A Chest of Viols: A Brief Introduction to English Viol Consort Music

Viola_da_gambaAs a cellist and guitarist I have always thought the perfect instrument to be the Viola da Gama, a gut-fretted instrument tuned like a guitar but played like a cello. As with most aficionados my introduction to the instrument came through the 1991 French film, Tous Les Matins du Monde, which introduced two famous Gambist composers to the general public, Jean de Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais. The soundtrack to that film still serves as a beautiful introduction to the solo repertoire – but the instrument had quite a storied and uniquely English period before that. I have been academically aware of the Viol Consort music of the Tudor court composers but could never find recordings or a means to sample them. Thanks to recent developments in the Early Music movement, ensembles like Fretwork and the emergence of YouTube – all that has changed. In early 2015 I listened to nothing but Viol Consort music for about 2 months, working my way my way through all the recordings I could find by such composers as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, John Jenkins, William Lawes, Matthew Locke and Christopher Tye. It’s hard to put into words the effect this music had but I found it deeply contemplative, almost timeless, to the point where no other music seemed to exist. There was just something about the drone quality of several viols played together, the way the intervals and cadences seem to hover and glide tectonically – gravitational and infinitely pleasing. It was a period of great musical flowering in England, an era of vastly interesting composers (William Lawes died tragically while fighting in the English civil war), with rooms throbbing with sonic and spiritual gravitas.

But first, a general introduction the viola da gamba is in order (quoted from http://beth.marmorstein.org)

d5238383lThe viol originated in Spain, but was later introduced in Italy, where it was developed and improved. From Italy it gained popularity and was spread to the rest of Europe. Viols first reached England sometime in the early 16th century, the first two viols being employed as a part of the royal court during the reign of Henry VIII. Over the course of Henry VIII’s reign, the role of the viols in the English royal court grew to include 25 instruments and at least 8 musicians. The music played by viol consorts in this period was generally not written specifically for the viol, but rather consisted of short, textless, polyphonic consorts written without any instrumental specifications. Unfortunately, very little of this music has survived. At first, most of the court viol players were born and trained in Italy, or elsewhere in Europe, but in the early 1540’s native Englishmen and Scotsmen began to take up the viol. As the viol gained prominence in the royal court, viols also began to appear in private households, primarily among the nobility, who were anxious to keep up with the tastes of the crown. These private households drew musicians from several sources: some instructed their servants to learn to play the viol, some apprenticed local musicians, and some recruited foreigners. At the same time, the viol began to be considered an instrument well suited to teaching children. The concerts given by children in schools such as St Paul’s and Westminister exposed the viol to a much wider audience. During this period, English composers began to write music for viols specifically, possibly due to the demand for viol music created by choirboys and their masters. As the years passed, viols were used more and more in theatrical presentations by choirboy companies and soon began to be used by adult companies as well, providing incidental music for dumb shows between acts or during important moments during the drama. This use of viols in theatrical productions contributed to the introduction of the viol to many remote locations. As these choirboys grew up and dispersed to various colleges, careers, and private households, they contributed to the adoption of viol playing by amateurs and the instruction of children in private households, who then in turn provided an appreciative audience for new developments in viol consort music in the early 17th century…
(The rest of the article can be found here)

There have been many interesting and sweeping periods of English music, including a couple of well-known ‘invasions’ of our own time. Just as we English took the Blues, repackaged it, and sold it back to the US – so too did we piece together consort music from European sources and popularised it in a new and interesting context. Here is a brief introduction to elements of consort music from the website http://www.hoasm.org:

