from the 'renaissance' to the 'baroque' style. The lyra consorts reflect the influence of the Italian style, and that is expressed in the way the interpreters play them, for instance in regard to dynamics. The Lyra Consort in D
begins with an Ecco Coranto
in which phrases in the two upper parts (violin, treble viol) are echoed by the two lower parts (bass viol, virginals). At that time the sarabande was not a slow dance, as the specimens in this consort and in the second Lyra Consort in d minor
- which concludes this disc - show.
More traditional is the Suite in g minor
by William Lawes. It is scored for two division viols and organ. Stylistically it is close to the vocal polyphony of around 1600. One of the most remarkable features is Lawes' use of unconventional harmonic progressions. A striking example can be found in the second aire
. The difference between this suite and the Divisions for two viols
by Simpson is notable, especially in regard to virtuosity. Whereas Lawes' suite is a genuine ensemble piece, the divisions by Simpson are written for virtuosic soloists. Here the two viols alternate between solo and accompaniment.
The programme includes three pieces by lesser-known figures, all from The Division-Violin
. Thomas Baltzar was of German birth; in 1655 he travelled to England, where he stayed until his death. When he played in England a contemporary observed that he "plaid on that single instrument a full Consort". That refers to his chordal playing, which was unknown in England at the time. His Prelude
is an example of his virtuosic style, and the only piece with double-stopping. Baltzar's style of playing was new to English audiences, the violin was already in use. John Banister was a member of the court's violin band. He wrote music for the theatre and a considerable number of consort pieces. In The Division-Viol
(edition 1704) another Division on a Ground
is attributed to John Eccles, but on stylistic grounds it is considered more likely to be by Solomon Eccles, about whom very little is known, except that he was a bass violinist and entered into the King's private music in 1685.
Musicke and Mirth was founded in 1997 by the two gambists Jane Achtman and Irene Klein. It was not long before they were winning prizes in various competitions. This is their fourth disc, and like their previous recordings I rate it highly. The virtuosity of the Simpson pieces isn't lost on them, and their interaction results in exciting performances. They often invite colleagues to perform with them and they usually attract the right people. That is also the case here. The three lyra consorts
by Jenkins are enthrallingly played, with immaculate ensemble. Amandine Beyer shows her skills in the solo pieces for violin. Baltzar's Prelude
is performed in a truly improvisatory manner.
This disc offers a most interesting and musically engaging survey of the division repertoire in 17th-century England.
Johan van Veen