Fretwork on early marginalised composers and contemporary viol music.

We spoke to Richard Boothby co-founder of leading viol consort Fretwork about their latest albums, and their initiative The Albion Project.

For 35 years Fretwork has been the world leading viol consort, covering the core of the Renaissance viol repertoire, as well as wonderful arrangements of J.S. Bach. Fretwork have recorded albums with leading singers, notably Emma Kirkby, Stile Antico, Grace Davidson, and Iestyn Davies. Fretwork has specialised in the core repertoire of the Renaissance, particularly Elizabethan and Jacobean England, such as the music of Byrd and Dowland. 

Whilst consort music has primarily stemmed from Renaissance England, Fretwork have become pioneers for contemporary music for viols, commissioning entirely new repertoire from leading contemporary composers such as Michael Nyman, Sally Beamish, and Thea Musgrave.

Richard Boothby

You have released two albums this year of Matthew Locke’s music. Are there any characteristics of Locke’s music which particularly stand out to you compared to other consort music composed earlier in the Golden Age?

Yes, Locke is a really individual voice. If you read about him and some of the things he has written, you get an impression of a really difficult man who could be acerbic, who picked a fight whenever he could, and who didn’t didn’t suffer fools gladly. Yet the music itself is very complete, a rounded version of a person. His themes are rather angular and surprising in many ways. His construction of his fantasies in particular is very idiosyncratic. He will take a musical, a fugal argument, and sort of work it out. Then he’ll just stop, and you’ll have a little bit of a slow movement and then something else. 

“It’s a very distinctive style…Particularly harmonically he was quite daring, quite spicy and acerbic.”

There are a lot of sudden and quirky changes which are absolutely wonderful, and very characteristic. He somehow manages to bind all these very disparate elements together into a kind of cogent argument. It’s a very distinctive style. You would recognise his musical voice immediately. He’s got one of those very particular ways of expressing it. Particularly harmonically he was quite daring, quite spicy and acerbic.

The other thing that’s very noticeable about Locke for us, and one of the reasons why we took 40 years to play this music, is that these two sets that we play, The Little Consort and The Flat Consort, are both in three-parts. Most English consort music prior to that is in four to six parts. For Fretwork, generally, we’re a five-part ensemble; so we just didn’t look at the three-part pieces. The two volumes require a continuo instrument: an organ, a theorbo or a harpsichord. That was another reason for not doing them, perhaps: due to lockdown, one of the group actually got stuck in Colombia and couldn’t get back, so we were reduced to four players. And so Locke seemed like a good option then. 


You have also released two more albums this year, Byrd: Pslames, Songs and Sonnets with The Sixteen, and Thomas Lupo Fantasia. I particularly enjoyed the Lupo, what do you find most unique about Lupo’s viol consort music compared to others of his time? 

Lupo is a fantastic composer. We’ve played Lupo quite a lot over our career, but haven’t devoted a single album to him. So this was one of the reasons why we did this. And Lupo is very much in the centre of the viol consort tradition. His music is very expressive, very Italianate in feel. He came from a family of Italian composers, Jewish Italian composers probably expelled from Spain or Portugal in 1492. They moved to Italy and then came to England in 1540. So Thomas Lupo was the grandson of the people who came in 1540. 

“It’s a very expressive style, very Italian, rather madrigalian in many ways”

He was absolutely central to the musical establishments for Queen Elizabeth, and then for Prince Charles, who became king Charles I. It’s a very expressive style, very Italian, rather madrigalian in many ways, you know, you can feel the words behind the musical, the gestures and the shapes that he writes. Very high quality music, very well constructed, and extremely varied. 

On the album, we play a lot of his six and five-part consort music, and then a lot of the three-part. And he really unusually had every possible variety of three viols: there were three bases, three trebles, two trebles and a tenor, one tenor and two bases. He really looked for very different textures within his consorts. All of them are fantasias. And that gives him free range to express himself without being constrained in any way by other forms. He could do exactly what he wanted.

Johannes Vermeer: A Lady Seated at a Virginal, part of the Duarte’s art collection.

