Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 4.28: Why music?

As we continue to be waylaid by the aftereffects of this year’s premature winter weather, we reflect on why we bother investing heart, soul and our few remaining cents in old music.  One grows weary with the attempt to gain and maintain a foothold in performing early music, a field that has become as tawdry and commercial as any other aspect of life in these United States.  Credentials and connections seem to take precedence over music-making in the world of early music, and it has simply become tiresome to those of us who care about aesthetics.

It has always been thus.  According to Gioseffo Zarlino (1517 – 1590) author of the important treatise Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558), even his teacher, the famous Adriano Willaert (c.1490 – 1562), suffered insulting behavior when singers discovered he was the the composer of a piece that was mistakenly attributed to Josquin:

“I shall now relate what I have heard said many times about the most excellent Adrian Willaert, namely, that a motet for six voices, Verbum bonum et suave, sung under the name of Josquin in the Papal Chapel in Rome almost every feast of Our Lady, was considered one of the most beautiful compositions sung in those days. When Willaert came from Flanders to Rome at the time of Leo X and found himself at the place where this motet was being sung, he saw that it was ascribed to Josquin. When he said that it was his own, as it really was, so great was the malignity or (to put it more mildly) the ignorance of the singers, that they never wanted to sing it again.”

Having just recorded two pieces by Willaert, “O magnum mysterium” and the sublime “In tua patientia,” we can report that his compositions do indeed hold a candle to Josquin’s music. And as a roundabout answer to the question posed by the title to today’s post, we offer these words from another notable Hungarian-American, János Starker (1924 – 2013).

“[If] It is part of our lives in a way that we cannot wake up in the morning and go through life without music and without having this essential aspect of it, that music means just as much as eating and drinking or living then that person should not be involved in music.”

We hope to once again exhibit the usual joie de vivre and be back on track after the snow melts just a little.

Saturday morning quotes 4.27: Mignardises

We strive to provide timely quotations of interest for our dedicated followers every Saturday, but from time to time our best intentions are derailed by the typical daily catastrophes of 21st-century life. Such is the case this week and we are compelled to draw upon our improvisatory skills in lieu of our intended subject, which will emerge in due course. But today we point to a sweet little something in the way of a recording from our 2011 CD, Sfumato: Musica per voce e liuto del Rinascimento Italiano.

The frottola, “Che debo far che mi consigli amore” by Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c. 1470 – 1535), is a setting of the poetry of the famous Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374), from Canzoniere (Rerum vulgarium fragmenta), in 2. Rime In morte di Madonna Laura, (268).  The setting for solo voice and lute was published in 1509 and is found on f. 7v  of Tenori e contrabassi intabulati col sopran in canto figurato per cantar e sonar col lauto Libro primo. Francisci Bossinensis Opus, the work of one Franciscus Bossinensis (fl. 1509 – 1511), printed by Venetian, Ottaviano Petrucci.

Our version of the frottola includes a setting of the first two stanzas of Petrarca’s poem:

Che debb’io far? che mi consigli, Amore?
Tempo è ben di morire,
et ò tardato più ch’i’ non vorrei.
Madonna è morta, et à seco il mio core;
et volendol seguire,
interromper conven quest’anni rei,
perché mai veder lei
di qua non spero, et l’aspettar m’è noia.
Poscia ch’ogni mia gioia
per lo suo dipartire in pianto è volta,
ogni dolcezza de mia vita è tolta.

Amor, tu ‘l senti, ond’io teco mi doglio,
quant’è il damno aspro et grave;
e so che del mio mal ti pesa et dole,
anzi del nostro, perch’ad uno scoglio
avem rotto la nave,
et in un punto n’è scurato il sole.
Qual ingegno a parole
poria aguagliare il mio doglioso stato?
Ahi orbo mondo, ingrato,
gran cagion ài di dever pianger meco,
ché quel bel ch’era in te, perduto ài seco.

What shall I do? What do you counsel me, Love?
It is surely time to die,
and I have delyed more than I would wish.
My lady is dead, and has my heart with her,
And if I wish to follow it
I must break off these cruel years,
For I never hope to see her on this side,
And waiting is painful to me,
since by her departure my every joy is turned to weeping,
every sweetness of my life is taken away.

Love, you feel how great is the bitter heavy loss,
And therefore I complain to you;
and I know that you are pained by my grief –
Or rather ours,
for we have wrecked our ship on the same rock
And in the same instant the sun is darkened for us both.
What skill could ever match in words my sorrowful state?
Ah! Bereaved, ungrateful world!
You have great reason to weep with me,
for with her you have lost all the good that was in you.

