In yet another spectacular feat of opting for obscurity with substance over pandering to popularity, we have chosen to concentrate on music from the 16th century. Generally speaking, the music and song texts of the 16th century that appeal to us exhibit a superior quality of construction, a masterful sense of scope and proportion, a breathtaking depth of emotion, a delicate intricacy of interplay.
So, why is music of the 16th century less performed by today’s more audible and visible exponents of early music?
The simple answer has to do with economics. Modern audiences are more apt to respond favorably to larger-scale works with more extrovert music that projects outwardly, easily entertaining the ears and selling seats in larger venues. Music of the 16th century is typically more intimate and personal, and demands more focus on the part of performer and audience. The more complex answer has to do with the choices of early music specialists and performers who teach at our more prominent schools and conservatories. Teaching up-and-coming performers to specialize in an obscure repertory is probably not going to generate the sort of necessary marketplace visibility that translates into a successful career for singer or for teacher.
There is also a slight element of the elephant in the room—Ego. Early music performers typically choose to specialize in repertory that showcases their look or their more demonstrable vocal or instrumental chops, rather than developing the deeply demanding skills required to concentrate on music that must masterfully and quietly draw the listener into a more intricate sound world. The earlier repertory of medieval music allows performers to invent a style and sound, and perform with an overt presentation of perspective-less tableaux. The more extrovert music of the 17th century simply sells more seats—and feeds the performer’s diva deficit as well.
“All coloratura, they got, ‘ow you say ? — da gimmies. Always take, never give.”
- James M. Cain (1892 – 1977) from the novel, Mildred Pierce
However, we would like to point out that, for those performers who have a burning need to draw attention to themselves, there is a surviving repertory of more florid solo song from the 16th century. The music from the Cosimo Bottegari manuscript contains several pieces with written-out ornamentation—particularly the music of Hippolito Tromboncino (fl. 1545 – 1550), the complete works edited and published by Mignarda Editions.
Our more enterprising readers can navigate to the bottom of the Mignarda Editions page and download a sample pdf of a complete song by Hippolito Tromboncino. We have recorded two songs by Hippolito; Perche’ son tutto foco and Donna se’l cor di ghiaccio. Both may be heard on our recording, Sfumato: Musica per voce e liuto del Rinascimento Italiano.
We never fail to remind our readers that the primary justification for studying history is to recognize patterns, trends and artifacts of human behavior and 1) avoid those that produce identifiable harmful results, and 2) preserve those that lead towards a better, more enlightened human species. For example, feudalism and establishment of unfettered dynastic rule invariably leads to the accumulation of wealth by the elite few, resulting in serious problems in quality of life for the more ethical many. But preservation of and open access to important cultural artifacts of the past offers an inspiring example of human achievement.
As we prepare to perform our program of music from the era of the Tudors, we think about the arc of historic events and how they might compare to modern equivalents, like the Bush dynasty.
“In a largely illiterate age, visual culture was loaded with political symbolism.”
- Thomas Penn, The Guardian, Friday 2 March 2012
The Tudor dynasty was established by Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, a ruthless and greedy manipulator who stopped at nothing to gain the throne and amass wealth, basically through the time honored method of threat and extraction. After building a royal treasury, Henry VII then set about laundering his reputation through the time honored method of rewriting history.
But examining events of the time also reveals that a certain amount of good music survives from Henry VII’s era and his court. We enjoy programming concerts that juxtapose the many and amply available horrors of life at that time with the intricacy and beauty of the music. English composers of the second half of the 15th century were recognized for the high quality of their music: John Bedyingham, Walter Frye, Robert Morton may have been clinging to the coattails of John Dunstaple’s fame, but were very gifted composers in their own right.
We formed our series of concerts focused on music of the Tudors in reaction to the choices of music we heard in the soundtrack to Showtime television series, The Tudors. The music, like nearly everything originating in Hollywood, is abysmally wrong. Music directors successfully surviving in Hollywood are famed for their notoriously inappropriate musical choices when it comes to historical drama.
We tend to believe that informed choices based on sound research are more effective in terms of depicting the tenor of the times, and we present a guided tour of the Tudor dynasty, tracing the ever-evolving musical and poetical styles that defined the height of culture during the 118-year reign.
Living off-the-grid tends to reinforce many of the reasons to inhabit the sound world of the past. The notion of a complete state of silence is absolutely foreign to 21st-century musicians and even to those who listen attentively to music. But experiencing historical music with understanding requires embracing and using silence.
Silence, or the absence of sound, is nearly impossible to experience today, unless achieved either through unfortunate or artificial means. A necessary component of contemplation or meditative practice, silence is thwarted through the constant hum of modern electronic noises, however packaged. Of course, noise of some sort is always present unless we intentionally distance ourselves. Even in the woods, the nightly screaming of the crickets, the thunderous pounding of chipmunks as they crack open acorns at a distance of 200 meters, the deafening roar of the freshening breeze across the treetops; there is no end to the type and manner of intrusive sounds.
