Four distinct musical personalities - or ‘temperaments' - are represented: the dissonant Robert Parsons, the cool Ferrabosco the Elder, the warm and sanguine Thomas Tallis, and the polar opposites of ecstasy and melancholy of William Byrd. BBC Radio 3's Andrew McGregor praised Phantasm's recording of the Mass in Four Voices played on viols alone: ‘for stylistic insight and subtlety is ironically one of the most satisfying performances of Byrd's Mass.'
The booklet notes are available to download here in French and German.
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‘Musical lines are gracefully shaped and articulated.' BBC Music Magazine
Laurence Dreyfus: director & treble viol
Wendy Gillespie: treble & tenor viols
Jonathan Manson: tenor viol
Markku Luolajan-Mikkola: bass viol
Asako Morikawa: tenor & bass viols
Emilia Benjamin: bass viol
It was Hippocrates who, in The Nature of Man, first identified the four temperaments so as to help diagnose illness. Corresponding to four essential bodily ‘humours' or fluids - blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile - a patient was treated based on the humour the physician reckoned to be most dominant. The temperament also evoked one of four types of personalities. The sanguinic, characterized by too much blood, was courageous and ptimistic. The phlegmatic, who produced abundant phlegm, was an equable person not easily annoyed. The choleric produced too much yellow bile, and was quick to anger. The melancholic, finally, suffered from an excess of black bile, which caused a gentle and thoughtful sadness. To attain good health, one had to regulate the humours, in other words, ‘to temper' them, moderating them so as to make them less harsh. In music, therefore, to temper an instrument was to tune it. ‘Mr Barleycap tempered up his fiddle, and began,' the Bacchus Bountie (1593) tells us. It was only in the eighteenth century that the word ‘temperament' came to refer to a tuning system.
On this recording of four composers from Elizabethan England, the classical temperaments help to paint four musical personalities. Robert Parsons, an outrageous perpetrator of dissonant ‘cross-relations' marks out the choleric, while the cool-tempered courtier and double agent Alfonso Ferrabosco I is unshakable in his wistful, even phlegmatic counterpoint. And whereas Thomas Tallis basks in the warm glow of his sanguinic consorts, it is William Byrd who can flee into the most ecstatic and melancholic despair. Naturally, the emotions expressed in any given piece are too complex to be reduced to one humour and none of my attributions are meant as all-embracing. In fact, all four composers modulate skilfully between the temperaments, just in different ways. All people, according to this way of thinking, are subtle admixtures of the humours.
Yet the temperaments were not all equal. Aristotle already recognized that ‘melancholy men of all others are most witty, which causes many times a divine ravishment, and a kind of enthusiasm which stirs them up to be excellent philosophers, poets and prophets'. A medical preoccupation with melancholy can be seen in Timothy Bright's Treatise on Melancholie (1586), on which Shakespeare drew for his portrait of Hamlet. Robert Burton further elevates this humour in his Anatomy of Melancholy (c.1600). He even proposes a curious paradox of special value to music; whereas melancholy is more crazed and harsh when compared to other negative experiences, by comparison to all manner of pleasantries, it is sweet and divine. Anatomy of Melancholy opens with an apt piece of poetry:
When I build castles in the air,
Void of sorrow and void of fear,
Pleasing myself with phantasms sweet,
Methinks the time runs very fleet.
All my joys to this are follow,
Naught so sweet as melancholy.
When I lie waking all alone,
Recounting what I have ill done,
My thoughts on me then tyrannise,
Fear and sorrow me surprise,
Whether I tarry still or go,
Methinks the time moves very slow.
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so mad as melancholy.
By mixing or ‘adjusting' temperaments, our four composers have managed to write some quite wonderful music. Tallis, for example, imbues his In Nomine I with a warmth and optimism, attributes not usually associated with this doleful genre. Ferrabosco likewise charms us with nonchalance in the unusual lilt of his In Nomine II in triple metre, a dance of the muses as much as a wistful reflection on a venerable plainchant. Or consider, how in ‘Queen's Goodnight' Byrd takes a ground bass (also treated in Second Ground from My Ladye Nevells Booke) and fills it with unruly musical characters; instead of sticking to their proper ‘ayre', the harmonies in F keep being seduced by their cheeky neighbours in G. The absence of a dividing wall between the keys wreaks a Breugel-like havoc, despite Byrd's efforts to reign in the disorder. Only in a final strain does the comic uproar give way to an imploring tenderness.
