Farnaby’s Conceit

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book comprises nearly 300 works composed for keyboard by notable English court composers from the time of Queen Elizabeth. William Byrd, GIles Farnaby, John Bull, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins, to name a few, all contributed to the collection.

I’ve orchestrated 20 or so of these pieces for brass quintet and brass ensemble – they’re fun to work on because, while representing perhaps the purest forms of renaissance style, the simplicity of the music itself is a blank canvas.

The piece below is No 273 in the collection titled Farnaby’s Conceit. It is among the shortest of all the pieces in the entire collection. Early 20th century German music theorist Heinrich Schenker would have loved this one – it’s a big ole 3-2-1.
When I put together my Farnaby Suite for brass ensemble, I considered the idea of including this as an introductory piece to the whole suite, but the idea never got legs. But I thought it might be fun to work through it as a tutorial.

Initial observations:

  • There is a note error. The downbeat of the 4th measure in the bass voice should be an A not a G.
  • This is one of the few works in the entire collection that does not have any written ornaments.
  • Key signatures are somewhat a rarity in the FVB – this is partly due to the use of modes as a tonal / harmonic system. However, even though the key signature is neutral for this piece, it is clearly in G major.
  • I’m going to include some additional barlines so they reflect a cut-time time signature. This is just a modern reading convenience.
  • The range of the entire piece is interesting in that this would make a jaunty little trombone quartet piece – basically a 4 voice texture with the entire range of the piece fitting within the range of the trombone family.
  • As a matter of fact, I’m going to enter the notes into a brass ensemble score, but as a trombone quartet (with tuba as the bass voice) to begin with just to see how it influences other decisions.
  • This leads me to the idea of dropping the piece by a whole step to F major.
  • As you can see, I put the extra chord tones in Trombone 2 & 3 (measures 4, 5, 7, 9, 12, 13).

The inclusion of this short piece in a suite is going to impact how it begins. If it is to be the opening ‘intrada’ of a multiple movement suite, I might want to start BIG and then contrast within the movement. If this is to become a middle movement, I’ll want to write it as a contrasting movement to what came before it and make certain it sets up the next movement. If the latter is true, something simple like what is already written might suffice for the first 4 measures. Or this:

There are dozens of ways this could be scored.

The texture in the first phrase is only 3 voices until the cadence. That means if it’s going to be a BIG opening, doubling and/or the invention of some material is going to be needed.

or:

or this one scored as low brass with horns in octaves being the primary melodic voice and the piccolo serving as a quasi descant:

This one turns the phrase inside out by using the alto voice as a descant:

This could get silly and I could do this all day. Each one of these examples will have a distinctive sound because the orchestrator has a lot of control over where the attention is directed.

You must determine:

  • What’s important in the original score
  • What you’d like to balance or color into focus
  • The possible uses of contrast to highlight and offer variety
  • The role of every phrase you write in the context of the larger picture

So the point is – arrange/orchestrate with intent. Any undergrad with Finale or Sibelius (or pencil and score paper?) can assign notes.

As I’ve worked through this the last couple of days, I’m thinking I like the piece better as a gentle interlude. More about this next.

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