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Some 35 years ago, when I was cutting my musicological teeth, it was customary to read that the violin made little headway in English music until after the Restoration. Basing their comments on the accounts of Anthony Wood, Roger North, Thomas Mace and others, writers held the view that the instrument belonged to the 'common fiddler' and was not worthy of a gentleman's attention. Only Gerald Hayes, in The Viols and Other Bowed Instruments (London, Vol. 2 of his projected work Musical Instruments and their Music, 1500-- 1750), had sounded a note of caution (p. 191): 'Such is the conventional and accepted picture of the violin in England before the days of Purcell, but there are strong reasons for supposing that it is very largely false and that the violin was seriously cultivated in England much earlier than we have been accustomed to think ... The evidence consists entirely of music by composers belonging to the first half of the seventeenth century, and it is extremely probable that only a small proportion of such work has yet come to light.' For further details Hayes asked his readers to await his Vol. 1, Tudor Instrumental Music and its Developments: a Survey of Instrumental Music in England from 1500 to 1650. One would like to know why this fell by the wayside, for it is likely to have covered some of the ground which has occupied scholars in recent years. In one sense the conventional view had been correct, since, as Peter Holman shows in this impressive and exhaustively researched book, violin playing was the prerogative of professional musicians rather than of 'gentlemen'.
Four and Twenty Fiddlers has been in the making for more than twenty years--Holman traces its origin to a challenge thrown down by Thurston Dart in 1969--and no stone has been left unturned in pursuing its objectives. He writes of the need 'for focused studies of particular times and places, relating archival material to the surviving musical repertoire'. The violin and its use in one particular establishment over a period of 150 years fits such a definition, but what astonishes is the diversity of the subject within this limiting framework. It is a long and fascinating journey from the 'Fiddles, Rebecs, and Viols at the Early Tudor Court' (Chap. 3) to '"A Mighty Musique Entertainment at Court": Reform and Retrenchment 1685--1690' (Chap. 17). Inevitably, of course, in setting the court violin band in context, it is sometimes necessary to burst the bounds of time and place.
This is not a book to avoid thorny issues, and Holman boldly plunges straight into a discussion on 'the origin of the violin'. This is a masterly survey of the available evidence, ambiguous and fragmentary though this is at times. Moving on from Ian …