Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Landmarks (15)

Henry Purcell: Fantazias and In Nomines (ca. 1680) for viol consort. Written when the composer was only around 22, these pieces demonstrate a complete internalization of tradition, particularly of Elizabethan vocal polyphony, but they look ahead at all points. Purcell was able to take a small number of ideas, motives if you like, and string them into a tight but continuously refreshed network. With only a couple of variation techniques -- simple transposition and inversion -- his focus was on the juxtaposition and succession of those ideas, so that each of the lines has its own contour, yet the genetic resemblance is ever present. This is music that looks ahead to later, invertible, counterpoint, yet is paradoxically both more primitive, in its tonal wanderings, and more supple in its combinational virtuosity.

Purcell was not the inventor of the viol consort and its (can I say it?) ravishing sound, but the Fantazias are a substantial part of the viol repertoire, and the progressive character of these pieces is suggestive of one of those future paths that music history happens not to have followed. (The historical viol consort effectively ends with Purcell, although the bass viol and its variants were still to have their day as solo and continuo bass instruments). But AFAIC, the potential of the viol consort to play a role in another new music is far from exhausted.

(It is cheating a bit to take all of the Fantazias and the In Nomines, but - aside from a bit more admiration for the compositional skill shown by the three-voice Fantazias - choosing among the collection is impossible. The list-maker here is also the rule-maker, so all of them may stay.)

2 comments:

PW said...

Georgeous music. I like the Fantasy on One Tone.

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