When George Benjamin contacted me in 1989, asking me come and demonstrate the viol and its techniques, performing contemporary music was not something that anyone of the group had ever imagined as something we would, or even should play. But the experience of working with George over the next few years was truly inspirational, and he was able to show us how the viol was to almost all composers a new family of string instruments, with new sounds and new techniques just waiting to be used. Since then, contemporary music has become of equal importance to our traditional repertory, and it is now rare when a programme doesn’t include a work composed for us.

                                                               –Richard Boothby, Fretwork

  • Simon Bainbridge

    Kinneret Pulses for 5 Viols (1992)

    “It was the serene and radiant Galilee that provided the starting point for a new piece for Fretwork scored for a viol consort of treble, two tenors, two basses. Kinneret Pulses is constructed out of a succession of different tempi which interrelate through a process of metrical modulation, resulting in a constantly shifting polyrhythmic harmonic texture. It is this texture which creates the backcloth for a slowly evolving web of ‘polyphonic inventions’ that embroider a recurring plaintive aria-like melody from the solo bass viol. Throughout the piece, these two elements of harmony and melody are interlaced into a varied aural landscape of continuously changing perspective, which is further enhanced by the single lone voice of a repeating A-flat pulse which provides a focal and pivotal point to the work’s structure.”

    Commissioned by Fretwork with funds made available by the Arts Council of Great Britain. First performed in Corpus Christi, New York City, 1992. Published by Novello Music (Music Sales Ltd.)

    Henry’s Mobile, for 4 or 5 viols (1994)

    “This short piece for a viol consort of treble, 2 tenors and bass is an affectionate tribute to the masterly genius of Henry Purcell. I have taken a tiny fragment from one of his Fantazias and used it as the basis for all the rhythmic and pitch materials that we employed in the piece. I hint at and allude to but never hopefully reveal my original source.”

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 2nd May 1995, The Purcell Room, London. Published by Novello Music (Music Sales Ltd.)

  • Sally Beamish

    In Dreaming, for tenor and 5 viols (1995)
    A setting of part of Caliban’s speech in Act III Sc.II of Shakespeare’s The Tempest

    Commissioned by the BBC as part of its series ‘Music for a While’, celebrating the tercentenary of Purcell’s death and Sir Michael Tippett’s 90th birthday, In Dreaming was first performed by Martyn Hill and Fretwork at Pebble Mill, Birmingham, in January 1995. The text, from The Tempest, is quoted at the end of Tippett’s essay, ‘Moving into Aquarius’, and also ties in with Purcell’s The Tempest, though neither composer actually set it.

    The piece is designed to follow Purcell’s Fantazia upon one note, opening with an octave F sharp and pairs of notes equidistant from middle C. The vocal line opens with a rising ninth figure taken from Tippett’s Triple Concerto. Towards the end, fragments of the Purcell Fantazia appear.

    Commissioned by the BBC. First performed and broadcast 7th January, 1995. BBC Pebble Mill Studios, Birmingham.

    Divan (2009) 
    A setting of Sufi poetry by the 15th century Persian poet Hafez, for 6 viols, alto & oboe

    Divan was commissioned by The Cambridge Festival and first performed by Michael Chance, Nicholas Daniel and Fretwork in King’s College Chapel on 25th November 2009. It lasts approximately 25 minutes and the movements are as follows: Introduction; Nightingale; Refrain 1; Fish; Falcon; Horse; Refrain 2; Hoopoe; Coda.

  • George Benjamin

    Upon Silence, for mezzo-soprano & 5 viols (1990)
    Setting of The Long Legged Fly, by W.B.Yeats.

    “This late Yeats poem portrays three momentous figures in history absorbed in silent contemplation: Julius Caesar planning a crucial military campaign, Helen of Troy as an adolescent in Sparta and Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. The verses are set in a syllabic manner, while each successive chorus is set to increasingly lengthy melismas as, like the long-legged fly above the water, the voice hovers above the viols’ now turbulent, now still stream of sound.

    “I have treated the viols as a new family of string instruments – three sizes, all with six strings and frets, capable of an array of hitherto unexplored techniques and sonorities. Amongst these I might mention the almost complete absence of vibrato, the novel bowing technique, the potential for numerous natural harmonics, super-fast tremoli and resonant pizzicati.”

    Upon Silence was written for the viol consort Fretwork. The first performance was given by them and the mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley as part of a London Sinfonietta concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 30 October 1990. A provisional version was performed in May 1990 in the Purcell Room, London, with mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby, as part of the South Bank Centre’s ‘Music for Life’ day for the charity CRUSAID.

    The poem ‘Long-legged Fly’ is set to music by kind permission of A. P. Watt Ltd. on behalf of Anne Yeats.
    Upon Silence is Published by Faber Music Ltd.

  • Gavin Bryars

    In Nomine for 6 viols (1995)

    “There were several factors which attracted me to write a piece for Fretwork based on Purcell’s In Nomine. One was my interest in writing for strings and particularly for families of string instruments. I have written a number of string quartets, of course, but an early piece of mine was for the eight-part “new violin family,” and I pay particular attention to the composition of strings within an orchestral context – the opera Medea uses only violas, cellos and basses. The homogeneous blend of the 6-part consort, with its three pairs of viols, is a sound that I have enjoyed for some time.

    “A second factor relates to an interest in music which refers to other music or to other musical values. In the recent past, for example, I have written pieces for other ‘early music specialists’ such as the Hilliard Ensemble where I incorporated vocal and ensemble techniques from their repertoire which goes back to the 12th century. The Purcell 6-part Fantazia itself comes towards the end of almost two centuries in which many English composers wrote pieces based on Taverner’s mass Gloria tibi Trinitas and I focus on this original as well as on the Purcell Fantazia itself. There are many, to me, curious aspects of the viol consort as an ensemble, for example the tuning of the instruments which make natural harmonics a useful device given the fact that there is a string of every named note except B. In addition, the restraint found within the consort’s dynamic range attracted me especially (ff is not really a viol dynamic) making it a natural vehicle for understatement.”

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 2nd May 1995, The Purcell Room, London. Published by Schott Ltd. London.

