Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 3.49: Where’s the tune?

“…Plato defines melody to consist of harmony, number & wordes; harmony naked of it selfe: words the ornament of harmony, number the common friend and vniter of them both.”

- John Dowland (1563 – 1626), Dedication from The First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1597

John Dowland’s interpretation of the historical definition of melody certainly changed with the times, but it seems appropriate to begin with his idea of melody as the overarching framework to which harmony, rhythm and words are all subservient.  Dowland’s music offers a fine example of how truly tuneful melodies became more important and eventually gained prominence over merely correct counterpoint during the 17th century, culminating in the galant style of the 18th century.

“The true goal of music—its proper enterprise—is melody. All the parts of harmony have as their ultimate purpose only beautiful melody. Therefore the question of which is the more significant, melody or harmony, is futile. Beyond doubt, the means is subordinate to the end.”

- Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721 – 1783), Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik, 1771.

By Mozart’s time (1756 – 1791), melody had become all-important.  The great composer is remembered for airs you can whistle, but he was no stranger to the art of fugue, and some of his best works display breathtaking skill in the use of invertible counterpoint hidden in plain view and disguised as trifling tunes.

“Melody is the essence of music. I compare a good melodist to a fine racer, and counterpointists to hack post-horses; therefore be advised, let well alone and remember the old Italian proverb: Chi sa più, meno sa—Who knows most, knows least.”

- attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in Reminiscences of Michael Kelly  (1762–1826)

Romantic composers of the 19th century wrote some of the most enduring and memorable tunes—and then set about burying them in a dense fog of orchestral texture.  While this may be indulging in provocative overstatement, the beautifully lush romantic orchestrations of Brahms and Mahler gave rise to a complete rejection of anything and everything that was beautiful.

“The listener is from the very first bewildered by a stream of deliberately discordant sounds. Fragments of melody, beginnings of a musical phrase appear on the surface, are submerged, then emerge again and disappear once more in the roar…On the stage, singing is replaced by screaming.  If the composer happens to hit on a simple and understandable melody, he, as if frightened by such a calamity, flees into the jungle of musical confusion, at times reaching complete cacophony.”

- Review of Shostakovitch’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mzensk District, in Pravda, Moscow, January 28, 1936; from Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, 2nd edition, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1953.

Thankfully, there are a few living, breathing composers today who have restored a standard of composing with taste and refinement, and who know how to write a good tune.  David Lamb, for instance.  David is a prolific composer with a diverse catalog of works—and he even has a roundabout connection to early music, having contributed a composition and his instrumental skills to the recording, Early Music by the Kronos Quartet.

While I particularly love David’s inspired music for saxophones, our connection was through a mutual friend and through the medium of Swedish folk fiddling, of which he is an enthusiastic advocate.  After I posted a tribute in memoriam to our departed friend, David sent scores to a few waltzes composed in her honor.  The second of the two waltzes has an evocative melancholy character, and I was moved to add a bass and make an arrangement for guitar and lute, taking advantage of the instruments’ propensity to produce cross-string suspensions.

In answer to the question posed by the title of this blog post, and with David Lamb’s permission, we make available a pdf score of his tune, Sally’s Waltz #2, arranged for guitar or lute in parallel transcription.

Sunday morning quotes: Wake-up call

As a public service, we offer a few current news items digested here for those who may have missed them.

“The taste of “success” in our world gone mad is measured in dollars and francs and rupees and yen. Our desire to consume any and everything of perceivable value – to extract every precious stone, every ounce of metal, every drop of oil, every tuna in the ocean, every rhinoceros in the bush – knows no bounds. We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth.”

“People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”

“It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future. To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.”

- Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Like the unrealistic dependence upon fossil fuels, the economic system that promotes unfettered accumulation of wealth and lionizes those who attain it through unscrupulous means has at last definitively been proven to be unsustainable.

“…The present situation cannot be sustained for much longer. This is not necessarily an apocalyptic vision. I have made a diagnosis of the past and present situations and I do think that there are solutions. But before we come to them we must understand the situation. When I began, simply collecting data, I was genuinely surprised by what I found, which was that inequality is growing so fast and that capitalism cannot apparently solve it. Many economists begin the other way around, by asking questions about poverty, but I wanted to understand how wealth, or super-wealth, is working to increase the inequality gap. And what I found, as I said before, is that the speed at which the inequality gap is growing is getting faster and faster.”

