“We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago. We are in this sense, participators in bringing about something of the universe in the distant past and if we have one explanation for what’s happening in the distant past why should we need more?”
- John Archibald Wheeler (1911 – 2008)
History can be no more than a collectively misremembered fantasy, and we seem to agree on a certain interpretation of past events and proceed accordingly. But those of us who love historical music to the point of wishing to recreate the soundworld of the past can learn much by probing a bit deeper and examining biographical information about famous musicians. There may be a few surprises.
Lute players today tend to be an entirely different class of person than musicians of the past, most of whom were clergy or servants. Of course there were the ubiquitous amateur dabblers of the noble class, but the reputation of these types was most likely exaggerated by the aforementioned servants in pursuit of patronage. Finding an instrument today is a challenge in and of itself, and the not inconsiderable cost of a lute can be a defining factor that separates the modern “haves” from the “have nots.” There is also the significant element of devoting endless antisocial hours learning the specialized techniques and attempting to understand the long-forgotten repertory, and the modern lutenist tends to be both socially awkward and nervous about dropping his or her expensive instrument.
One of the most elusive challenges for modern musicians attempting to play old music is truly grasping the unfettered passion that is characteristic of a life that always teeters on the edge of suffering and death. Today, most people who play the lute live fairly comfortable lives. Historical musicians did not.
Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c. 1470 – 1534)
Although Tromboncino was much favoured by Isabella [d’Este] and her husband [Francesco Gonzaga], his career in Mantua seems to have been a stormy one. He fled to Venice in June 1495, returning in July only at his father’s insistence, and in July 1499 he killed his wife Antonia after finding her with her lover. He was apparently pardoned for these two offences, for he is mentioned in Mantuan documents throughout the remainder of 1499 and in 1500, but he fled Mantua again in 1501. On 28 April of that year Francesco Gonzaga wrote to Verona that Tromboncino ‘has left our service in a deplorable manner and without permission, even though he was the best paid and had more favours and kindnesses and liberty than any of the courtiers in our house’. He added that Tromboncino ‘will be well advised not to leave the territory of St Mark’.
- William F. Prizer, “Bartolomeo Tromboncino,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980), 19:161.
There are other colorful historical personalities including lutenist Henri de L’Enclos (1592 – 1649), who apparently killed a nobleman in a duel and was forced into exile. Lutenist Jacques Gaultier (fl. 1617 – 1660) left his native France in 1617 after being involved in a murder and fled to England, where in 1627 he was imprisoned and tortured for having made scandalous remarks about the Duke of Buckingham (his patron), his lute student Queen Henrietta Maria, and even about the King Charles I.
In the category of famous musicians peripheral to the world of the lute, there is the well-known story about (the raving musical lunatic) Carlo Gesualdo, who married his first cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, whom he later murdered with great cruelty along with her lover Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria. Even Johann Sebastian Bach was known to have a very testy personality, and was said to have hurled offensive epithets and drawn his sword over perceived slights to his musical credibility.
The point is, it is impossible to grasp the inner passion of old music without having a passing acquaintance with an inconvenienced life. While it’s true that we all have our own particular cross to bear, the passion of old music cannot be truly felt by someone who has never known discomfort. As inherent in the old music, today we hear the most convincing music of any genre or style played by those who live the most passionate lives.
I (RA) once had a mandolin student of the investment banker-type personality who, when asked what he was hoping to gain from a lesson, responded that he wanted to learn to play like me. After a moment’s consideration, I told him that the first thing he must do is spend the night in a telephone booth during a February blizzard in upstate NY, and then he can perhaps begin to understand what it means to play like me.
In case anyone missed this piece of very important news, it has been definitively confirmed that tech giants Facebook, Google and Microsoft, in addition to active participation with NSA in questionable surveillance schemes, are firmly on the side of the Koch Bros. in support of their virulently anti-humanitarian agenda.
The story reporting on Facebook and Microsoft, with supporting information, can be accessed here. Google’s interference with copyright and the rights of authors to be paid for their work can be accessed here.
These important news items are relevant and worth posting here because the average person assumes that the services provided by these companies is of benefit to humankind. In point of fact, the companies exist for the sole purpose of enriching shareholders.
Posted as a public service.
We frequently observe far too many people aimlessly thumbing their phones in public places, and far too few people actually reading things that are printed on paper. It turns out that the arcane antique practice of reading things on physical printed paper that one can experience in a tactile manner through the sense of touch results in a better quality of comprehension.
To set a positive example—and perhaps even squeeze in a little rehearsal time—today’s quote is drawn from an article that reminds us to turn off the computer from time to time and live a little.
From the article, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” by Ferris Jabr, Scientific American, Thursday, April 11, 2013
Psychologists distinguish between remembering something—which is to recall a piece of information along with contextual details, such as where, when and how one learned it—and knowing something, which is feeling that something is true without remembering how one learned the information. Generally, remembering is a weaker form of memory that is likely to fade unless it is converted into more stable, long-term memory that is “known” from then on. When taking the quiz, volunteers who had read study material on a monitor relied much more on remembering than on knowing, whereas students who read on paper depended equally on remembering and knowing.
