Music that survived “by the skin of its teeth”.
William Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons form an impressive triptych of harpsichordists of genius, still unsurpassed in England four centuries later as keyboard composers. Around them we find the work of their pupils and of lesser composers: Giles Farnaby, Thomas Tomkins, Peter Philips and others. Among these Farnaby stands somewhat apart, the outsider among the others who, even those who held to their Catholic faith, were trained and worked within the established Anglican world of the Chapel Royal and the cathedrals. Farnaby came from rather humbler origins, having studied the craft of joinery and, probably, instrument-making. His music has an unlearned, almost improvisatory freshness, and in comparison with Byrd’s or Gibbons’s it may at first seem somewhat hit-or-miss – an opinion expressed by Richard Marlow, who edited Farnaby’s keyboard music for Musica Britannica (1964) and wrote the article on him in the New Grove dictionaries: ‘belated or intermittent musical instruction may help to explain the uneven quality of his work’.
In considering this, the thoughtful listener should bear in mind that Farnaby’s keyboard music has survived ‘by the skin of its teeth’. Though we do have a substantial amount of it (about two CDs’ worth), more must surely have disappeared, for virtually all that we have comes from a single hand-written source, the so-called ‘Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’. Had this famous manuscript, named after the museum in Cambridge that now owns it, been lost, Farnaby would be a mere footnote in history, as a minor madrigalist (Canzonets, 1598) and the composer of a few psalm tunes.
The Fitzwilliam manuscript was already published in full in late Victorian times; but to this day is an enigmatic document. For over a century it was thought to have had a rather romantic origin, as the work of an aristocratic recusant, Francis Tregian the younger, imprisoned in the Fleet Prison in London for his Catholic faith. Only in the year 2000 did an American scholar, Ruby Reid Thompson, point out in an article for the journal Music & Letters, that the volume was clearly written not by one but by several hands. She speculated that it was the work of a scriptorium, or professional music copying establishment. (Keyboard music was hardly ever printed in England at this time.)
As a source, the ‘Fitzwilliam’ is of variable reliability. For those composers whose music is also known elsewhere, we can see that the versions of particular pieces in the manuscript are often not based on the best originals, and also that the copyists made mistakes in reproducing them. So it may be that many of Farnaby’s ‘amateurish’ details may be the result of ‘Chinese whispers’ in the copying process. In making this recording I found I was making many decisions on each page, about wrong notes, missing sharps and flats, and even whole missing phrases within the counterpoint. On top of that, as with many 17th-century composers there are decisions about where to play ornaments, and which ornaments to play.
So any performance of Farnaby’s music has to involve, more than usual, empathy and guesswork. Speculation is needed, too, to link together the little we know for sure about the composer’s life, and when and why his keyboard music came into being. Few new facts have emerged since Dr Marlow’s pioneering research of forty years ago. Farnaby seems to have established a reasonably successful career in London, as a secular composer and instrumentalist, in the last years of the sixteenth century. In 1592 he was awarded an Oxford degree, on the same day as John Bull, with whom he may well have studied. We don’t know why in about 1600 he took his young family to Aisthorpe, a village some four miles north of Lincoln, and evidently stayed there for ten years or so. A contract survives that shows that in 1608 Farnaby and his teenage son Richard were employed to teach the children of Sir Richard Saunderson, a local landowner of rapidly increasing wealth and importance; the composer, too, is referred to as a ‘Gent.’, and (like Byrd) had become a small-scale landlord himself.
It is tempting to imagine that some of the keyboard pieces were composed for the Saunderson children, for they are excellent teaching material. Parallels suggest themselves, too, with Byrd, who was probably a Lincolnshire man, and who started his career as organist of Lincoln Cathedral; and with Bull, who in 1602 left London for Flanders, very probably in order to escape the increasingly severe anti-Catholic measures of the last years of Elizabeth’s reign. After making this recording, I spent some time researching in the libraries and archives of Lincoln, and uncovered other circumstances that lead me to suspect that Farnaby, too, could have been Catholic, and perhaps closer to Byrd himself than we have suspected. But until more hard facts emerge, all this must remain in the realm of speculation.
Whatever its origin, Farnaby’s music is undeniably appealing, and at times intriguing. His fantasias, some of them imposingly lengthy, start seriously but always break away from counterpoint into ‘finger music’ – the model for this style was perhaps Byrd’s early A minor Fantasia – and in this free writing there are touches of an Italianate expressiveness that suggests the composer may have been aware of new trends across the Alps. The variation sets contain much variety, from the eloquent lyricism of ‘Loth to depart’ and ‘Rosasolis’ (much of which may be by Bull) to the sustained bravado of ‘Woodycock’. His settings of other composers’ ensemble music – an anonymous Masque tune, an elegiac Galliard by the lutenist Philip Rosseter, and a magnificent Pavan by John Farmer, show that Farnaby could use the art of ‘divisions’, or quasi-improvised embellishment, with a fine sense of control and balance.
It is perhaps in his tuneful miniatures – the “Dreame”, “A Toye”, “Tower Hill” – that Farnaby’s voice is most persuasive and distinctive. These tunes may have become most familiar at the piano, or in arrangements for orchestra (Barbirolli), recorders (Edgar Hunt) or brass (Elgar Howarth). But they are real harpsichord music, and seem to point towards the art of Couperin. To quote Richard Marlow, Farnaby ‘was an instinctive composer with something original to say and sufficient conviction to put it across effectively. His music is correspondingly vital, telling; at its best it has a spontaneity and charm few of his contemporaries can rival.’
I was fortunate in having access to an unusual harpsichord for this recording, a copy by Malcolm Rose of an instrument made in London in 1579 and apparently the only surviving harpsichord (as opposed to smaller instruments such as the virginals) from Elizabethan England. The original, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, is in fact the top half of a sumptuous claviorgan, or combined harpsichord and chamber organ, built by one Lodewijck Theewes, who had come to London as a refugee from Antwerp in Flanders.
The Theewes harpsichord has three registers (two unisons and a 4′ or upper octave), controlled by organ-like hand-stops, and a large soundboard that extends between and behind the jacks. Its tone is both vigorous and singing. Because of the balance-point of the keys, the quills move very fast relative to the fingers, giving exceptional immediacy and clarity, as well as a relatively heavy, positive touch. The instrument’s special qualities leave the player with a new respect for the scale and range of the music of Farnaby and his English contemporaries, those composers often (rather misleadingly) called ‘the virginalists’.
Timothy Roberts Deia, Mallorca 2003