Who Are We?
Seven Times Salt is a Boston-based early music ensemble specializing in repertoire of the 16th and 17th centuries. Praised for their creative programming and “impeccably-balanced sound,” the group has performed at venues throughout New England including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Plimoth Plantation, the New England Folk Festival, WGBH radio, and many others. The ensemble has also researched and presented original programs for the Amherst, Bloomington, and Boston Early Music Festivals (Fringe), the Society of Historically-Informed Performance, and their own self-produced concert series. Seven Times Salt delights in blurring the lines between “art music” and folk tunes, and its members are at ease performing in the concert hall, the dance hall, or the beer hall!
So what is this “English consort” anyway??
(To skip the history lesson and go directly to some samples of English consort music, click here.)
During the Renaissance in England (approximately 1450-1650), any group of instruments that played together as an ensemble was called a “consort” (the accent falls on the first syllable). In Elizabethan England the verb “to consort” didn’t have the mildly sinister connotations that it does today—it simply meant to do something together, such as when musicians gathered to play polyphonic (multi-voice) music. If the instruments in an ensemble were all of the same family, the ensemble might be called a recorder consort or a viol consort; if they were of different families, the ensemble would be called a “broken consort”. Every ensemble was different, in part because music of the Renaissance very rarely specified an instrument to be used for performance. Generally, composers simply wrote the music, and let the musicians decide what instruments to play.
Not surprisingly, every country and every royal court had certain instruments that it favored. In England towards the end of the 16th century, one specific combination of instruments had become very popular at court—an ensemble consisting of violin (or treble viol), recorder (or flute), lute, and bass viol. This quartet was sometimes augmented by the addition of cittern (a wire-strung instrument about the size of a modern mandolin) and bandora (a type of bass lute)—when these instruments were present, they mostly played basic chordal accompaniments, serving as a sort of “rhythm section” that supported the quartet of melody instruments. This arrangement, which would become known as an “English consort,” represented the most popular instruments of the day among the English nobility. Queen Elizabeth herself was reported to be skilled at playing the lute, as well as the virginal (a small keyboard instrument).
The popularity of these instruments gave rise to an unprecedented publication—Thomas Morley’s Consort Lessons of 1599. This was a collection of pieces intended specifically for the English consort, and it even specified which instrument was to play which line. For the first time in Europe, there was a codified instrumental ensemble for chamber music—in this sense, the English consort could be viewed as the string quartet of the early 17th century. Morley (1567 – 1602) was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and by 1599 was already well known for his madrigals, canzonets, and other vocal pieces; he originally wrote the Consort Lessons as a collection of instructive repertoire to teach his young choristers how to play an instrument. The Consort Lessons proved so successful among court musicians, however, that they were published in a new edition in 1611, nine years after Morley’s death, and inspired many of Morley’s contemporaries (including Rosseter, Bachiler, Dowland and Holborne) to write music for English consort.
As the 17th century continued, pieces for the English consort became ever more complex and varied, moving from the simple settings of Morley and Holborne to the intricate and sometimes bizarre suites of William Locke (1621/2 – 1677) and Nicola Matteis (d. 1714). By the late 17th century, however, the revolutionary music of Henry Purcell and the “seconda prattica” style (which had begun in Italy about 1600 but came late to the British Isles) had begun to sway public taste away from the multi-voice polyphony of the Renaissance and towards the style of accompanied monody (a single melody line supported by continuo). This style would soon sweep over all of Europe and become the dominant characteristic of the “High Baroque”—the first half of the 18th century in which Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi flourished.
In our own repertoire, we strive to cover the waterfront from Morley to Matteis and everything in between, including not just English music, but other popular music from around Europe in the musically fertile period of the 16th and 17th centuries. The English consort turns out to be a perfect vehicle for a wide variety of Renaissance and early Baroque music, especially with the occasional addition of voices and other instruments such as bagpipes and percussion. Of course, the music is more enjoyable to hear than to read about; if you want to know what this ensemble sounds like, have a look at our sound samples page.