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Saturday morning quotes 4.16: Sage advice

This weekly series of quotes, now in its fourth year, often features and contexualizes bits from historical literature and music that emphasize the human need to maintain a link to creative arts.  This is what defines our humanity.  Today’s quote follows this theme, and our subtitle could very well read, “Why we bother.”

Our quote is drawn from an excellent article that touches upon the use and dissemination of music for lute and vihuela as a thriving emblem of humanism in the 16th century.  Humanism, derived from the Latin and the concept of humanitas, is frequently equated with secularism, a mistake when placed in its 16th-century context.  We prefer to think of humanism in its historical context as humanitarian benevolence, an apt amplification of most religious ideals.

The article is by Professor Jack Sage, specialist in music, poetry and drama of renaissance Spain.  Sage’s work includes the English translation of an important 20th-century Spanish text by Surrealist, Juan Eduardo Cirlot Laporta (1916 – 1973), Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Jack Sage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1983.  But we are most concerned with his work on the dedicatory texts of lute and vihuela books of the 16th century, including this extract from the print by Diego Pisador (c.1509 – 1557), Libro de música de Vihuela, Salamanca, 1552:

“…by printing his books, the composer fulfills his duty towards society setting out to profit all those desirous of learning music, without which man is seen to lack maturity and wit.”

Sage added this bit of context:

“Indeed, this may be construed as a statement, representative of the vihuelists and lutenists generally, of commitment to a belief in the artist’s duty to foster self-improvement in the individual for the common weal, a statement which seems to me to be at the heart of their ‘humanism’.”

- Jack Sage, “A new look at humanism in 16th-century lute and vihuela books,” Early Music, Volume XX, Number 4, November 1992, p. 636.

This is probably the best and most appropriate description of why we as Mignarda bother to preserve, perform and publish old music.  Mignarda Editions is a series of publications of music that’s good for you, for the beguiling performance medium of of voice and lute and/or vihuela – or even guitar.  The editions present unique and rare music that is selected, edited and arranged for maximum ease of performance.  We make a pittance on these editions, but it does help us survive and keep up our exercise in humanitarian benevolence.  And we like to think that’s good for everyone.

Saturday morning quotes 4.15: Elemental music

We tend to take every opportunity to remind our readers that to ignore history is to invite avoidable encounters with disaster, misery and peril. Repeating unfortunate aspects of our historical past, such as enabling society’s trend towards feudalism, is the natural result of a complacent populace.  But dismissing important cultural links to the past such as the importance of music and its essential function is a soul-deadening exercise in ignorance.

Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries music played a major role in the religious and social life of the Burgundian–Netherlands courts. Sacred music was closely bound to the daily activities of the court chapelMass, hours (especially vespers), and special rituals, such as memorial services, solemnization of treaties, marriages, and so on. The chapel music was in the hands of the clergy and trained singers, two groups that are not easily distinguished. Members of the court chapel combined the tasks of priest, singer, composer, choirmaster, organist, music teacher, and scribe in the course of their duties.

- Martin Picker, The Chanson Albums of Marguerite of Austria, University of California Press, Cambridge, 1965, p.21.

Music is still here, there and everywhere if we step outside ourselves for a moment and take notice.  Of course radio, TV and movies serve up a constant supply of sounds that some call music.  We are also inundated with canned soundtracks in public spaces whether over an invisible PA system or via appalling ring tones that spew from devices that seem to occupy everyone’s pockets. But music that is not visibly produced by a real person is categorized as incidental.

As every lutenist knows, taking the considerable amount of time from one’s life to learn to play the lute well is a thankless exercise.  Even fellow musicians don’t seem to understand that a quiet instrument demands focused attention from the listener, and not an amplifier.  Unlike the denizens of the 15th-century Burgundian court, scheduling meditative time to thoughtfully linger in the realm of quiet and nuanced sound isn’t on everyone’s 21st-century daily agenda. But we think it should be.

Music for the lute is elemental.  But taking music a step closer to its fundamental elements, music for solo voice is pure and absolute.  Donna Stewart’s new recording of solo chant hymns and Marian antiphons, Adoro Te, is gaining traction among the cognoscenti, despite our distinct lack of effective promotion while dwelling off-the-grid.  Reviewer Mary Jane Ballou gave the recording a glowing review on the Chant Cafe site, and we are pleased to know that listeners are willing to step inside the spiritual realm of vital and necessary music that has fed the human soul for the past several centuries.



