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The ten suites which make up Matthew Locke's 'Little Consort' were composed for the pupils of William Wake, a teacher at Exeter Cathedral where Locke had himself studied and sung. In his preface to the printed edition of 1656 Locke makes much of the ease with which they can be performed (even including barlines as an aid to performance—something of a novelty). But behind such modest apparel lie great riches: dance suites beautifully crafted and balanced, brimming with grace and rhythmic complexity.
LITTLE CONSORT OF THREE PARTS
Pavans, Ayres, Corants and Sarabands, for Viols or Violins
In two several Varieties:
The first 20 are for Two Trebles and a Basse: The last 20 for Treble, tenor & Basse.
To be performed either alone or with Theorbo’s and Harpsecord.
London, Printed by W. Godbid for John Playford, and are to be sold at his Shop
in the Inner-Temple in Fleetstreet, 1656
To the Lovers and Practitioners of Consort-Musick.
At the importunity of an intimate friend (Mr. Will. Wake) and great Master in Musick, (who being straitned in time, and hindered from satisfying his own desires for the encouragement of his Scholars) I first undertook this kind of Composition; wherein I have endeavoured to comply with the Hands, Ears, and Patience of young Beginners, making the Ayre familiar, the Parts formal, and all facile and short. Which I mention not to deter those of better judgements from perusing them (for they also in the Conexion and harmony will I hope meet with Satisfaction) but to assure you there is scarcely any thing in them, that with a little practise may not be master’d by the meanest hand; to which you will find the care in printing of Tyes, Holds, Slurrs and barring the Measures a great advantage. But for such as either fear or scorn to see or hear with content any but their own Thick-skull’d or Fantastical conceits, they are desired to forbear Censuring, or dar’d (observing the designe) to mend them. And for those Mountebanks of wit, who think it necessary to disparage all they meet with of their own Countrey-mens, because there have been and are some excellent things done by Strangers, I shall make bold to tell them (and I hope my known experience in this Science will inform them to confess me a competent Judge) that I never yet saw any Forain Instrumental Composition (a few French Corants excepted) worthy an English mans Transcribing. I have now done, only shall desire in the performance of this Consort you would do yourselves and me the right to play plain, not Tearing them in pieces with division (an old custom of our Country Fidlers. and now under the title of A la mode endeavoured to be introduced) which if you please to observe, I shall take it as a motive for the rendring you somewhat hereafter worthy your better acceptance.
By 1651, England had endured nearly a decade of civil war, and had beheaded its king a few years previously. Seen from several centuries away, such turmoil always seems all-encompassing, but, clearly, life for most people went on in many ways as it had before.
And Matthew Locke’s set of ten suites, called The Little Consort, gives us an insight into that truth. They were composed at the request of Locke’s friend and erstwhile teacher and lay vicar at Exeter Cathedral, William Wake. A note in Locke’s own manuscript, also started in 1651, states: ‘made at the request of Mr Wm. Wake for his Schollars 1651’ which suggests Wake wanted something his pupils could manage without too much difficulty. Locke makes much of their ease of execution in his introduction to the printed edition of 1656; and it’s interesting to note that barlines were offered for the first time in consort music.
The fact that they were printed at all is a sign of the times. Very little viol consort music had ever been printed—Dowland’s Lachrimae in 1604 and Gibbons’s Fantasias of Three Parts c1620 are the only two devoted exclusively to viol consort music that spring to mind. Also, the designation ‘for viols or violins’ also suggests changing tastes. The violin was gaining in popularity over the treble viol and players of the time were quite happy to play either. Pepys was probably playing these very pieces in 1660:
23rd April 1660
After that W. Howe and I went to play two trebles in the great cabin below, which my Lord hearing, after supper he called for our instruments, and played a set of Lock’s, two trebles, and a base, and that being done, he fell to singing of a song made upon the Rump, with which he played himself well, to the tune of 'The Blacksmith.' After all that done, then to bed.
Of course, the term ‘treble’ could just as easily refer to a violin as a treble viol. Pepys it seems knew Locke, and earlier that same year had bumped into him, together with Henry (or Thomas) Purcell, father of the composer, at a coffee house in London:
21st Feb 1660
After dinner I back to Westminster Hall with him in his coach. Here I met with Mr. Lock and Pursell, Masters of Music, and with them to the Coffee House, into a room next the water, by ourselves, where we spent an hour or two till Captain Taylor came to us, who told us, that the House had voted the gates of the City to be made up again, and the members of the City that are in prison to be set at liberty; and that Sir G. Booth’s case be brought into the House to-morrow.
Here we had variety of brave Italian and Spanish songs, and a canon for eight voices, which Mr. Lock had lately made on these words: 'Domine salvum fac Regem,' an admirable thing.
It is an attractive image of convivial, impromptu music making in a busy Westminster café.
Locke was, however, a Devon man, born and raised in Exeter, chorister in the Cathedral—where carved his name, not once, but twice. We learn also that he was cautioned in 1640 for fighting with a colleague—something that would seem to fit with his uncompromising nature. Exeter had declared for Parliament at the outbreak of hostilities, but had swapped sides by 1643, when Charles I visited. He may have encountered the King at this time. The next we hear from him is in 1648, when he declares that he was ‘in the Low Countreys’. It may have been at this time that he became Catholic.
It seems reasonable to place him back in Exeter in 1651 when he composed these suites—Wake was, after all, a lay vicar in the cathedral—and when he started the large manuscript book in which he copied all his chamber music. In fact, it seems that he composed all his wonderful chamber music in the 1650s, devoting himself in his remaining years, after the Restoration, to music for the theatre.
Despite Locke’s assertion that these suites are designed for 'the Hands, Ears, and Patience of young Beginners, making the Ayre familiar, the Parts formal, and all facile and short', they are substantial and significant works, beautifully crafted and balanced. As is usual with suites of dances, the general progress is one of acceleration, with each dance quicker than the preceding. Notable is the absence of fantasias, Locke no doubt thinking the extended nature of fantasia counterpoint wouldn’t suit the brief.
The Pavan here takes the weight of the suite, followed by a more lively Ayre, also in duple time. I would say that Locke’s favourite dance form was the Courante, of which he was a master. The grace and rhythmic complexity he manages to find in this dance is astonishing—all of the chamber music suites he created involves a Courante, and the variety in this form is little short of amazing. The final Saraband is the fastest of all and finishes off the suites with zip and elan.
Richard Boothby © 2022