Alfonso Ferrabosco (c.1575-1628)
Music to Hear … Music for lyra viol from 1609
Richard Boothby (viola da gamba)
Asako Morikawa (viola da gamba)
rec. 2020, Church of St. Mary Magdalen, Sherborne, UK
Signum Classics SIGCD757 
Lovers of the viol – and especially of English music for the instrument – already have many reasons to be grateful to Richard Boothby, whether they know his work from concerts and/or recordings. As a founder member of the Purcell Quartet, he was an important presence on recordings such as (to cite just a couple of examples) Corelli: La Folia & other works (Hyperion CDH 55240) and Buxtehude: Seven Trio Sonatas, Op. 2 (Chandos CHAN 0784); with Fretwork, outstanding recordings include John Jenkins: Complete Four-Part Consort Music (Signum Classics SIGCD 528) and William Lawes: For Ye Violls (Virgin Classics VC 91187-2).
He has also made a number of excellent recordings of music for solo viol, including Telemann: Solo Fantasias (Signum Classics SIGCD 544) and William Lawes: Complete Music for Solo Lyra Viol (Harmonia Mundi HM 907625).
Now we have a very impressive disc on which Boothby performs (in partnership with Asako Morikawa in two pieces) 23 of the 101 pieces contained in Alfonso Ferrabosco’s 1609 publication Lessons for 1, 2 & 3e Viols. Alfonso Ferrabosco II (as he is sometimes referred to), composer of these ‘Lessons’, was the illegitimate son of a musician from Bologna, also called Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543-1588) who arrived in England early in the 1560s, after working in Rome. He based himself in London, working for Queen Elizabeth until 1578, though making return visits to Italy in 1564 and again c. 1568-1571. His illegitimate son (whose mother is thought to have been a woman called Susanna Symons, who became the wife of Alfonso senior in May 1578), was left behind in London when his parents moved to Italy in 1578; he was placed in the care of Gommar van Oosterwijk, another musician at the court of Elizabeth.
Following van Oosterwijk’s death in 1592, Alfonso Junior was granted an annuity as “musitian of the violles”. He remained a court musician when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth; James granted him a pension and an annuity in 1605 and he was given the titles of Composer of Music in Ordinary and Composer of Music to the King. He was also made an “extraordinary groom of the privy chamber” – one of his duties being to instruct Prince Henry in “the art of music”. In the next few years Ferrabosco worked alongside Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones in the preparation of several court masques. He wrote the music for a masques, including The Masque of Blackness (1605), Hymenaei (1606), Lord Haddington’s Masque (1608), The Masque of Beauty (1608) and The Masque of Queenes (1609). 1609 saw the publication of both the book of Lessons from which the music on this disc is taken and a book of Ayres, which contains Ferrabosco’s settings of lyrics from Jonson’s masques, and of the song ‘Come, Celia’ from Jonson’s play Volpone (acted 1606), as well as poems by Thomas Campion (“Young and simple though I am”) and John Donne (‘The Expiration’: “So, so, breake off this last lamenting kisse”; this seems to have been the very first occasion on which a poem by Donne was printed. Ben Jonson wrote prefatory poems for both the Lessons and the Ayres. In the first he addresses the composer as “my loved Alphonso”. Campion also wrote a poem to go before the Ayres, in which he calls Ferrabosco “Musicks maister”.
Jonson had earlier praised Ferrabosco fulsomely in the first publication (in 1606) of Hymenaei, writing “I do for honor’s sake and the pledge of our friendship name Master Alfonso Ferrabosco, a man … mastering all the spirits of music; to whose judicial care and as absolute performance were committed all those difficulties of song and otherwise. Wherein what his merit made to the soul of our invention would ask to be expressed in tunes no less ravishing than his”. The last adjective (“ravishing”) in this passage from Jonson is one that I would readily apply to Ferrabosco’s setting of Donne’s ‘The Expiration’, mentioned above. Perhaps Nicholas Anderson had this particular air in mind when he wrote (Baroque Music, London, 1994, p.120) that the Ayres show Ferrabosco to be “an expressive melodist”. Richard Boothby certainly discovers that same quality in some of the Lessons.
In 1617 Ferrabosco obtained an additional post and an increase in salary (though he seems to have been constantly in debt), when he was appointed head of a group of 17 musicians (including Thomas Lupo and Orlando Gibbons) attached to the household of Prince Charles. Around this time, he seems to have written most of his 50 or so works for viol consort – including fantasias, in nomines and pavans in 4–6 parts. Many of these are works of considerable complexity and beauty.
Ferrabosco’s skill as a violist, especially as a player of the lyra-viol, was widely recognised. Leaving aside the praises of English poets such as Jonson and Campion (who would both have known Ferrabosco in person) and the fact that his music for viols survives in a substantial number of English manuscripts, we have the testimony of the French gambist and diplomat André Maugars. He was at the court of Charles I (in the entourage of Henrietta Maria) between 1625 and 1627. This, presumably, was when he heard Alfonso Ferrabosco play. If so, his favourable impression certainly endured. When in Italy late in the 1630s, he wrote a ‘report’ on Italian music, Response faite à un curieux sur le sentiment de la musique en Italie [ecrit à Rome le 1er Octobre 1639] (first published in 1672). In it Maugars declares that although the viol was widely played in Italy, he did not hear there a violist who “could be compared with the great ‘Farabosco d’Angleterre’.”
