Music for Windy Instruments

Music for Windy Instruments: Sounds from the Court of James I
The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble
Resonus RES10225. 59’50

In celebration of their 25th anniversary, The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble present this enticing recording of some of the Royal Music performed at the Court of James I. The music comes from a set of manuscript part-books, now housed in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum (Mu. MS 734). The chosen pieces are from the first layer, which was copied around 1615. Further recordings are clearly planned. Only five of the six part-books survive, the missing part reconstructed, often from other examples of the pieces, most of which are instrumental arrangements of sacred and secular vocal music by Continental composers, including the likes of Orlando de Lassus, Peter Philips, Alfonso Ferrabosco I & II, plus many lesser-known composers.

The programme notes describe the different types of Royal Music in the Elizabethan and Jacobean court, noting the continuation of the Medieval division into haut and bas (loud and soft) instruments. The sackbut consort was in the haut category, although by the time of James I, the rather raucous shawms had been replaced by the more mellifluous sound of the cornetts, as used on this recording. Another feature of this recording is the variety of different types and sizes of instruments used, with soprano, alto, tenor & mute cornetts and tenor & bass sackbuts. Several pieces also include either a harpsichord or organ, the organ subdued in tone and providing a gentle support for the other instruments, the harpsichord more aurally prominent. This raises the question (but not a criticism) as to whether a cornett and sackbut ensemble would have played together with an organ or harpsichord. We know that viol consorts often played with organ, but they were static indoor bas ensembles rather than the potential more mobile, and usually outdoor haut ‘Windy Instruments’ of the CD title.

Those not used to the sound of a cornett and sackbut ensemble might be surprised at just how sensitive and delicate the ECSE sound is. You never feel as though you are far from the original vocal models, and the purity of tone and intonation is better than that of many vocal groups. Three solo harpsichord pieces by Peter Philips are played by Silas Wollston, taken from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book which dates from around the same period as the Fitzwilliam Museum part-books, and are also transcriptions of vocal models.

The programme notes can be read here.  In the meantime, here is a photo of a windy ECSE.

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