  • Elvis Costello

    Put Away Forbidden Playthings, for voice and 4 viols (1994)

    Lyrics by Elvis Costello:

    Put away forbidden playthings
    Amusements and distractions
    And dismantle the contraption and carry it away
    In time as beauty dissolves into glamour
    It slips from your heart and falls under the hammer.
    Put away forbidden playthings…
    And never return to pluck out that jewel
    Or find the thrill that slumbers still
    While suffering the dream of disobeying.
    Put away forbidden playthings…

    “As a new convert to the notated form, I still receive most of my musical education from records. When approached to write this piece, my twin listening passions happened to be Dowland & Purcell. Although I had not previously encountered the Purcell Fantazias, I quickly acquainted myself with them. I learned about the sound of the instruments through these and other works of Byrd, Gibbons, Jenkins and Lawes – both Henry and William – on recordings which were often of Fretwork.

    “If there exists an exquisite seam of blue melancholy in Dowland’s viol music, then I believe its last highly developed echo can be heard in some of the slow sections of Purcell’s Fantazias. However, it is possible that the contemporaneous music of the aural tradition carried this feeling into American folk music, re-emerging as part of blues and jazz. Musicologists may debunk this, but I believe this is why I am able to imagine the Duke Ellington Orchestra playing the opening of Fantazia No.5.”

    Put Away Forbidden Playthings is in two sections: an instrumental introduction that returns at the end of the second part, which is a song for countertenor. The text laments the interrupted access to the musical possibilities of the music of Purcell’s time.

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 7th March 1995, The Purcell Room, London. Not published.

  • Duncan Druce

    The Garden of Cyrus, Fantasia for 5 viols (2002)

    The Garden of Cyrus is the title of a 1658 essay by Sir Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century medical practitioner, naturalist, philosopher and author; Cyrus was the Persian Emperor who reputedly created the celebrated hanging gardens of Babylon. In his essay, Browne, in the words of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, created ‘a fantastical elaboration of mathematics in nature, as seen in the quinary arrangements found in various plants. Browne claimed that the ancients had imitated the system in planting their trees by fives, thus making the ‘quincunx’ or network formation, in their plantations.’ (from Sir Thomas Browne, Selected Writings. Faber & Faber, 1968)

    “In my Fantasia, I explore the possibilities of mean-tone tuning, commonly used in the seventeenth-century, other than traditional triadic harmony. I based it upon five five-part chords: in each of these, the intervals are symmetrically arranged around a central pitch (like the trees in Browne’s quincunx). With inversions, and making use of the possible transpositions within the mean-tone system, these chords make up an extensive harmonic vocabulary. There are two episodes, slow and tranquil, which abandon the symmetrical chords in favour of triads, but these are generally the most remote ones available within the mean-tone confines. Before, between and after these episodes, the different sections of the Fantasia are intended to be like different parts of a garden, the earlier ones wilder and less ‘cultivated’, whilst the later ones have a more palpable formal organisation. The viols should be tuned so that the sixth fret produces an augmented fourth above the open string (not a diminished fifth). The first fret should be split, so that the large (diatonic) and small (chromatic) semitones above the open string are both available.”

    Commissioned by Fretwork, with funds generously provided by the PRS Foundation, it was first performed in The Reading Concert Hall, 9th March 2002.

    Three poems of Henry Vaughan for Mezzo Soprano and 5 viols 

    “Henry Vaughan (1621-95) attended Oxford University, then studied law in London: afterwards he led a secluded life in the Welsh Borders near Brecon, close to his birthplace. Religious themes predominate in his poetry, the bulk of which dates from around 1650, following a personal crisis and spiritual awakening. These were years of political crisis, too, with the Civil War and then the establishment under Oliver Cromwell of the Commonwealth. Vaughan may have taken part in the war, (though he was later to express his horror of bloodshed) and as a firm royalist he would have been dismayed at its outcome. His most important collection of poems, Silex scintillans (Sparks from the flintstone) was published in 1650-1, a second part following in 1655. The three poems I’ve set are found in the first part.

    “I’m attracted to Vaughan by his striking imagery, the beauty of his language, and the way in which, behind the orthodox Anglican beliefs that form the background to his sacred verses, he gives voice to personal experience – to some moment of spiritual perception or enlightenment. In composing these settings it was pleasant to think of Vaughan writing at the same time as the last generation of great composers for viol consort, including his fellow Welshman (and royalist) Thomas Tomkins, not so far away, in Worcester.

    “Each of the poems provided me with a formal idea for the music of the song: in “Bereavement”, an elegy for his younger brother, William (d.1648), the image is of a long, desolate journey, in “The Morning-Watch” and “Midnight” the ideas are of contrast and alternation. The two elements of “The Morning-Watch”, the life-affirming brightness of the morning light as opposed to the “hours of night and rest”, seen as a foretaste of death, remain distinct, but in “Midnight” the opposition between the splendour and spiritual inspiration of the night sky and the meanness of humdrum human existence gradually breaks down, with the possibility of the heavens’ divine radiance influencing life on earth.”

  • Tan Dun

    A Sinking Love, for voice and 4 viols (1994)
    A setting, in Chinese, of a text by Li Po (701-762)

    So bright a gleam on the foot of my bed
    Could there have been a frost already
    Lifting myself to look, I found that it was moonlight
    Sinking back again, I thought suddenly of home.

    The pitch material of A Sinking Love is based on patterns derived from the first six notes of Henry Purcell’s Fantazia No. 8. This excerpt was approached not so much as a quotation, but rather as a base pattern for development of stylistic variation and exploration of articulation possibilities, such as overtone production, ricochet, pizzicato, etc. Throughout the entire piece the strings play only in harmonics. The melodic pitch material of the vocal line, although derived from intervals found in the Purcell phrase, is based upon the tonal properties of the Chinese text. In the Chinese language the meaning of the word is directly related to the pitch inflection. The same word can have several different meanings depending on the register of its pronunciation. Elements of Peking Opera style are also evident in the vocal writing.

