Susanna Perwich (c1637-1661)

[click here for more women in the history of the viola da gamba!]

Not just a viol virtuosa, Susanna Perwich (c1637-1661) is described as a multi-instrumentalist (lute and viol, among other unspecified instruments), singer, composer, writer, textile artist, gardener, and theologian. Everything we know of her comes from John Batchiler’s 120-some page The Virgins Pattern in the exemplary life and lamented death of Mrs. Susanna Perwich (1661). Batchiler lays on the praise really thickly, even for the 17th century, so we should be cautious about taking everything he writes about Susanna without a grain of salt or three, but his descriptions of her music making and composing offer fascinating glimpses of mid-17th-century musical activities like live performance on lyra and division viols and the improvisation of divisions on grounds!

Of particular significance is the description of her compositional activities and Batchiler’s exhortation to subsequent generations to maintain Susanna’s name on her works so that they “keep up [her] fame” as a composer, as well as Batchiler’s description of Susanna playing the viol so well that none of her contemporaries (“Lawes, Simpson, Polewheel, Jenkins”) dared pick up the viol and bow after she’d set them down! Below are a few excerpts from Batchiler with transcriptions and light commentary.

Susanna Perwich as composer

Batchiler p.54

A Composer. As lessons she, so dances too,
When old were spent, could make more new.
Masters themselves, found at the closure,
A curious skill in her composure [compositions].
Then to preserve her memory,
Oh let them always practiced be!
And to keep up their author’s fame,
Oh let them also bear her name

This passage is extremely striking for the emphasis it places on authorship in the context of a discussion of the work of a female composer from the seventeenth century. No surviving compositions by Perwich are currently known, but Batchiler leads us to believe that Perwich wrote them down and that they were admired and played (Leonora Duarte is the only women whose consort music survives–her seven “sinfonias” à5 were likely composed in Antwerp in the 1640s). Below is an excerpt from Batchiler that lists several mid-century composers of music for viols who Batchiler says taught, knew, and admired Perwich–a worthy project would be to re-examine various of the sources that transmit their works to see whether any might be ascribed to Perwich! [In case anyone wants to take this on, the place to start is the Thematic Index of Music for Viols.]

Susanna Perwich as viol virtuosa

This elegiac poem poem is spread across pages 50-53 in Batchiler and does not reproduce well, so an excerpted transcription is below. It’s worth a careful read, as it constitutes one of the most detailed discussions of mid-century viol playing and consort culture I know of, including lists of composers who knew and admired Perwich (again, according to Batchiler) and a breathtaking description of an imagined FIDDLE CONTEST in which Susanna plays so stunningly on the viol that none of the famous masters (Lawes, Jenkins, Simpson) dare to play the viol once she’s set it down after her “set”! Also, it’s worth carefully reading Batchiler’s description of Susanna’s division playing (“…her swift, gliding, jumping bow” etc.).

First for her music, who can give
Sufficient praise? or cause it live,
As it deserves in memory?
And that to all posterity?
Ask Rogers, Bing, Coleman, and others,
The most exactly skillful brothers:
Ask Brian, Mell, Ives, Gregories,
Hows, Stefkins, all, in whom there lies
Rare arts of music, they can tell,
How well she sung: how rarely well
She played on several instruments,
What high admired accomplishments,
She had attained to; Angels hands,
On lute or viol scarce commands
A sweeter touch; she never shall,
Be equalled by the nightingale.
Lawes, Simpson, Polewheel, Jenkins, all
‘Mong the best masters musical,
Stand ravished while they hear her play,
And with high admiration say,
What curious strains! what rare divisions!
Are we not ‘mong celestial visions!
This is no human hand! these strokes,
The high immortal spirits provokes
To listen to her! she plays so,
That after her none takes the bow,
To play again; it is too much,
To take the confidence to touch,
The instrument which she laid down,
Or go about to win the crown,
Which she had set on her own head,
With laurels all enameled.
No, no, they must wholly despair,
To give one such delicious air
Of which she millions gave; each touch
To most judicious ears was such,
So sweet, so quick, so dainty, rare,
That nothing could therewith compare.
The deepest grounds where utmost skill,
Of a rich fancy lay, she still
Most finely nicked; her nimble arm,
still made a most delicious charm.
Quick numerous motions she would show,
With her swift, gliding, jumping bow.
Even in a moment she would measure,
Thousands of strokes, with ease and pleasure,
Where others hundreds scarce could reach,
Though such as most professed to teach.
All this, both by her hand and brain,
Without the least toil, labor, pain.