KPAC blog
2:38 pm
Fri August 2, 2013

When Virginals Were Not So Chaste: Alan Feinberg's 'Basically Bull'

A virginal is a spinet harpsichord, normally without legs. The name is obscure even by Oxford English Dictionary standards, but one hint is that the name came from the young and chaste virginal girls that would spend hours and hours practicing their music in cold and drafty castles and mansions.

It was an unusual time for music in Britain.

There were battles over whether or not music belonged in the church and the only people that had music before the printed note were musicians and those with enough money to outfit their splendid homes with music rooms.

It is that last group that unwittingly saved a great deal of history during the English renaissance by buying, requesting and saving music that was given them by the greatest musicians of the time.

Imagine you are a renowned keyboardist and you get an invitation to a great country house to spend a few weeks. There you play duets on the home's organ and aforementioned virginal, and when inspired play virtuoso music for the gathered household.

Before you leave you copy out some music for your generous host and move on to the court or another month in the country. It was this music that was left behind that was saved and cherished.

The Fitzwilliam family left a huge collection to Cambridge that includes the cream of British musicians such as William Byrd, John Bull, Orlando Gibbons, Giles Farnaby and John Dowland.

Called the Fitzwilliam Virginal  book, these two large volumes contain short and long, easy and tremendously virtuosic music to while away the hours of anyone stuck indoors on a cold and rainy day.

Today this music is heard mainly in transcription or performed on authentic instruments. The light touch of those early keyboards facilitated playing many notes of short duration, like thirty-second or even the famed hemidemisemiquaver - to us Americans, the 1/64th note.

When one measure of music stretches across the whole page, you know that note values are very short indeed. To play music like this on a modern piano with its heavier action could be seen as impossible, but that is what Alan Feinberg does in a new recording on the Steinway label.

"Basically Bull" by Alan Feinberg.

Alan Feinberg and "Basically Bull"

"Basically Bull" includes the music of Dr. John Bull and some Byrd and Tomkins and Feinberg does a great job of evoking that distant time and mood with his 9 foot Steinway.

There are reflective pieces like A sad Pavane for these distracted times and virtuosic music like a Galliard "St. Thomas Wake" by Dr. Bull.

The use of ornamentation or what my old piano teacher referred to as the twiddly bits is extravagant by today's standards.

This coupled with the odd harmonies and simplistic cadences give one a feeling of something familiar yet strange, so the concept of time travel by music is complete.

This was a era when the genteel rubbed shoulders with the coarse and dangerous. Artists would frequently be brought up on charges of brawling or worse - passions were dangerously close to the surface in that puzzling time.

Getting to the title of this review, old John Bull had more than just Bull in his name - he had to flee England when the extent of his amorous practices became known.

The Archbishop of Canterbury referred to the composer as having "more music than honesty and is as famous for the marring of virginity as he is for the fingering of organs and virginals."

Bull's future wife did have a child out of wedlock, which wasn't usual for those days.

Maybe it was court gossip or his breaking down a wall to gain entry into a room that he was to give a lecture - this brought him up on charges before the infamous Star Chamber - At any rate, England was too hot for the composer and he and his family fled to Belgium in 1613 where he associated with the best-known composers of his time until his death in 1628.

Putting on "Basically Bull" is as good a way as any of slipping away from our own distracted times and visiting another when the concept of time and entertainment was very different indeed.