Saturday morning quotes 4.14: Forward into the past

Today’s short post points the finger at modern news media’s tendency to mindlessly repeat common knowledge as a some new and sensational discovery.

Musical expression is essential to a balanced human existence. Everyone used to know this fact until the ubiquitous corporate commercialism of the last few generations retrained the public to consider music solely as a consumer item.  We now have the results of research that tells us music has healing powers.

We suggest that the news machine take a slightly different tack and promote the study of history, wherein one may discover that nothing is new under the sun.  Through our series of quotes, we have mentioned several examples of the historical truth that the study of music leads to a more balanced and intelligent person.  We suggest that people who still possess inquiring minds ignore the commercial advert-driven news media and read what scraps of history that remain available.

Infinite is the sweet variety that the theorique of music exerciseth the mind withal, as the contemplation of proportion, of concords and discords, diversity of moods and tones, infiniteness of invention, &c.  But I dare affirm there is no one science in the world that so affecteth the free and generous spirit with a more delightful and inoffensive recreation or better disposeth the mind to what is commendable and virtuous.


- Henry Peacham (c. 1576-1643), The Compleat Gentleman



Saturday morning quotes 4.13: Expressive power

As we continue to read and study the surviving words of those who had something to say about historical music when it was still fresh, new, and functional, expressiveness is the theme that emerges. For whatever reason, many early music revivalists favor a more detached approach to interpretation of historical music, seemingly out of fear of possibly getting it wrong.  Anthony Rooley, who has written convincingly about the expressive power of historical performance, writes:

“And then came the Age of Reason, and the Age of Enlightenment, and a fear of any performance that went in too deeply.  Art as confection ruled, and the stories of Orpheus were trivialized in order to amuse.”

- Anthony Rooley, “Orpheus Reviv’d, the remaking of mythology in the 16th century,” Lute News 110, July 2014, p. 37.

The power of expression in sacred music likewise seems to have suffered from the dispassionate and inoffensive approach typical from the late 18th century onward.  While the current movement in some quarters toward restitution of Gregorian chant and sacred poiyphony to the liturgy is to be commended, most of this music heard today has a distant, detached and dispassionate quality that represents more of a 19th-century aesthetic than that of the time in which it was sung as functional music for worship.

“What is true about Spanish polyphony of the siglo de oro is its warmth, its expressive power.  Composers like Morales and Victoria played constantly with tension and relaxation to express not only the actual words of the text but its underlying meaning.  In some ways, their music is so deeply religious that it becomes more than religious, their expression of love, as in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila or the poetry of St. John of the Cross, transcends the spiritual and becomes almost sensual; when you hear Victoria’s Ave Maria, its beauty shakes not only your spirit but your whole body.”

- Jordi Savall, “Performing Spanish Music,” Early Music, Vol. xx, No. 4, November 1992, p. 653

We tend to follow informed instincts in our interpretation historical music, sacred or secular.  But it is essential to do the hard work of fully understanding the technical complexities of any repertory in order to arrive at a performance that communicates the expressive power of the text and the music without the appearance of effort.

“Sometimes, as in Guerrero’s Pater noster, the problem of achieving a successful balance between voices and instruments can only be solved by experimentation.  In this work you have a quadruple canon: four voices with four different themes are echoed a 4th higher at a distance of two bars.”

- Jordi Savall

Our recording of i6th-century Spanish motets, Harmonia Caelestis, can be heard here, and our live performance of Guerrero’s Pater noster can be  heard here.


Saturday morning quotes 4.12: Values

In the world of historical lute music, we constantly rub elbows with the idea of historical accuracy and run across references to the discredited and outmoded descriptor, authenticity.  Such concepts are a luxury of our times; an era when recreation of the past trumps engaged participation in the culture of the present.

It turns out that a similar level of classification of sources and discernment as applied to authenticity touches another part of our musical lives, the world of old-time songs and traditional fiddle tunes.  For whatever misguided reasons, song and tune collectors of today seem to place great store in the idea of “pure” (oral or aural) sources of their favorite songs and tunes, often ignoring the realities of the transmission of music and the actual living dimensions of the people who originally played it.  The fact is that many favorite fiddle and banjo tunes that seem to have a mystical history were gleaned from written collections published in the 19th century, and many favorite songs and ballads were learned from the towering piles of published sheet music from the same era.

