What is a… Consort?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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Consort is a word which was used for an ensemble of musicians back in the 16th and 17th centuries; a  consort of flutes, for example.

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Utter the word ‘consort’ to people of a certain age and chances are a cold shudder will ripple through the room. Memories of inexpert school recorder groups, precarious intonation rendered even more dentist-drill-like by the addition of a piano, have probably hardened many a music lover’s heart against the whole concept.

A shame, as it ought to be a source of national pride. 

Like the Italian ‘concerto’, the English word ‘consort’ originally signified simply ‘concerted music’. The concerto was the triumphant large-scale instrumental form of the high Baroque era.

It was an extrovert form, in which a leonine soloist or team of soloists could flourish their talents in front of a relatively large audience. The consort might well feature technical display, but there was a parallel tendency towards increasingly intimate expression.

The viol consorts of William Lawes, or the Fantasias and In Nomines of Henry Purcell are remarkable for their concentrated, inward-looking intensity. They were connoisseur’s music, as much as the string quartets of Haydn, and like them were often strikingly democratic in their distribution of interest amongst the parts. 

At first, consorts were associated with spectacular courtly events, like the entertainment for Elizabeth I at Kenilworth Castle in 1575, at which ‘The Fairy Quene and her maides daunced about the garland, singing a song of sixe parts, with the musicke of an exquisite consort, wherein was the Lute, Bandora, Basse-Violl, Citterne, Treble-violl, and Flute.’

The instrumentation soon stabilised: a very similar line-up forms the basis of Thomas Morley’s published collection Consort Lessons of 1599. Such a rich, variegated ensemble matched richness in decor, cuisine, all the usual attributes of a great house.

Having a group of six top-quality instrumentalists became the fashion in Elizabethan, and later Jacobean England. 

The other possibility was the more private kind of consort, typically composed of similar instruments. Textbooks usually identify the latter type as ‘whole consort’, the former as ‘broken consort’.

But recently scholarly dissent has broken out: ‘whole consort’, we are told, refers to a continuous, integrated piece, while a ‘broken consort’ was broken into variations or ‘divisions’. Whatever, there’s still the mystery of why – unlike the concerto – such a lively tradition should die out and leave nothing in its place. What happened?

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This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine