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Cats love Gregorian Chant

Connecting listeners with recordings of rare historical music for voice and lute is an enormously difficult task.  Valuable time that should be devoted to research and rehearsal is instead channeled to the thankless task of completing online forms with database information and uploading high quality sound files to various distributors, all of whom have their own peculiar formats and requirements.  It’s no wonder the larger record labels dedicate numerous staff and ample budgets to glitzy marketing efforts that describe world premiere recordings, virtuoso performers, new and exciting fresh-faced artists.

After nine previous CDs and still zero marketing budget, we are here to tell you that promoting a new live recording of solo Gregorian chant hymns and Marian antiphons is an even greater challenge than we ever imagined.  That is, until we received a gift in the form of a testimonial from a cat named Lady and her minion, lutenist and lover of good music, Thomas Schall, who wrote from Switzerland and posted the photo below:


“The Lady listening to Donna Stewart’s  voice on “Adoro Te” – usually she leaves when I put on music…She seems to enjoy Donna’s singing! It has been interesting to watch her as she seems to listen to the music.”

“BTW I can recommend this CD wholeheartedly – A complete recording for voice alone. The first production of that kind I really enjoyed listening in one run.”

- Thomas Schall

As anyone who is online for more than a nanosecond knows, cats rule the internet.  If you don’t have this important recording for your cat, you are surely depriving said feline of a necessary meditative tool.

Adoro Te is available directly from the artist at:

There is a promotional video with sample tracks and descriptive images of the recording and the venue here. Downloads are now available from iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, and  all the usual sources.  If you want to know more about the music and this particular recording, just write and ask.

Saturday morning quotes 4.9: Tempo

What if the Trois Gymnopedies of Erik Satie were lost for hundreds of years and rediscovered in a dusty old archive, but lacking the all-important tempo indications of Lent et douloureux, Lent et triste, and Lent et grave? What if virtuoso keyboardists with highly developed technical skills that demonically overpower any sense of taste and context decided that the pieces should be played with a sense of frantic destination rather than calm effect?

Robert Donington (1907 – 1990) dampened his feet as a neophyte paddling in the wake of the grandfather of the early music revival, the infamous Arnold Dolmetsch (1858 – 1940).  But he charted his own course in quest of objective information that might lead to intelligent interpretive details, and we owe a great deal to his own extensive research of historical source materials, first made available in his book The Interpretation of Early Music, Faber and Faber (London, 1963).

Donnington condensed his presentation of helpful quotes from original source material in a very important book, Baroque Music: Style and Performance, a Handbook, W. W. Norton & Co. (New York, 1982).  His chapters on Shaping the Tempo and Shaping the Line contain clear directions quoted from the writing of the old ones; directions that seem to have been forgotten by many of today’s performers.  Leaping from Donnington’s quotes from Quantz and C.P.E. Bach, we turn to his excellent summation of the information.

The most valuable working rule for baroque tempos is not take the fast movements too fast or the slow movements too slow…In allegro, steadying the tempo literally leaves time for those subtle nuances of phrasing and placing which make so much more of the music, and which sometimes may actually sound more brilliant to the audience than that tempting turn of speed which aims directly at an effect of brilliance.

In adagio, it is extraordinary how all sorts of problems over phrasing, articulation and dynamic inflection fall into place of their own accord so soon as it is decided to move the tempo on a little. It is so necessary in a baroque slow movement to feel you are going somewhere, generally with a certain sense of tension though not of haste; and in a fast movement to retain just that sense of dignity and spaciousness which Couperin…perhaps meant by being ‘more pleased with what moves me than with what astonishes me.’

Today, we still have baroque bands who choose tempi that evoke desperation rather than suggest tension.  A composer may have had in mind a sense of gentle disquiet or pensiveness, but instead we are given a frantic chase to the death pursued with demonic double reeds, hoboys honked horribly by the hounds of hell.

Racing tempi by some performers is an indulgence that affects the very small world of the lute, even the simplest historical music for which is nearly always a thing of dignity and refinement.  A performer will attack a certain technically challenging piece as though it was a contest between composer and performer, dots and digits, triumphantly leaping to his feet after the last chord in what amounts to victory dance.  Someone is missing the point, astonishing with hollow dramatic gesture instead of moving the audience with refined content.

Donnington summarizes his excellent essay with the following observation:

Tempo is indeed the most crucial of all problems of interpretation, in baroque as in most other music, and the surest test of good musicianship.

