It’s an odd circumstance having invested so much acute focus, time and energy concentrating on the (better sort of) music of the distant past and its context, that it seems comfortably normal. By extension, it becomes apparent that current music and its context seem completely misguided and utterly mad.
Surely, such a statement will induce eye-rolling among those acclimated to today’s environment, and cause those with twitchy fingers to click that little X in the corner of the screen and return to their comfortable reverie. But the true point of reference that will objectively determine quality and worth of any kind of music has to be how well it can be adapted for different media and played for one’s own enjoyment. Played. Not passively consumed as ear candy.
Think back not so awfully long ago to the 1920s, a time when show tunes created a sensation; catchy tunes written by inspired composers and given clever orchestrations by musical craftsmen. Such tunes were promptly arranged for solo voice and keyboard to be enjoyed by the masses in the comfort of their parlor, making a pile of cash for the owner of the publishing rights. Adaptability to arrangement was the mark of how well a song would endure over time.
Then along came the gramophone and the radio, allowing a song to be repeated ad nauseam, entering the public consciousness via ears alone rather than assimilated more thoroughly through voice and fingers. For some of us, things went downhill from there, resulting in a modern version of music that is less music and more synthetic sound that simply cannot be recreated and played at home by the musically-inclined without many thousands of dollars worth of electronic gear.
Now take a giant step backward into our world of the strangely normal, when music was written to be reproduced. In the 16th century most published music was written for voices and was adapted for use by different forces, the most common being for solo voice and lute.
“[There is] every reason to believe that sixteenth-century musicians arranged virtually every sort of madrigal for solo voice and lute.”
- Howard Mayer Brown, “Bossinensis, Willaert and Verdelot: Pitch and the Conventions of Transcribing Music for Lute and Voice in Italy in the Early Sixteenth Century” Revue de musicologie, 75 (1989), p. 29 n. 13.
It turns out that most of the music we perform continues this established pattern, and we have quite a bit of it available for the select members of the population still capable of making their own music.
Our blog and our quotations are mainly focused on early music and its role in modern life. As specialists in the aesthetics of the better sort of early music, we can’t help but observe and comment on just how much our modern culture needs to recognize and embrace this tried and true form of human expression.
Of course, music can be good or bad. Boethius and Plato before him recognized that music could also be dangerous and immoral, and therefore by definition unmusical. But music is a common reference point in historical descriptions of the human experience, and Boethius wrote that “the whole structure of soul and body is united by musical harmony” (De institutione musica, I.I). We would prefer to unite our souls and bodies with the more elegant and pleasant sort of harmony.
A slight dissonance emerges when we use modern electronic means to convey ancient ideas, but this is what we are stuck with. We note with some irony that our current state of technology was anticipated many years ago by one of our favorite writers, commenting on the innovation of television:
“…I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.”
“Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God.”
“[Television]…will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images—distant and concocted.”
“When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy; today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.”
- Elwyn Brooks White, “Removal,” July, 1938, One Man’s Meat, Harper & Row, New York, 1983.
The mad race to develop the internet and the many electronic distractions available is the unfortunate extension of White’s wry and wholly accurate observations. But a concentration on early music anchors one in the primary rather than the secondary.
The knowledge one seeks living with and immersed in the aesthetics of early music provides a template for experiencing the primary, and offers real and useful explanations for the nature of our existence. The quest for knowledge today seems to be more focused on the technical and the trivial—and the reductionist.
“For quite a while it has been possible for a free and thoughtful person to see that to treat life as mechanical or predictable or understandable is to reduce it. Now, almost suddenly, it is becoming clear that to reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever “model” we use) is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale. This is to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.”
“…Apparently it is dangerous to act on the assumption that sure knowledge is complete knowledge—or on the assumption that our knowledge will increase fast enough to outrace the bad consequences of the arrogant use of incomplete knowledge. To trust “progress” or our putative “genius” to solve all the problems that we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion. “
- Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Counterpoint, Washington D.C., 2000.
In the distant past, things were less complex.
“If we perform the commandments of the Creator and with pure minds obey the rules he has laid down, every word we speak, every pulsation of our veins, is related by musical rhythms to the powers of harmony…If we live virtuously, we are constantly proved to be under its discipline, but when we commit injustice we are without music.”
- Cassiodorus (c. 485 – 585), Institutiones 5.2, ed. R.A.B. Mynors, Oxford, 1937.
Everyone knows that musicians who play the lute are among the more sensitive, intelligent and refined human beings one may encounter today. We state this boldly and in all sincerity despite the fact that 21st-century lutenists typically limit discussions among themselves to topics that fall into three general categories: 1) Selfies (Look at my new youtube video!), 2) Technical matters (What sort of strings are you using?), and 3) Acquisition (What is the best source of free music?). Nevertheless, it is an established fact that learning the lute will make you smarter.
But the lute has a long history of association with the angelic and, as Mary Burwell’s lute tutor wrote (circa 1660), playing the lute will also make you incline toward the Divine.
If we consider the excellency of the lute…or if we trust piously the Divines, we shall easily believe the the Lute hath his derivation from Heaven; in effect that [it] had the happiness to be present at the birth of the Incarnate Word and that [it] heard the admirable consort of music which the angels made…
The lute is a modest interpreter of our thoughts and passions to those that understand the language. One may tell another by the help of it what he hath in his heart.We may express upon it choler, pity, hatred, scorn, love, grief, joy; we may give hope and despair.
[For] those that have the grace to lift up their mind to the contemplation of heavenly things, this celestial harmony contributes much to raise our souls and make them melt in the love of God. Nothing represents so well the consort of angelical choirs and gives more foretastes of heavenly joys and of everlasting happiness.
For the advantages of marriage, how many bachelors and maids have we seen advanced by this agreeing harmony, when persons of both sexes have neither considered wealth nor beauty of the person, but suffering themselves to be drawn by the charms of this sweet melody. Some hath believed that they should possess an angel incarnate, if they could unite themselves by a marriage to a person that enjoys this rare quality.
Think about it. We need more lutes and fewer bombs.
Our weekly quotations tend to bounce around a bit, but a recurring theme is the gentle reminder to all that we should acknowledge the vital importance of studying and learning from history. For the lutenist involved in re-creating historical music, that does not mean merely collecting all the various versions of Dowland’s Lachrimae pavan and storing facsimiles and modern scores on your hard drive.
Truly studying historical music involves digging much deeper; striving to gain an understanding of what song texts and music meant to both musician and listener in their original time and place. To understand the significance of Dowland’s music one must attempt to discover and read and hear and play what inspired Dowland. This is not an impossible task if we follow the clues in Dowland’s choice of song texts, the prefatory remarks and dedications in his song books, the scant bit of poetry and correspondence he left behind.
“Excellent men haue at all time in all Arts deliuered to Posteritie their obseruations, thereby bringing Arts to a certainty and perfection….There is nothing can more aduance the apprehension of Musicke, than the reading of such Writers as haue both skilfully and diligently set downe the precepts thereof.”
- John Dowland, preface to his translation of Andreas Ornithoparcus His Micrologus or Introduction: containing The Art of Singing. Digested into foure bookes. Not onely profitable, but also necessary for all that are studious of musicke. (1609).
Of course, musical training was a given for any educated person in Dowland’s time, and reading the Classics in their original language only reinforced the importance of music in maintaining a balanced mind.
Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul; on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.
- Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, Book III
In our modern culture’s race to the very bottom of the abyss aided by complete dependence upon electronic toys, we are dismayed to see the deliberate de-funding of public education, especially a musical education. And literature. In last week’s local paper, teachers commented on their lack of interest in teaching the Classics, citing a lack of relevance to the lives of modern pupils. We’re not talking about the Classics, which are out of the question in public education. The Classics in the jargon of our oh so modern system of public education refer to dog-earred but tried and true novels such as The Scarlet Letter, Great Expectations, etc. It’s almost as though the horrible fantasy outlined in Umberto Eco’s recent novel is well underway:
“…We shall remove from educational programs all subjects that might harm the spirit of young people, and we shall make them into obedient citizens who love their sovereign. Instead of allowing them to study classics and ancient history, which contains more bad than good, we shall make them study the problems of the future. We shall cancel from human memory the record of past centuries, which could be unpleasant for us. With a methodical education we will be able to eliminate the remnants of that independence of thought which has served our purposes for a considerable time.”
- Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetary (Il Cimitero di Praga), translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, New York, 2010, p. 418.
But who cares about the crabby observations of sensitive musicians who have dedicated their lives to sharing shining examples of some of our best cultural monuments?
“One of the most dangerous effects of the specialist system is to externalize its critics, and thus deprive them of standing.”
- Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Counterpoint, Washington D.C., 2000, p. 70.
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.