“You have to ask what does this mean for ordinary people, who are not billionaires and who will never will be billionaires. Well, I think it means a deterioration in the first instance of the economic wellbeing of the collective, in other words the degradation of the public sector…There is a fundamentalist belief by capitalists that capital will save the world, and it just isn’t so. Not because of what Marx said about the contradictions of capitalism, because, as I discovered, capital is an end in itself and no more.”

- Thomas Piketty, École d’économie de Paris



Saturday morning quotes 3.48: Who lutes now?

Music resembles poetry, in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master hand alone can reach.

- Alexander Pope (1688 –1744), An Essay on Criticism

We have asked the question, who luted? in previous posts, but this time we ask from the angle of personality types and in the context of today.

Anyone who has attempted to play the lute understands that not only is it quite challenging from a technical standpoint, but the sound it produces simply does not fit with mainstream modern sensibilities. What are the personality traits of a person who is drawn to the lute today?  To be sure, there are tortured souls like Ignatius J. Reilly, protagonist of the novel, A Confederacy of Dunces (by John Kennedy Toole, Louisiana State University Press, 1980), who embarks on a leg of his quixotic quest in search of a lute string. The lute is a perfect emblem of the philosophical loner who fatally chooses an insurmountable challenge. Or a technically gifted individual who is driven to master the instrument through the application of hard science.

But players who decide to invest the time to master the instrument and perform to a professional standard are a different breed.  Mostly drawn from the ranks of classical guitarists, today’s lutenists tend to focus on things associated with the rigorous training the instrument demands, like finger technique, or playing posture. Who made your instrument and what sort of strings you use are the major topics of conversation when lutenists gather together in one place. Public disputes over the proper angle of right-hand position dominated the lute world in the US for more than 25 years, and the topic is still frequently under discussion.

But the point of playing quiet, subtle, emotionally-charged historical music is not to demonstrate one’s knowledge of string materials, playing posture, nor even the necessary elements that lead to technical brilliance. What about questions that probe the emotional context of the music with the aim of powerful interpretations?  We seem to live in an age that creates determining structures and dwells upon categorizing technical information so that it conforms to such structures. In the obsessive quest to gather and arrange technical information, there is less focus on fostering humanity and guiding the gifts of musical intuition.

On the related topic of cultivating skill through inspiration and intuition, Robert Lundberg wrote:

“Craftskill exhibited on the order of the old instrument makers is very rare these days. We seldom see it because we deny and show aversion to skill. Our Western scientific/industrial age has attempted to bypass it through a substitution of knowledge in conjunction with determining systems. Craftskill is neither knowledge nor simply experience. Rather, it indicates the application of a manual exercise that is guided not by a conscious image or calculated solution but by the spirit of acting through intuition.”
- p. 236

“Perhaps it is time now to reconsider our aversion to skill. How much different our world might be if modern man had pursued science and engineering with skill, as music and art should be, rather than with determining systems.”
p. 237

- Robert Lundberg, “In Tune With the Universe: The Physics and Metaphysics of Galileo’s Lute,” in Music and Science in the Age of Galileo, edited by Victor A. Coelho, 211-239, Dordrecht, 1992.

Musicians of the past seemed to have downplayed the mechanics of technique in order to focus on the more moving and spiritual aspects of music.  Robert Johnson (c. 1583 – 1633), a musician who wrote a great deal of utilitarian music for theater and dance, was lauded by a friend for possessing the qualities of what we might call an integrated life:

“Mr. Iohnson dyed the 18th daye of Nouember 1633 and was buried the one and twentith of the same month, the text that Mr. Roger Cocks Ministe[r] of Acton tooke vpon the funerall was out of the words. theise; Now is the ax put to the roote of the tree, therfore euery tree which bringeth not forth good fruite is hewen downe and cast into the fyere; his Comendations vpon the deceassed partie were foure, firste his humilitye for though by the exelencye of his qualitye which was Musick in which hee excelled most men his Compeny was desired both of princes and great personage[s] yet he did ascociate the poorest of the parish both with his compenye, his coumforte, and his Councell; his second Comendacone was his Charritye, for he was (as well) willinge and earnest to sett peace amongst all men, and readye to forgiue an Iniurye offored to himselff, and to assist (anye man in) aduersitie, his third was his patience which was expresst both in his life and death, And the fourth was his penitencye; And thus much off my owne knowledge, I haue knowne many men liue like Philosophers and dye like ffooles, but he liued like a lamme and dyed like a Champion, fullye conqueringe his owne affections and passions, and at his last gaspe tooke his leaue of his ffrends, as if he had bine to goe a Iorney Intreated them to sett him vpright in his bed and to leaue him that they might not hinder him of his passage.”