maxresdefaultThe instrumental ensembles of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were called in England ‘consorts’, a misspelling of ‘concert’ which, like ‘concerto’, probably comes from the Latin verb consererewith its past participle consertus, meaning ‘to combine together’. Consorts were either ‘whole’ or ‘broken,’ the former and by far the most popular consisting of members of the same family, as ‘consort of viols’ or ‘consort of recorders’, and the latter of various instruments, as in Morley’s Booke of Consort Lessons (1599), which is ‘scored’ for treble and bass viols, flute (=recorder), lute, cittern, and pandora. The practice of playing in ‘whole consort’ began in fact in the latter part of the fifteenth century, but this did not become widespread until the following century. Most consort music is for treble, alto, tenor, and bass viols, and the two main types of composition are the fantasia, and that based on a cantus firmus. Of the latter the In nomines easily exceed not only other cantus firmus pieces, but also the number of In nomines written for the keyboard or lute , the reason being that this type of composition is a fundamentally polyphonic one, and hence lends itself more naturally to, and indeed sounds better on, a group of strings than on a single instrument, even an organ. Polyphony, in fact, is a far more essential constituent of extended string writing (as Haydn discovered after he had written a number of string quartets) than any other class of vocal or instrumental composition, because, being completely abstract (i.e. no words) and with only a limited range of timbre, the ear requires more than just accompanied melody, although this is perfectly satisfactory in short pieces, such as dance movements. This fact also explains the greater number of fantasias for strings than for keyboard or lute, because the. fantasia consists, in the main, of imitative polyphony and, like the cantus-firmus type, usually differs little in technique and style from the contemporary motet or madrigal. In some of the later fantasias, however, especially those of Gibbons–the greatest master of this type of composition–the writing is decidedly instrumental in character, with rapid, repeated notes and wide leaps, and with more complex cross-rhythms and frequent use of sequence than in any vocal music of the time… (The rest of the article can be found here)

Thankfully, more and more of the viol consort repertoire is becoming available. A short introduction can be found at http://www.earlymusicworld.com:

8a2207ea58c74aa0b7d78f9f24ab33bfOne thing we can say with certainty is that the repertoire is more extensive than we might imagine from the designated music for viol consort that survives, given that much of what we today consider as the great consort repertoire had still to be written – the works of such as Gibbons, as Jenkins, William Lawes, Locke and of course Purcell all lay in the future. In fact the foundation of the viol consort repertoire existed not in works composed especially for it, but in the rich tradition of contrapuntal vocal music that lay waiting for transposition by consorts. This debt to vocal music would play an enduring role long after composers moved beyond simple transposition to parody or reworked versions of vocal compositions and examples of it can be found in such works as Tallis’ 3-part Salvator mundi or some of the many transcriptions of Italian madrigals and motets made by Bologna-born Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder (1543-1588), who arrived and England in 1562 and served at the court of Elizabeth I for nearly twenty years…
(The rest of the article can be found here)

The-English-ViolOf course, listening to low resolution recordings on YouTube gets old after a while – and amassing any sort of CD collection will quickly run into the hundreds. A good place to start is simply to acquire a few sample recordings by ensembles committed to making period music more available, like Fretwork. The English Viol and Heart’s Ease are wonderful introductory CDs that include consort works by the top composers of the period. I just hope your listening experience is as deep and rewarding as mine.

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Who the Hell is Jan Karon? Books and the Temporality of value

Jan-KaronLike many bibliophiles I’m well acquainted with all the nooks and crannies by which one might come across used books at a bargain. Indeed, my house is well insulated with walls of books mostly found at jumble shops, thrift stores, garage sales, used bookshop bargain bins, library blow-outs and even the odd car boot sale. I frequent all the local grottos and scour boxes or shelves for the odd treasure, much of the time returning home empty-handed for all my craning and sifting. And I’ll be damned that in every single instance, without fail, I not only find one book by a certain Jan Karon – but a veritable slew of them. Who the hell is Jan Karon – and how bad must she be to have all these numerous tomes gumming up the used-book works?

