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  Wondrous Machine

Christopher Stembridge


Tracks Artist Notes Reviews

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Recorded in the Church of the Ospedaletto, Venice, 18-19 May 1999

Like its Italian counterpart, the English organ before the nineteenth-century was often a relatively small single-manual instrument without an independent pedal section. While the selection of English music chosen for this recording covers a period of two and a half centuries, it is restricted to music written for a small instrument: compositions for two manuals as well as those which require a full chromatic octave in the bass could not be included - Purcell is therefore conspicuous by his absence.

Dance and Variations

1 Uppon la mi re Anonymous

2 Hornepype Hugh Aston

3 My Lady Careys dompe Anonymous

4 My Lady Wynkfylds Anonymous

10 The Queenes alman William Byrd

21 Why aske yee? (8 variations) John Bull

29 Chaconne HWV 259 G.F. Handel

The disc begins with some early sixteenth-century pieces with ostinato structures. As the title suggests, [1] uses a 3-note bass - la mi re (sounding e-b-a on the ‘Quint flute’). This is echoed a fifth higher to give a middle part that follows at a distance of half a bar. Above this the right hand weaves a melody that remains rhythmically quite independent of the 3-bar structure.

Music not intended for liturgical use could have been played on any keyboard instrument: clavichord, harpsichord, regal, small organ or claviorganum. Many different regals are listed in an inventory of instruments at the court of Henry VIII drawn up in 1547. These instruments normally had a ‘cimball’, i.e. a high-pitched flute rank or ranks, as well as a regal, a reed stop with short resonators.

Unfortunately nothing remains of these instruments, but judging from their descriptions it could be assumed that the sound produced in Aston’s Hornepype [2] on the Nacchini organ’s Venetian regal (‘Tromboncini’), with two other higher pitched stops, provides a reasonable approximation. The Hornepype is based on an obligato tenor which, in its basic form, alternates the notes g and f throughout. After the opening statement, below this tenor a bass is added. This is often simply F and c, but sometimes elaborates the harmony e.g. F-Bb-F-c-G-c. The melodic line that keeps the right hand busy is full of rhythmic variety and some rather virtuosic leaps occur that are surprising for the period.

The two pieces that follow on this recording come from the same manuscript and it has been suggested that they too were written by Aston. The Dompe [3] has an ostinato bass of two alternating notes and while it appears to be a sad piece, in Shakespeare we read of both ‘merry’ and ‘deploring’ dumps. The Rownde [4] uses three different bass notes that form a tantalising irregular structure. All three putative Aston pieces were almost certainly played at Henry VIII’s court. John Caldwell has suggested that their composition was influenced by the visit to the court (1516-17) of Fra Dionisius Memo, organist of St Mark’s in Venice and renowned virtuoso.

The harmonic structure of The Queenes Alman by William Byrd [10] is an expanded version of the passamezzo antico bass, which in its simple form supported such English melodies as Greensleeves. Byrd repeats each half of the bi-partite form and then adds two complete variations.

The variations by John Bull [21] also appear to be more related to the bass than the melody of the opening statement. In this performance a set of eight variations has been assembled from two of the three manuscript sources. There is no known song of this title.

Handel’s g minor Chaconne HWV 259 [29] could be a keyboard sketch of a work conceived for orchestra. The bass of its somewhat irregular main refrain (5+4 bars repeated) reappears in ‘regularised’ form (4+4 bars) in Bb and d minor during the course of the piece. Sections loosely related to the initial idea, being based on four rising or four falling notes, give way in the latter half of the piece to displays of passage-work in the right hand while the bass moves through a sequence of fourths and fifths.

Liturgical Music

5 Lucem tuam John Redford

7 Ex more docti mistico Thomas Tallis

8 Iam lucis orto sidere Thomas Tallis

11-14 Eterne rerum conditor William Blitheman

15 Gloria tibi trinitas vi William Blitheman

16-20 Salve Regina Misere Cordi John Bull

John Redford was organist at St Paul’s in London and the first great composer of early English liturgical organ music. Lucem tuam [5], which is structured around the long note cantus firmus of this compline hymn, is a rare example of his four-part writing. Together with the pieces by Tallis and Blitheman, this comes from the Mulliner Book, a manuscript compiled in the 1560s by Thomas Mulliner who was active in Oxford.

A relatively small amount of Tallis’s organ music has survived. The two hymn verses [7] and [8] both have the cantus firmus in the tenor, where its long notes are sometimes broken into figures while the other voices accompany with imitative polyphony, sticking to one motif for the entire verse.

Blitheman’s epitaph informs us that he was highly regarded in his day both as a player and as a composer; he was also Bull’s teacher. The four verses of Eterne rerum [11] - [14], written to intersperse verses of plainchant, have been described by David Wulstan as ‘one of the most perfect sets of chorale variations prior to, and indeed including, Bach’. The cantus firmus begins in a decorated form in the bass part, but becomes gradually clearer through the variations: the second verse presents it in long notes in the bass, the third places the cantus in the tenor, marked melos suave, and the melody is finally heard in the soprano. Blitheman also set six verses of the hymn Gloria tibi trinitas: [15] presents just the final verse.