- from Jean Carmel, “New Light on Robert Johnson, the King’s Musician,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1965), pp. 233-235

Humility, charity, patience, and penitence are not qualities typically associated with successful musicians who achieve a certain level of status, not even in the world of early music.  For effective interpretation of early music, it must be imbued with these qualities.  How does that work today?


Saturday morning quotes 3.47: Edward Doughtie (1935 – 26 March 2014)

With much regret we report the sad news of Edward Doughtie’s passing on 26th March 2014. A frequent correspondent and a mentor who treated us as colleagues, Ed shared his knowledge and wisdom with an old-school sense of decorum. With gently wry suggestions and kind supportive words, he helped add substance to our understanding of the sources, literary context and musical sound world of English lute songs, and we have made it a point to honor his contributions on a number of occasions.

As a professor of English literature, Doughtie’s main concern was the literary context of the lute song repertory. But in the Introduction to Lyrics from English Airs (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970), he suggested with characteristic understatement that “…The reader who is not a music historian might not object to a brief consideration of the musical context and some reminders of the parallels between music and poetry during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.” The Introduction then offers a detailed  forty-one page description of the literary history and musical development of English lute songs that is a model of clarity.

His specialist knowledge of the sources of English lute songs did not go unnoticed by music historians, and Professor Doughtie’s work was cited several times in Diana Poulton’s standard reference biography of John Dowland (John Dowland: his life and works, London, 1972; Berkeley, Cal., 2nd edition, 1982). In their anniversary edition of Dowland’s Lachrimae or Seaven Teares (Fretwork Editions, London 2004), David Pinto and Lynda Sayce acknowledge Doughtie’s helpful assistance in tracking down surviving copies of the original print.

Some 50 years ago in an undated article, “Words for Music: Simplicity and Complexity in the Elizabethan Air” (Rice University Studies, c.1963), Professor Doughtie demonstrated a deep understanding of the structural and emotional underpinnings of lute songs in his descriptive analysis of Dowland’s “Weepe you no more sad fountaines” (1603):

“This song will bear repeated hearings, not only because of its formal and musical beauty, but also because of the subtleties that gradually reveal themselves. The mood and general meaning of the poem are clear on the first hearing…The situation and the conclusion are understood or inferred; the poem dwells on the moment, the emotions. In later hearings, one becomes aware of a phenomenon that is possible only in artfully conceived strophic songs. Because the same melody is used for both stanzas, the memory juxtaposes the two sets of words; one hears the echo, so to speak, of the first stanza while one is hearing the second stanza.”

Our correspondence with Ed Doughtie began with a question concerning an odd poetical construct found in the text of Dowland’s “I saw my Lady weepe”, and culminated in his contribution of an essay published in the booklet of our 2013 recording  John Dowland: A Pilgrimes Solace. On several occasions, Ed kindly expressed his appreciation for our interpretive insights, and he helped clarify many other textual details enabling us to bridge the vast chasm that lies between simply performing a song and completely inhabiting the emotional context of a piece.

Pointing out that he was now retired, he shared some of his more current interests and projects including a rather racy novel or two, one of which featured the colorful character of a curmudgeonly Tobias Hume. An active amateur violinist and violist, Ed also sent us the score of a song he had composed, titled “Night Song”. We promptly arranged it as a lute song and when Donna posted a video that included film noir imagery, he wrote to express his delight at having finally achieved Rock Star status.

One of our last communications was a few weeks ago after Ed sent us a rather hefty carton containing a large stack of facsimiles and source material on English lute songs, complete with his handwritten annotations. Dismissively suggesting that we could recycle the papers if we wished, he knew just how much we would value these mementos of such a significant body of work, and just how much enjoyment we continue to derive from deciphering his scrawled marginalia. Ed sent the carton by post ornately decorated with no fewer than twenty-nine individual 33-cent postage stamps affixed to the top, knowing that we would appreciate the wry reminder that the contents contained the minutia of a labor of love; scrawls on scores that symbolize his life’s work. We do.

