Examples of slurs within solo lyra viol

music published by John Playford.


Peter H. Adams


When scholars and musicians revived the viola da gamba in the later part of the 19th century, historical and scholarly material was not in a great abundance. Very few scholarly publications about the instrument predate this time. Authorities, such as Arnold Dolmetsch, identified many important features for later research, and generally did much to revive the use of the viola da gamba. Like any pioneer in a field, he made some incorrect assumptions. Many others of the time made other errors, including using endpins, not using frets, and using an over-hand bow hold. One wonders what other errors his contemporaries inadvertently created. Surely, one of these was the use (or omission) of slurs, and other bowing techniques, at least with regards to solo lyra music published by John Playford. Regarding slurring in viola da gamba music, current consort playing technique precludes slurs. Musically, this is sometimes defensible considering often very dense contrapuntal writing. However, for solo lyra viol music, slurs are essential, as is well documented in all of the Playford editions. The following discussion provides an overview all five of the editions for solo lyra viol Playford published to show that slurs, for the most part were ornaments in themselves that were often combined with other ornaments.

 Confusion exists with the notation for a slur, as Playford and many manuscripts used a dash but described its use rather ineffectively, if at all. Other historic sources such as Christopher Simpson indicated that the dash notated a hold, whereby the musician kept the left-hand fingers down on the string as long as possible. For them, the dash was not associated with the bow. So, each note was played with a change in bow directions. The main point of this article is to show that the dash Playford and others used was indeed a slur mark, and not a hold. In fact, keeping the fingers down as long as possible (i.e. a hold) is simply good musicianship. With fingers down on the strings, the tone continues to resonate, assuming the string is stopped in the first place.

Slurs, though not named or otherwise identified as such, appear with great frequency in all solo lyra viol music. The literature is so full of slurs that almost any original source can be mentioned. The Manchester, Marsh, and Mansell manuscripts are but a few examples. Somewhat more significant are the five volumes of solo lyra viol music published by John Playford. In the preface to A Musicall Banquet (1651), Playford states that a dash placed below two letters are “… plaid with once drawing the Bow …” In Musicks Recreation on The Viol, Lyra-way (1669), Playford includes the following remarks on page 3 of the prefatory remarks. “Sometimes where single letters follow one another, two or more of them are sometimes struck with one drawing [of] the bow, which when they are to be so, they have such a dash under them.” Similar phrases can be found in all of the Playford editions for solo lyra viol. So, from the original documents, we see that the slur existed in at least solo lyra viol music. We will see this in the following examples. Having said this, Playford, however, did not always print a line under more than the first note in the slur. One could make the claim that such examples where a dash appeared before a note rather than under several notes was a hold, and therefore distinct from a slur. Yet, by comparing the same works that appeared in more than one example of the Playford editions, one can see that no distinction exists between a hold and a slur. By comparison, lute music written in tablature is not know for slurs.

Currently, musicians use the slur mark for three purposes. The slur can tie one note to the next, thereby creating note of longer duration. The mark can indicate two or more notes are to be played with one bow stroke, as mentioned above. The slur mark is also used to indicate a phrase. Within the Playford editions, all these three uses are found. Though the last usage is rarely found and therefore subjective (see the discussion of The Nightingale, below).

Consider the following example from Volume 1 #4 Ala Mode de France, measure 15.



Clearly, in this example, the slur is associated with a written-out ornament. Playford’s editions are replete with written-out ornaments, some with and others without slurs. Within the Playford editions, all ornaments that can be written out were written out. The thump (a left-handed pizzicato) is only indicated with a sign. The slur is the only other ornament that regularly appears throughout the Playford editions. No trills, mordents, relishes, etc. appear in the Playford editions. This is to be expected, as the collection was designed for beginning gambists. “… And thougth my design is for Beginners, yet here is in this Book many excellent and choice Lessons for those who are good Proficients in this Instrument. And that there may want nothing for the encouragements of such who live in remote Parts, and far from any profect [sic] Teacher ...” (1669, p. 2).

More elaborate examples of slurring can be found. Consider Volume 1 #19, Glory of the West, measures 7-9. This ornament is often described in historic examples as a springer (see Trafficante).



Once again, the slur is associated with a written-out ornament. In this example, one surely plays this as a slur, rather than a hooked bow. The hooked bow, where the bow continues in the same direction, but an audible break is heard between notes, can be found throughout the Playford editions, especially in Sarabands. The following example comes from Volume 3 #2, Measures 1-5.



