Tobias Hume and his Humors

Biography of Captain Tobias Hume

If ever there was a competition for the most intriguing, eccentric and thoroughly original character in the history of English music, Captain Tobias Hume would have had to have stood a good chance of winning. He was by profession a soldier, serving as a mercenary in the Swedish and Russian armies among others. We know nothing more specific of his life history before 1605, the date of his first music publication, but given that he entered the Charterhouse almshouse in 1629, where the minimum age was 60, that puts his date of birth around 1569. His date of death was 16th April, 1645.

Saraband Music has published a number of his viol solo pieces as SM6 & 6a.

Hume called himself a ‘gentleman’, but it is unlikely that he had private means. We learn much about him from the prefaces to his two published books of music: The First Part of Ayres (1605), and Captaine Humes Poeticall Musicke (1607). In the first, he says “I doe not studie Eloquence, or professe Musicke, although I doe love Sence, and affect Harmony: My Profession being, as my Education hath beene, Armes, the onely effeminate part of me, hath beene Musicke”.

The total absence of contemporary writings about Hume is interesting. Nobody ever mentioned him by name, and the only known reference to him is an oblique reply from John Dowland. In the first years of the 17th century, the lute was more in favour than the viol, and Hume made no bones about his preference for the viol, when he said “And from henceforth, the statefull instrument Gambo Violl, shall with ease yeelde full various and as devicefull Musicke as the Lute”. This statement is repeated in his second book, with the minor alteration at the end of the sentence making it read “as any other instrument”. It was not until Dowland published his song book A Pilgrim’s Solace that a rebuttal was made: “here under their own noses [professors of the lute] hath been published a book in defence of the Viol de Gamba, wherein not only all other the best and principle instrument have been abased, but especially the lute by name.” He goes on to quote Hume’s passage.

The surviving writings of Hume: the two books, plus two petitions (1629, 1642) reveal a person not afraid to mince words, and with a certain arrogant pride. His first petition to Charles I requests permission to go abroad with 120 men to fight in the Swedish army. His second petition, 13 or more years later, reveals a poor and starving individual, forced to grub for roots and berries, but one who had not lost pride, and who exaggerated his rank to Colonel and elevated his connections. He says “ I do humbly intreat to know why your Lordships do slight me, as if I were a fool or an Ass: I tell you truly I have been abused to your Lordships by some base fellows; but if I did know them, I would make them repent it, were they never so great men in your sight; for I can do the King’s Majestie and my Country better service than the best Soldier or Colonel in this Land, or in all Christendom; which now it is a great wonder unto me, that your Lordships do suffer so many unskilful Soldiers to go over for Ireland, to the King’s Majesties service, that are not able to lead a Company, neither do they know what belongs to a Soldier; and yet for all this, your Lordships leav me out, that am able to do the King’s Majesty better service than all the Soldiers that are now to be sent over to Ireland…”

We know of no answer to these petitions, and this probably rankled Hume considerably. It is likely that Hume was never mentioned by other composers and writers because he was seen as a traitor. In his foreign mercenary service, he may have even fought against his own country, though we have no proof of this. But in his music, we have proof of a most colourful career, exceptional compositional skill and originality, and a sense of fun.

The First Part of Ayres (1605) in fact has probably the longest title in music history (103 words), and was dedicated to William, Earle of Pembrooke. Hume was constantly on the lookout for a patron, and in his Poeticall Musicke, pieces are dedicated to Queen Anne, Sir Christopher Hatton, and to the Earl of Arundel.

The term ‘ayre’ was a common one in the 17th century, often applied to a genre of English composition found between 1597 and 1622, during which thirty song books appeared, with some of these reprinted, but it was also to be found later in the century. Ayres were generally melodic, with various methods of performance: a singer or two with lute or bass viol or perhaps both. Other instruments to accompany were the orpharion, bandora, cittern, recorders or virginals, but on most of the title pages, lute and bass viol predominate.

Both of Hume’s books are printed mainly in tablature, an excellent system of notation still used by guitarists, and very popular in the seventeenth century with both gambists and lutenists. Briefly, there are six lines, representing the strings of the instrument. The 7 frets are represented by letters of the alphabet, open strings being ‘a’, first fret ‘b’ and so on. Pitches are not notated, the letters indicating the locations to put one’s fingers. Rhythm was written above. Enormous quantities of good music were written using tablature, and one of its principal benefits was scordatura. There were over fifty different tunings for lyra viol in use in the seventeenth century, though in its early decades, only about a dozen were commonly used. But one does also find staff notation in both books, both in bass clef and baritone clef (bass clef a third lower). The other benefit of using tablature is that notating complex chords becomes quite easy, and much of lyra viol music is chordal in nature.

