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Volume 6, no. 2:

Christopher Simpson. The Seasons, for Two Bass-viols and a Treble with a Through-Bass for the Harpsichord or Organ (facsimile edition). Introduction by Margaret Urquhart. Manuscrits 20. Geneva: Minkoff, 1999. 4 parts. [ISBN 2-8266-0517-8. FS 140 ($94).]

Reviewed by Mary Cyr*

1. Sources and Editions

2. The Music

3. The Preface

References


1. Sources and Editions

1.1 Apart from a few preludes and divisions for bass viol and keyboard published in The Division-Violist (London, 1659), Christopher Simpson left only a few pieces of chamber music, nearly all in manuscript. Viol players recently have been able to explore some of these works in modern editions from Dovehouse Editions of Canada.1 Among the most interesting are two collections of fantasia-suites for treble instrument (violin or treble viol), two bass viols, and basso continuo entitled The Months and The Seasons. Minkoff has now issued an attractive facsimile edition of the four fantasia-suites from The Seasons. It is a handsome set of parts (without score), suitable either for study along with the modern score and parts, or as a performing edition on its own.

1.2 Three of the four parts in the Minkoff facsimile are reproduced from autograph manuscripts in the Conservatoire Royal in Brussels.2 The fourth part (the basso continuo) does not survive in Simpson’s hand, and so another seventeenth-century copy of this part held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford was chosen to complete the set.3 All of the parts are clear and suitable for performance. Viol players may even find these parts easier to read than the modern edition, since ornamental thirty-second note passages are more compact, making the rhythmic patterns easier to grasp. Viol players will welcome the absence of page-turns within movements of this facsimile too. Simpson’s own notation for accidentals is accurate and very useful to have for comparison with the Dovehouse parts, where some accidentals appear to be missing. Especially interesting are a few fingerings in the second bass part for Summer that provide a clue about Simpson’s preference for organizing the shifting of the left hand. In a parallel pattern of shifting, he twice notates fingerings that would require the player to shift after a dotted note in order to have a subsequent group of notes lie under the hand across two strings. Since fingerings in seventeenth-century English viol manuscripts are exceedingly rare, this passage gives players a good rule-of-thumb to apply elsewhere.
 

2. The Music

2.1 Simpson’s fantasia suites follow the three-movement pattern that John Coprario and John Jenkins also employed, with a fantasia as the first movement followed by an almain and galliard. The third movement is normally called “ayre” and ends with a section in common time. As one might expect given Simpson’s expertise at division playing, each movement includes lengthy episodes in division style, and all of the instruments are called upon to take part in them.

2.2 As is the case in Jenkins's fantasia suites, the upper part seems best suited to the violin because of its range and character, and the accompanying keyboard instrument can be either harpsichord or organ. Either of these instruments will lend a slightly different type of support, and players can experiment to find the combination that best suits the sonority of their particular ensemble. The bass viol parts are soloistic, with double stops and chords as well as lengthy passages of divisions. The second bass part has low Cs, suggesting that the lowest string of the six-string viol could be tuned down to C instead of D.
 

3. The Preface

3.1 The editor, Margaret Urquhart, has made a careful study of documents that offer new biographical information about Simpson,4 and in the informative preface (in English and French) she summarizes relevant details about his musical career and background. She attributes the composition of The Seasons to the 1640s and 50s, when Simpson took refuge after the siege of York at the manor of his patron Sir Robert Bolles. Bolles himself had been heavily fined for being a Catholic royalist and had retreated to his manor at Scampton in Lincolnshire, where he turned to musical activities and enjoyed the friendship of Simpson, who probably spent about eight years there before returning to London about 1652. Simpson met John Jenkins during this period, and he taught Sir Robert Bolles’s son John to play the viol. One can imagine the music room at Scampton manor, which housed thirteen viols and a pair of harpsichords, to have served the Bolles household and Simpson well in the enjoyment of chamber music during this period.

3.2 Urquhart offers useful information for players about the musical characteristics of the fantasia-suite and suggestions for performance, including tempi, ornaments, dynamics, and rhythmic alteration. I am not entirely persuaded by her suggestion that rhythmic figures in these works suggest the “song of a bird” in the Ayre of Spring, or that a cadence in the Galliard of Winter suggests an “image of bad weather.” (Is Vivaldi too omnipresent today for us to imagine a refined, abstract setting of The Seasons?) However, I would certainly agree with the editor that there is no shortage of vividly expressive writing in Simpson’s music, and that these challenging suites are worthy of being heard in concert. The Minkoff edition is a welcome addition to the viol literature and provides a pleasant change of sonority from the usual trio sonata combination.


References

*Mary Cyr (mcyr@arts.uoguelph.ca) is Director of the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada and author of Performing Baroque Music (Amadeus Press, 1992). She has written extensively on the viol and its music; she performs frequently as soloist, continuo player, and as a member of various early music ensembles in the Toronto area.
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Notes

1. Modern editions of Simpson’s music published by Dovehouse Editions include Divisions for treble viol, bass viol, and keyboard (VDGS-1), Divisions on a ground for two bass viols and keyboard (VDGS-11), Twenty-two dances for two violins (treble viols), bass viols, and keyboard (VDGS-17), The Months for treble viol (violin), two bass viols, and keyboard (VDGS-31), The Seasons for treble viol (violin), two bass viols, and keyboard (VDGS 32A), and Divisions on a Ground in E Minor from The Division Violist for bass viol and keyboard (VDGS-37).
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2. B-Bc: Litt. X/Y 24,910.
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3. GB-Ob: Tenbury Ms. 296–299.
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4. For additional information about Simpson, see the following articles by Margaret Urquhart: “The Handwriting of Christopher Simpson,” Chelys (Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society) 15 (1986): 62–63; “Sir Robert Bolles Bt. of Scampton," Chelys 16 (1987): 16–29; “Was Christopher Simpson a Jesuit?” Chelys 21 (1992): 3–26; and “A Possible Trace of Christopher Simpson (S.J.),” Chelys 27 (1999): 59–61.
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