    As with many of his other compositions Tan Dun reflects on what he refers to as the ‘cultural counterpoint’ of the ‘positive blending’ of the West and East – represented here in the form of the Purcell excerpt and the tradition of the viol consort underlying the Chinese text and vocal techniques. Through such a cross-cultural fusion of styles, Tan Dun aspires to the creation of a new musical language, which is neither strictly Eastern nor Western – a language for the coming century in which these diverse elements take on a new colour, and are no longer limited to the fields of their native language, culture, or technical traditions.

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 2nd May 1995, The Purcell Room, London. Published by Schirmer Inc., New York.

  • Fabrice Fitch

    Agricologies (pour violes) (2006)

    Agricologies (pour violes) is part of a double cycle of pieces commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Alexander Agricola (ca. 1456-1506), one of the leading composers of the turn of the sixteenth century. It has been commissioned by Fretwork with funds from the PRS. (The other cycle, Agricologies (pour quatuor), has been commissioned by the Kreutzer String Quartet.)

    The four viol pieces written to date are Agricola I: Comme femme a 2/4, Agricola III/Obrecht canon I: De tous biens plaine a 4, Agricola IV: Fortuna desperata a 6, and Agricola V: Si edero a 3. A fifth piece, Agricola VII: Tout a part moy/ostinato, for string quartet and viols, forms part of the quartet cycle. Each piece is based either on a specific piece by Agricola (Agricola III, IV, V) or on a work that Agricola himself used as the basis for one or more of his compositions (Agricola I, VII). The cycle is intended both as an extended hommage to Agricola and as a reflection on the use of borrowed materials in its many different guises, ranging from the Renaissance (isomelism) to the contemporary (sampling). There is also an underlying concern with the peculiar sound-quality of Renaissance viols, whose tone is markedly different from that of their baroque analogues. The cycle was also inspired by a series of works by the Abstract Expressionist sculptor David Smith, entitled Agricola, and incorporating borrowed materials in the shape of discarded farming tools.

    Agricola I and III are included on Fretwork’s recording Alexander Agricola: Chansons, with the countertenor Michael Chance. The programme was devised, and the music newly edited for Fretwork, by Fabrice Fitch.

    Agricola IV: Fortuna desperata a 6 was premiered by Fretwork at the Wigmore Hall, London, on 25 June 2006. Agricola I, III and V were premiered by Fretwork at the Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London on 17 September 2006.

  • Alexander Goehr

    3 Sonnets & 2 Fantasias, for counter-tenor and 5 viols (2000)

    Sonnet CXIV (Let me not to the marriage of true minds) by Shakespeare
    The Silken Tent by Robert Frost
    Sonnet LXXVI (Why is my verse so barren of new pride?) by Shakespeare

    The three sonnets are interspersed with two fantasias. In the first and third sonnet, the voice is accompanied by four viols (tr, t, t, b); while the Silken tent is scored for voice and three viols (tr, tr, t). Fantasia 1 is scored for five viols (tr, tr, t, b, b) and Fantasia 2 for five viols (tr, t, t, b, b).

    Commissioned by the the Cheltenham Festival and Fretwork, with funds generously provided by the Britten Pears Foundation, it was first performed at the Cheltenham Festival in June 2000. Published by Schott Ltd., London.

    From Shadow of Night for counter-tenor and 5 viols (2010)

    The Shadow of Night by George Chapman

  • Orlando Gough

    Birds on Fire, for 6 viols (2001)

    In Aaron Appelfeld’s wonderful novel Badenheim 1939 (which Ian Spink and I once turned into a music-theatre piece), a group of middle-class Jews gather in an Austrian holiday resort for their summer holidays. As they enjoy the gentle pleasures of the resort, organised by the local impressario Dr. Pappenheim, and settle into their old friendships and enmities, the town gradually, almost unnoticeably, becomes a ghetto. They persuade themselves that the sinister changes are improvements and continue their holiday ammusements as the town closes in. Summer turns to autumn; life becomes very hard. The food runs out and they are reduced to eating ridiculous delicacies from the hotel stores. And at this desperate stage, they begin to take pride in their Jewishness. The band plays Jewish tunes secretly at night. A pair of twins give a reading, “their words were like birds on fire”. The book ends as a train arrives to take them away. “Because the carriages are so dirty,” says Dr. Pappenheim, “it must mean we haven’t far to go.” My mental picture of Birds on Fire is of a group of musicians daring to play Jewish tunes at night in a small hotel room. The piece is based on two klezmer tunes: Kandel’s Hora and Odessa Bulgarish.

    Commissioned by Fretwork with funds generously provided by the PRS Foundation and the Holst Trust, it was first performed at St. Mary in the Castle, Hastings as the first concert of the CMN Tour on Friday 2nd November 2001. Published by Boosey & Hawkes Ltd. London.

    The World Encompassed, for 6 viols (2010)

    “Fretwork came to me with a proposition which I considered for about half a second before accepting – to create a piece for them about Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world in 1577-80.

    “Drake took with him a viol consort of four players (‘still music’), as well as trumpeters and drummers (‘loud music’), employing the viol consort as a tool for diplomacy, and for morale on ship – for accompanying prayers and hymns, as well as, I imagine, dancing. On the voyage they stopped many times, meeting, flirting with, terrorizing, attacking, trading with the local inhabitants. We know for certain that in Java Drake’s musicians played, and the local musicians played in return: ‘Raia Donan coming aboard us, in requitall of our musick which was made to him, presented our general with his country musick, which though it were of a very strange kind, yet the sound was pleasant and delightful.’ In other places, too, there were definitely musical encounters – formal in Ternate (one of the Molucca Islands), informal in Patagonia and California. The primary aim of the voyage was to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the Spanish in their new colonies in South America, fueled by Drake’s ferocious Protestant Christianity and his desire to take revenge for a setback at the hands of the Spanish several years earlier at the Caribbean port of Nombre de Dios. Drake’s men were by turns pirates, missionaries, and enthusiastic traders. It was said of Drake: ‘He steals by day, and prays at night’. According to the English sailors, the Indians they came across were heathen savages, but were not to be blamed for this – they simply needed a dose of Christianity. The Spanish and the Portuguese, on the other hand, were wicked and should be punished; the world must be cleansed of ‘the poisonous infection of popery.’

