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Saturday morning quotes 3.16: Latin and lutes

August 31, 2013

The 20th century revival of the lute and its music traversed a curious trajectory, the pilgrim’s path appealing to an odd assemblage of historians, musical misfits and masochists who would perform old music in public on the blasted thing.  Lutenist-performers from the early days of the revival fell into one of two categories:  1) those who were inaudible, and 2) those who were barely audible but seemed to be making some interesting sounds if one could be bothered to bend an ear and attune oneself to the musical content.

After a span of time that allowed a few virtuoso guitarists the opportunity to transfer their skill to the oh so troublesome lute, the musical content was finally revealed and beckoned to those whose musical skill lies beyond their finger’s ends.  It turns out that the lute is merely an instrument of music that was perfect in its ability to produce the parts of polyphony and, what’s more, it was infinitely more portable than the typical historical keyboard instrument.  That is why we have come to learn that composers like Palestrina would use the lute to work out ideas for a polyphonic Mass.

Today, when one examines the use of the lute in its historical context, a line is drawn between the appealing sound of the instrument and the vast repertory of vocal polyphony of the 16th century, of which an enormous amount of truly appealing music survives today.  We learn that lutenists did not merely dabble in vocal polyphony on the rare occasion between almaines and antics, but rather participation in vocal polyphony was the norm.

Musicologists with an interest in how historical music actually sounded could do no better than to explore the use of the lute, and learn the unique notation for the instrument.  Historical lute tablatures answer many of the questions of how to apply accidentals to vocal polyphony, a practice that was so rudimentary and universally understood that there was no need to scribble reminders into the part books.  And musicologists have the opportunity to inform themselves as to the utterly common practice of transposition.

“Every vocal piece in high clefs, i.e. where the bass is written in C4 or C3, or F3, must be transposed when it is put into tablature or score for players of the organ, lute and all other foundation instruments, as follows: if it has a flat, down a 4th…but if it has no flat, down a 5th.”

- Michael Praetorius, Syntagma musicum (1619)

On the other hand, lutenists would do well to probe beyond mere technique and absorb important interpretive information that adds context to random lute solos found in the more common sources.  For instance, the piece titled Miserere Alfonso in Cambridge University Library, Ms.Dd.2.11, f. 22v-23.  The antiphon at Compline, Miserere mihi, Domine, et exaudi orationem meam (Have mercy on me, Lord, and hear my prayer), was musical fodder for Elizabethan composers John Bull and Thomas Tallis, who wrote canons on the plainsong tune. The tune also seems to have served as the source of counterpoint study, and there is evidence that William Byrd and Alfonso Ferrabosco competitively composed a series of ‘forty waies’ in canon based on the Miserere tune.

I would consell you diligentlie to peruse those waies which my loving Maister (never without reverence to be named of the musicians), Mr Bird, and Mr Alfonso, in a vertuous contenion in love betwixt themselves, made upon the plainsong of Miserere…without malice, envie, or backbiting; but by great labour, studie and paines…

- Thomas Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597, p. 115)

You now have the opportunity to dip into this music.  The second volume of our series, Harmonia Caelestis: An anthology of 16th-century sacred music for voice and lute is now available.  Volume II features music by Italian composers and includes an ample selection by:

Felice Anerio (1560 – 1614)
Adriano Banchieri (1568 – 1634)
Giulio Abondante (fl. 1546-87)
Marchetto Cara (c. 1470 – 1525)
Giovanni Croce (1557 – 1609)
Joanambrosio Dalza (fl.1508)
Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543 – 1588)
Sebastiano Festa  (c. 1490 – 1524)
Giacomo Fogliano (1468 – 1548)
Andrea Gabrieli (c. 1532 – 1585)
Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554  – 1612)
Vincenzo Galilei (c. 1520 – 1591)
Ruggiero Giovannelli (c. 1560 – 1625)
Luca Marenzio (c. 1553 –1599)
Francesco da Milano (1497 – 1543)
Simone Molinaro (c. 1565 – 1615)
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – 1594)
Cipriano de Rore (c. 1515 – 1565)
Francesco Spinacino (fl.1507)
Giovanni Antonio Terzi (c. 1580  – 1600)
Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c. 1470 – 1535)

You can order our new edition here.

A live recording of an example of two of the more common pieces can be seen in this video:

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