While the above compositions date from pre-Reformation England, John Bull’s Salve Regina was probably written while he was organist at Antwerp Cathedral, a position he held from 1613 until his death in 1628. The style of these verses – also written to alternate with plainchant – bears some relation to that of similar continental compositions, notably those of Pieter Cornet. Ad te clamamus [17] and Eia ergo [18] appear to have been composed for half-stops to play a solo in the treble and bass respectively: this may be heard on the present recording.

Fantasy and Voluntary

6 Voluntarye Richard Alwood

9 A fancie: for my ladye nevell William Byrd

22 Fancy (Musica Britannica 7) Orlando Gibbons

23 Fancy (Musica Britannica 8) Orlando Gibbons

24 [Voluntary] Thomas Tomkins

25 Vers John Blow

The most principal and chiefest kind of music which is made without a ditty is the Fantasy, that is when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it as shall seem best to his own conceit. In this may more art be shown than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing, but that he may add, diminish, and alter...this kind of music is, with them who practise instruments of parts, in greatest use...

A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke - Thomas Morley (1597)

Although Morley refers here to music for viol consorts, the keyboard was also well suited to this kind of music. Indeed, most composers would have been capable of improvising a fantasy. The keyboard often seems to imitate a consort, tending to keep a fixed number of voices - usually three in fast movements with rich figuration, four when the movement is more sedate.

Richard Alwood, a chorister at St Paul’s under Mulliner and later a priest, left a small number of organ pieces mainly preserved in the Mulliner Book. The Voluntarye [6] is the earliest known piece to be so called, indicating its probable performance during the liturgy. At the beginning of Alwood’s piece the upper voices imitate each other over a slower-moving bass: related motifs are introduced in the course of what might be classified as a concise fantasy.

Byrd wrote Fantasies or Fancies for both consort and keyboard, in one instance reworking a consort Fancy for keyboard as A Lesson of Voluntarie in My Ladye Nevells Booke. The fancie [9] on this recording is the other one in C included in Nevell and is clearly conceived for the keyboard. A rather free introduction based on rising scale-passages leads into a homophonic section that imitates different groups of instruments, treated antiphonally in the Venetian tradition. This in turn gives way to more serious contrapuntal argument which continues to interchange different textures as new ideas are introduced.

Orlando Gibbons, born in Oxford, was a chorister and later a student at King’s College, Cambridge. He joined the Chapel Royal in c1603 and was one of the organists from 1615 until his death in 1625. Gibbons took the MusB at Cambridge in 1606, and the DMus at Oxford in 1622; a year later he was appointed organist of Westminster Abbey, where he once was referred to as ‘the best Finger of his Age’. Like Byrd, Gibbons composed both sacred and secular vocal music, as well as Fantasies for both consort and keyboard. Some of his music, together with that of Byrd and Bull, was published in Parthenia (1613), the earliest printed keyboard music to appear in England. The Fancy (Musica Britannica 7) [22] seems to have been conceived for a single keyboard, despite the addition of the subtitle ‘for a double orgaine’. This seems to be the invention of Benjamin Cosyn, copyist of the only source; Cosyn arranged the piece for two manuals, choosing certain sections of the bass-line to be treated as solos. The livelier Fancy (Musica Britannica 8) [23] begins with the typical rhythmic figure of the Italian Canzona francese, where the initial note is played three times: long-short-short. Both Fancies are composed of a sequence of sections each with a new point of imitation; the texture however remains in three parts virtually throughout.

Tomkins, Gibbons’ junior colleague as organist at the Chapel Royal, also wrote both vocal and instrumental music. His short Fantasia or Voluntary in a [24] (untitled in its sole MS source) also uses the Canzona francese rhythm in its first half, but has four parts. The second section has only three parts: the continuous flow of the lines harks back to Alwood, but opens new vistas with its extended range.

John Blow’s interest in non-English organ traditions is attested by his own comprehensive anthology of music by Frescobaldi, Froberger, Fischer, and Strungk, to which he appears to have added his own embellishments. For this Vers [25] he borrowed the opening of the twelfth Toccata from Frescobaldi’s book of 1615 and then composed a quite different continuation. It is a slow-moving piece and in this recording is played on the principale together with the typically Italian voce umana; this is a half-stop similar to the principale, but plays only in the treble and is tuned a little sharp. The effect of the two ranks sounding together was thought to imitate the human voice.

Eighteenth Century Pieces for Solo Stops

26 Trumpet voluntary William Boyce

27 Voluntary for the cornet William Walond

28 Air HWV 267 G.F. Handel

The most common half-stops on eighteenth-century English organs were the trumpet and, in the treble range only, the cornet. Such half-stops were also a common feature of Italian organs of the period. They were normally used to represent a solo treble instrument accompanied by a single bassline, which tends to be relatively lively to make up for the lack of middle voices. The typical English eighteenth-century voluntary consisted of a slow introductory movement normally played on 8' stops, followed by a fast movement for trumpet – [26] – or cornet [27].