    “Our knowledge of the voyage comes in part from the book The World Encompassed by Drake’s nephew, also called Sir Francis Drake. This book, written some time after the event, is based mostly on the unreliable diary of Fletcher, the ship’s padre. Reading it one has to fight one’s way through a minefield of lies, exaggerations, omissions and mistakes.

    “Our piece would consist of a mixture of old and new music: the gorgeous English polyphony of the 16th century; the local music; the puritan hymns, which the players sing (bravely); and some English folk dances.

    “My contribution was to imagine the local music. Tricky…… Needless to say, world music in the 16th century is a pretty hazy subject; and I am no musical anthropologist. It was almost entirely a matter of guesswork, although in a couple of cases there was, amazingly, some direct evidence. Furthermore, the task of expressing for example Patagonian folk music or Javanese Court music on viols is essentially impossible, considering that the former was almost certainly performed by voices and drums and the latter by some kind of gamelan (sophisticated percussion orchestra). So I decided to take a playful approach. I imagined the viol players returning to England at the end of the voyage. Their friends say, so what was it like, this exotic music you heard? And they say, well, er, not so easy to give you an idea, but it was a bit like this……. And their version of the local music is as unreliable as the account of the voyage in The World Encompassed – biassed, half-remembered and severely compromised by the choice of instruments.

    Our piece has no spoken storytelling. It is simply a sequence of pieces for viol consort (and occasional singing), which attempts to tell the musical story of the voyage:

    Leaving Plymouth introduces several tunes: the hymn All People That On Earth Do Dwell (The Old Hundredth), the song O Portsmouth it is a gallant town, the dance The Portsmouth Hornpipe (Plymouth/Portsmouth/Portsmouth/Plymouth – our first unreliable contribution). It sounds like a confident send-off; in fact it was a clandestine exit. This segues into Robert Parsons’ wonderful The Song Called Trumpets and a prayer, Preserve Us O Lord, for the success of the voyage: ‘Preserve us Lord from Turk and Pope…….’ We are introduced to Drake’s curious mixture of missionary zeal and savage xenophobia.

    Mogador. The first stop was at Mogador, in the Kingdom of Fez, Morocco, where the party encountered Berber merchants – Muslims, Arabic speakers. According to The World Encompassed, they worshipped the sun, and practiced ritual sacrifice. The music I have written is based on the Tagarrâbt, an all-night Berber religious ritual in three parts: a solo for gumbri (a plucked instrument similar to the lute) – a kind of tuning-in, followed by an evolving call and response section for vocal soloist and chorus with an improvised gumbri part, which leads to a climax built round a very short ostinato. It’s devotional, hypnotic music, which I have freely interpreted for viols, in complex interlocking highly rhythmic parts. It’s four minutes long (about a hundred times shorter than the original…..). Drake responds with John Taverner’s In Nomine, based on the popular cantus firmus from Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas.

    Cape Verde. In the Cape Verde Islands, Drake’s men first stopped at the Island of Maio, looking for water. They never found it, or the inhabitants. In the harbour of Santiago they captured the Portugese ship the Santa Maria, and co-opted the pilot Nuno de Silva (he was eventually dropped off in Mexico, having outlived his usefulness). They then sailed past the volcanic island of Fogo. The English were very fascinated by Fogo, considering it one of the wonders of the world. It features in the extraordinary Thomas Weelkes song Thule The Period of Cosmography, the only song I know which combines the subjects of nature, international trade and love. The World Encompassed is highly impressed by Fogo; it claims that the volcano is eighteen miles high (actually it is about 3000 metres). Hereabouts, the sailors are also excited by a shoal of flying fish. My music consists of a half-heard Maian ritual, based loosely on Cape Verde batuque style, a Portuguese lament – a kind of primitive fado (the Moorish blues of Lisbon), and a section of rapid arpeggiation which describes the volcano and the flying fish.

    Crossing the Atlantic. We hear a robust and optimistic solo version of the English/Irish folk song Fortune My Foe. I imagine the sailors dancing on deck.

    Port Desire. Drake’s men stop in Port Desire, in Patagonia, encountering Indians for the first time. The World Encompassed describes them ‘leaping, dancing, holding up their hands, making outcries in the manner of their country.’ According to Fletcher, they worship sun and moon and are ‘ignorant of the true and living God’. Interestingly the Frenchman Jean de Léry travelled to Brazil in 1578, and gives a detailed account of the Tupinamba Indians, including their music: their ‘tuneable singing was so sweet that to the unskillful it is scarce credible, how excellently well the harmony agreed, especially seeing the barbarians are utterly ignorant of the art of music…I was not only ravished out of myself, but also both my mind rejoiced and my ears seemed continually to ring withal.’ His two musical examples consist of one note repeated in a very simple rhythm – not entirely useful! My music here is very basic samba – a samba for viols. A samba band normally consists of large numbers of drums and percussion; here we have six gentle stringed instruments, played pizzicato. It can only be a heroic failure. This music is intercut with The Portsmouth Hornpipe. There is no real collaboration or fusion; the two musics simply coexist. In 16th century Goa there appears to have been some genuine collaboration between Portuguese and Goan musicians; but here in Patagonia I can’t imagine that having happened – the relationship between Drake’s men and the Indians was far too fragile.

    Port Julian. The stop in Port Julian (also in Patagonia) was dominated by the trial and execution of a mutineer Thomas Doughty. The World Encompassed is very coy about this incident, not naming him (possibly because of his influential relatives). It describes his last communion and dinner. Apparently Drake and he ate companionably at the same table, and he went to his death with a contrite and repentant heart. We hear Robert Parsons’ second In Nomine.

    Terra Incognita. Drake’s men then set off into the very dangerous territory of the Straits of Magellan. They emerged into the Pacific and were caught in a storm which lasted 52 days and took them wildly off-course, leading them south towards Antartica. This incidentally proved that there was sea to the south of the continent of South America. My music here is abstract, not like folk music. It’s about the natural world: gull-like birds which the sailors encountered in the straits, an eclipse of the moon, storms. It’s fierce, inhuman. Fierce, inhuman music for viols? Compositionally it’s a challenge. And it involves some very virtuosic playing. But it seemed important to conjure up this extreme, violent period of the voyage.