Most consort music of the 16th and 17th Century was written by men. Your concert Paradise Lost featuring the actor Simon Callow focused on the music of Leonara Duarte, the only female composer to have composed consort music in the 17th Century. Can you tell us more about your experience playing Duarte’s music both in this concert and on Birds on Fire: Jewish Music for Viols, and how this project with Simon Callow came about?

This was another lockdown project, funded by the Continuo Foundation. Due to lockdown, we were thinking of something that we could film or stream and record. It always fascinated me that Leonora was the only female composer of consort music – of music that we have. There was one other female viol player in the 17th century who was noted as a viol player, as a woman, but she hasn’t left us any music. Certainly there were plenty of women playing the viol, we see quite a lot of portraits of females playing the viol, but not composers.

Leonora was really exceptional in many ways. She came from this very cultured Jewish family living in Antwerp. They were art dealers and art collectors as well, funded by their trade in diamonds. They were a very wealthy family, who became art lovers and dealers. They founded a kind of salon in Antwerp where they would discuss art and music. This is where we imagine Leonora played her consorts to the literati of the area.

“I thought that was a very interesting area to think about, of these excluded people – not just women, but Jews and marginalised people in the artistic world of the time.”

She was remarkable, and we sought to expand the view of Antwerp and this Jewish family, because there were quite a lot of Jewish families in Antwerp. The Duartes weren’t allowed to be openly Jewish. They had converted to Catholicism, and to all intents and purposes their outward expression of religion was entirely Catholic, but they were definitely of Jewish descent, and they were known as Jews – other people referred to them as such. They had relatives who lived in Amsterdam where Judaism was allowed, so there’s this very interesting parallel with the other members of their family who were openly Jewish in Amsterdam. 

Then we move on to Spinoza, who was a member of another Jewish family in Amsterdam. He was openly Jewish, and then, because of his free thinking, was expelled from the Jewish community. And in fact, he is still expelled from the Jewish community. It’s fascinating. I thought that was a very interesting area to think about, of these excluded people – not just women, but Jews and marginalised people in the artistic world of the time. And yet we have this little window into it, these seven sinfonias by Leonora.

Paradise Lost with Fretwork and Simon Callow

Your arrangements of Bach have been very well received, do you feel that these arrangements for viol highlight Bach’s music in a unique way? 

I hope so! I suppose the advantage of having an ensemble play these pieces which are mostly keyboard works, is that particularly with the contrapuntal pieces, you can characterise and highlight individual lines more easily than you can on a harpsichord, organ, or piano. It gives you a possibility of shaping the lines dynamically. It gives you more flexibility, but of course we’re very aware that we are five or six people playing something that just one person normally does. So it makes you feel quite humble.

Fretwork and Iestyn Davies at Carnegie Hall

As well as your extensive work covering the core of English viol consort music, you are doing interesting work with contemporary composers. Please can you tell us about your collaboration with Michael Nyman and how the album ‘If’ came about, combining the music of Nyman and Purcell? 

We first started doing contemporary music back in 1990, in the very early years of the group, and the first piece written for us was by George Benjamin. And then a year or so after that, we had a concert with the Spitalfields Festival and they commissioned a new work by Michael Nyman for us, Self Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and Her Omnipotence, which we did with the countertenor James Bowman.

When we started working with Iestyn Davies this was an obvious piece to look at. Then I discovered that Michael had written No Time in Eternity for Ensemble Céladon and countertenor Paulin Bündgen. I thought it was really wonderful. We had that piece, and we then had two big pieces for consort and countertenor, so we thought we could build an album out of that. 

Michael Nyman is very much associated with the music of Purcell because of his music for The Draughtsman’s Contract, so it seemed obvious to add some Purcell to the album, and Iestyn is such a wonderful singer of Purcell as well. We also commissioned a piece, Music After a While, from Michael, and I did an arrangement for consort of his piece Balancing the Books, originally written for The Swingle Singers.

How does it compare performing contemporary music with Renaissance repertoire?

It is a different process. Of course, it depends on the piece entirely. Michael’s music tends to be more straightforward to perform in some respects because it’s quite rhythmically structured. There’s a similarity there between that and the Renaissance fantasies that we were used to playing. Some music, George Benjamin’s piece for example, is extremely hard to play. It’s very rhythmically fluid, and that would take a lot more preparation. 

