Messer Federico: “In my opinion, the most beautiful music is in singing well and reading at sight and in fine style, but even more in singing to the accompaniment of the lute, because nearly all the sweetness is in the solo and we note and follow the fine style and the melody with greater attention in that our ears are not occupied with more than a single voice, and every little fault is the more clearly noticed – which does not happen when the group is singing, because there one sustains the other. But especially it is singing poetry with the lute that seems to me most delightful, as this gives the words a wonderful charm and effectiveness.”
- Baldassare Castiglione, Il Libro del Cortegiano (Venice, 1528)
Like the fact that there was no need to mention certain exceedingly commonplace matters – such as sharpening cadential leading tones in music – the 16th-century lute was ubiquitous, and a very portable tool for playing polyphonic music. While some polyphonic music is certainly more idiomatic for the lute, it was left up to the taste and intelligence of every musician or musical amateur to choose and adapt whatever music he or she wished to play on plucked strings.
Likewise, for those who possessed an understanding of this form of musical shorthand, lute notation was considered to be a condensed score of polyphonic music from which the cognoscenti could reconstitute information that was otherwise distributed in separate partbooks. Sadly, this fundamental fact has gone unrecognized by musicologists who should know better (you know who you are), and the lute has shamefully suffered the indignity of being classified as nothing more than a chordal instrument. To set the matter straight, the lute is an instrument capable of realizing polyphony in several parts.
Music of William Byrd (c. 1542 – 1623)
William Byrd was of the generation prior to that of John Dowland and other composers of the idiomatic lute ayre. While no music survives for which Byrd left behind specific indications that it be played on the lute, it is absurd to think that he was not very well acquainted with the instrument. And it is equally absurd to think that the absence of his music composed specifically for lute is an indication that Byrd had disdain for the instrument. We need only consider the case of Palestrina, who left behind no music for which the lute was specifically indicated, but is known to have worked out his musical ideas on the instrument.
Many of Byrd’s consort songs work quite well when one replaces the fuller-bodied zum of several bowed viols with the softer but equally supportive sound of a single lute. Byrd’s more intimate Latin motets were composed specifically for private worship in a small chapel and, as mentioned above by Castiglione, the meaning is heightened when one can hear the text sung by single voice.
“In these words, as I have learned by trial, there is such a concealed and hidden power that to one thinking upon things divine and diligently and earnestly pondering them, all the fittest numbers occur as if of themselves and freely offer themselves to the mind which is not indolent or inert.”
- William Byrd, Gradualia (1605)
William Byrd’s music possesses a clarity of form and perfection of proportion such that it is equally effective performed with larger-scale or very intimate forces. Our performances tend toward the more intimate end of the spectrum, and our goal is to heighten the meaning of the words set by Byrd through an intimate balance of texture inherent in his music.
Last day of our campaign
Today is the last day of our fundraising campaign. Visit our page to check out the details and the premiums we are offering for your contributions. For those of our readers who have so generously contributed, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. For the rest of you freeloaders, it’s not too late to help keep this blog going.
Over the past several weeks, our Saturday quotes have been tailored to connect with our campaign to fund three recordings in 2014, which is coming to a close in one week. While we hear from many of our colleagues and peers that our campaign seems to be plugging into the new and innovative “crowdfunding” concept that is the wave of the future, we are here to tell you that it is the wave of the present, and is essential if art is to remain in the realm of a human-to-human interaction.
To accentuate the humanity of what we do, today’s post features the wildly new and innovative phenomenon of quoting one another.
As very quiet and private personalities, we find that the cloak of public self promotion is ill-fitting and chafes uncomfortably. However, what we do very well is provide our audiences with a deeply-felt musical experience that reflects the intensity of our understanding of and commitment to the music we perform.