The slurred chords in measures 1, 3, and 5 surely was meant to be played with a hooked bow. The slurs in measures 2, and 4 are once again associated with a written out ornament. By now, it should be obvious that the slur was an important ornament in its own right to be used as one uses any ornament of the time. That is to say, the slur was used to decorate a line, but not to overpower it. Volume 1 #6 Saraband, which is not provided here, presents throughout the second phrase a repeat of the chord of beat one on beat two. The second chord is then slurred to a single note on beat three. So, one is not obliged to play all Sarabands with hooked bows.[i]

A somewhat unusual use of a slur mark is found in Volume 3 #9 Preludium. In measure 7 (reproduced below), the slur connects unisons on different strings.



A rather remarkable use of hooked bowing is also found in Volume 3 #9 Preludium,

measures 22-24, shown below.


One of the most elaborate uses of a slur with a written-out ornament is Volume 3 #7 A Masque, measure 10.



The effect is that of a double trill.

One even finds rare examples of dynamic marks. Volume 3 #16 Chicona measures 2, 5, and 10 have indications for playing those measures loudly. Measures 3, 8, and 13 have indications for playing those measures softly (not reproduced here).

One statement that appears in a number of recent publications discussing slurs in lyra viol music is without any basis. The statement that slurs between notes on non-adjacent strings are to be played by bowing all unnotated strings unstopped is not supported by historical text or musical examples. Volume 3 #33, Almaine, measure 8 by Jenkins is offered for examination.[ii] The tuning is edfhf, resulting in open strings of d natural, b flat, g natural, d natural, g natural, d natural (tuning from top to bottom). The following example is quite unmusical if all intermediate strings are also played.



If one were to play the open strings, the result would be quite out of the character of this work. Note too that the slur is descending. Only a handful of cross string slurs exist in the Playford editions and this example is one of the few examples of the slur descending rather than ascending. The example could, however, be due to a shift of the dash and could have been intended for the third and fourth beat of the measure. Measure 32 presents a more common form of a cross string slur. This work also includes a rather rare example of a tie across a bar line. Measures 19-20, 20-21 (not shown) are such examples.

Though one might think to discount these examples as errors of editing, the significance of the Playford editions becomes obvious. Works often appear more than once in the editions. One should never describe the Playford editions as the same book reprinted five times. No two editions contain the same number of works, or numbers of pages. Slurs, especially unusual ones often appear more than once. When works are reprinted, plates were created anew, often resulting in new errors, omissions, and additions. One is therefore left with the inescapable conclusion that the slurs, especially those found in examples 1 and 2, were clearly intended.

Volume 4 #39, The Nightingale (measures 22-23) presents what is either the most elaborate use of hooked bow, or a dash meant to indicate a phrase. The work appears in most of the editions, with some examples placing the phrase in eighth notes, and others placing the phrase in sixteenth notes. The effect is clearly intended to imitate the nightingale. As such, this is a very early form of tone painting, well before the concept was fully elaborated upon by 19th century composers.

After careful examination and years of playing lyra viol music this author can only conclude that not only is the type of bowing techniques used for consort playing inadequate for lyra viol music, one needs to cultivate an approach more in keeping with the techniques of early viola da braccio family members. Alison Crum says it well in Play the Viol (p. 111).

“In general, lyra-viol music should be played with airy, resonant bow strokes, emulating the sound of the lute. Try to release the pressure very quickly, as this will allow the natural resonance of the instrument, enhanced by the tunings, to be heard to full effect.” One could apply the same logic to consort playing, where contrapuntal writing results in very dense textures. The result is a crisper, cleaner performance.

One interpretation of this phrase is that the musician is to remove the bow from the strings. The effect is most gratifying when mastered. Lifting the bow off the strings at the end of the bow stroke allows not just the instrument to resonate, but also provides a pause in the phrase. Even Jordi Savall in a master’s class at the Peabody School of Music demonstrated the subtle and enduring effect when one removes the bow from the string. Margriet Tindemans suggested at the Portland Viola da Gamba Conclave using the ring finger to help lift the bow off the string. Placing the bow back on the string without unintended sounds is a technique that requires practice and skill.

Having said all this, surely all the forms of slurs currently in use today by musicians were also used in lyra viol music during most of the 17th century. Yet, for the most part, lyra viol music indicated that the bow was kept on the string, and one note was played per bow stroke. So, are we back where we began asking about slurs? Clearly, this is not the case. The slur was definitely used, just as one uses any ornament of the time. Slurs often occurred at important places in the music, including cadences, and beginning and ending of phrases. Slurs can also be used to imply a sound from nature. Other uses must also exist. Such elaborate use of slurs does not seem to exist in any other style of viola da gamba music prior to the reintroduction of the viola da gamba.

[i] By comparison, hooked slurs seem to be notated in manuscript sources with a slur and at least two vertical dashes through the slur. Such a notation does not exist in the Playford editions, possibly due to printing limitations.

[ii] Most of the Playford editions present problems in their numbering of works. The 1661 edition (Volume 3) is especially problematic. The example mentioned above was originally number 32 on page 24.