- Barbara W. Tuchman
The conceit of looking to the past as a reflection of ourselves at the present time seems apropos. Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978) offers a realistic balanced narrative that describes the idealized historical world we like to imagine as no more than a fantasy. The reality is that the past was much like the present, and what we know of it is entirely dependent upon who is reporting and what is their motivation.
After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening – on a lucky day – without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).
- Barbara W. Tuchman
If the person doing the reporting (or the corporate person) is motivated by commercial interests, history is described in idealized terms that will result in the selling of an idea or of a product. Sadly, most people choose to believe the sales talk and buy the idealized image, no matter how far from reality it may be. The quote at the beginning of this post says it all.
As applies to the perception and packaging of early music today, people prefer the artificial “psycho-acoustic nightmare” recorded sound that allows them to imagine a lutenist performing a few feet away, yet producing a sound imbued with cathedral-like resonance. And they prefer to have it all for free.
On the other hand, we find that people who bestir themselves and attend a live performance of our music want to hear more of the real thing. We are more than happy to oblige.
We leave you with one more quote from Barbara Tuchman that describes her discovery of a land untouched by reality.
…When [A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century] came out, I was to go down to Texas because my publisher said, “Dallas it’s the place to do some program”. And they wanted to do a telephone interview before I came. And I don’t like telephone interviews. But anyway, Texas always gets its way. The fellow said, you know, why had I called it a mirror, the usual question. And I said, “Well, I thought there were similarities in our time of disintegrating institutions and a sense of forces beyond our control and standards collapsing and norms all giving way and general distress”. “Oh”, he said…”We don‘t feel that way in Texas!”
Our selection of Saturday morning quotes includes just a few short snippets that can be found in the Dowland Anniversary issue of Early Music, v. 41, no. 2, May 2013. We urge our readers to follow the links and read the entire publication for a treasure trove of commentary by some of our more astute scholars and our best performers. Or, if you are a musician, do like us and borrow a copy from a generous friend. We quote from three articles in the issue and add our commentary.
Roger Savage, “This is the record of John: eight decades of Dowland on disc”, Early Music (2013) 41 (2): 281-294.
“…alas we have no record (in any sense) of Dowland singing, or even any certainty that he did sing. Yet it is surely not far-fetched to suggest that in a performance for connoisseurs he would have wanted a voice that, beyond line and projection, was adept at adding decoration when the time was right (melodic decoration or decoration by vibrato): a voice too that was concerned to liase intimately with its instrumental partner or partners.”
- p. 292
Those who have read our survey of contextual evidence that informs us as to the training of a typical Elizabethan musician will guess that we might take issue with the first part of this statement. One might say that we have no conclusive evidence that Dowland ever wore shoes, therefore he must have always performed with bare feet. Realistically, we can safely say that if Dowland played an instrument, he undoubtedly was first trained as a singer. The question should be framed to determine whether he was a notable singer, or even a good singer. Although the very idea of whether vibrato was used as a decoration or otherwise seems gratuitous, we certainly agree that, in singing Dowland, a voice must meld intimately with the instrument rather than merely be proximate.
Hopkinson Smith, “‘Whose heavenly touch doth ravish human sense…’”, Early Music (2013) 41 (2): 295-297.
“We have all heard voices of such beauty and focus that, at first, our sensitivities seemed riveted to the sound. But after five or ten minutes, when no dynamism or intelligence guided and developed this sound, such voices lost their immediacy.”
- p. 295
We couldn’t agree more. While projected singing dazzles and fills a room with its sound, a naturally-appealing voice used sensitively and to good advantage not only balances well with the lute, but simply suits the aesthetic of domestic lute songs of Dowland.
Nigel North, “Searching for Dowland”, Early Music (2013) 41 (2): 301-305.
“I have to ask myself, was Dowland more interested in ravishing our senses with his beautiful tone than playing at a dazzling speed? Again, my instinct agrees with [Richard] Barnfield, rather than the speed- and goal-oriented performances that we may hear in the 21st century where motivation seems often to be about playing fast and loud, and making a virtuosic impression. Many writers from the 16th century and later classify good musicians to be those that communicate with true rhetoric, moving the hearts and minds of the listeners.”
- p. 304
Like many of our friends and colleagues involved in historical music, we love to discover and preserve performing traditions that allow real people to share real music in a context that serves all to the best advantage.
Our research has led us to the example of historical duos who originally performed the music we recreate today, including that of Marchetto Cara and his wife, Giovanna Moreschi. Cara was mentioned by name in Baldassare Castiglione’s (1478 – 1529) manual on conduct of the ideal courtier, Il Cortegiano (1528) as a evocative example of an effective singer:
Consider music, the harmonies of which are now solemn and slow, now very fast and novel in mood and manner. And yet all give pleasure, although for different reasons, as is seen in Bidone’s manner of singing which is so full of artifice, so quick, vehement, impassioned and has such various melodies that the spirits of his listeners are stirred and catch fire, and are so entranced that they seem to be lifted upwards to heaven. No less moving in his singing is our Marchetto Cara, only with a softer harmony, for in a manner serene and full of plaintive sweetness he touches and enters our souls, gently impressing a delightful passion upon them.