“On the whole, you could say that the individual parts of contemporary music are more technically challenging than Renaissance fantasies.”

On the whole, you could say that the individual parts of contemporary music are more technically challenging than Renaissance fantasies. On the whole, the work for the Renaissance fantasy is a work for the ensemble, getting us all to play together in a similar way. Whereas with contemporary music, there tends to be a lot of individual practice that needs to be done there.


Please can you tell me about The Albion Project, and what you hope to achieve with it? It seems like a great way to introduce new listeners to viol music.

Yes indeed, that is exactly what it’s intended to achieve. It arose because we’ve had two big projects with Orlando Gough. After the last one The World Encompassed, Orlando said to me, “So what’s next?” And I thought about how most people today expect music to be manipulated electronically in some way using a computer or a turntable, microphones, amplification. All that electronic gear is part of the musical landscape, and it’s something that we’ve never engaged with at all. So, I thought we wanted to do something where we used some of the possibilities that that offers. Orlando immediately thought we needed to have somebody who has a lot of experience with this. And Gabriel Prokofiev was the obvious person because he works with electronic and computer music all the time. 

“We realised we were getting the possibility of breaking down barriers”

So myself, Gough and Prokofiev devised this project. It came about just after the Brexit vote, and a lot of the questions we had were about British or English identity. What is this identity and how can it be expressed in music? We invited a series of composers to choose some iconic piece of music that says something to them about Britishness or Englishness, and arrange it for Viol consort. We’ve got Ronnie Binge’s Sailing By which is used before the late Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4, several pop pop songs from Annie Lennox to Radiohead, and Orlando did a version of Napalm Death’s When All Is Said And Done

We realised we were getting the possibility of breaking down barriers, producing music that people will recognise and have had experience of in another context. In fact, the whole piece ended with Sally Beamish’s arrangement of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, which we did way before it became the hit that it has become. So it looks like we’re jumping on that bandwagon, but we were way ahead of it.

Is there a generation of new viol players coming up, do you feel it is a challenge for young people to get into playing the viol?

Yes, there are a number of young players coming up. Nevertheless, it is still quite a challenge because music education is a big problem. I think that it favours people from particular backgrounds, wealthy backgrounds from particular schools, it favours white people. I wouldn’t say it favours men, there’s probably as many women as there are men playing the viol. I think it’s because of the financial pressures on it, just being able to buy a viol is challenging. They can never be as cheap as violins or cellos, or guitars. So that’s a problem that has to be overcome. However, it’s very encouraging that there are quite a number of young players coming through.

Are there any projects Fretwork are working on which you want to discuss?

We have done an album with The King Singers. Next year, 2023, will be the 400th anniversaries of both Thomas Weelkes and William Byrd. Together with The Kings Singers we commissioned James MacMillan and Roderick Williams to write Elegies. So MacMillan wrote an elegy on the death of Byrd, and Roderick Williams wrote an elegy on the death of Weelkes. So we’ve put that all together with the original music by Byrd and Weelkes into an album called Tom + Will, which will be coming out in January. We have a concert at Wigmore Hall with them at the end of January marking the release of the album, and then we’ll be performing it around the country. So we’ve got a busy year!

There is one other project for next year, which we are involved in with the Gesualdo Six, and it’s a project called Secret Byrd. It’s a semi-theatrical project to recreate the feeling of the danger that recusant Catholics had in Elizabethan England when celebrating mass in private when they might be found out by the authorities and prosecuted. So it’s a performance that involves viol music and the masses of Byrd. Then in the middle there’s a dramatic knocking on the door, as if they were to be arrested. We’re going to do that in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields at the end of January as well, and then around the country. We’re looking forward to that very much.


Our playlist in this spotlight explores Fretwork’s career, and the music mentioned here.

Fretwork’s music can also be found in our playlists Chest of Viols and Weekend Classics.

Fretwork’s albums can be purchased from Signum Records

Music mentioned in Spotlight


Music mentioned in Spotlight

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