Tromboncino’s musical setting presents what appears to be a very regular dance pulse that insistently impels the music, almost demanding a sparkling and sprightly tempo. But when the astute interpreter truly heeds the heart-wrenching nature of the poetry, the effect of the piece is only marred by such insensitive forward motion. A pensive and restrained pulse with longing accents placed on the rhythmically syncopated suspensions produces a result that elevates what might otherwise be a trivial little ditty to a miniature masterpiece of melancholy.

We give very careful thought to recreating the meaningful aesthetic of early music, melding research with intelligent interpretive ideas, and adding musical refinement.  For our quote we offer these guiding and inspiring words from one of our very favorite performers:

“…I decided to do early music not as a reduction of possibility but as an increasing of possibility.”

Marco Beasley

We invite our readers to listen to our interpretation of ” Che debo far che mi consigli amore.”

Saturday morning quotes 4.26: Musical hero

Our weekly posts are offered in the spirit of sharing our admittedly skewed perspective and commentary on the precarious state of our precious cultural heritage. To that end, we share quotations and worthy examples of wise words gleaned from writers of the past and the present—instructive ideas indicating how we as intelligent and aware artists might retain our humanity and avoid a hellish descent into the Digital Dark Ages.

Ours is the age of electronic noise—the byproduct of the flashing and buzzing transmission of clockwork music and phony imagery for the purpose of selling insubstantial fluff while collecting metadata. The lute and its music offer an alternative and a metaphorical portal through which we may view the rich tapestry of our shared cultural legacy.  The committed concentration required to play the lute well does not fit the modern lifestyle.  The instrument is quiet, unwieldy and highly reactive to whims of the weather, the technique is nothing less than uncompromising, adjusting the tuning is a constant endeavor, and the music is never less than demanding.

The resulting music, when thoroughly understood and well-played, is simply elevating and a shining example of what may be realized through hard work, persistence, inspired artistry and attention to the finer details.  Thinking, feeling humans need to hear this reminder of what was and is possible, and artists who commit their lives to sharing the music are no less than modern-day heroes.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. We quote from one of our modern-day heroes, Jordi Savall, pioneering early music specialist and master of the lute’s bowed relative, the viola da gamba.  Savall recently refused to accept the Spanish Premio Nacional de Música 2014, sacrificing a monetary award of 30.000 Euros in order to draw attention to the Spanish government’s woeful neglect of promoting cultural heritage and lack of investment in cultivating the arts among Spanish youth. Below find an English translation of notable excerpts of his statement:

“We are living through a very serious political, economic and cultural crisis, a consequence of which is that one fourth of Spanish citizens find themselves in a precarious financial situation and more than half of our young people don’t have any possibility of finding a job that would ensure them a minimally dignified life. Culture, art, and especially music, are the basis of an education which allows us to find ourselves personally and at the same time, be present as a cultural entity in an increasingly globalized world.

“I am absolutely convinced that art is useful to society and that it contributes to the education of the young, and to elevating and strengthening the human dimension and spirit of human beings. But how many Spaniards have been able, some time in their lives, to listen live to the sublime musicians Cristóbal de Morales, Francisco Guerrero, or Tomás Luis de Victoria? Maybe a few thousand privileged people have been able to attend a concert as part of the very few festivals that put on this kind of music. But the vast majority will never be able to benefit from the fabulous spiritual energy that is transmitted by the divine beauty of these musicians.”

“…Music lives only when a singer sings it or when a musician plays it; musicians are the actual living museums of musical art…That is why it’s so necessary to give these musicians a minimum of stable institutional support, because without them, our musical heritage will continue sleeping the sad slumber of ignorance and ignominy.”

“I believe, as Dostoevsky said, that beauty will save the world, but for that to happen, one must live with dignity and have access to Education and Culture.”

Prior to his publication of these words, we held Jordi Savall in the highest esteem for his musical artistry, his innovative interpretations, and his many years of dedication to the aesthetics of historical music.  With his public stand on these important issues, we now consider Jordi Savall a hero as well.

Saturday morning quotes 4.25: Musical musings

Today we offer a few quotations from diverse sources that serve to connect a certain thread of logic.  The astute reader will tie the knot that binds the logic.

“For as the distraction of the mind, amongst other outward causes and perturbations, alters the temperature of the body, so the distraction and distemper of the body will cause a distemperature of the soul, and ‘tis hard to decide which of these two do more harm to the other…Now the chiefest causes proceed from the heart, humours, spirits: as they are purer, or impurer, so is the mind, and equally suffers, as a lute out of tune; if one string or one organ be distempered.“

- Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621.

