John Wilson

[Note: This page is essentially unchanged since the earlier version of the site and I have not worked on these pieces since about 2010. I hope in due course to return to them.]

John Wilson (1595-1674) English composer, lutenist and singer. He may have been a singer for Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe Theatre and is known as a composer of Cavalier songs, many of which were published by John Playford.  He would have known the lutenist and composer Robert Johnson through Shakespeare’s company and Wilson's musical style was probably influenced by Johnson. In 1635 he joined the King's Musick and followed the exiled court of Charles I to Oxford during the Civil War. He was made an Oxford Doctor of Music in 1644. He was described at this time as “the best at the lute in all England” and as "the most curious judge of music that there ever was" From 1646, following the surrender of the garrison in Oxford, to 1656 he was in the service of Sir William Sarsden in the parish of Churchill, Oxfordshire.  He was then invited to fill the Heather Professorship of Music which had been vacant for some years. He undertook the work of rebuilding the Music School, which had been used as a "magazine for cloth for soldiers apparel and coats" during the Civil War and was in a poor state of repair. In 1661 he resigned the professorship and was reappointed to the King’s Musick (following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660). He succeeded Henry Lawes as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal on the latter’s death in 1662. See Spink (accessed 11/01/04).

THE THIRTY PRELUDES  (Guitar arrangements and Lute tablature versions)

Fingered Versions

Prelude 01 [Scorch] [pdf]  ||| Prelude 02 [Scorch] [pdf]

Unfingered Versions

Prelude 01 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 02 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 03 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 04 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 05 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 06 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 07 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 08 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 09 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 10 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 11 [Scorch] [pdf] ||| Prelude 12 [Scorch] [pdf]

Lute Tablature Versions

Prelude 01 [pdf] Prelude 02  [pdf] Prelude 03 [pdf]

After the arrival of Jacques Gaultier in England in 1617 the new French style of lute music characterised by the use of altered tunings, unmeasured preludes, dance forms associated with the Baroque suite and the style brisé gained popularity in England. The English 'Golden Age' tradition of lute playing quickly declined. However there was a limited survival of an English tradition of lute composition traceable from John Dowland and Daniel Bacheler through Robert Johnson and Cuthbert Hely to John Wilson. A Fantasia and Pavans by Robert Johnson found in the Lord Herbert of Cherbury Manuscript have points in common with Wilson’s lute pieces. Wilson's only surviving compositions for solo lute are thirty preludes, intended to constitute a set, covering every major and minor key (with some repetition). They appear in a somewhat random order and though Matthew Spring, who transcribed these pieces into grand staff notation, suggests that "the pieces get progressively more complex, chromatic, and difficult, moving from the easy and familiar keys on the lute to the unknown" this is not always apparent. (For example, Prelude 5, which I have arranged in B minor is certainly more chromatic in form than Prelude 12, arranged in E major.) The pieces show a preference for the middle and lower registers of the lute and a sparse use of the top string. The exceptional nature of Wilson's style is displayed not in any melodic inventiveness, but in his unusual harmonic imagination - a strange chromaticism that reflects the character of a man noted for his individuality. 

Transcription and Arrangement. These pieces appear in a manuscript found in the Bodleian library in Oxford (Mus B1). According to Spring they appear to be written for a twelve-course English lute tuned A', B', C, D, E, F, G, c, f, a, d', g', with retunings of the diapasons to suit the key, though it has been suggested they were intended for the English Theorbo tuned A', B', C, D, E, F, G, c, f, a, d', g (ie a re-entrant tuning) in the light of the marked avoidance of the first string apparent in the manuscript. (This may be a distinction without a difference in the light of a comment made by Thomas Mace another lutenist contemporary with Wilson in his wide-ranging volume 'Musick's Monument' that to the effect that the English theorbo is just "our old English lute" but too big to tune the first course at lute pitch. This reflects the fact that lute design was to an extent determined by the nature of the strings available to players.)

I believe these preludes are rarely played on the lute, let alone on the guitar, though there are recent recordings of a few of them by Nigel North (on the CD 'The Rags of Time' from Harmonia Mundi [HMU 907257] and by Paul Odette on the CD 'The Power of Love' from Noyse Productions [NPEHPOD01]. Odette refers to the pieces as Fantasies rather than Preludes.) There is a tantalising reference to Wilson in the late Frederick Noad’s “Classical Guitar Treasury” (Chester Music 1998) in the introductory text to his arrangement of John Blow’s “The Self-Banished Lover” Noad writes: “Blow was sometimes bold in his harmonies, and this song exhibits some surprising chord changes reminiscent of the lutenist John Wilson.” This suggest that Noad was familiar with these pieces and perhaps interested in them. It is impossible to transcribe for the guitar pieces written for a twelve course instrument without losing some of the character of the bass line. However the very limited use of the first string of the lute permits arrangement of the pieces as if the first string of the guitar were the second string of the lute. This gives arrangements a fourth higher than if played on the guitar directly from the lute tablature or a tone higher than the keyboard transcriptions. It is also possible to choose individual preludes and pitch them in entirely different keys (further up the fretboard) allowing preservation of more of the bass figuration. I am working my way (very gradually, it has to be said) through this collection arranging the preludes for guitar. The arrangements so far stick to the pattern of a tone above the keyboard transcription, thus preserving the key relationships between the pieces. However I may also publish some arrangements in different keys if the results seem to justify it, and I hope to prepare some versions for 10-string guitar as it may be possible to do the pieces more justice on the 10-string.

Notes on the Lute Tablature versions: I have begun to post tablature versions as well as the guitar arrangements because the facsimiles of the original tablature are difficult to read. The tablature is set in Sibelius (and I can provide Sibelius files for anyone who wishers to modify any of these transcriptions). I have preserved Wilson's notation of bass notes on courses 7 - 12 (he uses: a,1,2,3,4,5,6) but the following points of difference from the originals should be noted:

a) For simplicity I have used the flag system or notating rhythm more familiar in earlier manuscripts. So, for clarity the note values have been halved,

b) I have followed Spring's lead in barring the pieces regularly rather than using the double length bars that appear at places in the manuscript (usually at points where the rhythm is irregular). 

c) I have incorporated into the tablature corrections included in Spring's transcription (see table here)

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