There's always a time and place for the bold orchestral strains of Beethoven's Ninth or Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." But to the early-music buff, the advent of the symphony orchestra prefigured the death of certain instruments whose timbres were too soft to stand out amid blasts of brass and percussion.
The revival of early music has brought a renewed interest in playing old melodies on "period" instruments. The baroque cello, the early flute and the viol have a soft, rich timbre that only 16th- and 17th-century polyphonic tunes can bring to life. In the polyphonic style of music-making, each voice in an ensemble is given its own distinction, and no timbre is muffled by the undertow of harmony.
While the viol has shown up in artworks more often than other old instruments, this odd-shaped fiddle is probably the least understood. Mistaken as the violin's precursor, it was once the instrument of choice for court and clergy audiences. But it fell out of use by the 18th century as polyphonic structures gave way to a new musical order that preferred penetrating violin strains to the viol's softer, melodic counterpoint.
Though they look nothing like the angels who sport the viol and lute's familiar pear-shaped bodies in medieval Italian paintings, the members of an international viol quartet called Phantasm are making their way up the Top 40 classical CD charts. The group won the 1997 Gramophone Award for "Best Baroque Instrumental Recording" with its debut CD, Henry Purcell: Complete Fantasies for Viols. Since then the group has recorded Still Music of the Spheres: Consorts by William Byrd and Richard Mico and J.S. Bach -- Art of Fugue. Phantasm makes its Houston debut at St. Paul's United Methodist Church this week with "Music for the King's Pleasure," a lively resurrection of tuneful melodies and challenging viol compositions once highly sought after by European kings and aristocrats.
The instruments the musicians play are well-crafted reproductions. There is no such thing as an "antique" viol, as there are antique Stradivarius violins. And up close, this six-stringed fiddle bears only slight resemblance to its four-stringed cousin. The viol has a flat back and a sloping neck fashioned with movable frets. The bow is grasped underhand rather than clasped from the top. Instead of being cradled on the shoulder similar to the violin, the viol rests between the legs.
Ironically, Phantasm's four members trained on mainstream instruments. Wendy Gillespie, who plays treble and tenor viol, originally studied the viola. Jonathan Manson (tenor viol), Markku Luolajan-Mikkola (bass viol) and Laurence Dreyfus, the group's Boston-born founder and director (treble viol), all studied the cello.
"[Period instrumentation allows us to] hear sounds and experience feelings that were missing from our mainstream emotional vocabulary, I guess," says Dreyfus. "[We get] pleasure from having to be really relaxed when playing on viols as opposed to cellos. The instruments themselves teach us in this respect. If one bears down on viols, they don't speak. In fact they bark back. So it's incredibly liberating to make music in a way that 'less is more.' "
Unlike its louder violin cousin, the softer viol was never intended to be played in public. It flourished in the intimate settings of courts, churches and universities, and especially thrived in England. Small audiences in Henry VIII's court would enjoy the viol's subdued expressivity after dinner. "By the time of the Restoration and Henry Purcell [17th century], there were only a few pockets of serious viol players left," says Dreyfus. "The instrument survived mostly in the form of a bass ... until its demise toward the end of the 18th century."
Phantasm's Houston program features tuneful Italian dances and songs composed for the viol by Carlo Farina, Tarquinio Merula and Giovanni Paolo Cima. The group also tackles several variations on "De Tous Bien Playne" ("Full of Every Goodness is my Mistress"), a 15th-century hit tune by Flemish composer Hayne von Ghizeghem.
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Better-known pieces include fantasies, known as "fancies" in Elizabethan English, by Purcell, William Byrd, Richard Mico and John Jenkins. In their day, the Purcell fantasies broke new ground in the multidimensional art of counterpointing melodies against one another. The works introduce vibrant themes variously copied by all the instruments.
But Dreyfus isn't too concerned about playing identically to early viol players. "I can't say that I care all that much about historical accuracy anymore in performance," says Dreyfus. "What's the point if we can't listen to the music with historical ears? [Ours is] a creative interpretation of historical sources but especially of the music on the page that motivates us.... We're advocates for the relevance of the music we play."
To today's listener, Phantasm's early repertory "offers a glimpse into music as a haven in a heartless world," says Dreyfus. "We bring a different voice -- so soothing, so intimate -- that touches people in a very special way."
Phantasm performs "Music for the King's Pleasure" Friday, April 9, at 8 p.m. at St. Paul's United Methodist Church, 5501 Main Street. Call Houston Early Music at (713)432-1744 for ticket information.