Cara and Giovanna Moreschi, were an early 16th century model for Mignarda, as a professional duo performing the hits of the day with the winning combination of voice and lute. Pietro Aretino (1492 – 1556) left behind a large corpus of correspondence with literati and persons of noble rank and position; in a particularly sardonic letter dated 22 November 1537, he describes an old man strutting down the street indignantly singing ‘O mia cieca e dura sorte,’ offering a clue that informed our own quite alternative delivery of the text. First, the song was sung while walking down the street giving us the clue that the pulse of the bass line was meant to be regular and perhaps even a bit bouncy. At the next level, the ‘strutting’ aspect of the song helped inform the delivery of the text, suggesting we steer away from the more usual slow and mournful treatment of the frottola to that of a rather histrionic public protestation of ill treatment.
Moving ahead in time, we encounter composer-singer Girard de Beaulieu and Violante Doria, singer and lutenist, a couple who were among the best paid musicians in the French royal court, circa 1572. In addition to their own compositions, they may have sung their own arrangements of current pop standards of the day such as ‘Bonjour mon coeur’ by Orlando de Lassus (1532-1594).
More current examples include the inspiring team of Ruth Etting and Eddie Lang, or the very effective duo of Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass. We find these examples offer a direct link to the past that leads us to perform music as a living tradition as opposed to a museum reconstruction.
We have a particular point of view in our performances and we have occasionally been accused of delivering ‘dreamy’ or ‘romantic’ interpretations, as though we were tapping into the 19th-century aesthetic of Chopin or Brahms instead of the more elusive 16th-century mindset of Josquin or Dowland. Given that we never (willingly) indulge in 19th-century classical music, we’ll take issue with the idea that our performances are even remotely touched by an anachronistic sensibility that we as musicians have effectively side-stepped in our training and in our choice of specialization. But we are not above learning from those who write intelligently about their experience of ‘Romantic’ music.
Our musical point of view is derived from a serious involvement with our chosen repertoire on a deep level, meaning we choose to perform our music with a thoroughly researched and well-informed interpretive sense, as opposed to just playing the notes in a dry and impersonal manner. This is because we are musicians who care about musical matters and we are not concerned with the divergent demands of maintaining a career in the world of academics.
The conventional approach to training in early music has been handed down to us by academics who frequently lead a cloistered life removed from the practical demands of making money from music. While we as musicians sometimes benefit from the results of their work, a scholarly immersion in the theoretical details of archival payment records tells us more about the lives of historical musicians than the sounds they actually made. On the other hand, musicians who involve themselves in the artistic aspects of historical music can share a very thoughtful point of view that is useful in developing a real artistic link with composers and musicians of the past.
“I have used the word ‘interpreter’ rather than ‘performer’ in my title because the latter word always had a pejorative connotation for me. It brings to mind a trained monkey who has assiduously learned his tricks and then performs them publicly, usually in a circus. To interpret is a much deeper, more laborious and infinitely more rewarding endeavour. I perform the piano and interpret Mozart. I do not interpret the piano and perform Mozart.”
“Of course, after 200 years of evolution there are enormous differences in what music has to say and how it says it. For me, tonality cannot be dissociated from its deep grounding in vocal music, in singing. If I ever want to know how a phrase of Mozart’s goes, or what I should do with it, I sing it. It is easy because inevitably it comes out right. The difficulty arises when I try to realize it on my instrument: that is where the ‘performing’ part comes in: hours and hours of practicing and honing my craft.”
- Jacob Lateiner. “An interpreter’s approach to Mozart,” Early Music (May 1992) XX (2): p. 245.
The lute is not an easy instrument to play well. Not only does it require excellent technique merely to play beyond not sounding bad, but it requires as a starting place the musical intelligence to identify the musical possibilities of a particular piece, the musical sensitivity to organize and convey lines, phrasing, and dynamic contrasts, and the chops to create an integrated idea of the whole. Once one develops this level of instrumental involvement, he or she is ready to tackle musical interpretation.
In order to deliver a convincing interpretation of any music, one must thoroughly learn the material one means to interpret, whether it is Mozart or Marenzio. That means taking the time to learn and understand the performing traditions and the practical functions of what was once more than just a time-transporting moment of entertainment. Once the practical information is assimilated, the work of interpretation begins. Interpretation requires perceptiveness, intelligence and sensitivity.
Lateiner told us that a performer is able to reproduce information but a musical interpreter must possess a deeper understanding that probes the finer points of a composition and brings the music to life engagingly. For us, this does not involve gimmicks, distractions and costumes, but instead, an involvement beyond just playing the notes. If our level of involvement results in a ‘dreamy’ or ‘romantic’ sound, you can bet your life it’s because those elements are in the music and we simply bother to convey them.