Reassessments of the Gibbons consort anthems. No.2: performing pitch and its implications for consort instruments.
The anthems in our main source Mus21 involve consort instruments, yet they are not specified. Viols are an obvious choice for many of them, as were clearly used in versions of verse anthems that are found in domestic sets of partbooks, presumably for domestic worship. But we are aiming to present a variety of ways in which these pieces might have been heard, so we have cornetts and sackbuts in a couple of anthems with a more 'processional' character, such as 'Great King of Gods’, as well as one or two surprises (!). So much is still uncertain about how consort anthems may have sounded, despite argument over the often repeated orthodoxy "viols did not play in church", which continues to stifle interesting discussion (anyone remember that Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song from the 60s "Can blue men sing the whites”?).
Until now, very little seems to have been tried with early brass in sacred English music, a recent recording of Byrd by Musica Contexta directed by Simon Ravens being a notable exception (perhaps also some performances by Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort?). There are records of professional wind players being employed at the Chapel Royal, possibly in verse anthems, and there is even record in a wordbook of the Chapel of an anthem by William Lawes with 'verses for cornetts and sackbuts’, alas with no music surviving. As for the likely pitch of such instruments, there is very little surviving physical evidence. There is apparently a tenor cornett in Norwich at a pitch of about A465 with a Bassano/Venetian maker’s mark (would any early brass players like to comment on this?) and Jamie Savan, a member of our collaborating ensemble His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts, has written an article to be published in the Historic Brass Society Journal (I understand early next year) which assesses surviving cornetts in Verona, Vienna and Christ Church, Oxford, all related by the Bassano/Venetian maker’s mark, and comes to some important conclusions about their pitch and how they were used. He has kindly let me see a proof, and without divulging the fascinatingly complex detail of his argument, I think I can say that it broadly supports our use of cornetts and sackbutts at A465 ‘church’ pitch for our project. At any rate, it will be wonderful to hear Gibbons’ anthems done this way, possibly for the first time since the 17th century.
As for the viols, what issues does this pitch pose? For several years, since the publication of Andrew Johnstone’s article ‘As it was in the beginning’ (see previous post) Fretwork has been persuading choirs who want to perform Gibbons’ anthems to abandon their horrid minor third transpositions (who ever seriously thought that consort instruments in the early 17th century played in Bflat minor?) and compromise with transposition of one tone. That is OK as far as it goes, since the resulting keys are not impractical for viols, but it is clearly not where we ideally want to be and not what we think would have been done. So, for this project, we taking a step that we believe has never before been taken with a consort of classical (i.e. early 17th century design) English viols and tuning it at A465. To do it properly, that means selecting instruments of the right dimensions and completely restringing them for this higher pitch. Many viol players are now used to the idea that instruments of the earlier period may have sounded at A440 or even 465, but there is still a strong default attraction to 415 for everything from about 1600 onwards, especially ‘consort music’. A415 is obviously convenient, but it has for a long time seemed to me that the wide spread in sizes of surviving English viols of the period suggests the use of significantly different pitch standards. Some years ago, at a meeting of the UK Viola da Gamba society, Ian Harwood proposed that there existed two ‘families’ of English viol size exactly a fourth apart, and that this sufficiently explained the difference in surviving sizes. I took part in a demonstration in which various antique instruments and copies were used to make up two consorts, one ‘high’ and the other ‘low’. The bass of the ‘high’ choir’ was a magnificently preserved instrument by Henry Jaye (? circa 1620) commonly referred to as the ‘large Jaye tenor’ (formerly belonging to the Hill family and now in private hands) and the same instrument also formed the tenor of the ‘low’ consort, whose bass was another Jaye model, a copy made for me by Jane Julier of the 80cm string length Jaye belonging to Christophe Coin. The demonstration didn’t convince me and the proposition that an exact fourth explained the variety of sizes seemed much too neat. Much more likely, I thought then, was that the instruments which seemed to be members of a smaller family were intended to play at some kind of higher pitch standard: perhaps a ‘church’ pitch, perhaps therefore originally belonging to somewhere like a choral institution (where we know viols were used for choirboy training) or private chapel. The consort that we are assembling includes two antiques, one a small Jaye treble, which we often borrowed in the early days of Fretwork but always played at a pitch which seemed improbably low for its size. The owner is very excited at the prospect of now hearing it in this high tuning and so are we. Our Gibbons Project presents us with an opportunity to experiment with some radically new sonorities, both vocal and instrumental.