    We end the first half of the piece with The Humble Suit of a Sinner, a prayer of thanksgiving for the end of the storm.

    The Spanish Main. Here we reach the heart of the matter: Drake’s personal crusade against the Spanish. Drake’s men acquire a phenomenal quantity of silver and gold, and manage to cause chaos and consternation in the Spanish New World. At one point, Drake takes a Spanish ship the Cacafuego, and is curiously gracious to the captured Spaniards. I imagined that perhaps one of the Spaniards has a vihuela with him, and there is an exchange of music, in which Drake’s viol music has the high status. The Spaniard will probably end up being tortured and killed. In this section of the piece, a simple, transparent Fantasia of Luis Milan is subverted, interrupted and assaulted by a domineering Protestant music featuring the tune The Old Hundredth. For the only time in the piece, Drake’s music and that of the people he encounters – in this case the Spanish – are profoundly entangled. This is followed by Robert Parsons’ complex De La Court (yes, Parsons again – great composer!). Drake triumphant, though on the run…..

    Albion (California). The Spaniards are alert to Drake’s presence and determined to catch him. He realizes that he cannot return to England the way he came. So he heads off across the Pacific, gets totally lost, and ends up (it is thought) in Badego Bay on the coast of California, very near to present-day San Francisco. Here he encounters the Miwok Indians. According to The World Encompassed, these people are profoundly, extravagantly miserable, which is attributed, needless to say, to their lack of Christianity. The English sailors teach them hymns and prayers, and this results in a great uplifting of spirits, leading to a song and dance of triumph, and a pledge of allegiance to Drake. He names the place Albion, plants a flag and leaves. In 1931 two Frenchman M Jaime de Angelo and M Béclard d’Harcourt visited the Californian Indians, and notated some of their songs: chants de jeu, chants de chamane, chants de puberté, chants de guerre, chants de chasse, chants magique pour attirer l’amour (very useful to have up your sleeve). My music is based on four of these songs. It’s like a melancholy procession. This is interrupted by a version of The Old Hundredth, and magically the local music is transformed, become more and more animated, a long accelerando which leads to a high-speed dance and then fades into the distance.

    Crossing the Pacific. A short piece about homesickness: a queasy version of the Plymouth/Portsmouth tunes.

    Ternate. Drake’s men arrive in the Moluccas. Some of the islands are in the hands of the Portuguese, but the Sultan of Ternate, a Moor, has defied and driven out the invaders; so he is a natural ally of the English. The Sultan meets Drake at sea, in large canoes. The occasion has the formality of a pageant on the Thames. ‘Our ordnance thundered, which we mixed with a great store of small shot, among which sounding our trumpets, and other instruments of music, both still and loud noise.’ The Sultan, on hearing Drake’s music, is said to be ‘in musical paradise’. We hear the Pavin of Alberti, followed by my contribution, a dark, robust gamelan-like music driven by a rowing rhythm. It features some busy, febrile solos inspired by the music of the local stringed instrument, the rebab.

    Java. After an unfortunate incident in the Celebes, when the ship (the Golden Hind, by the way, the only one of the four original ships to make it this far) is stranded on a rock for several days, prompting Drake to jettison vast quantities of valuable cargo, they reach Java. The meeting with the local chief, Raia Donan, is unquestionably a success. ‘The people are loving, true, just dealing….’ ‘Our General…presented the king (of whom he was joyfully and lovingly received) with his musicke.’ We hear Picforth’s extraordinary mathematical In Nomine, in which each instrument plays in a different time-frame, followed by my six-viol version of Javanese gamelan music: very organized, mainly percussive music for a huge variety of drums and gongs, yet having a certain anarchic quality, partly due to apparently random accelerandi and deccelerandi. One can’t help seing a parallel between Picforth’s complexities and the exotic complexities of the gamelan music, both built on the rhythmic contraction and expansion of a few simple tunes.

    Rounding the Cape of Good Hope. The expedition heads for home. We hear a prayer Da Pacem Domine for the successful end to the voyage, followed by a half-dead-with-fatigue reprise of Fortune My Foe.

    Reaching Plymouth. Parsons again: a reprise of The Song Called Trumpets. The final piece of spin – an apparently triumphant homecoming. Of course the voyage has been an amazing achievement, but the return is hugely problematic, because Drake’s men have stolen so much silver and gold from the Spaniards; the Spaniards are understandably incensed, and want it back. 95% of the treasure is spirited away beyond the reach of the Spanish, and the rest is humbly and generously returned.

    “Writing new music for viols is a very interesting opportunity. It’s tempting to play the game – to write gorgeous rolling polyphony. We know it works. I have been much more bloody-minded. I’m interested in finding new possibilities for viol music, not so much new instrumental techniques as new textures, new structures, new emotional territory. And anyway, in this piece, the music that I have written consists mostly of evocations of non-European folk culture, so clearly the very European polyphony that one associates with viols is inappropriate. I hope, by basing music for viols on folk models, that something emerges that is neither familiar folk music nor familiar viol music, but something new and interesting. To write, for example, gamelan-influenced music for viols is, to me, a very worthwhile experiment; of course it’s not going to end up sounding like a successful reconstruction of gamelan music – the choice of instruments completely precludes that – but what I hope is music with a kind of hybrid vigour.

    “The viol is in a curious position relative to new music. Because of a hundred year lacuna in viol history, it has seemed a museum instrument, associated for ever with a particular kind of music from a particular period. It may have been tempting to think of the relationship between the viol and the violin as being that of the air balloon and the aeroplane. But that’s clearly not true. The viol is obviously an instrument with enormous potential, and the viol consort a group with enormous potential – as much as the string quartet, it seems to me; so writing for viol consort is a huge privilege. It feels pioneering, full of possibility, and relatively unencumbered with the baggage of 20th century compositional history. For example, when writing for string quartet, the shadow of Bartok always seems to fall heavily on one’s shoulder. The differences between viol and violin are just as marked as their similarities, not surprisingly, since the viol evolved from a plucked instrument – the quality of pizzicato viol seems to me far superior to pizzicato violin, viola or cello (the double bass is a different matter). And the fact of holding the bow the other way up implies that the arco sound has a very different quality, though it does not preclude, as some people think, fast marcato playing.

