THE WORLD ENCOMPASSED
Commissioned by Fretwork. Recording available soon.
Richard Boothby of the marvellous viol consort Fretwork came to me with a proposition which I considered for about half a second before accepting – to create a piece for Fretwork about Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world in 1577-80.
Drake took with him a viol consort of four players (‘still music’), as well as trumpeters and drummers (‘loud music’), employing the viol consort as a tool for diplomacy, and for morale on ship – for accompanying prayers and hymns, as well as, I imagine, dancing.
On the voyage they stopped many times, meeting, flirting with, terrorizing, attacking, trading with the local inhabitants. We know for certain that in Java Drake’s musicians played, and the local musicians played in return: ‘Raia Donan coming aboard us, in requitall of our musick which was made to him, presented our general with his country musick, which though it were of a very strange kind, yet the sound was pleasant and delightful.’ In other places, too, there were definitely musical encounters – formal in Ternate (one of the Molucca Islands), informal in Patagonia and California.
The primary aim of the voyage was to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the Spanish in their new colonies in South America, fueled by Drake’s ferocious Protestant Christianity and his desire to take revenge for a setback at the hands of the Spanish several years earlier at the Caribbean port of Nombre de Dios. Drake’s men were by turns pirates, missionaries, and enthusiastic traders. It was said of Drake: ‘He steals by day, and prays at night’. According to the English sailors, the Indians they came across were heathen savages, but were not to be blamed for this – they simply needed a dose of Christianity. The Spanish and the Portuguese, on the other hand, were wicked and should be punished; the world must be cleansed of ‘the poisonous infection of popery.’
Our knowledge of the voyage comes in part from the book The World Encompassed by Drake’s nephew, also called Sir Francis Drake. This book, written some time after the event, is based mostly on the unreliable diary of Fletcher, the ship’s padre. Reading it one has to fight one’s way through a minefield of lies, exaggerations, omissions and mistakes.
Our piece consists of a mixture of old and new music: the gorgeous English polyphony of the 16th century; the local music; the puritan hymns, which the players sing (bravely); and a couple of English folk dances; bound together with passages of narration taken from the book.
My contribution is to imagine the local music. Tricky…... Needless to say, world music in the 16th century is a pretty hazy subject; and I am no musical anthropologist. It is almost entirely a matter of guesswork, although in a couple of cases there was, amazingly, some direct evidence.
Furthermore, the task of expressing for example Patagonian folk music or Javanese Court music on viols is essentially impossible, considering that the former was almost certainly performed by voices and drums and the latter by some kind of gamelan (sophisticated percussion orchestra). My approach is to imagine the viol players returning to England at the end of the voyage. Their friends say, so what was it like, this exotic music you heard? And they say, well, er, not so easy to give you an idea, but it was a bit like this……. And their version of the local music is as unreliable as the account of the voyage in The World Encompassed – biased, half-remembered and severely compromised by the choice of instruments.
introduces several tunes: the hymn All People That On Earth Do Dwell (The Old Hundredth), the song O Portsmouth it is a gallant town, the dance The Portsmouth Hornpipe (Plymouth/Portsmouth/Portsmouth/Plymouth – our first unreliable contribution).
It sounds like a confident send-off; in fact it was a clandestine exit. This segues into Robert Parsons’ wonderful The Song Called Trumpets and a prayer, Preserve Us O Lord, for the success of the voyage: ‘Preserve us Lord from Turk and Pope…….’ We are introduced to Drake’s curious mixture of missionary zeal and savage xenophobia.
The first stop was at Mogador, in the Kingdom of Fez, Morocco, where the party encountered Berber merchants – Muslims, Arabic speakers. According to The World Encompassed, they worshipped the sun, and practiced ritual sacrifice. The music I have written is based on the Tagarrâbt, an all-night Berber religious ritual in three parts: a solo for gumbri (a plucked instrument similar to the lute) – a kind of tuning-in, followed by an evolving call and response section for vocal soloist and chorus with an improvised gumbri part, which leads to a climax built round a very short ostinato. It’s devotional, hypnotic music, which I have freely interpreted for viols, in complex interlocking highly rhythmic parts. It’s four minutes long (about a hundred times shorter than the original…..).