I should also mention here that the term ‘lyra viol’ applies not necessarily to a different instrument (though some were made with sympathetic strings), but to any viol played “lyra way”, that is, retuned from its normal tuning of d”, a’, e’ c’, G, D and reading from tablature.

The First Part of Ayres consists of 116 pieces, though two pieces are given the number 4, so really 117 are there. Several are songs accompanied by lyra viol, including one called Tobacco, in which he extolls its wonderful virtues [Tobacco is like love …]. There are the common dances of the time (almaines, pavans, galliards), plus many short, easy pieces with funny or obscure names. It is likely that as a mercenary, he was a frequenter of brothels and pubs, so names such as Tickell, tickell, She loves it well, Touch me lightly, Adue sweete love, My Mistresse hath a prettie thing and Love’s passion are no particular surprise, though they are a little more explicit than those of his contemporaries. Other titles are merely intriguing: Twinkeldum twinkeldum, The new Cut, Ha Couragie, I am falling, and the pairing of Death and Life. Still others refer to either his travels or his career: A Souldiers Resolution, A Pollish Ayre, French Jigge. The pieces range from the substantial and virtuosic Captaine Hume’s Galliard to the many short and easy pieces. All bear his unmistakable compositional style.

There are a few duets at the end of the First Part of Ayres, but his second book has many chamber pieces as well as more songs. Like many of his contemporaries, Hume had an eye to sales, and many of his pieces can work as solos, duos or trios. The cover of Poeticall Musicke lists eight different ways his music can be played.

Hume’s originality manifests in a number of different ways. He was only the second composer to issue a book of lyra viol music, having been beaten by Robert Jones with his Second Book of Songs in 1601. But more importantly, he pioneered a number of music effects which became common in string playing only centuries later. For example, pizzicato. In First Part of Ayres is a piece called Harke Harke, in which he writes “play nine letters with your finger”. A little further on is the direction “your finger as before”. At the end of the same piece is a direction “Drum this with the back of your Bow”, the first known mention of col legno.

The next piece in the book, A Souldiers Resolution, is programmatic, with various subtitles, including Counter March, The Cetill drum, Trumpets, pelmel and March away. In some of these sections, repeated bars are indicated by either ‘2’ or ‘ter’ written below the notes. The musical effects are easily as graphic as the 19th century piano music of E.T. Paull and other composers of battle music.

Hume follows this piece with Deth (spelled “Death” on his contents page). This pavan has an interesting refrain with two directions: “Play this pashenat after every strain”, and a little further on “Play this as it stands”. The precise meaning of the first phrase isn’t known; for example in his recording, Jordi Savall chose to speed up and distort the rhythm. Others use some metrical license, while some prefer to use emphasis and articulation to express the “passions” or emotions. Deth is a longish piece, followed by a brief and lively galliard called Life.

Apart from the titles of his pieces, Hume’s sense of humour is expressed in various ways: plays on his name, for example. In early medical science, the four humours were phlegmatic, melancholy, sanguine and choleric, corresponding to the elements. At the top of each page of The First Part of Ayres is printed on the left hand page: “Captaine Humes” and on the right hand page “Musicall Humors”. Several pieces also have the word ‘humor’ incorporated into the title. And at the back of the book is The Princes Almayne, which is marked “A lesson for two to play upon one Viole”. No specific instructions were given for how to achieve this, and for many years, this was thought to be a joke, but various performances have been attempted in recent years, normally with one player seated upon the other’s lap [with consent of course].

There are a number of recordings of the music of Tobias Hume, including a recent Australian recording on the Move label by Miriam Morris with songs performed by Christopher Field. Others to have recorded Hume are Paolo Pandolfo and Emma Kirkby (Glossa) and two CDs from the Canadian bass viol duo of Les Voix Humaines on the Naxos label.

Tobias Hume is but one of many excellent and interesting English composers for viola da gamba of the first half of the 17th century. His music though, is unmistakeably his, just as his personality was obviously as distinctive. I suspect one might not have liked him as a person, but we would certainly be much poorer for not having his music. A true pioneer, but still not fully recognised.

Patrice Connelly

Primary sources:
Tobias Hume: The First Part of Ayres … London: John Windet, 1605. Facsimile ed. Scholar Press, 1977
Tobias Hume: Captaine Humes Poeticall Musicke … London: John Windet, 1607. Facsimile ed. Scholar Press, 1977
Both of these editions now out of print.
Secondary sources:
Patrice Connelly (ed.): Tobias Hume: Captaine Hume’s Musicall Humors. The bass viol music from The First Part of Ayres (1605). Sydney: Saraband Music, 1996. [Modern ed. of 35 pieces]
Collette Harris: “Tobias Hume – a short biography” Chelys, Vol. 3, 1971, p. 16
William V. Sullivan: “Tobias Hume’s First Part of Ayres (1605)” Chapters 3 & 4 of a thesis. JVdGSA, Vols 7 (1970) and 9 (1972).