Note: Edward Doughtie gave us permission to share our arrangement of his composition, “Night Song.” Write and let us know how Ed’s work contributed to your understanding of lute songs, and we will gladly send you a copy of our score of the song.


Saturday morning quotes 3.46: We accept change

Today’s post is a bit brief as we are completely immersed in preparing to release Adoro Te, the first of our three recording projects for 2014. The theme, which is relevant to many facets of modern life, is accepting change.

The so well-worn as to be toothless saw, “The only thing constant in life is change” is attributed to François de la Rochefoucauld (1613 – 1680), and is excavated from his comfortably moralizing tome, Maximes et Reflexions Morales du Duc de la Rochefoucauld (1664).  But the ever-changing theme is much older and can be traced to Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 – 475 BC), quoted in Plato’s Cratylus (402), “Everything changes and nothing remains still…and you cannot step twice into the same stream.”  From one perspective, Heraclitus must have been the inspiration for those environmental regulators who thus far have mismanaged our affairs using the theory that “dilution is the solution to pollution.”

Certain changes are certainly good, mutatis mutandis.  For instance, in the US we are seeing a slow-moving trend of acceptance in the area of spousal choice, and we are even experiencing a breath of fresh air from the doctrinal direction of Rome.  In his short tenure, Pope Francis has done much to restore a sense of benevolent leadership to the administrative aspects of the Church, and we see a positive shift in the melding of a true and ancient spiritual purpose with the actual state of the modern human condition.

But an area in need of clarification is the participation of women’s voices in sacred music.  While containing much that is quite good for music, for the past 111 years, the 1903 motu proprio of Pope Saint Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini, has served to limit the participation of women’s voices in singing the ordinary of the Mass.  Unfortunately, for many of the less broad-minded, this has been inappropriately extended to the restriction of women’s musical voices in ways that were never intended and, apparently, the restrictions were almost instantly rescinded by Pius X himself after a 1909 reality check.

Women have always participated in singing chant and we have examples from the past, the best-known of which is Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179).  The outmoded restriction on women’s voices is no longer observed at the Vatican, and the idea is in need of updating by traditionalists here in the US.

In a few weeks (April 2014) we will be releasing Adoro Te, a recording of solo chant hymns and Marian antiphons sung by Donna Stewart. Recorded live in the warmly resonant Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus, Cleveland, we have captured the essence of the music’s devotional character with directness, clarity and a sense of musical purpose informed by two decades of singing chant in its liturgical context. For those who have expressed an interest in learning this music, we will be publishing a booklet with all the scores newly set in chant notation with texts, translations and accompanying descriptive notes.

Adoro Te will be available through all the usual online sources, and, of course, directly from Mignarda, where you are welcome to preorder.  And we accept change.

Saturday morning quotes 3.45: Ars longa

Scribendi recte sapere est et principium et fons.
[The prime source of good writing is good judgment.]

- Ars Poetica, Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC – 27 BC)

Peering backwards in time for the purpose of examining the cumulative knowledge (and multitudinous mistakes) of our forebears reveals patterns of behavior and endlessly repeating cycles, indicating that, collectively, we aren’t very successful in this enterprise of learning from history.  While there are many amusing examples that readily support this observation, at least for today we’ll stick to the subject of music, words, composing, and the endlessly repeating cycles of change and changing back again.

We can speculate that “plainsong” was once plain, words sung to their inherent spoken rhythms.  Since (most) humans abhor simple repetition, there must have been experimentation and variation from the very beginning.  Pope Gregorius I (c. 540 – 604) is either lauded as the great codifier of Gregorian chant, or accused of chucking the more interesting local traditions of chant for the sake of a more uniform ritual. Troping, or adding textual and melodic variation to chant, was noted as early as the ninth century, later developing into the nascent polyphony of Magister Perotinus (c. 1200).  When more than one voice is declaiming a text at slightly offset intervals, the meaning of that text can become a bit obscured by the variety of vowels and conflicting consonants.  When more than one voice riffs on a single syllable of text in rhythmic triple-time for the span of several minutes, as in the organa of Perotin, listeners can become confused and Councils are convened to address the issue.