To be fair there is also usually a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love somewhere in the mix, or a few bricks of Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code propping up the shelves. And you can bet your mortgage that something by Janet Evanovich, Annie Rice or Dean Koontz will be loitering, dog-eared, in the corners. With such ubiquity you could be excused for thinking that there is something deficient with these (albeit rather famous) writers for being in every discard/resale bin and perhaps in some cases you’d be right. A quick googling of the ever-present Jan Karon, however, tells me that she is a New York Times best-seller and Virginia’s Literary Lifetime Achievement Award winner. Just maybe she is preciously absent from the bargain bins of Virginia then (one can hope!). But I think this phenomenon has more to do with how the commercial fiction publishing operates with its frenzied print-runs and viral marketing ploys.

booksfillthescreenTemporality is now more than ever the name of the game. Everything from your washing machine to your toaster to your car is manufactured to short-term specifications – and commercial book publishers have adopted the same ethos. We know that, of the above examples, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was a top, top seller, literally churned out into the market place in 2003. It was then translated into 52 languages and garnered some hundred million sales within a couple of years, generating a little cottage industry of spin-offs and rebuttals along the way. This is the sort of ‘success’ that writers crave and yet it seems than many of his buyers decided to dump their copies, which are now vermin to resale shops. Of course, this is no skin off Mr. Brown’s nose as he’s already amassed a tidy fortune from the first-go-round sales. It’s fun to imagine that his readers, upon reading this mystery-spinner, found themselves agreeing with Stephen Fry’s damning edict that his writing is “arse-gravy of the worst kind” – but the truth is probably more mundane. Books, and particularly commercial novels, are now marketed toward a short-term explosion of interest followed by an abrupt death and discarding. They are designed to excite fever-pitch fervor – generate the quick-fire sale – but then end up in the same donation box as the failing toaster.

It is a pleasure, then, to be involved with a press that aims for the long-term, the slow and steady selling book that remains viable and relevant. This is not to disparage the Jan Karons of the world – but to elevate the author beyond the lurid state of temporal commodity value. ‘Shelf-life’ should be a literary determination not some corporate remaindering principle normally assigned to household appliances.

 

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Gareth Knight’s ‘Son of Hermes’

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Beginning in November 2015, Gareth Knight posted a series of blogs under the heading  ‘Son of Hermes.’ Part one is reprinted below and you can read the following instalments at the Gareth Knight Blogspot page. Skylight Press has published various new editions of Gareth Knight’s older work, as well as a few completely new titles.  We will be publishing his translation of Théophile Briant’s ‘Testament of Merlin’ in the coming weeks.  

Back in the closing years of the last millennium, when I was approaching 70 years of age and thinking I might be reaching the end of my useful time, I found myself called to the colours again with an invitation to rejoin the Society of the Inner Light, where I had learned my trade back in the 1950’s.  What I have found useful – and printable – to say about all that I glossed in my esoteric memoirs I Called It Magic having reached 80, when I thought that might have come to the effective end of the line as far as this incarnation goes. However, here I am, another half decade  on, and somewhat awed by my impending approach towards ninety. Shall I make it that far? And in the meantime however – what to do?

I am not sure that I am up to writing another book. Assuming there is any kind of hunger out there for yet another one. Nonetheless I have had one at the back of my mind that has been nagging away with increasing insistence, and stems from some time I spent in France back in those pre-millennium days. There had been over the years a small French publisher, (Ediru) , now alas defunct, who translated and published some of my books: A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism, A History of White Magic, The Rose Cross and the Goddess, The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend which led to me undertake some lecture trips around France to help along sales between 1984 and 1999.

In the course of those trips and getting to know a number of French occultists I began to realise what a huge gap there was between the English and the French when it came to the development, aims and attitude toward the esoteric. The English Channel might just as well have been a Cosmic Abyss.

I thought not a lot more of this at the time although I was conscious, on one or two occasions when invited to sit in on some practical workings with the French, that something was happening on an inner level of which I ought to take notice – although at the time I could not think what it might be. One just had to ‘bear it in mind’ for possible future use.

It seems as if the time for this possible further use is upon me. I have been prodded by some very sharp elbows on the inner planes to do something about it, and as a result in the last few months have gradually amassed about a couple of yards of books in French that weigh heavy on my mind and my bookshelves. I also realise why it was, when I retired from fulltime work, that I was obsessed into spending the next eight years at the University of London acquiring an external BA in French language and literature.