    “For me, one of the joys of The World Encompassed is the close juxtaposition (and occasional entanglement) of the old and the new. It’s like a city with old buildings next to new – the collision and interplay of the past and the present is exciting and revealing. It’s a relationship I’d like to explore further.”

  • Barry Guy

    Buzz, for 5 viols (1995)

    “‘No pastiche’, I wrote at the beginning of the manuscript. However Buzz is a reflection on Purcell’s Fantazia Upon One Note. Performance and study of Purcell’s music suggested a particular approach, so for instance there is a constant re-statement of a gradually expanding note complex, a slow recurring chorale and rapid flourishes in the lower instruments culminating in a complex array of harmonics. These three elements meet in a shifting scenario – sometimes elevated, sometimes partly hidden, often equal.

    “Although the title is taken from an instruction in the piece where players make a string vibrate in a special way, Buzz also suggests a sense of excitement, urgency and energy. The ‘Buzz’ emanates from an articulation by the late jazz bassist Charles Mingus where the string was pulled around the side of the fingerboard and plucked to produce a very special buzzing sound. The precedent for unusual sonorities had already been set by H.l.F. Biber in the 17th century who formulated a similar sound, instructing the bassist to place parchment between the strings and to beat the string in the manner of a drum roll.

    “Buzz is specifically written for the viol consort rather than a ‘string’ ensemble. Harmonics used are appropriate to the chosen formation, and the arpeggiated chord of 32 pitches before the ‘Buzz’ is only possible with the chosen consort of two trebles, two tenors and bass viol. With the foregoing in mind, the activity of interchanging materials against a slower more archaic articulation perhaps suggests the passing on of Purcell’s musical message to the present day.”

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 7th March 1995, The Purcell Room, London. Published by Novello Music (Music Sales Ltd.)

  • John Joubert

    The Fellowship of the Stretched String (2009)

    “Scored for mezzo-soprano (or counter-tenor) and five viols (treble, two tenors and two basses), this setting of a poem specially written by Stephen Tunnicliffe was commissioned by Fretwork to mark the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth. The poem is essentially a celebration of the experience of ensemble string-playing from the perspective of a participant (the poet is himself a keen amateur ‘cellist). It also contains various classical allusions which evoke some of the poetic imagery of Purcell’s time, and references to Dido and Euridice are mirrored in the music: Dido by a quote from her lament in Purcell’s ‘Dido & Aeneas’, and Euridice by an appearance of the first phrase of Orpheus’s famous aria in Gluck’s ‘Orfeo’, ‘Che faro senza Euridice’.

    “The work as a whole could be regarded as a chamber cantata in four main sections. The first is declamatory in vocal style while the instruments make extensive use of the downward octave scale which introduces Purcell’s verse anthem ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’. The second section is a more formal aria, the two stanzas of which are introduced by the Dido quotation. This recurs between the two stanzas and again at the end of the section. There follows an energetic fugue based on the Dido theme in which the singer participates by adding an extra and independent part evoking an image of polyphonic music as a ‘web of sound, a living tapestry’, referred to in the text. The final section begins with the ‘Orfeo’ quote (perhaps Orpheus could be regarded as a founder-member of the ‘Fellowship of the Stretched String’) which is accompanied by a figure based on the ground from Purcell’s own ‘Music for a While’. Gradually the way is prepared for a return of the descending octave scale, and the whole cantata ends with the proposition that music is as much concerned with dance as it is with song.”

  • Andrew Keeling

    Afterwords, for 5 viols (1999)

    Afterwords is, in essence, a song without words: a re-composition for 5 viols of SATB setting of Sylvia Plath’s poem, ‘The Moon And The Yew Tree’. In the poem the moon and a solitary Yew tree are set within the framework of a churchyard at night: metaphors which seem to underline the poet’s interest in a metaphysical ‘other’. The piece is in four sections, corresponding to the four verses of the poem, and a tritone descent from the outset (d) to the end of the piece (g-sharp) reflects the poem’s collapse into blackness and silence.”

    Afterwords lasts around 10 minutes and is dedicated to Fretwork.

    Published by Fretwork Editions. London.

  • Benedict Mason

    Room Purcell, Fantazia for five viols (1995)

    “Part installation, part performance, this piece is, of course, an abstraction from Purcell, but has little to do with Scelsi or Cage or even La Monte Young. There is nothing humorous about this piece: it is done with serious intent. At the end of the piece the players exit and the stage is immediately set for the next piece: no applause/acknowledgement/composer bows, etc.”

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 7th March 1995, The Purcell Room, London. Not published.

  • Thea Musgrave

    Wild Winter, for soprano, tenor, tenor, bass & 5 viols (1993)
    Setting of various texts – Owen, Lorca, Crange, Petrarch & Trakl.

    “One of the challenges of writing Wild Winter was to find an appropriate text to commemorate the Siege of Lichfield. When I did not find a contemporary text that was suitably lyrical or dramatic, I had the idea that it might be interesting to select poems from many different times and countries. The poems I eventually chose were non-specific as to time and place, yet they all shared powerful emotions resulting from the inevitable losses and cruelties of any war. I also chose the poems because of certain words or phrases which I could use to overlap or link the setting of one poem with another – their merging cries of protest creating a sonic tapestry of shared experience.

    To mention a few examples:

    War broke and the winter of the world… (Owen)
    No se oye otra cosa que el Uanto (weeping) … (Lorca)
    Do not weep maiden, for war is kind… (Crange)
    Le donne lagrimose…(women, weeping)…(Petrarch)
    Den wilden orgel des Winter sturms…/Wilde, Woelfe… (Trakl)
    Wild winter (Owen)

    “I made English translations of all these poems (inevitably rather free so the words would be comfortably set and singable with the given vocal line) – however to emphasise the universality of human response to the consequences of war, I would prefer they be sung in their original languages. For me, thoughts of this distant war, the Siege of Lichfield, brings to mind my concern and outrage with the happenings in the world today, where we are witnessing once again “man’s inhumanity to man”.

