One of the things that regular concert goers come to expect is that the instruments the performers use
will be familiar to them. We get used to the piano, the violin, the cello, the trumpet, the clarinet, the
oboe, the timpani and even the guitar. We tend to forget that musical instruments developed over the
centuries, but we rarely hear them played.
We forget, or did not know, that there were krummhorns, rauschpfeifes, zinks, rackets, kortholts and
many other instruments that used to exist; likely we have never heard them. Some, like the
harpsichord, a forunner of the piano, are still in fairly common use today. The harpsichord, unlike the
piano, is plucked rather than having a hammer hit the strings. The major drawback of this was that a
player could not control the loudness or softness of the sound, so that composers could not express the
emotion they wanted to convey.
It is always informative and educational to have musicians play on instruments that are new to us and
compare them to ones we normally hear. The viola da gamba is a bass member of the viol family having
a range approximating that of the cello and in Italian means viol for the leg. You may have noticed how
they were holding the viols. All of the members of the viola da gamba family are played between the
legs, from the smallest, the pardessus, to the larger bass viol
There are a several differences between the violin and the viola da gamba families. Violins almost never
have frets while the viola da gamba has frets of gut tied around the neck; it has six strings compared to
four for the violin, and is played underhand. The strings also have a much lower tension than in the
violin, and these characteristics give it that rich, lush sound which you heard on Wednesday night.
Speaking of strings, did you notice how many the lute had? Someone from the audience guessed it was
fourteen, but I asked Nigel North after the concert, and his lute has nineteen strings. However, he said
they were in pairs, plus one single string, which makes it easier to get the fingering correct. For a
plucked instrument, I was amazed how clearly the sound carried to the balcony, which was important
given that there were several lute solos.
John Dowland is best known today for his melancholy songs, so if that was not your mood on
Wednesday, the concert may have become a bit tedious. The commissioned piece by Stacey Brown had
a much more contemporary feel and provided some variety to the program.
Lachrimae is based on seven tears, and each begins with a falling tear motif of four notes which Susie
Napper mentioned in one of her comments. I had never thought of the different kinds of tears we shed,
but Dowland noted that the tears which music weeps are not all shed in sorrow but also in joy and
gladness: old tears, old tears renewed, sighing tears, sad tears, forced tears, a lover’s tears, and true
tears. Stacy Brown’s piece added living tears.
The pavan was a slow processional dance common in 16 th century Europe, and each pavan in the
Lachrimae was a variation of the motif, although unless you know Dowland’s work intimately, it was
hard to distinguish the variations.
As one person mentioned to me at the end of the program, it was a wonderful start for the new season.
The Valley Concert Society