The hour has now struck. Or as one of my French friends said in relation to the Tarot card of the Magician, that they call Le Bateleur – it is Le Bat á l’Heure!  Or in good old plain English: “Get on with it!”

The trouble is that, being a highly Aries kind of person, I am not good at being patient about things. If I am going to do something I need to have done  it yesterday – not tomorrow! And at the age of 85, how many tomorrows have I got to look forward to?  I don’t intend to ask the Tarot or anyone else. Sufficient unto the day is the labour thereof. However I cannot bring myself to embark on what might turn out to be a lengthy task that I might not be able to finish. So a formal kind of book I find out of the question.

After a deal of pushing and shoving between the planes a compromise has come to me that I can live with, which is to deal with it all in a piecemeal episodic manner. As a series of separate articles or chapters that feature in each case a particularly important character or issue on the French occult scene during its heyday at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

At the time when the London occult scene was dominated by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the characters that went with it, Paris had its equivalent organisations and colourful characters. Some of these I would like to take a good look at, one by one, as Sons of Hermes, as they liked to regard themselves.

Very little has made it across the English Channel apart from A.E.Waite’s rather stodgy translations of Eliphas Levi (History of Magic and Transcendental Magic)  and a grotesquely inaccurate ‘professional’ translation of Papus’ Tarot of the Bohemians, where they even got the title wrong! Over a period of fifty years these were the only serious occult books translated from French into English after the 1890’s, until a highly imaginative History of Magic by Paul Christian.

In the meantime, if anyone wants to acquaint themselves with a little of the material ahead, in the form of the French interest in ‘animal magnetism’ during the 19th century, from Anton Mesmer onward, they could do worse than peruse a copy of The Circuit of Force, subtitled Occult Dynamics of the Etheric Vehicle. 

This was written by Dion Fortune as a series of fifteen articles between February 1939 and August 1940, published by Thoth Publications in 1998, with commentary by me. My commentary is largely based on a strange book, Théories et procédés du Magnétisme by Hector Durville, that I picked up from a bouquinist’s bin on the quays of the Seine. This was a subject that greatly interested Dion Fortune in the late 1930’s and in her private library I came across, amongst others, Private Instructions in the Science and Art of Organic Magnetism by Miss Chandos Leigh Hunt, privately published in 1884 in a lockable binding of gold velvet. Style as well as substance in those days!

This caused some fluttering in the esoteric dovecots, then and in later years. So much so that with the publication of a collection of her articles, Applied Magic, in 1962, the alleged inclusion of The Circuit of Force was reduced to the first and last chapters. The other thirteen chapters were missing! A very frugal sandwich! Which no doubt led to Ernest Butler’s fondness, in relation to occult groups, for quoting the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass – “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today!”  A rule that, I must say, has never appealed to me.

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The Curve of the Land: Review by Kevan Manwaring

The Curve of the Land: Diana Durham – a review

By Kevan Manwaring

CurveoftheLand300This thin novel by American-based British writer Diana Durham is weighty with ideas – like narrow uprights supporting the monumental capstone of a cromlech. It charts a contemporary megalithic odyssey of Britain, with many prehistoric sites featured, and as such should appeal to anyone of the pagan persuasion. The framing narrative is a group tour of sacred sites led by the charismatic ‘leading authority’ on such places, Richard Lamb. He is a guru with feet of clay, as Jessica discovers – the viewpoint character whose journey we follow. An environmental campaigner suffering from burn-out, she finds her life imploding – chiefly the relationship with her eco-photographer boyfriend, Paul, who bears the brunt of her perpetual disgruntlement. On the verge of splitting up, she jumps aboard Richard’s ‘magical mystery tour’, in hope of some kind of spiritual experience involving earth-lights – the anti-venom to her partner Paul’s apparent ‘rationalism’. Their conflict provides the dialectic of the narrative: the ecological vs the spiritual; the mundane vs the magical world; ‘Martian’ men vs ‘Venusian’ women – all of which prove to be false dichotomies. Yet there are many bumpy roads to go before then. Durham convincingly captures the tour-group dynamic with a sharply-observed cast of (mainly) New Age seekers. A couple of sceptical journalists are thrown in for good measure.

