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A Belated Flowering

Six-part consorts
by John Jenkins -
appreciated by

'... a wonderful group.'

John Jenkins: Six-Part Consorts. Phantasm. © 2006 Laurence Dreyfus

Music for the viol consort reached its zenith in the late Renaissance in England. The baroque, with its melody-led, continuo-based textures, was already well under way in Italy when Jenkins, Lawes and Purcell wrote their subtle contrapuntal Fantasias for four to six viols. It could be argued, in fact, that this belated flowering is to Renaissance polyphony what the music of J S Bach is to the Baroque, bringing the style to new heights when it was already becoming old fashioned [listen -- track 1, 0:03-1:46].

Viols and violins developed at much the same time and place but, as with recorders and flutes, only one family survived into the modern orchestra. In each case there was a Darwinian battle for a single musical niche and the brighter, more flexible instrument won.

A standard set or 'chest' of viols comprised two each of trebles, tenors and basses, but the music often employed four or five of the set. The usual quartet (and Phantasm's usual line-up) was two trebles, tenor and bass, exactly equivalent to the modern string quartet; five, with the richness of an extra tenor, was also common. Six, with the extra bass as well, makes for an even darker, more tangled web of sound. The viols are softer and sweeter than the violins but their timbre is no less complex, so six of them playing independent parts fill the aural spectrum from top to bottom. Add Jenkins' preference for minor keys and the textures are rich and sombre indeed [listen -- track 14, 1:48-3:20].

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Copyright © 30 August 2006 Malcolm Tattersall, Townsville, Australia


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