Saturday morning quotes 4.8: Name that tune

“Whats in a name? That which we call a Rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

- Juliet, from An Excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Iuliet As it hath been often (with great applause) plaid publiquely, by the Right Honourable the L. of Hunsdon his seruants. (II, ii)

A name can make a great deal of difference.  For instance the name of our duo, Mignarda, is memorable for many reasons, including universal curiosity over its accepted pronunciation (meen – YAR – dah).  Those in the know are aware that the French term means “dainty,” which we prefer to translate as “intricate,” and is the title of a galliard for solo lute (Poulton 34) attributed to John Dowland.

There are other interesting names associated with the music of Dowland, including “La mia Barbara” (Poulton 95), an elaborately decorated pavan for solo lute found in the Ernst Schele manuscript (f. 49). The title may possibly have something to do with the Italian cult of Saint Barbara, but if one joins the words “la mia” and translates the term from Latin to English, a somewhat surprising result emerges (vampire barbarian).

In another quote from Romeo and Juliet (IV:v), we hear Peter singing a snippet of a song:

When griping grief the heart doth wound
And doleful dumps the mind oppress,
Then music with her silver sound—

Several years ago, we recorded this song on our CD My Lord of Oxenfords Maske, the text and music of which is attributed to Richard Edwards (1525-1566) and is titled “In commendation of music.” It has come to our attention that by not referencing the more common title, “When griping griefs,” we managed to thwart the search engines.  Oh well.  You can hear the recording here.


Saturday morning quotes 4.7: Impressions

Polyphony, or the sound of several independent voices in coordination, is an important characteristic of early music.  Historically, polyphonic repertoire was written into separate part books for individual singers, and musical  notation for the lute and keyboard first emerged as a means of condensing the separate parts onto a single stave, enabling one person to either direct the singing of others or else perform the many parts on a lute or keyboard instrument as a solo.

[To hear singing in parts performed by several singers is good but] to sing to the lute is much better, because all the sweetness consisteth in one alone and a man … understands the better the feat manner and the air or vein of it when the ears are not busied in hearing any more than one voice …

- Thomas Hoby, The Book of the Courtyer, 1561

We have discussed playing polyphonic music on the lute in several previous posts, and how it is essential to have an awareness of the intertwining parts of a piece that was conceived as a conversation among several voices. For a lutenist it can be like directing a complex flow of traffic, except the lutenist is also responsible for being the traffic he or she directs.

Last week, we made a short trip to sing for the Feast of Corpus Christi, an important event on the church calendar that involves quite a lot of music sung from the choir loft and in procession.  By happenstance, that same evening we were treated to a concert of solo lute music performed by Nigel North, which we attended in the company of two organists who are well versed in the solo performance of polyphonic music.

Nigel North performed a concert of lute music from the first half of the sixteenth century, mainly featuring solos by composers Francesco da Milano and Albert de Rippe.  The program was seasoned  with a few dances, including a pavan and galliard pair by Albert de Rippe that was the subject of a published article and a previous blog post by yours truly. But the main feature of the concert consisted of polyphonic intabulations of vocal music and instrumental fantasias by Albert and Francesco, all of which were performed with a masterful sense of direction and sublimely clear separation of voices.

The music was pure magic and the concert left a lasting impression on the four of us, polyphonists all.  Bravo.

Saturday morning quotes 4.6: Gatekeepers

Howard Armstrong: (After playing a tune) “How did you like that, Mr. Yank Rachell?”

Yank Rachell: “I didn’t like that very much.”

Howard Armstrong: “You don’t like me, do you?”

Yank Rachell: “No. I wouldn’t let you play in my backyard. I wouldn’t let you in my backyard…If you were hungry in the morning and I had one biscuit, I’d break it in two and eat both halves.”

This semi-playful exchange from the must-see film, Louie Bluie, is wrenched from context and quoted to accentuate the kind of relationship that can exist between musicians, some of whom dwell in the garden of opportunity while others stand outside that backyard gate, waiting for it to open a crack so they might wiggle inside with just one or two toes.

Gatekeepers are those who for mysterious reasons of fortune, money, position or privilege, have an inside connection that bestows on them the power or discretion to pass judgement upon colleagues and upstart competitors, occasionally opening the gate a little and allowing some to enter the realm of opportunity while excluding others.

There have always been gatekeepers in the arts, as illustrated in this quote from actor, F. Murray Abraham:

N: Your character is sort of the gatekeeper…Have you experienced anybody like that in your own life that you kind of could draw on?

FMA: My whole life, these people who’ve held the keys to the kingdom. I don’t have to do it anymore, but for most of my life it’s that. You come in, your heart’s on your sleeve and they just say, “No. No, you stink,” and you know you’re good. After a while you think, “Geez, am I really any good? Am I lying to myself?” It’s tough because nobody wants to buy your act. I mean, I’ve got some friends, good friends, with a lot of chops, can’t get a break; twenty, thirty, forty years’ experience.