    Commissioned by the Lichfield Festival 1993. First performed at the Lichfield Festival in 1993 by Fretwork with Red Byrd (Suzie le Blanc, Ian Honeyman, John Potter & Richard Wistreich). The premiere was broadcast by BBC Radio 3. Published by Novello Music (Music Sales Ltd.)

  • Michael Nyman

    Self-laudatory hymn of Inanna and her omnipotence, for counter-tenor & 5 or 6 viols (1992)

    “Occasionally, and most pleasurably, a text discovered by chance – like that of the Self laudatory hymn of Inanna and her omnipotence – not only becomes the basis for a vocal work but also opens up an area of intellectual activity previously unknown to me. Thus a newspaper review of Oliver Sacks’s The man who mistook his wife for a hat led first to an opera and then to an interest in neurology and related (popular) scientific fields, such as Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, the starting point for my opera Vital Statistics. Similarly, a friend’s passing reference to Paul Celan brought about my Six Celan Songs and a continuing, deepening study of his poetry.

    “The text of the Self-laudatory hymn came to light while I was browsing among the bookshelves of an Armenian acquaintance in Paris in February 1992. Opening, for no apparent reason, a fat anthology entitled Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament I found Samuel Noah Kramer’s translation of this text. I was immediately taken with its tone of rare, unashamed self congratulation (very suitable, I thought, for James Bowman’s voice) and its repetitive structure (very suitable for my music – though in the final section of my work, Inanna’s triumphant listing of the temples under her control is expressed through cadential diversity rather than uniformity). A chance conversation with another friend showed me that Inanna was not an obscure goddess known only to me and a few experts on Sumerian civilisation but a central focus of that civilisation and (now) a figure highly esteemed by feminists. In Kramer’s words: ‘Female deities were worshipped and adored all through Sumerian history… but the goddess who outweighed, overshadowed, and outlasted them all was a deity known to the Sumerians by the name of Inanna, ‘Queen of Heaven’, and to the Semites who lived in Sumer by the name of Ishtar. Inanna played a greater role in myth, epic, and hymn than any other deity male or female.”

    Commissioned by The Spitalfields Festival and first performed in Christ Church, Spitalfields, 11th June 1992 with James Bowman.

  • Poul Ruders

    Second Set of Changes, for 4 viols (1994)

    “The title indicates that there must be a First Set of Changes. That piece, Air with Changes, was written for solo harp, both pieces sharing the same subject for alteration, namely the old Danish folk tune The Power of the Harp. It’s a lovely tune, but in its original rhythmical version, quite stiff, so in both cases I’ve softened up the beat, making it ‘swing,’ so to speak. Writing for viols is—for a non-player—frighteningly difficult. One has to disregard all habits accumulated over the years, having composed entirely for modern strings and approach the medium from scratch.

    “Having chosen an ancient tune to go with ancient instruments it’s hardly surprising that the result has a whiff of early music to it; I’ve combined my much used change-ringing technique with a kind of airily almost minimalist ‘swing,’ thus paying homage to the days of Purcell and my own time.

    “And Purcell, who indirectly has instigated this series of commissions, where’s he? Nowhere as such, but the sound, the mood, this particular mixture of joy and melancholy should be present in my tiny composition. In my youth I heard quite a lot of Purcell. My father owned quite a substantial collection of old ’78s by Alfred Deller – Ode to St. Caecilia etc., so it’s in no way foreign or alienating to me, dealing with a commission honouring Henry Purcell. Neither should it: the BBC has commissioned again in relation to the tercentenary – a huge orchestral piece, based on a theme by Purcell (the first witch chorus from Dido) which was premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham in May ‘95. So, I guess this year is my youth ‘revisited’, but at the performing end. And it’s a real pleasure…”

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 7th March 1995, The Purcell Room, London. Published by Edition Wilhelm Hansen, Copenhagen.

  • Peter Sculthorpe

    Djlile, for 5 viols (1994)

    “As a schoolboy, I was so excited when I first heard the Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, that I wrote several works inspired by it. I planned to base the present piece, for the Purcell Tercentenary, upon one of these works. Later, however, I decided that the occasion demanded the best possible music that I could write, rather than a return to my early essays as a composer. Djilile, then, is based upon an adaptation of an Aboriginal chant from northern Australia. The title translates as ‘whistling-duck on a billabong.’ The work is a straightforward one, with four statements of the chant separated by brief interludes, and followed by a coda. While it contains elements of the chaconne, or chacony, there is no conscious influence of Purcell upon the music. I do, however, share with Purcell much joy in the sound of a consort of viols.

    “In writing the work I decided to use scordatura in the bass viol, and to exploit the higher pitches of one of the treble viols. I also decided to bring the work to its conclusion with six-part chords in most of the parts. Djilile is dedicated to Fretwork.”

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 2nd May 1995, The Purcell Room, London. Published by Faber Music Ltd. London.


  • Dmitri Smirnov

    The Lamb, for counter-tenor & 6 viols (1995)

    Setting of ‘The Lamb’, by William Blake

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 2nd May 1995, The Purcell Room, London.

  • Alessandro Solbiati

    A Nameless Pod for 5 viols (1995)

    This piece gets its name from a poem by Emily Dickenson:

    How many Flowers fall in Wood or perish
    from the Hill without the privilege
    to know that they are Beautiful!
    How many cast a nameless Pod
    upon the nearest Breeze unconscious
    of the Scarlet Freight it bear to Other Eyes!

    “To create for myself the sound and the spirit of an ancient instrument (before the technical possibilities) has been a very fascinating experience for me as a composer. I had before me not only an instrument, but a very precise ancient instrumental ensemble, and in composing I have looked at not only the sound of the ensemble but also of the music of Henry Purcell.

    “There were two consequences: the first and most evident, though not the most important, is that the starting point of the piece is a little sequence from Purcell. At the beginning, the quartet (like four abstract voices) builds a kind of counterpoint around this sequence. The second is that the general atmosphere of the piece is quieter than it would have been if I had had to use a modern string quartet. In fact, influenced by the wonderful resonance of the sound of the viols, I just tried to let it float through the air, with tension but without anxiety.”

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 7th March 1995, The Purcell Room, London. Published by Suvini Zerboni, Milan.