Drake responds with John Taverner’s In Nomine, based on the popular cantus firmus from Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas.
In the Cape Verde Islands, Drake’s men first stopped at the Island of Maio, looking for water. They never found it, or the inhabitants. In the harbour of Santiago they captured the Portugese ship the Santa Maria, and co-opted the pilot Nuno de Silva (he was eventually dropped off in Mexico, having outlived his usefulness). They then sailed past the volcanic island of Fogo. The English were very fascinated by Fogo, considering it one of the wonders of the world. It features in the extraordinary Thomas Weelkes song Thule The Period of Cosmography, the only song I know which combines the subjects of nature, international trade and love. The World Encompassed is highly impressed by Fogo; it claims that the volcano is eighteen miles high (actually it is about 3000 metres). Hereabouts, the sailors are also excited by a shoal of flying fish.
My music consists of a half-heard Maian ritual, based loosely on Cape Verde batuque style, a Portuguese lament – a kind of primitive fado (the Moorish blues of Lisbon), and a section of rapid arpeggiation which describes the volcano and the flying fish.
Crossing the Atlantic
We hear a robust and optimistic solo version of the English/Irish folk song Fortune My Foe. I imagine the sailors dancing on deck.
Drake’s men stop in Port Desire, in Patagonia, encountering Indians for the first time. The World Encompassed describes them ‘leaping, dancing, holding up their hands, making outcries in the manner of their country.’ According to Fletcher, they worship sun and moon and are ‘ignorant of the true and living God’.
Interestingly the Frenchman Jean de Léry travelled to Brazil in 1578, and gives a detailed account of the Tupinamba Indians, including their music: their
‘tuneable singing was so sweet that to the unskillful it is scarce credible, how excellently well the harmony agreed, especially seeing the barbarians are utterly ignorant of the art of music…I was not only ravished out of myself, but also both my mind rejoiced and my ears seemed continually to ring withal.’ His two musical examples consist of one note repeated in a very simple rhythm – not entirely useful!
My music here is very basic samba – a samba for viols. A samba band normally consists of large numbers of drums and percussion; here we have six gentle stringed instruments, played pizzicato. It can only be a heroic failure. This music is intercut with The Portsmouth Hornpipe. There is no real collaboration or fusion; the two musics simply coexist. In 16th century Goa there appears to have been some genuine collaboration between Portuguese and Goan musicians; but here in Patagonia I can’t imagine that having happened – the relationship between Drake’s men and the Indians was far too fragile.
The stop in Port Julian (also in Patagonia) was dominated by the trial and execution of a mutineer Thomas Doughty. The World Encompassed is very coy about this incident, not naming him (possibly because of his influential relatives). It describes his last communion and dinner. Apparently Drake and he ate companionably at the same table, and he went to his death with a contrite and repentant heart. We hear Robert Parsons’ second In Nomine.
Drake’s men then set off into the very dangerous territory of the Straits of Magellan. They emerged into the Pacific and were caught in a storm which lasted 52 days and took them wildly off-course, leading them south towards Antartica. This incidentally proved that there was sea to the south of the continent of South America.
My music here is abstract, not like folk music. It’s about the natural world:
gull-like birds which the sailors encountered in the straits, an eclipse of the moon, storms. It’s fierce, inhuman.
Fierce, inhuman music for viols? Compositionally it’s a challenge. And it involves some very virtuosic playing. But it seemed important to conjure up this extreme, violent period of the voyage.
We end the first half of the piece with The Humble Suit of a Sinner, a prayer of thanksgiving for the end of the storm.