And we also happen to be very good listeners. The music for our three recording projects slated for 2014 was chosen in response to specific requests from our audiences—requests for music that matters to real people. Of course like any good listeners, we possess obliging personalities and we strive to make music that successfully moves our audiences. But as artists we have our own personal reasons for investing so much of ourselves in our music, and what we feel about each of the three recording projects. Read on:
“The music of early 17th century French court has all the characteristics of good pop music of any era: it’s full of feeling and great tunes. It’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s romantic, it’s silly, it’s heartbreaking. It touches people, whether or not they understand the language or know anything about the music. We get mail from all over the world about it; we’ve discussed it in lecture/recitals and graduate seminars, and we’ve sung it for 5-year-olds, who’ve asked us to ‘sing it again’. It’s absolutely universal.”
“In addition to our usual slate of seasonal performances, we’ve been presenting an annual Christmas concert for the benefit of a local food pantry for the past six years. It’s always a warm and peaceful respite in the midst of the holiday madness, for us and for our audience, which has inspired this next recording with their many requests.”
“I’ve been singing Gregorian chant, in its functional context, for decades now. Ron & I met singing this music together with some of our favorite people, in a beautiful old church. For chant more than most music, the sound of the space is part of the music. The opportunity to share these ancient hymns and antiphons and the magical sound of one of our favorite sacred spaces is very exciting.”
“While we met in a schola cantorum singing chant and sacred polyphony, our first performance as a duo for solo voice and lute featured airs de cour from early 17th-century France, and we are always delighted to return to this repertory. What I find appealling in French music of this era is the surprising connection of attractive melodic phrases with the subtle underlying propulsion of dance rhythms. Of course, I also react in a particular Gomez Addams manner when Donna sings in French…”
“I have always loved music for the Christmas season, and our concentration on sacred polyphony for solo voice and lute led us to some of the very best Christmas music ever composed. The choice of music for our new recording was largely inspired by audience requests for specific pieces, but we have added several rare gems by the likes of Morales, Hassler and Willaert that deserve to be heard again and again.”
“Sacred chant heard in a sacred space has a special transporting quality, moving hearts, minds and souls for the past few millennia. The chant hymns and antiphons Donna selected for this project have special meaning, and we are very pleased to offer this beautiful meditative recording to the many listeners who have requested it.”
If you know us, you know that we carry out our work without the support of state, academic or institutional grants. We do not benefit from organizational connections, recording contracts, or artist representation. We personally carry out all aspects of the production, from research to audio engineering, mastering and design of our CDs, to typesetting, photography, design and printing of our music publications and promotional materials. Since historical aesthetics seem to be fading fast into oblivion, we are doing our bit to preserve meaningful music of the past, and we are asking listeners to Support our tropes.
What we call Gregorian Chant is a rare and precious link to our remote past, but as the embodiment of Christian liturgical practice, is also a living, breathing form of worship still in use today. An enormous body of work, chant both describes the outline and fills in the minute details of the cycle of the liturgical year from Advent through Pentacost.
While we know that nearly every musician of note from medieval times forward began his musical training in liturgical music, sadly, most lute players we hear on recordings today are definitely not steeped in this important historical tradition. A grounding in solfege and plainchant and active participation in vocal polyphony is fundamental to understanding the sounds our ancestors were aiming for, particularly when it comes to playing old music on plucked strings. To informed ears, we hear many technicians grind through the mechanics of playing contrapuntal music on the truly unruly lute, but very few produce a singing musical line with a balanced sense of airy interplay among the parts. Too often today we hear players who should know better striking unshaped phrases with repeated treble notes that plink, plink, plink over moving basses or against inner parts, sounding like tiny gremlins perched upon the roof banging menacingly on the water pipes with minature hammers. This is simply because lute players of today are so caught up in other challenging aspects of the instrument that they seldom bother to sing.
Of course, there are exceptions. Nigel North’s CD, John Dowland Lute Music Volume 1 “Fancyes, Dreams & Spirits” (Naxos – 8.557586), includes Dowland’s “Farewell: In Nomine” (Poulton N. 4). North introduces the piece by playing through the Gloria tibi Trinitas plainsong tune, quoted in the Benedictus section of John Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas a 6. You can hear Nigel North’s recording on his website here.