  • John Tavener

    Nipson, for counter-tenor and 5 viols (1999)

    Nipson is written for a consort of viols (tr, tr, t, t, b.), and counter-tenor. The music falls into six sections, the first and last of which are a palendromic setting of a Byzantine palindrome engraved over a public fountain in Constantinople:

    Nipson is also an ikon of glory and repentance. The concept of inner silence is present throughout, as the composer contemplates his sins, whether voluntary of involuntary, manifest, or hidden. “Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me….”

    Cleanse the sins, not only the face.

    Doxa see o Theos, doxa see.
    Glory to You O God, glory to you.

    Kyrie eleison.
    Lord, have mercy.

    Kyrie eleison.
    Lord, have mercy.

    Doxa see o Theos, doxa see.
    Glory to You O God, glory to you.

    Cleanse the sins, not only the face.

    Commissioned by the BBC and first performed on 4th October 1999 at Norwich Cathedral, by Fretwork and Michael Chance. Duration c. 20 mins. Published by Chester Music Ltd. London.

    Apokatastasis, for counter-tenor, Tibetan temple bowls and 6 viols (1999)

    “Each soul is driven by a thirst for the absolute… the re-establishment of all things… souls after death pass through the manifold aeons… marriage of agape and eros… the state of universal existence… an abyss of joy and ecstacy. The Greek word Apokatastasis means ‘a spiritual state of ecstacy’. The music should be performed with overwhelming ecstacy and joy.”

    A generous gift to Fretwork from the composer and first performed on 4th October 2000 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, by Fretwork and Michael Chance. Duration: c. 3 minutes. Published by Chester Music Ltd. London.

    The Hidden Face, for counter-tenor, oboe and 6 viols (1996)

    “The Hidden Face is a prayer, for solo counter-tenor, oboe and a distant group of muted violins and violas. It trys to hold within it a whole Tradition with nothing personal or idiosyncratic, as in ikon painting, though this is a severe challenge for a composer working at the end of the 20th century. There was once a music which was not “interesting” in the way that nearly all Western music from the early middle ages is interesting. To be interesting, in the modern Western sense, it must not only be created, but made even more interesting by ” the obscene tyrant, the ego”.

    “Prayer, in the Orthodox East, is from the heart. The mind must have gone into the heart. We pray secretly, secret even from ourselves, since only the Divine Presence knows what is in our hearts, and this suggests a music of such humility, wrapped in a depth of inner silence and stillness of which we have no idea.

    “Paradise was made of peace, and so Adam could hear the Divine Voice. It is almost impossible now. We have to cast off all the received, intellectual, sophisticated garbage, and also all the preconceived knowledge of God that modern man has so disasterously collected, and listen with a heart that has become so soft that the Face is no longer Hidden.

    “But we are still at the beginning, so the title remains…. The Hidden Face.”

    This work was commissioned by Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia. It was first performed on 13th October 1996 at the Barbican Hall, London by Michael Chance (counter-tenor), Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and strings from the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Richard Hickox. It was first performed in the version for 6 viols instead of the violins and violas in 2000 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, with Michael Chance, Nicholas Daniel and Fretwork. Duration: c. 15 minutes. Published by Chester Music Ltd. London.

  • John Woolrich

    Fantazia for four viols (1995)

    “I found the titles of the three short movements of this piece in the index of First-lines, Titles and Sub-titles in Zimmerman’s Purcell catalogue. All the music is derived from a handful of notes from the beginning of one of Purcell’s D minor Fantazias. The original Purcell is progressively revealed in the first section, Begin the Song, and then shrouded again in the second, Beneath a dark and melancholy, and third, A Good-Night.”

    Commissioned by The South Bank Centre. First performed 7th March 1995, The Purcell Room, London.

    Three Fantasias for six viols (2001)

    clearing the sky of clouds
    the sky is behind her
    the darkness is night

    Three Songs for alto & six viols (2001)

    (the sensation of slight things)

    Three Arias for oboe & six viols (2001)

    After the last rains left the sky
    Dolorous Interlude
    they pass from the sea to the Castle

    “When the writer Fernando Pessoa died in Lisbon in 1935, he left behind a large trunk full of poetry, horoscopes, unfinished stories, essays, plays, translations, letters and journals, typed, hand-written or scrawled in Portuguese, English and French. He wrote on the backs of letters, on handbills, envelopes and scraps of paper. He described the Book of Disquiet as ‘fragments, fragments, fragments’.

    “In the spirit of Pessoa, I have made a loose-leaf collection of short pieces: three for viol consort (Three Fantasias from the Book of Disquiet), three for alto and viols (Three Songs) and three for oboe with viols (Three Arias). The songs are settings of texts by Pessoa and the fantasias and arias have titles drawn from the Book of Disquiet. The performers can make their own selection and order.”

    Commissioned by Nicholas Daniel. The first performance was given by Fretwork, at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, on 2nd November 2001. Published by Faber Music Ltd.


  • Nico Muhly

    My Days (2012)

    My Days is a ritualised memory piece about Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) written for two ensembles whose recordings informed so much of my musical development. I feel like I spend half of my life trying to trick string players to play like Fretwork, and vocalists to sing like the Hilliard Ensemble, so it was with enormous pleasure that I composed this piece. The text is derived from Psalm 39, which Gibbons himself set, as well as an account of Gibbons’s own autopsy, which is a poignant 17th century semi- anonymous text. One of the most thrilling things about the sound of five violas da gamba playing together is the sense of their phrasing being derived from vocal music, but made, somehow, electric and ecstatic through ornamentation and the friction of the strings. The piece has an idée fixe based on a minor scale with two possible resolutions, and many ornaments. In between iterations, the voices, in rhythmic unison, intone the psalm. It isn’t until the autopsy text arrives that the voices begin to split into more elaborate, Gibbonsy verses and responses. A series of semi-improvised fragments on the text “Take thy plague away from me” introduces the third section of the piece, where plucked strings create a halo around the text, “hear my prayer, O Lord.” The piece ends with the ornaments, wildly exploded, over the voices singing two words, endlessly repeated. ”

    My Days was commissioned by Wigmore Hall for world première performance by Fretwork & Hilliard Ensemble at Wigmore Hall, October 2, 2012.