“To some people, perhaps to the majority, the use of music as a means toward understanding the world seems a chimera, if not a patent absurdity. Today most people share the general assumptions about the nature of music and the universe that have been current since the time of Newton. They regard music as essentially an emotional language and the universe as a mathematical machine: two things between which there is no common denominator save the human being who can experience them both.” p. 374

“…Speculative music is a personal affair: everyone finds in it something personal, whether that be a grand overview of the cosmos, a revisioning of history, a fresh insight into the geometry of nature, or a meditative preparation for life after death. And what one gets out of it depends on what one brings to it. Therefore what awaits future researchers is not a single discipline but a multiplicity of paths, differing from each other as markedly as human beings do.”  p. 388

- Joscelyn Godwin, “The Revival of Speculative Music,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Jul., 1982).

“We often find it perplexing, if not paradoxical, that religion relies so extensively and repeatedly on mediated experience…Sacred experience comes to depend on mediation…”

“Music enters sacred experience as one of the most powerful media for connecting the space between the intimate and the many…Music magnifies meaning as it sounds the sacred.  Music translates sacred text as it generates genres of communal voice and ritual.”

- Philip V. Bohlman, Reviews, Digital and Multimedia Scholarship, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Volume 87, Number 1, Spring 2014, p. 288.

“In addition to validating previous studies finding a positive association between musical instruction and IQ, the researchers also found musical study to be positively related to measures of executive functioning, even when accounting for important family background characteristics such as parental education and income level. In particular, the researchers identify two aspects of executive functioning, attention and inhibition, as the most influential aspects mediating IQ.”

- Degé, F., Kubicek, C., & Schwarzer, G. “Music lessons and intelligence: A relation mediated by executive functions.” Music Perception, 29(2), (2011). pp. 195-201.


Saturday morning quotes 4.24: Musica recta

Our last post touched on the enduring qualities of a given piece of music, qualities that are made manifest through its adaptability to arrangement and to be played (with the fingers and vocal cords) and enjoyed by others.  Not unlike the rest of our modern cultural hallmarks where irony rules the airwaves and planned obsolescence is the key to commerce, it turns out we’re not seeing much in the way of enduring music being produced.  Music that requires treatment via special electronic effects is not at the same level of sophistication as music that reveals its quality through structural integrity inherent in the sensitivity and intelligence of composition. Full stop.

Now that we have that out of the way, we progress to the idea of interpretation of music of quality, usually music of the past.  Josquin des Prez (c.1450 – 1521) was for the better part of the 16th century hailed as the composer who represented the gold standard in terms of sensitivity, intelligence and enduring quality of his music. Though Josquin’s music was primarily for voices, the enduring quality is made evident in the many 16th-century adaptations that survive for lute alone, lute duet. and for solo voice and lute.

Josquin’s music, like most other printed vocal music of the period, omitted trivial details such as where and when one applies a sharp or a flat to a particular note.  Since Josquin wrote so much of his sensitive and attractive music using strict canon among two or more parts, solutions to the application of accidentals is usually fairly straightforward.  But academics love to make a career out of making the simple things complex, and many (non-lutenist) academics approach editing Josquin’s music without the simple fix of asking a lutenist how it goes.

“Clearly, if we were to rely solely on theoretical statements to reconstruct the oral traditions which sixteenth-century vocal notation only partly records, the conflicting nature of these statements would limit our endeavours. However, the accuracy of such reconstructions can be increased when the vocal works in question also survive in tablatures – the only sources of Renaissance polyphony which record precisely the pitches of various oral traditions associated with a given motet. The very act of translating vocal notation into ciphers requires the intabulator to make implicit solmization practices explicit.”

- Robert Toft, “Traditions of Pitch Content in the Sources of Two Sixteenth-Century Motets,” Music & Letters, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Jul., 1988), pp. 334-344

A particularly fine example of an arrangement, or intabulation, of an effective piece is Josquin’s beautiful five-voice motet,”Inviolata, integra et casta es, Maria,” a composition that incorporates the chant melody in the tenor voice, appearing in canon a fifth above in the alto voice.  The math of canonic imitation is masked by Josquin’s inimitable melodic gift incorporating less strict voices that artfully hint at the chant tune.

Arranged and published as a duet for two vihuelas by Enriquez de Valderrábano in the fourth book of his Silva de Sirenas (1547), there were also intabulations for solo lute by Sebastian Ochsenkun (1521–1574) and Hans Gerle (c.1500–1570).  Our recording of the piece for solo lute is from Gerle’s Tabulatur auff die Laudten (1533).

Musica recta is the application of appropriate sharps and flats to old music, a practice that was so well understood by any garden variety musician of the 16th century that there was no need to mention it.  We have written on the subject in the past, and we continue to say that the application of accidentals to 16th-century vocal music is not a complex issue.  Just ask a lutenist.

Saturday morning quotes 4.23: Arrangements

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.

Saturday morning quotes 4.22: Progress and 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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 52 other followers