One of my favorite old-time fiddlers from the golden age of recorded music was Lowe Stokes (1898-1983), a versatile and flexible musician who played hillbilly tunes like he meant it, but who was also capable of playing popular songs by Jerome Kern as necessary.  Stokes was the subject of a longish poem by Stephen Vincent Benét (1898–1943), The Mountain Whippoorwill (Or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddlers’ Prize).  Having lost his right hand in a shooting accident, Stokes continued to play the fiddle until his demise after being “rediscovered” in the early 1980s.

Our quote for today concerns Lowe Stokes and is by Tony Russell, probably the most knowledgeable historian of American fiddle tunes on planet Earth.

The old-time enthusiast bent on separating “real” old-time tunes from the regrettable flash company in which they find themselves on the records of Lowe Stokes and others is committed to a musical value-system which those artists would not have shared, approved or even understood.

- Tony Russell, notes to Lowe Stokes In Chronological Order, Volume 1, 1927-1930 (Document Records DOCD 8045)

We share this quote to put into perspective the fact that historical musicians of all eras had more dimension to their lives than we care to consider from the remove of many centuries.  Josquin was a successful musician because he was a businessman in a era when musicians were mere servants.  Dowland played whatever he darned well pleased, including tunes he filched from foreign sources.  Mozart wrote sublime music but was a very crude human being.

The span of many years and the luxury of living in an age of re-created music allows us to view historical figures through a blurred lens, applying our modern and adjusted values to their lives and to the nature of their art.  Reality is more flexible.

Saturday morning quotes 4.11: Lute or guitar?

Last week’s post that outlined a few broad points concerning new compositions of music for lute sparked a bit of discussion, mostly among guitarists.  While the repertoire for the two instruments may be readily transferred with varying degrees of success, the physical differences, acoustical properties, and methods of tone production between guitar and lute are quite significant.

“Taking a geometrically generated outline, and with the help of proportional cross and longitudinal sections, [lute makers] visualized the complete interior air cavity, mentally adding or subtracting pieces of air, as it were, until they had the desired shape… Understandably, then, the lute’s bowl shape is as subtle and complex as that of a violin’s carved belly and back arching, with many variables in the air mass volume and distribution, each variable producing substantial changes in tone color, of bias in power, projection, and/or balance.”

- Robert Lundberg, “In Tune with the Universe: The Physics and Metaphysics of Galileo’s Lute,”  from Music and Science in the Age of Galileo. Ed. V. Coelho. University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science 51. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992: 221-222.

Nearly all of today’s better-known lutenists started out on guitar, with a few notable exceptions, including Stephen Stubbs and Lynda Sayce.  Robert Barto and Karl-Ernst Schröder recorded an album of guitar duets on the lute’s more modern cousin, and even Paul O’Dette recorded modern guitar duets with Thomas Binkley and the Studio Der Frühen Musik ‎on the LP, L’Agonie Du Languedoc (1976).

There are several thoughtful discussions written by skilled lutenists dissecting the details of their transition from guitar to lute, like that of Richard Sweeny.

The main difference between the two instruments has to do with just how much inconvenience the player is willing to endure.  The guitar is reliable, stable and solidly-built.  The lute is lightweight, unwieldy and unpredictable. The merest whiff of hot or cold air will cause the tuning to go awry.  Humidity or the lack of it can wreak absolute havoc on the thin membrane that is the top. The transparency of tone leaves the player nowhere to hide if there is the least little lapse of control in tone production.

But we still like the guitar and enjoy playing all sorts of music, old and new, that is well-conceived and sensitively written.  It so happens that composer John David Lamb, the author of the quote featured in last week’s blog post, has written such a piece for guitar, and has kindly agreed to make the score available for interested and intrepid guitarists:  Impromptu, by John David Lamb (PDF).

Saturday morning quotes 4.10: New music for lute

Now in its fourth year, Unquiet Thoughts was and is primarily an outlet for musings on music for the lute and how it does or does not fit into the aesthetics of modern life. In our ever-growing archive of essays, one of the more frequently visited posts posed a handful of questions that asked whether the lute was an appropriate medium for modern sounds.

