The viola da gamba was, besides the lute, the favorite instrument of the court, the nobility and the wealthy homes in the 17th century in England. A prized property was a "chest of viols" or ensemble of viols consisting of two sopran viols, two tenors and two basses, ie everything needed to enjoy the consort with the family or with friends. This devotion become so important that amateurs became virtuosos, demanding increasingly complex works.

That was how Christopher Simpson found a devoted audience for his famous viol method, in the three editions of 1659 ("The Division violist), the second of 1667 already with the title" The Division Viol" and the posthumous edition of 1712. This book not only concerns the rudiments of instrument's technique, but comprehensive explanations of musical theory and examples of diminutions on the viol. This practice, the art of variation, which led to the basis for the Baroque "estilo concertato", was imported from Italy and Spain a century earlier.

Francisco Luengo  &  Xurxo Varela


with Valentín Novio, luth and theorbo

The variation had developed in England a genre itself, the "division". Instead of making variations upon a alto, treble, tenor, or under a polyphonic composition (in the way of Diego Ortiz does in his "recercadas sobre  madrigales")  recurrent basseswas chosen,  "grounds", with their particular harmonic and rhythmicall structure, in a similar way to the "recercadas sobre tenores" in Ortiz book.

The viola da gamba, with its wide range, and fluency in arpeggios and chords, was a very adecuate instrument to perform "divisions." Simpson himself was a skillful viol player, as can be see in his use of all of the instrument resources, and in those passages of great technical difficulty, but very suitable and idiomatic for the viol.

The "ground" could be perform by another viol, or any other instrument, organ, harpsichord or lute. Another choice is  to introduce the ground at the beginnig of the performance, entrusted to the memory of the listener on succesive variations.

In the case of divisions for two viols, those that Simpson elucidates at the end of his book, each viol plays the bass, while the other viol makes the diminution, reversing the roles the next round. Sometimes the two violas play the diminution at once, so  the groun disappears, or remains implicit, between the diminutions.

This recording focuses on the works contained in the manuscript Mus. Sch. C. 77, nowadays in the Bodleian Librery, eight divisions for two violas. Christopher Simpon is the composer of five of them and John Jenkins of the remaining three. Two more "solo" divisions by Simpson  came from "The Division Viol" and three duets, two anonymous and one from John Ward from MS ADD. 31424 British Library in London. These last three have a different style, the Fancy, common throughout Europe and very popular amongst British violists. The Fancy has an imitative and contrapuntístic style and a free structure, not attached to the standard dances or diminutions upon common themes.

For the recording we used two violas da gamba, both copies of the instrument at the Victoria and Albert Museum of London, made by John Rose. Despite the instrument is not precisely dated, we know that J. Rose worked at Bridewell, near London, in the second half of the sixteenth century. He is considered the founder of the English school of viol construction.

                                                                                                                                                  F. Luengo

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