Interpretation of Gregorian chant is a much-discussed and at times very divisive issue among those who have taken an interest in this ancient form of worship, and must be embraced with a certain amount of speculation and informed by an understanding of the many ways liturgical music was adapted for use in different historical eras. A great number of melodies and Latin texts were altered after the Council(s) of Trent (1545 – 1563), and practically all of the Advent hymns were revised to truncate melismas and impose “modal purity” under the auspices of Pope Urban VIII in 1632. As for musical phrasing and note values, interpretation must be based on the nature of the text and its liturgical use. But we are informed by important clues waiting there for the more observant to see. For instance, we take a hint from 15th- and 16th-century cantus firmus masses, or settings of chant hymns that were sung with alternating polyphonic verses.
For those interested in learning more about chant, a hard-bound copy of the Liber Usualis can still be obtained from St. Bonaventure Publications . A brilliant source of historical, contextual, and practical information for those with a more scholarly bent is Western Plainchant: A Handbook, David Hiley, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993. There are many sources of information accessible and available on the web; one particularly clear, concise and thoroughly charming source is Gregorian Chant for Church and School, Sr. Mary Antonine Goodchild, Ginn & Co, Boston, 1944, from which we quote:
“To be beautiful the chant must be beautifully sung. The voices should be kept light. That does not mean suppressed or lifeless, but clear and mellow. There must be no harsh or forced tones, or all beauty disappears. The chant must not be sung too rapidly, but neither should it be sung too slowly.”
The Global Chant Database is an excellent online reference for searching plainchant melodies in both original sources and new editions. One can peruse the Musica Sacra site for at times informative discussion of sources and interpretation.
The video above describes and gives examples from our CD of Donna Stewart singing solo chant hymns and antiphons, scheduled (hopefully) to be released late Spring 2014. Our IndieGoGo campaign to raise the funds for this and our other two projects is down to its last two weeks – ending on February 1st. If you like our blog, and you would like to see us continue in the coming year, we’d be grateful for any support our readers can offer. Thanks.
We hear from our friends, fans and casual readers that they are sometimes surprised by the way we describe the distillation of disparate bits of information old and new, and how we show that they can connect to form a logical theme. Of course, by not indulging much in current culture and technology, we simply have our eyes and ears open to things there for all to see and hear and we’re happy to share our observations.
Today we make a few unexpected connections which we stumbled upon while researching music for our upcoming recording of French airs de cour from the late 16th- through the middle of the 17th century. We begin with a thread that is not French at all, but rather timely social observations in the form of a fairly well-known quote by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), from Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (1651)
“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
In Leviathan, Hobbes was describing conditions that were the result of civil war and what he saw as the lack of a social contract: The fabric of society today seems to be similarly tattered, but (Tra La) that’s not exclusively the point. The connection is that the frontispiece of Leviathan was engraved by Abraham Bosse (c. 1604–1676), who was also responsible for engravings found in La rhétorique des dieux (1652), a lavish compilation of lute music by Denis Gaultier (c.1597–1672) that was created for a wealthy patron, Anne de Chambré.
French airs de cour were evidently enormously popular, with 43 collections printed in France between 1608–1643. Such airs were also popular in England, with a collection Chansons et airs de court published in London by Charles Tessier in 1597, a selection found in Robert Dowland’s A Musical Banquet. Furnished with Varietie of Delicious Ayres, Collected Out of the Best Authors in English, French, Spanish and Italian (1610), and also a collection by Edward Filmer, French Court-airs, with their Ditties Englished (1629).
Among the later French collections printed in Paris by Robert Ballard, we find the title, ANTHOYNE BOESSET,/ Surintendant de la Musique de la Chambre/ du Roy, & de la Reyne./ SEIZIESME LIVRE (1643). One of the more popular airs is “N’esperez plus, mes yeux”, found on folio 12v-13. Antoine Boësset (1586–1643) was an associate of Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), and Mersenne used “N’esperez plus, mes yeux” as an example of how singers would ornament a fairly simple melody by printing diminutions by the famous singer Henry Le Bailly (c.1580–1637) on the second couplet of the air. Mersenne’s massive text, Harmonie universelle (1636), also included a good deal on mathematical and scientific subjects, connecting Mersenne with the likes of contemporaries René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, and Constantijn Huygens.