Originally designed to convey quiet and intimate music for ears that could hear detail and nuance that would be disturbed by the sound of a mouse, the lute still likes quiet music and does not respond well to the force necessary to be audible to modern ears.  But quiet, subtle music that demands a tiny bit of concentrated listening offers our modern ears a moment of respite from the constant mechanical or electronic din that is so much a part of life that it seems normal.  We could do with less background noise and more music for lute.

There are currently several composers actively crafting new music for the lute, and a few web sites that link to individuals who have music on offer. Lynda Sayce and Susan King have a site that has a comprehensive list of composers and their works. Peter Croton hosts a more recently compiled listing of composers including the prolific Brian Wright. Gilbert Isbin is also a very active composer and, like Brian Wright, has published quite a bit of his of his music through the Lute Society (UK). Ronn McFarlane –  whose original lute solos were published by Mignarda Editions and are now available through the Lute Society (UK) –  regularly performs his own music with his ensemble Ayreheart.

Nearly every professional lutenist active today started out playing the lute’s modern relative, the guitar. So it’s no wonder that much new music for the lute bears the mark of this more universal instrument.  It is very difficult to shake off the influences of 400 years of changing musical style and instrumental techniques that have intervened since the lute was in its heyday.  But the lute has particular characteristics that don’t always transfer from the sound and playing techniques specific to the guitar.

We are involved in our own project of composing modern lute songs, and below is a short summary of personal observations that point towards effective use of the resources of the lute in this medium.

1.Resonance. The lute responds to the resonance of open strings and this resource should be used as often as possible.  Cross-string resonance that allows dissonant intervals to mingle gently is a particularly pleasant characteristic of the instrument, and the relative quiet volume of the lute does not create the jangly jarring dissonance that one expects from the more robust guitar.

2. Polyphony. The lute loves transparent lines and sounds better when there is more than one audible part.  Dense counterpoint is more difficult to manage on the lute than on keyboard instruments but it is surprising just how well it can work.  Music for the baroque lute is more akin to later music for guitar with a treble and bass texture, but music for the old tuning on a lighter instrument can handle clear polyphony in two or more parts if attention is paid to intelligent fingerings and use of open strings.

3. Range and keys. Renaissance lute tuning favors the keys of G and C and the flat keys (F, B-flat, E-flat) and their relative minors.  Music in sharp keys typical to guitar can be managed but the resonance disappears when playing in closed positions: Typically, a lutenist will simply transpose guitar music to lute-friendly keys that produce similar fingerings.  Ideally, the higher positions are used sparingly, again because the resonance disappears.  The higher frets of the lute are glued to the top of the instrument and touching the top reduces volume.

4. Style. Spiky, jangly angular music does not charm the ear. Why not compose that sort of music for other instruments that can handle those effects?  The lute invites the listener into the sound-world rather than projecting outward.  When listeners make themselves vulnerable by entering that quiet sound-world, why not give them a positive experience?

This last item leads us to today’s quote by composer, John David Lamb, who has not to our knowledge composed any music specifically for lute, but has such an intelligent and appealing approach to composing that we are compelled to share his words.

As artists we can choose to be accessible or we can choose to be prickly, or even sometimes one and sometimes the other.  I do not believe that being accessible is the same as pandering.  Nor do I believe that a prickly piece is necessarily more sophisticated, profound, or content-laden because it is obscure.  The important thing is that the content should bear some relationship to the amount of effort required to get at it.  If a work demands that a listener quarry every last ounce of meaning, then the meaning had better be worth the struggle.  I think audiences respond well to art when they are given some reason to believe that the artist actually has something to say, and it is up to the artist to give them that reason.

I try to keep in mind that at the same time that I am an artist, I am also an entertainer whose art requires that the consumer sit quietly for a while.  This is a considerable responsibility, and as I write I have in the back of my mind, is this really worth sitting still for? This is often a sobering thought, and it has caused me to throw away many a page that at first glance seemed acceptable, if not actually good.  Future audiences will be grateful! I like to think the pages I have saved can stand on their own merits and that they will give pleasure to performers and listeners alike.

- John David Lamb, from the essay, Why I Write The Way I Do (Summer, 1997)



This blog post was composed hurriedly and, while not meant to include a comprehensive list of modern composers for the lute, overlooked mentioning one of the more prolific contributors, Roman Turovsky.


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