William Boyce wrote both for the theatre and the church: he was both Master of the King’s Music and, from 1758, one of the organists of the Chapel Royal. His contribution to conserving the ‘early music’ in his day was considerable, as he collected and published a wealth of English church music written during the previous two centuries. His ten voluntaries were published in London in 1779, the year of his death.

William Walond was active in Oxford and published two books of voluntaries in London in the 1750s. The Handel Air [28] was composed for a two-manual harpsichord and could equally well have been played on a two-manual organ. In the present recording a stop-change is used to render the ‘solo’ and ‘tutti’ effects.

Christopher Stembridge


The question of pitch in early English organs is notoriously difficult, and it would be impossible to claim that all the music recorded here sounds at the ‘intended’ pitch. While most of the music is played at its written pitch (with a = c438), in the case of the early grounds the choice of pitch was made on the basis of the most appropriate sound available on the organ:

[1] was played on the Flauto in XII or ‘Quint flute’ an octave lower than written and sounds therefore one fifth higher than written.

[3] was transposed up a fourth and played at 4' pitch.

[4] was played as written on the ‘Quint flute’ and therefore sounds up a twelfth.

[7] and [8] These hymns by Tallis sound unconvincingly low when played at written pitch: they have thus been played transposed up a fourth.

The Organ at the Ospedaletto in Venice

The Conservatorio dell’Ospedaletto has had a series of organs since its foundation in 1528. The present instrument was built in 1751 by the leading Venetian organ-maker of his day, Pietro Nacchini (his Opus 160). Its fine baroque case which predates it (1698) stands in the choir gallery situated above the main altar. The instrument has remained unaltered and was restored in 1983 by Franz Zanin.

P Principale 8' (divided c1/c#1)

VIII Ottava 4'

XV Decimaquinta 2'

XIX Decimanona 12 '

XXII Vigesimaseconda 1'

XXVI Vigesimasesta B '

XXIX Vigesimanona 1 '

XXXIII Trigesimaterza 2 ' (C–f)

XXXVI Trigesimasesta 3 ' (C–f)

V.U. Voce Umana 8' (treble from c#1)

Fl. VIII Flauto in ottava 4' (divided c1/c#1)

Fl. XII Flauto in duodecima 2B '

C Cornetta 14 ' (treble from c#1)

T Tromboncini 8' (divided c1/c#1)

CB Contrabasso (pedals) 16' + 8'


Single manual C/E-c3

Pedal pull-downs (permanently coupled) C/E-g#

Temperament: Modified mean-tone Pitch: a1 = 438 Wind pressure: 54 mm

Although the instrument can be hand-blown, operating the bellows is a very noisy procedure. The electric blower was thus preferred for this recording.

The Church of the Ospedaletto and its musical tradition

The Church of Santa Maria dei Derelitti was constructed in 1575 on land belonging to a hospital founded during the terrible famine of 1528; it is hence known as the Church of the Ospedaletto. Together with the Pietà, the Incurabili and the Mendicanti, the Ospedaletto was noted for its musical activities; these four Venetian ospedali came to represent the earliest type of conservatoire.

Young orphaned girls, who lived like nuns in a separate section of the ospedale, received a musical education in order to embellish the liturgy with plainsong and a cappella polyphony. Known as putte or figlie di coro, their talents were also encouraged in order to impress benefactors and encourage patronage. While vocal instruction was begun in the second half of the 16th century, tuition in various instruments was introduced during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1776-7 a music room was built inside the Ospedaletto where chamber music was performed by the putte; this contains frescoes by Jacopo Guarana and a trompe l’oeil by Agostino Mengozzi Colonna. Some of the choirmasters (maestri di cappella) appointed as directors of the conservatory were highly distinguished musicians: Legrenzi was maestro both at St Mark’s and at the Mendicanti, while Porpora was choirmaster at the Incurabili and at the Pietà and was acknowledged to be the greatest singing teacher in the Venice of his day. In the wake of Napoleonic reforms, the Ospedaletto was turned into an old people’s home and the musical activity gradually came to an end; the last maestro, Domenico Cimarosa, directed the music until 1784, while girls continued to sing in the Ospedaletto up until 1807. The didactic methods tried in these early conservatori were to be adopted by the first European music academies in Berlin (1804) and London (1822).

The Ospedaletto, known today as the Casa di Riposo ‘Ss. Giovanni e Paolo’, is still a venue for recitals and courses in early organ music. It thus maintains its historic tradition as a place of musical education and performance.

Davide Zamattio

Producer Christopher Stembridge

Recording Engineer Franco P. Policardi

Editing Sonart

Executive Producer Paul Nicholson


Cover photograph: Dylan Reisenberger.

Programme notes edited by Thomas Elias.


We are extremely grateful to Dr Davide Zamattio – organist and curator of the organ – for all his generous help and for his article on the musical history of the church. Thanks also to Dr Giuseppe Ellero and the IRE of Venice for their generosity in making this recording possible.


Published musical editions:

3,4 Ed. Ferguson (OUP)

5,6,11,12 Ed. Stevens (Stainer & Bell Ltd)

Ed. Cox (Faber Music Ltd)



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