The music of Anthony Holborne is quite popular among ensembles who specialize in music of the renaissance. That is understandable: his instrumental collection which was printed in 1599 under the title of Pavans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs includes 65 pieces of high quality and very different character. Some have a more or less ‘popular’ feel, such as The Night Watch or The Honey-Suckle, whereas others reflect the melancholy so typical of the Elizabethan era. The Image of Melancholly explicitly refers to this state of mind, but pieces like Last Will and Testament, Infernum and Pavana Ploravit are not that different.The latter is especially interesting as it begins with the same motif as Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavans. This can be interpreted as the latter’s tribute to his colleague, to whom he also dedicated the first song of his second book of 1600, I saw my Lady weepe. Dowland’s pavan Sir Henry Umpton’s Funeral is entirely based on Holborne’s The Funeralls. We know fairly little about the composer’s life, but there is amply evidence of the high esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries. Some of his music also disseminated to the continent; a collection of pavans and galliards, printed in Hamburg in 1607, includes several of his compositions.
Pavan and galliard were the most popular dances in the English renaissance and usually conceived as a pair. That is also the case in Holborne’s collection: 53 of the 65 are pavan and galliard pairs, although they are not always indicated as such. Many pieces have titles whose meaning cannot always be decoded. Some titles have literary connotations which can be explained by the composer’s contacts in literary circles. It is plausible to assume that many of those titles which are still enigmatic to modern interpreters also have some connection to the world of literature.
A specific aspect of this collection is the indication of the scoring. Holborne mentions “Viols, Violins, or other Musical Winde Instruments”. It seems likely that he preferred viols: the viol consort was the most common kind of instrumental ensemble of the English renaissance. The violin was known in England, but not as a solo instrument – as such it became fashionable from the mid-17th century onwards. It was at the court of Henry VIII that the violin band – a consort of violins of different ranges – made its appearance in England. Not surprisingly the first players were of Italian birth. The violin didn’t go down that well as terms like scolding fiddles and scurvy fiddlers suggest. Violins were only used in dance music, especially fast dances such as the galliard. In this recording violins are not used, nor are wind instruments. Holborne’s mention of the latter could probably refer to cornetts and sackbuts, the kind of instrument played by city waites. A particularly notable aspect of the scoring is the inclusion of two plucked instruments with metal strings: the bandora and the cittern. Holborne was known as a skilled player of both instruments and had published his treatise The Cittarn Schoole in 1597. The use of these instruments is not prescribed by Holborne, but their popularity seems to justify their participation. The same goes for keyboard instruments, here the virginal and an ottavino, a small spinet playing one octave higher than written.
The fact that almost all the pieces in this collection are dances doesn’t mean that they were meant for dancing. The rather complicated polyphony of in particular the pavans makes it more likely that they were written for the entertainment of performers and audiences. In his liner-notes Jérôme Lejeune rightly adds that “those who perform these works must of course always bear the characters and tempi of the dances concerned in mind”.