When attempting explore the sound-world of the past, we have to acknowledge that there has probably never been a period of time in human existence when the world was free of noisy distractions. But in what might be called the better sort of poetry and music, silence must be managed as a component of literary thought and musical effect.
“Silence beyond all speech a wisdome rare…”
- John Dowland, “I saw my Lady weepe,” Second Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1600
Even though we read about the street noise in 18th-century London, that sound-world has no bearing whatsoever on the experience of the cultured and expressive music associated with the lute:
“This instrument requireth silence and a serious attention.It is used commonly at the going to bed of the Kings of France, and that time is the time of most rest and silence.”
- “Miss Mary Burwell’s Instruction Book for the Lute:” Thurston Dart, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 11 (May, 1958), pp. 3-62.
With the exception of theatrical indulgences (however necessary) by modern “ren-fayre” types, the lute is simply not an instrument to be played out-of-doors and before throngs of listeners. Throughout history, the quiet lute has always been an instrument that focuses attention on the finer details of sound, and therefore the intricate details of music, inspiring composers who know how to manage the subtleties of sound and silence.
Even in later times, the deeper thinking sort of person has always understood the value of silence.
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
– Aldous Huxley, Music at Night and other Essays. London / Garden City, NY: Chatto & Windus / Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1931.
But is it an entirely futile exercise to attempt to recreate the aesthetic of the the past? Is it worthwhile to deliberately disassociate ourselves from the more harmful elements of life in present times? Can we even attempt to understand the minds and motivations of our ancestors?
“You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like — the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its essence the whole effect is as nought. . . You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman, — or rather fifty — whose own thinking was intensely-otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force — & even then it’s all humbug.”
- Henry James (1843 – 1916), from a letter to Sarah Orne Jewett, 1901
As for our ongoing endeavor to probe and understand those unrecoverable bits of human understanding and interactions from the past — whether the meaning in the music, or even simple daily perceptions of life — we have to ask, quorsum haec? To what end?
I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.
- KJB, 1Cor 14:15.
Yes, we think it’s worth the trouble. The understanding must be attained, the spirit informed through contemplation. Silence must be sought.
This weekly series of quotes, now in its fourth year, often features and contexualizes bits from historical literature and music that emphasize the human need to maintain a link to creative arts. This is what defines our humanity. Today’s quote follows this theme, and our subtitle could very well read, “Why we bother.”
Our quote is drawn from an excellent article that touches upon the use and dissemination of music for lute and vihuela as a thriving emblem of humanism in the 16th century. Humanism, derived from the Latin and the concept of humanitas, is frequently equated with secularism, a mistake when placed in its 16th-century context. We prefer to think of humanism in its historical context as humanitarian benevolence, an apt amplification of most religious ideals.
The article is by Professor Jack Sage, specialist in music, poetry and drama of renaissance Spain. Sage’s work includes the English translation of an important 20th-century Spanish text by Surrealist, Juan Eduardo Cirlot Laporta (1916 – 1973), Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Jack Sage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1983. But we are most concerned with his work on the dedicatory texts of lute and vihuela books of the 16th century, including this extract from the print by Diego Pisador (c.1509 – 1557), Libro de música de Vihuela, Salamanca, 1552:
“…by printing his books, the composer fulfills his duty towards society setting out to profit all those desirous of learning music, without which man is seen to lack maturity and wit.”
Sage added this bit of context:
“Indeed, this may be construed as a statement, representative of the vihuelists and lutenists generally, of commitment to a belief in the artist’s duty to foster self-improvement in the individual for the common weal, a statement which seems to me to be at the heart of their ‘humanism’.”
- Jack Sage, “A new look at humanism in 16th-century lute and vihuela books,” Early Music, Volume XX, Number 4, November 1992, p. 636.
This is probably the best and most appropriate description of why we as Mignarda bother to preserve, perform and publish old music. Mignarda Editions is a series of publications of music that’s good for you, for the beguiling performance medium of of voice and lute and/or vihuela – or even guitar. The editions present unique and rare music that is selected, edited and arranged for maximum ease of performance. We make a pittance on these editions, but it does help us survive and keep up our exercise in humanitarian benevolence. And we like to think that’s good for everyone.
We tend to take every opportunity to remind our readers that to ignore history is to invite avoidable encounters with disaster, misery and peril. Repeating unfortunate aspects of our historical past, such as enabling society’s trend towards feudalism, is the natural result of a complacent populace. But dismissing important cultural links to the past such as the importance of music and its essential function is a soul-deadening exercise in ignorance.
Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries music played a major role in the religious and social life of the Burgundian–Netherlands courts. Sacred music was closely bound to the daily activities of the court chapel—Mass, hours (especially vespers), and special rituals, such as memorial services, solemnization of treaties, marriages, and so on. The chapel music was in the hands of the clergy and trained singers, two groups that are not easily distinguished. Members of the court chapel combined the tasks of priest, singer, composer, choirmaster, organist, music teacher, and scribe in the course of their duties.
- Martin Picker, The Chanson Albums of Marguerite of Austria, University of California Press, Cambridge, 1965, p.21.
Music is still here, there and everywhere if we step outside ourselves for a moment and take notice. Of course radio, TV and movies serve up a constant supply of sounds that some call music. We are also inundated with canned soundtracks in public spaces whether over an invisible PA system or via appalling ring tones that spew from devices that seem to occupy everyone’s pockets. But music that is not visibly produced by a real person is categorized as incidental.
As every lutenist knows, taking the considerable amount of time from one’s life to learn to play the lute well is a thankless exercise. Even fellow musicians don’t seem to understand that a quiet instrument demands focused attention from the listener, and not an amplifier. Unlike the denizens of the 15th-century Burgundian court, scheduling meditative time to thoughtfully linger in the realm of quiet and nuanced sound isn’t on everyone’s 21st-century daily agenda. But we think it should be.
Music for the lute is elemental. But taking music a step closer to its fundamental elements, music for solo voice is pure and absolute. Donna Stewart’s new recording of solo chant hymns and Marian antiphons, Adoro Te, is gaining traction among the cognoscenti, despite our distinct lack of effective promotion while dwelling off-the-grid. Reviewer Mary Jane Ballou gave the recording a glowing review on the Chant Cafe site, and we are pleased to know that listeners are willing to step inside the spiritual realm of vital and necessary music that has fed the human soul for the past several centuries.
Today’s short post points the finger at modern news media’s tendency to mindlessly repeat common knowledge as a some new and sensational discovery.
Musical expression is essential to a balanced human existence. Everyone used to know this fact until the ubiquitous corporate commercialism of the last few generations retrained the public to consider music solely as a consumer item. We now have the results of research that tells us music has healing powers.
We suggest that the news machine take a slightly different tack and promote the study of history, wherein one may discover that nothing is new under the sun. Through our series of quotes, we have mentioned several examples of the historical truth that the study of music leads to a more balanced and intelligent person. We suggest that people who still possess inquiring minds ignore the commercial advert-driven news media and read what scraps of history that remain available.
Infinite is the sweet variety that the theorique of music exerciseth the mind withal, as the contemplation of proportion, of concords and discords, diversity of moods and tones, infiniteness of invention, &c. But I dare affirm there is no one science in the world that so affecteth the free and generous spirit with a more delightful and inoffensive recreation or better disposeth the mind to what is commendable and virtuous.
- Henry Peacham (c. 1576-1643), The Compleat Gentleman
As we continue to read and study the surviving words of those who had something to say about historical music when it was still fresh, new, and functional, expressiveness is the theme that emerges. For whatever reason, many early music revivalists favor a more detached approach to interpretation of historical music, seemingly out of fear of possibly getting it wrong. Anthony Rooley, who has written convincingly about the expressive power of historical performance, writes:
“And then came the Age of Reason, and the Age of Enlightenment, and a fear of any performance that went in too deeply. Art as confection ruled, and the stories of Orpheus were trivialized in order to amuse.”
- Anthony Rooley, “Orpheus Reviv’d, the remaking of mythology in the 16th century,” Lute News 110, July 2014, p. 37.
The power of expression in sacred music likewise seems to have suffered from the dispassionate and inoffensive approach typical from the late 18th century onward. While the current movement in some quarters toward restitution of Gregorian chant and sacred poiyphony to the liturgy is to be commended, most of this music heard today has a distant, detached and dispassionate quality that represents more of a 19th-century aesthetic than that of the time in which it was sung as functional music for worship.
“What is true about Spanish polyphony of the siglo de oro is its warmth, its expressive power. Composers like Morales and Victoria played constantly with tension and relaxation to express not only the actual words of the text but its underlying meaning. In some ways, their music is so deeply religious that it becomes more than religious, their expression of love, as in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila or the poetry of St. John of the Cross, transcends the spiritual and becomes almost sensual; when you hear Victoria’s Ave Maria, its beauty shakes not only your spirit but your whole body.”
- Jordi Savall, “Performing Spanish Music,” Early Music, Vol. xx, No. 4, November 1992, p. 653
We tend to follow informed instincts in our interpretation historical music, sacred or secular. But it is essential to do the hard work of fully understanding the technical complexities of any repertory in order to arrive at a performance that communicates the expressive power of the text and the music without the appearance of effort.
“Sometimes, as in Guerrero’s Pater noster, the problem of achieving a successful balance between voices and instruments can only be solved by experimentation. In this work you have a quadruple canon: four voices with four different themes are echoed a 4th higher at a distance of two bars.”
- Jordi Savall