Writing of the 17th century British composer William Cranford’s work for string ensemble,, Dudley North, his contemporary, observed it possessed: “gravity, majesty, honey-dew spirit and variety.” One may ask how such music was lost—a story of provincial culture and aristocratic friendship—Cranford wrote for his closest musical friends, artists all, who collectively played within the circle of St. Paul’s. (One is reminded of Elizabethan court poets writing behind palace walls, collecting verse in A Mirror for Magistrates.) The difference: Cranford’s music for strings is prescient and wholly original.
Now, for the first time, a recording of his Consort Music for 4, 5, and 6 Viols has been released by LeStrange Viols and the complex, lyric inventions of Cranford can be heard at last.
The CD’s press release points both to the intricacies of Cranford’s music and the vitality and experimentation of string composition in the age of Milton:
Little is known about the life of composer William Cranford (fl. 1630s) beyond his remarkable surviving chamber music for viol consort, a Renaissance string ensemble that attracted the best English composers from William Byrd to Henry Purcell. Cranford’s music—by turns sonorous, expressive, quirky, and forward looking—represents some of the finest surviving writing for the ensemble. LeStrange Viols presents the modern premier recording of nearly all of Cranford’s surviving works for consort, including the complete fantasias for 4, 5, and 6 viols, the substantial and virtuosic 6-part pavans (“Passamezzo” and “Quadran”), and Cranford’s distinctive 5-part setting of the In nomine and playful variations on the well-known tune “Go from my window.”
Playful variations, yes, but something more comes across in the recording—a polyphonic conversance among viols, as if Cranford hoped to gather spirits in a wilding call and response. Each player conveys lyric urgency and amusement, so much so, the result seems contemporary—there’s an evolving unexpectedness from the instruments. Strange indeed.
At times one feels as if both the elder Beethoven and a youthful Shostakovich had somehow flown backwards into Cranford’s circle and one wonders if this neglected figure was a Baroque composer at all.
This is the hook: LeStrange Viols has recovered and recorded an exquisite and odd music, “odd” not in the way of the “oddly shaped pearl” —that old apophthegm for Baroque ornamentation—but work so timeless and original its recovery reminds us how progressive the imagination can be. Additionally one is reminded of the creative ferment surrounding early string ensembles, a time when evolving instruments and intimate exchange made it possible to step out of time.
You can sample and buy William Cranford: Consort Music for 4,5, and 6 Viols at New Focus Recordings or via iTunes, Amazon, or CD Universe.
LeStrange Viols makes its New York City debut in a program featuring works from their new recording of the consort music of William Cranford.
“The mysterious Cranford, a contemporary of the metaphysical and cavalier poets, composed music whose mercurial affects range from deep pathos, through witty, playful moods, to sheer rapture.”
Friday, October 23, 8:00pm
Corpus Christi Church
529 West 121st Street, New York
Tickets available at the door, $20, $10 students & seniors
Or purchase tickets online HERE.