TOMKINS: Consort Music for Viols and Voices

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Thomas Tomkins (1572 - 1656)

Music for Viols

In some ways Thomas Tomkins was a manborn just too late. As a composer drawn to the contrapuntal forms and stylesestablished by Byrd and Gibbons he suffered the indignation of watching thedemise of church organs and the rich choral tradition under the Puritans, andin his last years withdrew from public life to study the music of hispredecessors and write largely unfashionable keyboard music. Tomkins was bornin 1572 in St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, where his father was vicar-choral in thecathedral, later moving to Gloucester. He was appointed 'instructorchoristarum' at Worcester cathedral in 1596, but may have worked in Londonprior to this, as he referred to William Byrd as 'my ancient, & muchreverenced Master'. By the 1620s he was combining his duties at Worcester withmembership of the Chapel Royal, and was involved with the musical ceremoniesfor the coronation of Charles I. But the final decade before his death in 1656must have been a period of frustration, with few opportunities for performanceof his music, and little inclination to write in the new lighter stylesemanating from the continent. Tomkins' reputation until the rediscovery of hiskeyboard and consort works largely rested on the magnificent edition of hischurch music published in 1668 under the title Musica Deo Sacra.

By 1600 the viols, hitherto largely thedomain of professional instrumentalists at court, were being cultivated bywealthy amateurs, and Tomkins' fantasias. In Nomines and dances were copied andcirculated by such connoisseurs. The most significant form available to aconsort composer, and the one most highly represented in Tomkins' output, wasthe fantasia, in which a number of musical phrases were treated to contrapuntaldevelopment: contrast was an important feature, with each section havingcharacteristic melodic or harmonic ideas. This is clearly heard in the six-partfantasia [13] which opens with a distinctive chromatic twist before moving ontoa more dance-like episode with dotted rhythms, which is followed in turn by aclimactic final section built from tumbling downward scales. In a series ofthree-part fantasias, Tomkins explored the various combinations of sizes ofviol. No. XIV [5] is a spacious piece for treble, tenor and bass, withlong singing melodic lines. In contrast No. I [6] features a moremodern-sounding texture, like the Italian trio sonata, of two trebles and bass,and has a more competitive feeling with each instrument trying to outdo theothers in its flamboyant patterning of notes. English composers had frequentlyhighlighted the bass viol as the most soloistic member of the family, and FantasiaN. XII [10] exemplifies this with a different scoring again: this is fortwo basses and one treble, and opens with 'stalking' bass lines reminiscient ofcontemporary Italian grounds. However the rich interplay between the threeinstruments is thoroughly English and shows Tomkins' innate understanding ofthe sonorities of the viols.

The other forms available to composersfor viol consort were dances, the In Nomine, and variations. Tomkins seems tohave preferred the 'serious' pavan to the lighter forms of dance music,although the Almain [2] is a rare example of his writing in a moreearthy, vigorous style, with a singing melodic line underpinned by somevirtuoso writing for the bass viol. More typical is the stately poise of the Pavan[1], a form which he used for music of intimate passions such as thoseshown by the intense falling chromaticisms of the last section of the five-partA minor pavan [16]. None of Tomkins' five-part pavans has the customary pairedgalliard, but it was common practice for other composers to arrange and publish'answering' galliards built on the music of existing pavans. This is what ThomasSimpson did [17], in his sympathetic treatment of Tomkins' music, which hepublished in his Opusculum of 1610 in Frankfurt.

The In Nomine was a uniquelyEnglish phenomenon: a fantasia based on a cantus firmus which used theplainsong Gloria tibi Trinitas. A section of the Benedictus of the massof that name by John Taverner was taken out of context as an instrumentalpiece, then imitated by most great English composers down to Henry Purcell.

Tomkins' three part setting [11] is unusual, since not only is it in tripletime, but it places the plainsong part in the bass, thus restricting the choiceof harmony. Above it are two treble parts which vie with each other forsupremacy as they scurry in decorative scale-patterns. Ut re mi' [8]takes another formula - the rising and falling notes of the Hexachord (asix-note scale) - which is passed from one instrument to another while theremaining three weave increasingly virtuoso figures around it. This pieceexists in versions for both keyboard and for consort, but the independence ofthe part-writing is surely more clearly audible in this version for viols.

In his own lifetime, Tomkins was highlyregarded for his skill as a keyboard player. In 1621 he was appointed organistat the Chapel Royal, where his senior partner was Orlando Gibbons, and he wouldhave succeeded to the senior post on Gibbons' death in 1625. It was alsolargely due to Tomkins' influence that a fine Dallam organ was installed inWorcester Cathedral in 1614, sadly to be removed by the Puritans in 1646, whenchoral services in the cathedral were also abolished. Much of Tomkins' keyboardmusic is dated in the last few years of his life when he had retired frompublic musical functions, and reflects his interest in the old forms and stylescultivated by player - composers such as Byrd and Gibbons, but which were nowgoing out of fashion, superseded by the lighter dance forms from the continent.

In the Pavan and Galliard dedicatedto the memory of Earl Strafford [12] Tomkins uses the 'classic' English dancepair as a vehicle for an act of homage to a Royalist executed by theParliamentarians in the early stages of the Civil War. Its heartfelt gravityand sincerity are not undermined by the highly embellished repeats, which wereadded at a later stage. The Fancy for two to play [7] is a rare exampleof a keyboard duet from this period, and shows Tomkins' fine ear for thepossible contrasts of register possible within the relatively narrow confinesof the keyboard's compass. He treats the two players rather like two separate'choirs' in an Italian cori spezzati canzona, often imitating each other, butthen combining for effects of rich sonority. Both the In Nomine [3] and Miserere[14] are based on a plainchant cantus firmus, the former building upflurries of virtuosic figuration or sections of imitation, while the latterstates the plainsong twice, first in the treble and then in the tenor, allowingthe right hand to indulge in some furious elaborations towards the close. Inthe Voluntary [15], Tomkins is 'free' of a cantus firmus, but constructshis piece into a tightly argued contrapuntal fantasia, opening with adistinctive theme of three rising notes.

The remaining items on this recording areexamples of a particularly English genre: the verse anthem. It is a developmentfrom the consort song for solo voice and viol consort, where short choruses areinterjected into the texture, breaking up the solos into a number of 'verses'.

Later to be adopted by the church with organ accompaniment, the verse anthem indomestic devotions would have used viols instead, the instruments weaving adelicate backdrop to the passionate declamations of the solo voices. Only fiveof Tomkins' verse anthems have survived in their earlier viol consort versions,though it is quite possible that many more published in Mu
Item number 8550602
Barcode 730099560221
Release date 01/01/2000
Category Renaissance
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Roberts, Timothy
Bryan, John
Bryan, John
Roberts, Timothy
Orchestras Byrd, Red
Rose Consort of Viols
Byrd, Red
Rose Consort of Viols
Producers Khouri, Murray
Khouri, Murray
Disc: 1
Verse Anthem: Thou art my King, O God
1 Pavan in F major
2 Almain in F major
3 In Nomine
4 Verse Anthem: Above the stars
5 Fantasia XIV
6 Fantasia I
7 A Fancy: For Two to Play
8 Hexachord Fantasia: Ut re mi
9 Verse Anthem: O Lord, let me know mine end
10 Fantasia XII
11 In Nomine II
12 Paven and Galliard: Earl Strafford
13 Fantasia
14 Miserere
15 Voluntary
16 Pavan in A minor
17 Galliard: Thomas Simpson
18 Verse Anthem: Thou art my King, O God
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