Airy Musics Of Strains

My haul.

As the bibliophiles of South London will know, Bookmongers is a venerable Brixton institution. Run by an affable American with a penchant for classic rock records (and singing along to them), it’s an increasingly rare example of the independent second-hand book store in an age of ubiquitous charity shops and cheap online retailers. For many years it was co-staffed by his late dog Rosa, a customer favourite who is much missed – today an adopted cat takes her place.

The music section is small, but on a recent visit I was surprised to discover some volumes gifted by someone with an evident interest in early English music. There were two classic instruction books: Thomas Morley’s Plaine And Easie Introduction (1597), and Christopher Simpson’s A Compendium Of Practical Music (1667). There was also the collected writings of Roger North (c.1651-1734) – a key source on musical life in 17th-century England.

Not the finds in your average Oxfam! These books weren’t cheap, but in a rush of enthusiasm I parted with the lot (‘I’m supporting an independent retailer’, I told myself). I bought them less for their technical content than their insights into the intellectual currents of the period, and the endearing quaintness that runs through them (why, for instance, do our textbooks no longer feature introductory poems? It’s so charming. Yes I’m looking at you Rosen! No wonder I struggled with Sonata Forms!).

And then there’s the personalities. As it happens, Roger North passed judgement on both of the other two authors. Morley’s Introduction was already old in his day, and he deemed it a useful enough artefact of that time, but found its writing style ‘stuft with abundance of impertinences’. This is undeniably true. Exhibit A is Morley’s preface, where he discovers the ‘Planning Fallacy’ and the horrible truth that writing is actually really hard:

concerning the book itself, if I had before I began imagined half the pains and labour which it cost me, I would sooner have been persuaded to anything than to have taken in hand such a tedious piece of work, like unto a great sea, which the further I entered into the more I saw before me unpassed…

Nothing if not honest. As for Simpson, beside the Compendium he also wrote The Division Viol, which is still a key guide to viol technique in his time. But North damns both books with faint praise: ‘doubtless very good, and worthy as could be expected from a meer musick master’. Ouch.

Relatively little is known about Simpson’s life. A Yorkshireman, he fought for the Royalists in the Civil War under William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle, and was later employed by Sir Roger Bolles in Lincolnshire, as his son’s tutor. In the Compendium, Cavendish receives the obsequious dedication which was seemingly obligatory in those days:

I had the honour to serve under your Grace’s command when you were general of the gallantest army that I think was ever raised in these dominions…

This brushes over the fact that Cavendish fled the country in 1644 after the defeat of Marston Moor – but never mind, the Restoration had ensured his return, and Simpson certainly knew who wasn’t to blame for all that unpleasantness:

If others by your example had shown the like loyalty, gallantry and industry, those rugged times had come to a shorter period.

Commending his book are two letters from fellow composers Matthew Locke and John Jenkins. But hang on, what’s this? Locke spends half his letter on a bizarre rant about other less practical theorists:

our new lights (of which this age has been monstrous fruitful) who can speculate how many hairs’ breadths will reach from the top of Paul’s steeple to the centre of a full moon and demonstrate that the thousandth part of a minute after, there will be so many thousand more hairs necessary by means of the earth’s or moon’s motion…

Believe it or not, this is his way of praising Simpson’s concise writing style. I’m desperate to learn the story here, but whatever Locke was carping on about, it’s true that the Compendium is admirably to-the-point. From the outset Simpson makes clear that he has no time for the more speculative side of music theory. Here he is defining the degrees of the scale:

These degrees are numbered by sevens. To speak of the mystery of that number were to deviate from the business in hand. Let it suffice that music may be taught by any names of things…

My happy accident of finding this book caused me to revisit some of Simpson’s own music for viols. There isn’t a huge amount. But in 2015, the Chelys viol consort released a disc which included twenty ‘ayres’ by him. These were only transcribed in 2009 – mostly from part-books in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Confusingly, some of these 20 ‘ayres’ bear that same title, while others have dance names. But the Compendium offers an explanation. You see, Simpson’s favourite form of instrumental music was the contrapuntal ‘fancy’ (or ‘fantasy’) -‘the chief and most excellent for art and contrivance’ – but it had fallen out of favour since Morley’s day:

This kind of music (the more is the pity) is now much neglected by reason of the scarcity of auditors that understand it, their ears being better acquainted and more delighted with light and airy music.

Such ‘light and airy music’ is the next step down in his hierarchy, and Simpson describes some of its forms: Pavanes, Galliards, and other dances:

In these and other airy musics of strains which now pass under the common name of airs, you will often hear some touches of points of fugues, but not insisted upon or continued as in fancy-music.

So ‘air’ (or ‘ayre’, or ‘aire’ – spelling wasn’t such a big deal back then) could mean any form of lighter, less rigorously contrapuntal music. And Simpson, ever the practical man, was at least giving people what they wanted.

It turns out that he was also really quite good at it. These works are delightful, and Simpson actually hits on why: by not insisting too much on the ‘touches of points of fugue’, instead the moments of imitation are effortlessly integrated into a more flowing, melodic style.

In the sensitive hands of Chelys, we can hear precisely why viol music had evolved towards these ‘airy strains’. Backed up by continuo players on their album, Chelys give the music gentle bounce, with the ‘light and shade’ extolled in Simpson’s motto: Neque lux sine urba. Their ornamentation is informed by his writings too. The disc has rightly attracted rave reviews.

In the liner notes, Alex Parker describes his excitement at finally hearing the music that he had taken such pains to transcribe. Old theory books may have their charms, but much credit goes to him and Chelys for bringing back to life these graceful airs from rugged times.

My blogs are powered by caffeine. So if you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.

5 thoughts on “Airy Musics Of Strains”

  1. I really enjoyed this article – particularly as I am a viol player (amateur) and know Ali, Ibi and Sam in Chelys.
    The last few months have been totally non- musical because of social distancing and I am really missing playing and singing, so it was lovely to hear the viols.
    PS I see you were recently in Reading. We live in Caversham.

  2. Thank you Catherine, I’m glad you enjoyed it! And yes, I was in Caversham today, as it happens – small world!

  3. Thank you so much Catherine! I’ve just seen the Paypal notification – it’s very much appreciated! All the very best, Simon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.