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Alfonso Ferrabosco (c1575-1628)

Music to hear …

Music for lyra viol from 1609
Richard Boothby (viola da gamba)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2020
St Mary Magdalen, Sherborne, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker & Adrian Hunter
Engineered by Adrian Hunter
Release date: June 2023
Total duration: 53 minutes 46 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph © Nick White.

Favoured at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I, Alfonso Ferrabosco was also the pre-eminent viol player of his day. Richard Boothby explores his legacy.

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The lyra viol and its music is one of the last undiscovered gems of music, and Alfonso Ferrabosco is its greatest exponent. It is in the category of ‘hard to define, easy to recognise’: it is at once an instrument, a style of playing and a genre of instrumental music, and, while not exclusively English, by far the largest part of its repertory is from these isles.

It appeared around the turn of the 16th century, and our first evidence for it comes in Ben Jonson’s play Cynthia’s Revels in 1600, in which two songs are accompanied by the lyra, described as ‘an instrument that alone is able to infuse souls in the most melancholique and dull disposde creature upon earth’. As one of the characters says: ‘I compos’d this Ode, and set it to my most affected Instrument, the Lyra.’

And it shouldn’t surprise us that the theatre is where we find it—after all, one of the reasons it is called a ‘lyra’ viol is that it is caught up in the desire to find a way back to original Greek drama, where verse was accompanied by a lyre. A very good example of the creative impact of faulty scholarship; and a warning to those of us who feel a burning certainty about their understanding of past artistic practices.

The instrument at the time frequently had metal sympathetic strings running under the bridge and through a hollowed-out fingerboard to a second set of pegs. Writers of the time were fascinated by the ability of sound to transmit energy across empty space, and in 1627, Francis Bacon, in his Sylva Sylvarum points out that:

It was devised that a Viall should have a Lay of Wire Strings-below, as close to the Belly as a Lute. And then the Strings of Guts mounted upon a bridge, as in Ordinary Vialls: to the end, that by this means, the upper Strings strucken, should make the lower resound by Sympathy, and so make the Musick the better.

And this ability of sound to transmit vibrations to an untouched string could be the image of a conceit in Shakespeare’s 8th Sonnet:

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy;
Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,
Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tunèd sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;

Resembling sire, and child, and happy mother,
Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing;
Whose speachless song, being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.

Shakespeare published his Sonnets in the same year Ferrabosco’s lyra viol works were issued; and there is another connection in the dedicatee, Henry Wriothsley, Third Earl of Southampton—expressly so in Ferrabosco’s case. The Earl was the dedicatee of two of Shakespeare’s earlier publications—Venus & Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece the following year and is a prime candidate for the ‘only begetter’, the ‘Mr. W. H.‘ of the 1609 Sonnets.

Alfonso Ferrabosco certainly sounds like he was Italian; yet he was born in Greenwich and never left England. His father, of the same name and also a composer, however, was born in Bologna in 1543 and came, via France, to London to work for Queen Elizabeth in 1562. He married a Susanna Symons in 1578 and the same year left for Italy, again via France. He left his son, our Alfonso, behind as security against his return, in the care of Gomer van Oostrewijck, a flute player from Antwerp in the Queen’s flute consort. The parents were never to return to England.

Alfonso the younger, however, flourished and was much favoured by the Queen and even more so by James I, in whose reign Alfonso’s career reached new heights. His association with Ben Jonson started in 1605, when wrote the music for the Masque of Blackness—designed by Inigo Jones; and then for next year’s Twelfth Night celebrations, Hymenaei, which Jonson praised highly. He also composed music for his plays, Sejanus his Fall, in which Shakespeare had been one of the ‘leading Tragedians’—and could have been the ‘happy genius’ that Jonson admitted had a hand in writing the play. Volpone, published in 1607, also featured music by Ferrabosco, and was first performed at The Globe by The King’s Men, Shakespeare’s theatre and his troop, though we don’t know if he played in this production.

Lyra viol music was written in tablature, that is six lines, rather than five, with each line representing one of the six strings and letters on these lines indicating the fret. The rhythm is notated above the stave. This was necessary because almost all of the music employed scordatura, or de-tuning of the viol. Over 60 different tunings have been recorded, but there were around 10 popular ones which changed over time.

In this first period of the lyra viol, there were eight publications that featured the lyra, from 1600 to 1612. These were mostly to use the three tunings that Ferrabosco employed in this publication. The tunings are described by the intervals between the strings and the actual pitch was irrelevant, except where other instruments were involved. In fact, John Playford described how to tune a lyra viol in his publication in 1661: 'To begin to Tune it, Raise, or Screw up the Treble or first string as high as it will conveniently bear without breaking, then tune the other to it.'

This certainly implies a high-tension set up, and, as overspun metal strings were not invented until the 1660s, the strings were all gut. Therefore, in order to make the lower strings workable in the wider tunings, such as the second and third of Ferrabosco’s set, choosing a higher pitch for the top string enables the lower strings not to have be too thick.

There are 101 separate pieces in Ferrabosco’s publication, most for solo viol, but thirteen for 2 viols and three for 3 viols; they are arranged in three tuning groups—the first tuning is called either bandora set, or Lyra way; the second tuning is Alfonso way and the third tuning is ‘eighths’, which is the widest.

Apart from a single Fancie, or Fantasy for 3 lyres (in fact a reworking of a Fantasy for 4 viols), and three solo Preludes at the end of the volume, all the pieces are dances, either Almaines, Galliards, Corantos or Pavans (though there are only 7 Pavans); and then they are further grouped into pairs: each Pavan, Almaine or Galliard has a short Coranto following it, printed on the same page and frequently, but not always, a sort of parody of the preceding dance.

It’s worth pointing out that this publication represents the most important publication of solo viol music between Ortiz in 1553 and Marais’ first book in 1685. And it represents some of the most virtuosic viol music ever written, though virtuosity of a different kind to that of Forqueray, Marais or Schenck. Ferrabosco himself was a renowned player; André Maugars, visiting England as one of Queen Henrietta Maria’s musicians (1625–7), declared that he heard no player of ‘La lyre’ in Italy: “who was fit to be compared with the great ‘Farabosco d’Angleterre’. The kind of technique, especially for the left hand, was closely related to lute technique, with chord shapes of similar complexity and density.

This has been a lock-down project for me, and there are several people to thank. My erstwhile Fretwork colleague and friend for many years, Julia Hodgson lent me her beautiful Jane Julier copy of a Henry Smith instrument; Linda Hill generously supported the project financially, and I would like to thank my wife, Giovanna, for putting up with hearing these pieces many times every day over the lock-down period.

Richard Boothby © 2023

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