- “F. Murray Abraham on Folk Music, Gatekeepers, and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS,”  By Kyle Anderson on December 21, 2013

At least in the US, the realm of early music is both defined and constrained by a few organizations and associated personalities who spend as much time engaged in exclusive activities as they do in outreach for new participants and audiences.  Unfortunately, the historically interesting, aurally arresting and emotionally engaging aspects of early music are seated in the back row and left to languish unseen and unheard while the organizations try out this or that flashy modern marketing technique to decorate the curtain behind which they operate the levers of an aging, creaky and failing machinery.

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste…So forget history. What Early Music has been doing is busily remaking the music of the past in the image of the present (necessary because we unfortunately have so little use for the actual music of the present), only calling the present by some other name.”

- Richard Taruskin,“The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” New York Times, July 29, 1990.

Sadly, audience interest in early music is diminishing at an alarming rate as the gatekeepers display the same spindly shrubbery while vigilantly guarding against perceived intruders who would only add health and color to an otherwise old and tired array.  Meanwhile, some of the more dedicated early music performers are out there building new nontraditional audiences and dedicated fans while dwelling comfortably outside the garden gate—not bitter, just sad.

Saturday morning quotes 4.5: Accompaniment

For those of us who still care about living an authentic, mindful existence, nearly every aspect of modern life requires cooperative collaboration with other human beings.  This may be a challenge in a age that promotes a fearful, solitary lifestyle where one can surround oneself with an impenetrable moat of protective electronic devices.  Still, human interaction is necessary and the quality of every interaction depends upon the degree to which we choose to acknowledge and abide by the Social Contract:

“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.”

- Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

Rousseau, a musician and a composer, understood and was informed by the collaborative aspects of ensemble music, an apt and instructive metaphor for the Social Contract.  Though some would say that ensemble music is not a democratic enterprise, truly successful ensemble music of any sort demands a mutual willingness to cooperate and the quality of the result depends upon how well the collaborators interact, respond to non-verbal cues, and improvise around the rules.

For more specific guidelines on how to adapt the rules in order to achieve a better result, we turn to Monsieur de Saint-Lambert (fl. 1700):

“…You can sometimes change the chords marked on the notes, when you judge that others will suit better…”

“…On a bass note of substantial duration, you can put in two or three different chords, although the text only asks for one…”

“…If the bass has too few notes , and drags too much for the liking of the accompanist, he may add other notes by way of pleasing figuration, provided hes is sure that this will not interfere with the melody.”

- Monsieur de Saint-Lambert Nouveau traité de l’accompagnement (Paris, 1707)

Effective accompaniment requires a sense of empathetic collaboration; a willingness to listen, respond, adapt, improvise and give of oneself in order to create the best possible result for all concerned. True in music, true in life.





Saturday morning quotes 4.4: Fact and fiction

The realm of early music in general—and early music for voice and lute in particular—appeals to a very select audience.  If the music is presented in a public venue and performed on its own merits with an informed sensitivity to original historical function and context, there is very little a performer or ensemble can do to enhance the appeal of an archaic repertory so that it may suit modern tastes and attention spans.  Very little except costumes, dancing, multimedia displays, clever musical mashup arrangements and orchestrations.  These elements have been used successfully by early-music performers since the 1960s, and still pop up routinely in the concert hall today.

Does fictionalizing historical music by presenting Disney World-type performances do nothing more than obscure the fact that music had—and has—an authentic emotional content that serves a necessary function?

Of course there is the more subdued approach that includes appropriately-themed poetry readings or lecture-presentations that provide historical detail and context for the music. But such presentations only appeal to the susceptible, and today’s general audiences have been trained to react to a flash and dash performance approach that compares favorably with the media-generated artificial reality they experience in every other walk of life.

In a somewhat elderly article that offers a generous heap of food for indigestion, Christopher Page suggested the following:

“…The modern concert situation and the CD recital can draw performers of medieval and Renaissance music into realms of fantasy and gimmickry.”

“…Conspicuous and varied orchestrations of medieval and Renaissance music reflect performers’ failure of confidence in the variety and quality of the music they are performing.”

- Christopher Page, “The English a cappella renaissance,” Early Music, vol. XXI, no.3, August, 1993, p. 460.

Performers who resort to gimmickry perhaps feel insecure as to the depth of content inherent in their chosen material, as well as their ability to convey the emotional depth of the repertory on its own merits.  In performing music for the transparent medium of voice and lute, we are perhaps a bit optimistic in thinking that the music will speak to the audience without gimmickry.  The facts of historical music are revealed by tapping into its emotional content and not the fiction of modern performing conventions.

In concert, we measure our success by whether we manage to move at least one person in the audience to tears.  So far, so good.



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