The Spanish Main
Here we reach the heart of the matter: Drake’s personal crusade against the Spanish. Drake’s men acquire a phenomenal quantity of silver and gold, and manage to cause chaos and consternation in the Spanish New World. At one point, Drake takes a Spanish ship the Cacafuego, and is curiously gracious to the captured Spaniards. I imagined that perhaps one of the Spaniards has a vihuela with him, and there is an exchange of music, in which Drake’s viol music has the high status. The Spaniard will probably end up being tortured and killed.
In this section of the piece, a simple, transparent Fantasia of Luis Milan is subverted, interrupted and assaulted by a domineering Protestant music featuring the tune The Old Hundredth. For the only time in the piece, Drake’s music and that of the people he encounters – in this case the Spanish – are profoundly entangled.
This is followed by Robert Parsons’ complex De La Court (yes, Parsons again – great composer!). Drake triumphant, though on the run…..
The Spaniards are alert to Drake’s presence and determined to catch him. He realizes that he cannot return to England the way he came. So he heads off across the Pacific, gets totally lost, and ends up (it is thought) in Badego Bay on the coast of California, very near to present-day San Francisco. Here he encounters the Miwok Indians. According to The World Encompassed, these people are profoundly, extravagantly miserable, which is attributed, needless to say, to their lack of Christianity. The English sailors teach them hymns and prayers, and this results in a great uplifting of spirits, leading to a song and dance of triumph, and a pledge of allegiance to Drake. He names the place Albion, plants a flag and leaves.
In 1931 two Frenchman M Jaime de Angelo and M Béclard d’Harcourt visited the Californian Indians, and notated some of their songs: chants de jeu, chants de chamane, chants de puberté, chants de guerre, chants de chasse, chants magique pour attirer l’amour (very useful to have up your sleeve).
My music is based on four of these songs. It’s like a melancholy procession. This is interrupted by a version of The Old Hundredth, and magically the local music is transformed, become more and more animated, a long accelerando which leads to a high-speed dance and then fades into the distance.
Crossing the Pacific
A short piece about homesickness: a queasy version of the Plymouth/Portsmouth tunes.
Drake’s men arrive in the Moluccas. Some of the islands are in the hands of the Portuguese, but the Sultan of Ternate, a Moor, has defied and driven out the invaders; so he is a natural ally of the English. The Sultan meets Drake at sea, in large canoes. The occasion has the formality of a pageant on the Thames. ‘Our ordnance thundered, which we mixed with a great store of small shot, among which sounding our trumpets, and other instruments of music, both still and loud noise.’ The Sultan, on hearing Drake’s music, is said to be ‘in musical paradise’.
We hear the Pavin of Alberti, followed by my contribution, a dark, robust gamelan-like music driven by a rowing rhythm. It features some busy, febrile solos inspired by the music of the local stringed instrument, the rebab.
After an unfortunate incident in the Celebes, when the ship (the Golden Hind, by the way, the only one of the four original ships to make it this far) is stranded on a rock for several days, prompting Drake to jettison vast quantities of valuable cargo, they reach Java. The meeting with the local chief, Raia Donan, is unquestionably a success. ‘The people are loving, true, just dealing….’ ‘Our General…presented the king (of whom he was joyfully and lovingly received) with his musicke.’
We hear Picforth’s extraordinary mathematical In Nomine, in which each instrument plays in a different time-frame, followed by my six-viol version of Javanese gamelan music: very organized, mainly percussive music for a huge variety of drums and gongs, yet having a certain anarchic quality, partly due to apparently random accelerandi and deccelerandi. One can’t help seing a parallel between Picforth’s complexities and the exotic complexities of the gamelan music, both built on the rhythmic contraction and expansion of a few simple tunes.
Rounding the Cape of Good Hope
The expedition heads for home. We hear a prayer Da Pacem Domine for the successful end to the voyage, followed by a half-dead-with-fatigue reprise of
Fortune My Foe.
