I always find it interesting that many harpists think they are playing ‘medieval’ and Renaissance music but rarely are. Most of the lever harp repertoire relies on more modern interpretations of older tunes. Of course there is nothing wrong with this. Music is an evolving culture that reflects broader social contexts and tastes. Some of the best folk music is enjoyable because it takes a new approach to a familiar tune. But then again I am an historian and I can’t help myself. I want to know what Renaissance music actually sounded like – well as much as we can know – not just contemporary interpretations of Renaissance music. I have to go back to look at some of the earliest versions of things I can find – not just to understand and revive interpretations lost – but also to inspire my own composing and arranging with new ideas.
Years ago on one of my regular library visits I ventured into the University of Melbourne Music Library and found the Fuller Maitland and Barclay Squire edition of The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. This two volume work originally published in 1899 includes 297 pieces, mainly English, composed in between 1560 and 1620. The pieces are from a manuscript collection that is now part of the University of Cambridge Fitzwilliam Museum in the UK. Scholars believe the pieces were transcribed and compiled somewhere around the period 1610-1625. Most of the works are arranged for the virginals (an early keyboard instrument), although they could be played on other keyboard instruments of the time like the harpsichord or spinet. Exactly who transcribed the pieces is a matter of academic conjecture but, as the Museum states, ‘This collection of compositions for keyboard instruments is widely regarded as the most important surviving manuscript of 16th and 17th century English music.’
The original manuscript is very hard to understand though because modern notation was still in development. Deciphering the manuscript text is best left to the experts! The Fuller Maitland and Barclay Squire edition, however, makes these works much more accessible. Obviously none of the pieces were written for harp. They are often highly chromatic and need considerable adaption so we can play them on our instrument. Most modern arrangers of this music for harp tend to take a lot of the accidentals out of the pieces so they can be more easily played on levered instruments but I think this takes away too much of their Renaissance style and character. Instead I have arranged several pieces from the collection for lever harp and tried to keep their distinctive sixteenth century quality. OK, so yes, I am giving another modern interpretation of an older tune but hopefully, by going back to some of the earliest versions of the pieces, I haven’t lost too much of their original sound in doing so.
Today I would like to share with you one of these pieces – Giles Farnaby’s ‘A Toye’. This piece includes quite a lot of lever changes so it is really for the intermediate lever harp player. Farnaby (c.1560-1640) was a well-known English composer of the early modern period and a contemporary of other composers like Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd and John Bull. In this version of ‘A Toye’ I have notated the music without ornamentation. In the sixteenth century it was common for instrumentalists to add their own ornaments, particularly in repeated sections. Fuller Maitland and Barclay Squire include the markings for this ornamentation in their edition, although the exact ornament required at these points is open to much academic discussion. I will leave it to you to do your own research and add them in if you wish or just to play the piece as is, which is quite beautiful in its own right. Just click on the following link for the pdf. Feel free to play and share my arrangement with others. All I ask for is acknowledgement.