The works in Ferrabosco’s Lessons were written for the lyra-viol, a smaller form of the bass viol. Music for the lyra-viol typically makes more use of chords than that for viol consorts. The lyra-viol had six strings which lay close to the fingerboard and a flatter bridge than other viols. Such differences made it easier to play double- and triple-stops and arpeggiated chords, thus allowing (if the player was sufficiently gifted) the production of contrapuntal textures akin to those possible on the lute. The compositions in Ferrabosco’s Lessons are presented in French lute tablature, rather than conventional musical notation. On the question of tuning, the best discussion I know can be found in an article by Frank Traficante, ‘“All Ways Have Been Tried to Do it”’, Acta Musicologica, 42:3-4, 1970, pp. 183-205, & 256.
Reading Donna J. Fournier’s MA Thesis (West Chester University of Pennsylvania, 1968), Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger (ca. 1575-1628) and His Unpublished Works for Lyra Viols, I came across (on page 21) some sentences by Willi Appel which I remember copying into a notebook (long lost), around 1970, and which I am happy to quote here: “The lyra viol, probably developed as a hybrid between the lira da gamba and the bass viol; it borrowed its notation (tablature) from the lute, its technique and form from the viol, and its tessitura from the tenor viol. Like its probable inventor, Alfonso Ferrabosco, it seems to have been conceived in England of Italian parentage”. (Though I am not sure quite what Appel means when he calls Ferrabosco its “probable inventor”, his assertion of the lyra-viol’s hybridity is so well expressed that I could not resist quotation of it).
For a classicist like Jonson, the fact that Ferrabosco played the lyra viol would have been significant. The very name conjured up associations with the lyre of the Ancient Greeks – the lyre of Apollo, of Orpheus and Orion and the lyre of the epic poets. Jonson’s poems frequently invoke the classical ‘lyre’ as a symbol of poetic activity. The origin of the word ‘lyric’ to mean a kind of short poem was central to Jonson’s ideas about poetry. He would also have known – perhaps via Ferrabosco? – that the ‘new’ genre of opera was grounded in the belief that Greek tragedy was sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. Some of these ‘connections’ we now know to be spurious, but that did not stop them being powerful influences on poets such as Jonson or his friend, and translator of Homer, George Chapman.
Boothby’s interpretation of this selection from Ferrabosco’s Lessons is uniformly sensitive and perceptive and, at many points, wonderfully expressive. This is true of the two brief ‘Preludes’ played on this disc, which have the exploratory, quasi- improvisational quality one associates with, for example, some of the keyboard toccatas or fantasias of Frescobaldi. This is music in which one senses, intimately and almost uncannily, the very thought processes of the composer. Elsewhere, there is a lighter kind of expressiveness, as in the several Almaines on this disc. In his book Musick’s Monument (London 1676), Thomas Mace observes (p.129) that the Almaine is “very Ayrey, and Lively”. The words might almost have been intended as an evocation of Ferrabosco’s Almaines, as interpreted by Boothby – never hurried or heavy, but alive with emotional suggestions.
It is one of Boothby’s strengths that, without exaggerations, he makes clear the distinctions between the kinds of dances Ferrabosco includes in his Lessons. His playing of the several corantos included in his programme is an utter delight. Boothby articulates, to something like perfection, the similarities and differences, where Ferrabosco’s Almaines and Corantos are concerned. Both are dances in duple time, so they naturally have something in common, but the corantos have a greater simplicity of texture, and are decidedly less grave or solemn. None of the above is intended to suggest that these pieces for unaccompanied lyra-viol were ever intended to be danced to; rather they were surely intended as ‘idealisations’ of dance music, intended for attentive listening. In the Lessons, the dance movements are arranged in pairs – see the contents list at the close of this review; the multi-movement suite of ‘dances’ still lay in the future.
I really cannot praise Richard Boothby’s performances too highly. He captures the structural clarity of Ferrabosco’s music alongside its poetry, and gives voice to its melancholy as well as its moments of joy. These may be ‘Lessons’, but Boothby shows that there is much more than the merely didactic in this music.
Jonson and Ferrabosco seem genuinely to have been friends. Certainly, there is no evidence that the kind of jealous dispute which arose between Jonson and Inigo Jones ever disrupted the relationship between Jonson and Ferrabosco. I like to imagine that Jonson (a poet I much admire) might have had ‘private’ recitals of Ferrabosco’s music for the lyra-viol. In the prefatory poem Jonson wrote for Ferrabosco’s book Ayres, there are lines in which he rehearses some of the Renaissance’s High Commonplaces about music, but the closing praise carries (it seems to me) genuine personal conviction and application:
To urge, my loved Alphonso, that bold fame
Of building towns, and making wild beasts tame,
Which music had; or speak her known effects,
That she removeth cares, sadness ejects,
Declineth anger, persuades clemency,
Doth sweeten mirth, and heighten piety,
And is t’ a body, often, ill inclined.
No less a sovereign cure, than to the mind;
To say, indeed, she were the soul of heaven,
That the eight spheres, no less, than planets seven,
Moved by her order, and the ninth more high,
Including all, were thence called harmony:
I, yet, had uttered nothing on thy part,
When these were but the praises of the art.
But when I have said, the proofs of all these be
Shed in thy songs; ’tis true: but short of thee.
Perhaps the notoriously argumentative Jonson had found his anger ‘declined’ (diminished, decreased) by Ferrabosco’s music and his mirth (of which he was also notoriously fond) ‘sweetened’?
Even after the recent decades in which ‘early music’ has found a new appreciation, music for the viol(s) is sometimes still regarded as arcane and obscure. Just how beautiful and subtle such music can be is evidenced perfectly on this disc. Indeed, my only minor dissatisfaction with it is that I would have enjoyed it yet more, could room have been found for a larger selection of the pieces in Ferrabosco’s Lessons. But this, no doubt, is musical greed on my part.
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Lessons for 1,2 & 3 Viols