Parsons again: a reprise of The Song Called Trumpets. The final piece of spin – an apparently triumphant homecoming. Of course the voyage has been an amazing achievement, but the return is hugely problematic, because Drake’s men have stolen so much silver and gold from the Spaniards; the Spaniards are understandably incensed, and want it back. 95% of the treasure is spirited away beyond the reach of the Spanish, and the rest is humbly and generously returned. (Apparently the great economist John Maynard Keynes thought that Britain’s relative prosperity in the early 20th century was a direct result of Drake’s great haul – perhaps crime does pay….)
Our piece is for six viols – two trebles, two tenors, two basses. It lasts seventy minutes, of which I’ve contributed about forty. My contribution looks very different on the page from the Renaissance music. For one thing it’s written on the software programme Sibelius, but more importantly, it’s written in much shorter note values, the basic unit being the crotchet rather than the semibreve, so it looks much more dense, and it’s far more prescriptive, containing tempo markings, dynamics, phrase marks, and some technique instructions. But there is still scope for interpretation, as we discovered in rehearsal; in fact I was very struck by the different playing styles of the members of Fretwork. This gives a tremendous life and variety to an apparently very homogeneous instrumental ensemble. Most of the discussion in rehearsal was related to matters of style and interpretation, and the rest to balance. Balance is an absolutely crucial aspect of this music, as there is often a hierarchy of parts (unlike the Renaissance music, where the parts tend to be of equal importance at all times); the players have very good judgement on this (it’s magic! how can they judge?), but of course it’s sometimes useful to have an outside ear.
Writing new music for viols is a very interesting opportunity. It’s tempting to play the game – to write gorgeous rolling polyphony. We know it works. I have been much more bloody-minded. I’m interested in finding new possibilities for viol music, not so much new instrumental techniques as new textures, new structures, new emotional territory. And anyway, in this piece, the music that I have written consists mostly of evocations of non-European folk culture, so clearly the very European polyphony that one associates with viols is inappropriate. I hope, by basing music for viols on folk models, that something emerges that is neither familiar folk music nor familiar viol music, but something new and interesting. To write, for example, gamelan-influenced music for viols is, to me, a very worthwhile experiment; of course it’s not going to end up sounding like a successful reconstruction of gamelan music – the choice of instruments completely precludes that – but what I hope is music with a kind of hybrid vigour.
The viol is in a curious position relative to new music. Because of a two-hundred year lacuna in viol history, it has seemed a museum instrument, associated for ever with a particular kind of music from a particular period. It may have been tempting to think of the relationship between the viol and the violin as being that of the air balloon and the aeroplane. But that’s clearly not true. The viol is obviously an instrument with enormous potential, and the viol consort a group with enormous potential – as much as the string quartet, it seems to me; so writing for viol consort is a huge privilege. It feels pioneering, full of possibility, and relatively unencumbered with the baggage of 19th and 20th century compositional history. For example, when writing for string quartet, the shadow of Bartok always seems to fall heavily on one’s shoulder. The differences between viol and violin are just as marked as their similarities, not surprisingly, since the viol evolved from a plucked instrument – the quality of pizzicato viol seems to me far superior to pizzicato violin, viola or cello (the double bass is a different matter). And the fact of holding the bow the other way up implies that the arco sound has a very different quality, though it does not preclude, as some people think, fast marcato playing. It’s also a privilege to write for players who are not only fantastically skilled but also very committed to new music, very sensitive to the delicate business of bringing a new piece into the world.
For me, one of the joys of The World Encompassed is the close juxtaposition (and occasional entanglement) of the old and the new. It’s like a city with old buildings next to new – the collision and interplay of the past and the present is exciting and revealing. It’s a relationship I’d like to explore further.
An extension of the music for Berenice (National Theatre). The only piece I’ve written for solo cello, the instrument I tried, with phenomenal lack of success, to play as a child.