The cycle turned towards simplicity and, as early as the late 15th century, church officials with a grammarian bent attempted to adapt (hack away at) the existing melodies of liturgical chants in order to follow the natural accent patterns of their texts, truncating the long melismatic phrases of earlier chants.  There is a parallel in the secular music of the time, as evidenced by the popularity of the relatively simple poetry of the Parisian chanson, apparently cultivated in reaction to the complex repeating forms fixes such as the rondeau.

But the cycle turned again and later in the 16th century airy simplicity gave way to complex polyphonic treatment, resulting in reforms in sacred music mandated by the Councils of Trent, and derisive remarks from the likes of Vincenzo Galilei and Count Bardi regarding the competition of sounds in polyphonic settings of secular poetry.  This led to the monophonic declamatory style of Monteverdi, pretending to simplify music for the sake of words yet rendering the words unintelligible with long stuttering melismatic lines of bellicose barking sounds assigned to a single syllable.

So later in the 17th century, music became puritanically simple again with tuneful melodies and a rejection of complex polyphonic episodes.  Then along came Bach, famous for writing long melismatic phrases on a single syllable, but with the added feature of Ha-ha-Ha-ha sequences that must be navigated as they leap from one odd interval to the next.  The cycle turned again and music became simple and galant, classical in form and utterly predicable.  This time the turning of the wheel was slowed, impeded through most of the 19th century and almost breaking loose through the bombastic excesses of Beethoven, taking a long rest on the overstuffed furniture of Brahms’ parlor, and finally collapsing under the weight of  the massive overly-long indulgences of Mahler—although he did write a few nice songs.

The badly-bent wheel began to squeak along with the nonsensical experiments of the early 20th century, with composers competing to prove that not only was music no longer functional but, with a bit of elbow grease, it could be a means of conveying all that is truly ugly and horrible.  The wheel was finally repaired with the rise of Broadway musicals that produced harmonically interesting and attractive dance music as well as songs with melodies that are actually singable.  But this was the realm of popular music rather than art music, which many agree has simply lost its way in the modern world.

Currently, the cycle seems to be completely stuck because things that turn are analog and do not conform to the boring uniformity of the relentless exchange of ones and zeros.  Over the last several generations, the archetypal composer is seen as a tortured soul who is driven to use odd devices just for the sake of standing out among the crowd and being noticed.  To achieve this end requires the rejection of conventional things like melody, harmony and beauty .

Some of us believe that art shapes the public perception and can change the tenor of the times.  It may very well be that the world is a less than wonderful place because music of today is so very, very ugly.  Perhaps it may take a generation or two to achieve, but looking backwards in time and recognizing the patterns and cycles is the basis for gaining knowledge and developing a good judgement—and a way forward.

Ars longa, vita brevis, iudicium difficile.

The hits keep coming

This is a short post to toast the news that Donna’s video of the chant, Tantum ergo sacramentum has not only broken 100,000 views, but has received more than 5,000 hits over the past two weeks.  Just last year at this time, the video had around 600 views.

In our very small world of independent performers of early music, not represented by an agent, unaffiliated with major organizations (and our mom does not set up all of our gigs), this represents a huge response to our music.  The positive response is a strong indication that listeners want to hear simple, unadorned and heartfelt music that moves them.

When we posted the video, we had absolutely no idea that it would have such an overwhelming reception.  Donna had just figured out how to incorporate moving images into a video using a free windows software, and found it so time-consuming and utterly, ridiculously unusable (NSA – pass that on to Microsoft) that, when one or two alternate images of chant were used by mistake, we decided to ignore them thinking that the video was not likely to get much traffic.

Well, it turns out we were wrong.  The video image oversight in no way undermines a truly thorough understanding of the interpretation of chant reinforced by nearly 20 years of practical performance in the proper liturgical context.  But to atone for the one or two alternate images of chant in the video, we have decided to publish a booklet to accompany Donna’s new chant CD, Adoro Te.  The booklet will contain all the chants included on the recording, carefully edited and newly set in the appropriate notation with clearly legible texts.

The CD and booklet will be a very useful learning tool for the many people who have recently become interested in Gregorian chant.  The recording and booklet are scheduled for release in late Spring 2014, and we invite inquiries.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 44 other followers