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8.550602 - TOMKINS: Consort Music for Viols and Voices
Thomas Tomkins (1572 - 1656)
In some ways Thomas Tomkins was a man born just too late. As a composer drawn to the contrapuntal forms and styles established by Byrd and Gibbons he suffered the indignation of watching the demise of church organs and the rich choral tradition under the Puritans, and in his last years withdrew from public life to study the music of his predecessors and write largely unfashionable keyboard music. Tomkins was born in 1572 in St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, where his father was vicar-choral in the cathedral, later moving to Gloucester. He was appointed 'instructor choristarum' at Worcester cathedral in 1596, but may have worked in London prior to this, as he referred to William Byrd as 'my ancient, & much reverenced Master'. By the 1620s he was combining his duties at Worcester with membership of the Chapel Royal, and was involved with the musical ceremonies for the coronation of Charles I. But the final decade before his death in 1656 must have been a period of frustration, with few opportunities for performance of his music, and little inclination to write in the new lighter styles emanating from the continent. Tomkins' reputation until the rediscovery of his keyboard and consort works largely rested on the magnificent edition of his church music published in 1668 under the title Musica Deo Sacra.
By 1600 the viols, hitherto largely the domain of professional instrumentalists at court, were being cultivated by wealthy amateurs, and Tomkins' fantasias. In Nomines and dances were copied and circulated by such connoisseurs. The most significant form available to a consort composer, and the one most highly represented in Tomkins' output, was the fantasia, in which a number of musical phrases were treated to contrapuntal development: contrast was an important feature, with each section having characteristic melodic or harmonic ideas. This is clearly heard in the six-part fantasia  which opens with a distinctive chromatic twist before moving onto a more dance-like episode with dotted rhythms, which is followed in turn by a climactic final section built from tumbling downward scales. In a series of three-part fantasias, Tomkins explored the various combinations of sizes of viol. No. XIV  is a spacious piece for treble, tenor and bass, with long singing melodic lines. In contrast No. I  features a more modern-sounding texture, like the Italian trio sonata, of two trebles and bass, and has a more competitive feeling with each instrument trying to outdo the others in its flamboyant patterning of notes. English composers had frequently highlighted the bass viol as the most soloistic member of the family, and Fantasia N. XII  exemplifies this with a different scoring again: this is for two basses and one treble, and opens with 'stalking' bass lines reminiscient of contemporary Italian grounds. However the rich interplay between the three instruments is thoroughly English and shows Tomkins' innate understanding of the sonorities of the viols.
The other forms available to composers for viol consort were dances, the In Nomine, and variations. Tomkins seems to have preferred the 'serious' pavan to the lighter forms of dance music, although the Almain  is a rare example of his writing in a more earthy, vigorous style, with a singing melodic line underpinned by some virtuoso writing for the bass viol. More typical is the stately poise of the Pavan , a form which he used for music of intimate passions such as those shown by the intense falling chromaticisms of the last section of the five-part A minor pavan . None of Tomkins' five-part pavans has the customary paired galliard, but it was common practice for other composers to arrange and publish 'answering' galliards built on the music of existing pavans. This is what Thomas Simpson did , in his sympathetic treatment of Tomkins' music, which he published in his Opusculum of 1610 in Frankfurt.
The In Nomine was a uniquely English phenomenon: a fantasia based on a cantus firmus which used the plainsong Gloria tibi Trinitas. A section of the Benedictus of the mass of that name by John Taverner was taken out of context as an instrumental piece, then imitated by most great English composers down to Henry Purcell. Tomkins' three part setting  is unusual, since not only is it in triple time, but it places the plainsong part in the bass, thus restricting the choice of harmony. Above it are two treble parts which vie with each other for supremacy as they scurry in decorative scale-patterns. Ut re mi'  takes another formula - the rising and falling notes of the Hexachord (a six-note scale) - which is passed from one instrument to another while the remaining three weave increasingly virtuoso figures around it. This piece exists in versions for both keyboard and for consort, but the independence of the part-writing is surely more clearly audible in this version for viols.
In his own lifetime, Tomkins was highly regarded for his skill as a keyboard player. In 1621 he was appointed organist at the Chapel Royal, where his senior partner was Orlando Gibbons, and he would have succeeded to the senior post on Gibbons' death in 1625. It was also largely due to Tomkins' influence that a fine Dallam organ was installed in Worcester Cathedral in 1614, sadly to be removed by the Puritans in 1646, when choral services in the cathedral were also abolished. Much of Tomkins' keyboard music is dated in the last few years of his life when he had retired from public musical functions, and reflects his interest in the old forms and styles cultivated by player - composers such as Byrd and Gibbons, but which were now going out of fashion, superseded by the lighter dance forms from the continent.
In the Pavan and Galliard dedicated to the memory of Earl Strafford  Tomkins uses the 'classic' English dance pair as a vehicle for an act of homage to a Royalist executed by the Parliamentarians in the early stages of the Civil War. Its heartfelt gravity and sincerity are not undermined by the highly embellished repeats, which were added at a later stage. The Fancy for two to play  is a rare example of a keyboard duet from this period, and shows Tomkins' fine ear for the possible contrasts of register possible within the relatively narrow confines of the keyboard's compass. He treats the two players rather like two separate 'choirs' in an Italian cori spezzati canzona, often imitating each other, but then combining for effects of rich sonority. Both the In Nomine  and Miserere  are based on a plainchant cantus firmus, the former building up flurries of virtuosic figuration or sections of imitation, while the latter states the plainsong twice, first in the treble and then in the tenor, allowing the right hand to indulge in some furious elaborations towards the close. In the Voluntary , Tomkins is 'free' of a cantus firmus, but constructs his piece into a tightly argued contrapuntal fantasia, opening with a distinctive theme of three rising notes.
The remaining items on this recording are examples of a particularly English genre: the verse anthem. It is a development from the consort song for solo voice and viol consort, where short choruses are interjected 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 in domestic devotions would have used viols instead, the instruments weaving a delicate backdrop to the passionate declamations of the solo voices. Only five of Tomkins' verse anthems have survived in their earlier viol consort versions, though it is quite possible that many more published in Musica Deo Sacra with organ accompaniment may have started life in this form. Indeed, even O Lord, let me know mine end  has required some reconstruction, since one of the original part-books is missing. The urgent supplications of the text are convincingly set by Tomkins, with almost neurotic repetitions of short phrases, whereas Above the stars  is a much more expansive reflection on its devotional poem, with verses sung by a contratenor and meane duo. The final anthem Thou art my King, O God  gives the solo verses to the bass, and requires not only some heroic higher register singing, but also exploits the cavernous bottom range to dramatic effect. For Tomkins, despite his largely conservative outlook in a musical world that was moving towards the more overt drama of the baroque, was never afraid to respond to his texts with anything less than total fervour.
1995 John Bryan
Rose Consort of Viols
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