Durham is particularly good at capturing the pervasive credulity, snobbery and brinkmanship endemic in such circles. The women (and the demographic is mainly female aboard this Earth Mysteries tour) vie for the attention of the unlikely Alpha male, Lamb, who turns out to be seedier than his refined façade. As perhaps inevitably happens in such situations, the group’s Shadow emerges as the earth-light seekers find themselves experiencing lust, jealousy, anger and despair. Each site catalyses the escalating situation – providing a mirror for their projections and expectations, fears and concerns. Durham evokes the genius loci of each site vividly and Lamb’s commentary provides an expositional device for weaving in the archaeology, folklore, and John Michel-like mystical speculation. What keeps the narrative grounded is an ecological awareness, which provides the background ‘threat’ throughout the story – this is epitomised in the threat to a grove of ancient oaks in Cornwall by a supermarket development. The plot-lines converge on this crunch-point, in a rather condensed and melodramatic denouement. Jessica, who proves to be a querulous, contrary and – dare I say it – irrational protagonist, experiences an epiphany which motivates her to act. Yet this is too little, too late – for the majority of the novel she comes across as a rather solipsistic, unsympathetic character. Paul, who is ostensibly, the ‘enemy’, (a man, and therefore, by default, insensitive, gadget-obsessed and controlling it would appear) turns out to be more sympathetic.

Fortunately, most of the female characters are flawed too and nobody really ‘wins’ in this war of the sexes. In a way, the humans’ behaviour could be seen as the fey flickering of earthlights caused by the stress the Earth is being placed under – acting out the pain of Mother Earth. This underlying ecological suffering, and the helplessness it inculcates, is the book’s most serious message, which redeems it from being a mere New Age holiday read. Yet it has much to satisfy the lovers of esoteric fiction – being redolent of the novels of Dion Fortune, and, indeed, my own novel, The Long Woman (Awen, 2004). It shows a deep familiarity and love of the ancient Isles of Britain, and makes for an engaging read – especially in situ. Recommended.

22.07.2015

Published by Skylight Press 2015

http://www.skylightpress.co.uk

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Videos by Skylight Authors (Part I)

Here is a smattering of reading and interview videos from our literary authors.  Happy browsing….

Iain Sinclair

Rikki Ducornet

Will Alexander

Pierre Joris

Garry Craig Powell

Basil King

Diana Durham

Richard Froude

Margaret Randall

Hugh Fox

Dee Sunshine

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Letters of Light: The Magical Letters of William G. Gray to Alan Richardson

LettersofLight300“When it comes to that curmudgeonly mage William G. Gray, put aside what you may have plucked from a less-than-accurate, holier-than-thou, insufferably superior but dried-up grapevine. Whatever his faults – and he had many – he never stinted on passing on his knowledge to genuine enquirers. In many ways, through his correspondence, I saw the very best of the man

I was 17 when I first wrote to him: omniscient, quietly obnoxious. I knew everything; I knew nothing. I really needed putting in my place. And I couldn’t have picked anyone better to do this than Bill Gray.

Some of you out there may think that your own magical teachings came from the temples of Greece or Khem, from the vaults of the Rosicrucians, the lodges of the Golden Dawn, or the pagan-haunted glades of the ancient Wildwood. They did not. They came from 14 Bennington Street, Cheltenham…”

This is how Alan Richardson summarises this new book, a compilation of letters from William G. Gray to an aspiring acolyte. Rather surprisingly, it works on a number of levels depending on the approach a particular reader might take. It’s a post-modern Bildungsroman (and Bill certainly flings dung in places) where the reader constructs a narrative plot from various fragments – not having the younger man’s replies to work with. Of course, the letters also provides a riveting and provocative treatise for those interested in ceremonial magic and group dynamics. Also a fascinating social study, Gray continually prods an insecure youth towards the value of solitary practice and the DIY ethic.

