Music for three 7-string bass viols

CHELYS CONSORT coming to Stoke Newington Old Church


Ibi Aziz, Jenny Bullock & Alison Kinder

Now in their 10th year as an ensemble, Chelys Consort of Viols are passionate about exploring the world of music for multiple viols. Their debut recording of works by Christopher Simpson received a four-star review in the Guardian, and they hope to release their second disc, a recording with Emma Kirkby featuring the music of Dowland and others, later this year. In this concert they break free from their usual roles in the traditional consort line-up to delve into the repertoire for three bass viols: from the simple elegance of Gottfried Finger’s ͚Pastoralle, through sonatas by JM Nicolai and JS Bach to exquisite dance movements by the French masters of the viol Forqueray and Marais, this will be a feast for the ears.

Tickets £12, £10 concessions. Buy on the door, from Bridgewood and Neitzert at 146 Stoke Newington Church St, or on-line at (with a 10% booking fee)

  • Gottfried Finger (c1655-1730) – Pastoralle in A major
  • Johann Michael Nicolai (1629-1685) – Sonata a tre viol da gamba: Adagio/Allegro; Giga; Courante; Sarabanda
  • Forqueray (attrib. Jean-Baptiste 1699-1782) – Pièces à trois violes par Monsieur Forcroy: Allemande; Sarabande; Courante
  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – Sonata in G major BWV 1027, arranged for three viols: Adagio; Allegro ma non tanto; Andante; Allegro moderato
  • Marin Marais (1656-1728) – from Deuxiême Suitte a III Violes: Caprice; Sarabande; Rondeau

In the later stages of its development, the viola da gamba enjoyed a wealth of repertoire for solo performance, in contrast to its earlier predominance as a consort and continuo instrument. A number of pieces for bass viol trio, or two bass viols and continuo, were also written in this period, a selection of which we present in this evening’s programme. The range and sonority of the bass viol, especially with the added seventh string, make this combination especially effective, and the music is a joy for player and listener alike!

The Moravian-born composer and virtuoso violist Gottfried Finger spent several years in England in the late 17th century, working in the court of James II and subsequently in the theatres and concert halls of London. In 1701, however, having come fourth in a competition to set William Congreve’s masque ‘The Judgment of Paris’, he left England, apparently in disgust, as he ‘thought he was to compose musick for men, and not for boys’, as Finger’s contemporary Roger North related! The Pastoralle for three bass viols is a piece associated with the Christmas story, and quotes known tunes of the day – if you listen with imagination, you may hear the rocking of the crib or the shepherds hurrying to Bethlehem…
Johann Michael Nicolai was a German composer of instrumental and sacred vocal works, as well as an instrumentalist in the courts of Stuttgart and the Duke of Saxe-Lauenberg. It is known that he was a violone player, and viols often featured in his instrumental works. Tonight’s sonata in D major opens with a movement of contrasting tempi and moods which is followed by three dance movements – contrast their style with those of the later French composers to follow.

Both Antoine Forqueray and his son Jean-Baptiste were formidable viol players and composers, and held high positions in the French Royal Court, in addition to teaching many of the nobility. The relationship between father and son was not one of mutual appreciation and support, however: Antoine’s jealousy of his son led him to make false claims resulting in Jean-Baptiste being imprisoned and later briefly exiled from France. The ‘Pièces à trois violes’ have at various points been attributed to both Antoine and Jean-Baptiste; whichever was the author, the three dance movements are sumptuous examples of French viol music at its peak.

J S Bach wrote three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, most likely in the early 1740s. The first of these, BWV 1027, is not in fact an original composition but a transcription of an earlier work for two transverse flutes and continuo, BWV 1039. In his re-writing, Bach gave the second flute part to the viola da gamba and transferred the first part to the right hand of the harpsichord; in Bach’s spirit of musical recycling, then, we have given each hand of the harpsichord to a viol, and hope that the composer would approve!

The son of a Parisian shoemaker, Marin Marais rose to become one of France’s most celebrated viol players. He held positions at the French royal court simultaneously with Antoine Forqueray, though the two were vastly different musicians, Marais being said to play like an angel and Forqueray like the devil by their contemporary Hubert le Blanc. A composition student of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marais wrote a handful of works for the operatic stage and a number of chamber compositions, but by far his greatest output was for his own instrument, for which he published around 600 pieces beautifully engraved in five volumes, with precise playing directions and detailed ornamentation. At the end of Book IV, published in 1717, are two suites for three viols, something which Marais claimed in his introduction ‘had not been done before in France’; we have chosen three movements from the second suite with which to crown this evening’s performance.


Chelys Consort of Viols has gained a reputation for the quality of their ensemble playing and their faithful yet fresh interpretations of the viol consort repertoire. The members of Chelys are leading exponents of the viol, particularly as a consort instrument, and play on viols strung entirely in gut, as would have been the case historically, which lends a particularly distinctive sound to the group. They frequently collaborate with other period instrumentalists and singers, and have also had music written for them by award-winning composer Jill Jarman.

The group takes its name from an ancient Greek word which referred to a bowed lyre, said to have been invented by the god Hermes, and used by renowned English violist Christopher Simpson on the title page of his treatise ‘The Division Viol’ in 1665. It is perhaps particularly apt then that the group’s debut CD, released by BIS in 2015, featured the world premiere recording of Simpson’s Airs for two trebles and two basses. The disc received considerable critical acclaim, including a four-star review in the Guardian and an article in Early Music Review which praised the playing for its ‘passion, precision and brilliance’.
Chelys enjoy performing in the UK and internationally, recent highlights being a performance of Simpson’s Airs in The Netherlands, a London concert of Dowland and his contemporaries with Emma Kirkby and Jamie Akers, and programmes to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare, including a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 from Stratford-upon-Avon.

The members of Chelys are also active in the wider Early Music world, playing with ensembles such as the Rose Consort of Viols, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Fretwork. They are keen teachers and share their passion for viols on courses around the UK and abroad, including at the Benslow Trust, NORVIS, Dartington and the Irish Recorder and Viol Summer School, in addition to coaching school, university and music college viol consorts.

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