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Æternum - Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390

by LeStrange Viols

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During the reign of Elizabeth I, there was no way to record music other than by inscribing musical notation onto paper. In creating our audio recording of a notational record, we aim, as does the portrait painter, to capture not merely the likeness but the liveness of our subject. A musical manuscript is like a mix-tape or a playlist in that it gathers together items for later hearing, for posterity. In terms of 16th-century music books, these two functions were best served by two different formats. For ease of use, a set of part-books was ideal, you could simply hand them out to your friends, sit right down and get playing. But lose one part-book and you’d lost that part forever and rendered the rest of the set useless. A score format, with the parts aligned vertically over a number of pages, is the safest way to store polyphonic music but is impossible for five viol players to play from. The manuscript from which the pieces on this album are drawn attempts to find a middle ground by using “table-book” format. Each opening (the two pages that lie next to each other) contains all the parts for a single piece. However, the parts are not aligned in the manner of a score — rather they are oriented in the four cardinal directions, so that with the book in the center of a table, players can gather around it in a circle and all see their parts. While this format did not gain in popularity (Dowland’s Lachrimae of 1604 is another famous and rare example) it is a perfect materialization of the joys of playing consort music: to be gathered in a circle with friends around a piece of notation, instruments at the ready to make sonorous the lines of polyphony.

The Elizabethan manuscript table-book from which this album is drawn is known by its British Library shelf-mark: Additional Manuscript 31390. Add. MS 31390 contains 135 pieces, which capture a snapshot of musical life in the 1570s. Some of the pieces reflect the “hottest new releases” of 1578 (when the bulk of the manuscript was copied), selections by the up-and-coming William Byrd, who had just replaced Robert Parsons (also represented in the manuscript) at the Chapel Royal. Other pieces are “golden oldies” from the first half of the 16th century, classics by Taverner and Sheppard. Some reflect popular foreign trends, Italian madrigals, chansons from France as well as those written in England by Philip Van Wilder in the French style. Equally as various are the instrumental genres represented in the collection. The title page of Add. MS 31390 describes the volume as “A booke of in nomines and other solfainge songes . . . for voyces or instrumentes.” and though none of the pieces contains lyrics, the repertory does contain both vocal and instrumental genres. Devout motets rub elbows with lovesick chansons and lighthearted madrigals. Harmonically and rhythmically complex instrumental works involving canons, the use of cantus firmus, and metrical proportions juxtapose with works that are less learned, built on popular tunes or short, repeating harmonic patterns. As we’ve tried to capture with this recording, Add. MS 31390 is a marvelous smörgåsbord of musical textures and styles, an array of sonorities reflecting the international and cosmopolitan diversity of Elizabethan English society.


released April 20, 2018

Produced by Zoe Weiss and LeStrange Viols

Recorded on the Caldwell Collection of Viols in Oberlin, OH August 3-6, 2017

Recorded, engineered, mixed and mastered by Ryan Streber of Oktaven Audio

Images from the 15th or 16th-century Voynich Manuscript held by Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University and Additional MS 31390 held by the British Library.

LeStrange Viols photo by Brian Hall

Design: Marc Wolf (marcjwolf.com)




New Focus Recordings New York, New York

New Focus Recordings is an artist led collective label featuring releases in contemporary music of many stripes, as well as new approaches to older repertoire. The label was founded by guitarist Daniel Lippel (who is the current director), composer engineer Ryan Streber, and composer Peter Gilbert in 2003-4, and features releases from many of new music's most active performers and composers. ... more

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