By contrast, the angry cross relations in Parsons' In Nomine III dare to court with ugly discords before succumbing to a revel which mocks the temperamental difference between minor and major thirds. Yet another permutation of humours shows up on Parsons' ‘De la court', which, in the Caniones sacrae (1575), sets sombre words of grief (‘Lament, O wretched thou widow Babylon I say') before abandoning melancholy for a folk-like evocation of street fighting and country dances.
The freedom to test such extremes of temperament reflects the remarkable flowering of private music in Elizabethan England. For in all the consort genres represented on this recording - dances, fantasias, songs, variations on a ground and In Nomines - the absence of words liberated a composer from their authoritative meaning, permitting them to indulge the objects of their desires and fancies. As people in the sixteenth century rarely composed sacred music too difficult to be performed - the genres were too tied to official and liturgical occasions - consort music, whether played or sung, allowed composers to let their imaginations run rampant, even encouraging advanced experiments.
Such thinking lies behind Parsons' ‘Ut re mi fa sol la', whose secunda pars is so devilishly intricate that one copyist notes: ‘The second part is good, but that it is so hard, I will not sing this part'. The texture becomes ‘untamed' in a moment of panicked frisson when all four players enter a distinct time zone, each forced to count in a way that disrupts the others. Parsons managed to bring the parts back together, though one can't pinpoint the beat where the chaos ends. We set about learning this music without score or bar lines so as to take up Parsons' challenge; the piece became addictive once we made it to the end without ‘falling off' the ever-present precipice. Which took a good while.
It is no less challenging for instrumentalists to play vocal music and, given the shared ethos which permeates Elizabethan consort and sacred vocal music, we decided to risk a rendition of Byrd's masterpiece, his Latin Missa a4. The five movements of this splendid Mass Ordinary, it turns out, make for some sublime chamber music, especially when interspersed with consorts based on a sacred cantus firmus. For those listeners who seek the approval of people long dead in order to sanction musical practises, history offers plentiful evidence that instrumentalists played vocal music on their own. Elizabethan sources like John Baldwin's Commonplace Book and British Library Add. 31390 include wordless motets, chansons and anthems intended either ‘for voyces or Instrumentes'. Then there are the wedding festivities for Wilhelm of Bavaria and Renee of Lorraine in 1568 which included a motet [sic] by Orlando Lassus played by cornetti and trombones. Byrd and Tallis also intended their Cantiones sacrae (1575) for ‘voices or viols'. And so on.
But the point of a performance isn't to replicate historical circumstances but to penetrate music's beauties and convey its sense. Although the text to the Mass is critically important to the music (and is readily available), the instrumental version has a way of highlighting those passages which Byrd invested with special musical significance. The morose ‘account' of the crucifixion as well as the ecstatic but equally dark resurrection in the ‘Credo' (in the passage beginning 3:30), for example, are especially affecting. The desperate, almost bitter, act of supplication which sets the ‘Dona nobis pacem' (Grant us peace) in the ‘Agnus dei' (2:39 to end) - a breathtaking succession of thirteen evaded cadences - is likewise no less clear without hearing the words. To have learnt Byrd's Mass in the original key without bar lines inspired us to project words, thoughts and images on viols, a desire which, it turns out, is not very far from the goal of any expressive instrumental music. For even if the liturgical text imposes a given sequence of musical shapes, great composers in any genre create that vividness of utterance which performers have the pleasure of coaxing into a communicable form. So while this recording explores four contrasting temperaments - in the sense of sketching four cherished personalities - it is the sum of these composers' insights which excites our admiration across all the musical humours, from tyrannical thoughts to ‘phantasms sweet'. © Laurence Dreyfus, 2005
Recorded at St Mary's Church, South Creake, Norfolk, UK, 19-21 August 2004
Produced by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Engineered by Simon Fox-Gál
Post-production by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood & Laurence Dreyfus
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