The University of Huddersfield’s performance-led research into the consort of viols and its relationship to the voice has resulted in the performance of music largely unknown to modern audiences, as well as new perceptions and understandings of this area of music. Closely associated with the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM) and supported by awards from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the resulting public performances, lecture recitals, CD releases and radio broadcasts have raised the profile of this previously neglected area of music and its performance.

What was the problem?

The music of the past is an important part of our cultural heritage. However, it needs to be interpreted in sound so that we can fully appreciate and understand it. This demands research into the relationship between different elements – in this case, voices and viols – and performance practice.

Benefits of this research

Research by Professor John Bryan (Principal Lecturer, 1994–2007; Professor of Music, 2007–present) has influenced instrument makers, performers, concert promoters and audiences. Increased interest in the “renaissance” viol has created business for instrument makers. Specialist publishing companies have also increasingly turned to producing performance editions of music suitable for voices and viols or “vocal” material aimed at viol players.

What did we do?

Bryan has developed a range of innovative approaches, including iconographical, organological, archival and source-based evidence, which he uses alongside musical analysis. These underpin his international reputation in the performance of renaissance music. Collaborating with the Rose Consort of Viols, he has used accurate copies of historical instruments strung throughout in gut and using bows with clip in frogs. These give the player a more intimate ‘grip’ on the string than later bows allow, enabling a more articulate approach to playing. Bryan has used these instruments to explore techniques of performance alongside specialist singers using researched historical pronunciation. He found connections between the singers’ communication of the text and the instrumental bowing techniques, highlighting the complex nature of this interaction.

What happened next?

Funded by the AHRC, the research carried out at Huddersfield fed into a range of live performances locally, nationally and internationally, with locations including Florence’s Uffizi Palace and the BBC Proms. Collaborations with York Early Music Festival (administered by the National Centre for Early Music) and the Dartington International Summer School have attracted diverse audiences and helped to further understanding of the new approaches to performance revealed by the research. Bryan acts as Artistic Advisor for the festival, which engages new and existing audiences with early music through programme planning, including a sell-out series of concerts in 2011 to reflect the early music content of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

In addition to live performances, the research into viol composition and performance has resulted in the release of more than 20 albums with international listening audiences, as well as broadcasts by BBC Radio 3 and German network WDR. The releases have earned critical acclaim for their novel presentation of familiar repertory, with particular emphasis on the diversity of sounds displayed within the music when appropriate viols are used.

Makers such as Richard Jones have been able to establish careers dedicated solely to the building of “Venetian‟ instruments, as opposed to the later and more familiar “Jacobean‟ pattern, to satisfy demand from amateur players in the UK, the US and Europe. The importance of the research is further evidenced by a close association with the National Centre for Early Music, advising on and leading events and the award of a £268,000 AHRC grant for the project The Making of the Tudor Viol.
Additionally, Both the Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain and Particular Music have published material initially performed on CDs resulting from the research or introduced to prospective performers at related workshops and lecture-recitals.