As an “omniscient and obnoxious” teenager in 1969, Richardson first wrote to the occult author and teacher in pursuit of instant magical enlightenment. While he didn’t quite get that, it was the beginning of a correspondence lasting many years in which Gray generously shared his magical knowledge and experience. Gray’s letters, witty, acerbic and blunt, contain a wealth of hints and tips on working with Qabalah, his views on Dion Fortune, sex magic, initiation, joining magical groups, and how to stay on the straight and true path to Light regardless of what life flings at you.

The topicality of the letters provides an incredible range and depth, with commentary to continually delight, chafe or probe. How does free-will relate to Destiny? Why do many great Adepts behave like idiots if they’re in contact with Higher Powers? Is sex incompatible with a spiritual path? He addresses the questions which weigh on the mind of every magical seeker – always with the proviso that true wisdom can only be reached from within oneself. The letters are a delight to read and show the humour and understanding which shine through Gray’s famously unsentimental character. The highly personable nature of the book will help to cast the oft-maligned Gray in a new light – as the reader becomes very conscious of the growing warmth and care the old Magus develops for his pupil. The lessons contained within the letters be of direct practical value to anyone pursuing a magical path of any kind, Qabalistic or otherwise, and his advice to his young apprentice is every bit as pertinent today as it was back then.

Skylight Press, also of Cheltenham, is thrilled to offer this valuable and enlightening collection to the world for the first time. We are committed to the legacy of William G. Gray and look forward to publishing many more of his works.

Letters of Light: The Magical Letters of W.G. Gray to Alan Richardson is now available from various retail outlets such as Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk or direct from the Skylight Press website.

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The Fairy Realm by Ronan Coghlan

FairyRealm300“…Some folklorists contend that even in pagan times a fairy host was believed in alongside the gods and, when Christianity became prevalent, their numbers were buttressed by an influx of gods; but they were always believed to be there. An alternative explanation is that there may once have been, and possibly still are, powerful psychic entities of whom science knows nothing, but who were assumed to be gods by our remote ancestors, and fairies by our more proximate ones…”

While examining various belief traditions across Europe and the United States, The Fairy Realm consults an assemblage of anecdotal evidence as to the existence of fairies and other creatures that appear in fairy tales – giants, ogres, trolls, mermaids, brownies, wildmen, kelpie, puca and other mythological beings. Ronan Coghlan, provides yet another encyclopaedic gem after such works as Dictionary of Irish Myth and Legend, Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends, The Robin Hood Companion, Dictionary of Cryptozoology, and Companion to Atlantis and Other Mystery Lands. In this new broad-ranging compendium Coghlan examines an array of alleged fairy sightings in a bold endeavour to find where fairies fit into the modern scientific concepts of the universe. Unlike myriad books churned out on ghosts and extraterrestrials, this book rigorously tackles the possibility of fairy existence, and in doing so dares to approach all manner of sceptical argument and ‘borderline science.’

Keen to get to the root of fey existence on earth, Coghlan explores the various origins of Fairy and the Faery realm. He begins with accounts from ancient history, various mythic and folkloric sources, as well as fascinating and bold connections to the pre-monotheist pantheons of fallen gods. More surprising perhaps is his impressive catalogue of modern sightings, from the famous Cottingley photographs to the very recent Mothman and Sasquatch phenomena. Unlike other such books, each sighting is sourced with searchable references and the author takes great care in considering the creditability of every eyewitness account. The book then provides a thorough classification of fairies by type and genus, ranging from the more conventional fairies of literature and folklore to an impressive collection of crossover creatures and cryptids that could possibly qualify as being part of the fairy realm. Coghlan discusses their traits and personalities, their possible functions, and whether they exist on the physical or ethereal planes. The work concludes with a marvellous glossary, which will be of great value to explorers of the fey kingdom.

Far from sensationalist, this is the work of a seasoned scholar and experienced academic. Skylight Press is thrilled to publish The Fairy Realm as a serious and genuine primer for all those interested in the world of Fairy.

 The Fairy Realm is now available from various retail outlets such as Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk or direct from the Skylight Press website.

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