A new CD, a new edition, and a new video about how you can help:
You will be able to read—and hear—more of our connections on our upcoming recording, Doulce Mémoire, which will be the centerpiece of our three recordings planned for 2014. We will be releasing the recording with a very special edition of the scores of the music for those of you inclined to sing and play the lute. More information here. Meanwhile, we make available a pdf of “N’esperez plus, mes yeux” as an example.
The blog format allows us the opportunity to connect with our friends, colleagues and audiences, sharing useful information that illuminates the importance of historical music as logical framework for describing the intersection of sound, science, and spiritual meaning. We like to make these connections in a spirit of sharing with our readers.
At times it feels as though we are flailing about the icy seas, observing the sinking of the Titanic and drowning while relaying amusing anecdotes to those fortunate enough to have secured a seat in a lifeboat. We’ll continue as long as we can but if you enjoy what you read here, if you care about what we offer in terms of moving interpretations of historical music and meaningful characterizations of its context, and if you want us to continue, Support our tropes.
An abundance of snow has a way of making the world a quieter place. We quote the third verse of one of our favorite texts by one of our favorite poets that was given a musical setting by one of our favorite composers.
What prince so great as doth not seem to want;
what man so rich but still doth covet more;
to whom so large was ever Fortune’s grant
as for to have a quiet mind in store.
Sith in this life our pleasures all be vain
O Lord, grant me that I may them disdain.
- Sir Philip Sidney (1554 – 1586)
You may be able to hear our recording of the piece if we survive the winter.
For a dose of year-end absurdity, our quotes are drawn from the writing of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière (1622 –1673).
Don Juan: “I believe that two and two are four, Sganarelle, and that four and four are eight.”
Sganarelle: “What a fine creed that is! So far as I can see, your religion consists of arithmetic.”
- Molière, from Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre, circa 1660
Just as there is wisdom underlying Molière’s humor, there is method to our madness in tapping into his work. One of our projects for 2014 is to record a second volume of French airs de cour; the album is titled Doulce Mémoire, and we are defining the scope of the repertoire as ranging from Mésangeau to Molière.
René Mésangeau (fl. 1567–1638) was a contemporary of Robert Ballard, Jean-Baptiste Besard, and Ennemond Gaultier, and was in the service of Louis XIII where he held the title ecuyer suivant ordinairement la cour, and musicien ordinaire de Roi. Among his scant surviving output (22 courantes, 15 allemandes, 7 sarabandes and one bransle), Mésangeau’s early courantes offer a snapshot of the subtle sound-world of French music from the early 17th century. As a New Year’s Gift, we offer a pdf of edited lute tablatures for two of his earliest known courantes, written in old tuning and to be played without the instrument’s top string.
Our Doulce Mémoire project outline – from Mésangeau to Molière – offers chronological clarity as well as aesthetic variety and range, and signifies both the depth of nuance in the music for solo lute, and the functional aspect of so many airs which were conceived as popular music to be performed as pure entertainment.
We leave you with this thought, also from from Molière’s Dom Juan, where his character, Sganarelle (who was played by Molière himself), offers a reality check:
My argument, whatever you may say, is that there’s something wonderful in man which all the wise heads can’t explain. Isn’t it marvelous that I’m here, and that I have something in my head that can think a hundred different things in a second, and can make my body do whatever it likes? I can choose to clap my hands, lift my arms, raise my eyes to Heaven, bow my head, shift my feet, move to the right, to the left, forward, backward, turn around . . . (In turning around, he falls down.)
We offer a reality check as well, and ask you to visit our campaign that will enable us to continue our music and our blog. Support Our Tropes.
Poem in honor of a Very Important Day – Feast Day of St. John the Evangelist