To be hardly heard is the lutenist’s lot in life. Solo lute recitals always provide a unique opportunity for the artist who employs an historically-appropriate tone production to share rare repertory played on a sensitive and expressive instrument, only to be informed afterwards by members of the audience that the music seemed nice but was barely audible. But a professional musician who may be accustomed to performing ensemble music on more conventional instruments must develop a rhinoceros-hide thick skin when it comes to incorporating the lute into any sort of ensemble, small or large. We are constantly told—even by people who really should know better—that the lute is just too quiet, and can’t we please do something to make it louder?
It’s bad enough to endure asides and smirks from fellow musicians who play loud instruments only capable of producing a single noisome note at a time. But it’s just too much when keyboard players pass judgement on our much misunderstood and more subtle lute. One wishes to be charitable and overlook the fact that many keyboardists simply can’t comprehend the advanced level of control required to play polyphonic music on the lute. They are accustomed to sitting down and pressing the keys of an instrument conveniently tuned and placed there for them. The lutenist schleps his instrument, tunes, tempers, and with the digits of both hands manages a highly sensitive coordinated touch with fingertips in contact with unruly strings. By comparison, playing a keyboard instrument really is like pushing buttons.
However, there is a keyboard instrument that might be the great leveler—the clavichord. Amusingly considered by some a mere “practice” instrument and not suitable for performance, the clavichord has a mechanical keyboard-activated design with hammers striking strings, but it produces a volume quite similar to that of the lute. In some respects a forerunner to the modern pianoforte, the keys of the clavichord respond to the degree of pressure applied by the fingers, and is therefore capable of (slight) gradations of volume and more tonal nuance than the harpsichord.
Ralph Kirkpatrick (1911 – 1984), best known for his catalog of the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti, was among the pioneering champions of the clavichord. Kirkpatrick first studied the clavichord with Arnold Dolmetsch, was performing public recitals on the instrument in 1933, and went so far as to record Bach on the clavichord as early as the 1940s.
Offering a keyboard specialist’s keen insight into playing a very quiet instrument for audiences accustomed to thundering iron-framed double Forte-pianos, Kirkpatrick’s remarks about initiating listeners to the sound of the clavichord should help keyboard players understand what it’s like to be very quiet for a change. Our quotes are liberally drawn from the essential article, Ralph Kirkpatrick, “On playing the clavichord,” Early Music 9.3 (Jul. 1981): 293-305. Kirkpatrick had so many insightful observations that it was necessary to assign our own categories.
“My musical approach was instinctive and guided for the most part by what I heard coming from the instrument. Nothing has ever done more to sharpen my ear, not even the experience of choral singing, than my unremitting listening to what I was producing…The very limitations of its volume can help to sharpen [one's] imagination. But within these limitations, no infractions of proportion can be tolerated. Starting at whatever the clavichord’s greatest level of volume may be, the progression from there into silence must be smooth and susceptible of every nuance within those narrow limits.”
“[The clavichord]… is always on the losing end of any competition with radios, refrigerators, traffic noises and air conditioners, much in the same way as in Bach’s day it must have lost out against the cries of street vendors, the rattle of horseshoes and carriage wheels, and the sounds emitted by even the most wellbrought-up houseful of children.”
- p. 296
Tone production and articulation
“The inherent tendency of their covered strings toward coarseness and muddiness must be counteracted by the player as best he can. Any forcing of sound can wreak destruction not only on the intonation but on the whole musical fabric, and the player must be ready at all times to balance and to undercut a sound in such a way as to establish the proportion of a piece as a whole.”
- p. 298
“Over the years I had become more consciously aware of the procedures involved in shaping the performance of any work of music. Constant singing of individual voices and expanded experience of continuo playing, the disciplines and devices of articulation necessary to render the implacable harpsichord expressive, and constant harmonic and rhythmic analysis had given me a capacity more accurately and precisely to guide my natural musical instincts. Without this background, I could never have faced up to the consummate difficulties of attempting to execute [Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Klavier] Book 2 on the clavichord.”
- p. 301
“My attempts at performing on the clavichord for more than a handful of people were always limited by the nature of the room in which I was playing, by the character of the audience, and above all, by the necessity of absolute freedom from interference by outside sounds. Even under the most ideal circumstances, the effect of a performance could be at the mercy of someone’s fit of coughing, of objects inadvertently dropped or, on one hideous occasion, of the sounding-off of an alarm-clock in someone’s pocket. All of these dangers were constantly present…”
- p. 301
Tuning and recording
“After much experimenting with balance and position of microphones, and after the playbacks had been carefully scrutinized, the actual recording began, and with it our real troubles. In the course of the heat wave which overtook all of Europe that summer, the skylights of the studio permitted the sun at different times of day to cause an enormous variation in temperature, and hence in humidity. The daily fluctuations between morning, midday and afternoon made necessary repeated checking and tuning of the clavichord. Since I have never allowed anyone else to tune a clavichord for my performances, this burden fell upon me.”
- p. 302
“The necessarily instantaneous shifting from the detached workmanlike objectivity of a conscientious tuner to the passionate involvement of the performing artist, and consequent instantaneous transformation of personality, put me under a strain greater than any to which I have ever been subjected. It goes without saying that the better-tempered I kept the clavichord the more ill-tempered I myself became.”
“Only long prior discipline and what must be a certain native fortitude can have kept me from exploding at frequent intervals. But in addition to the constant necessity of retuning, other obstacles presented themselves. By mid-morning on sunny days, the excessive heat caused the roof beams to emit slight squeaking noises as they warmed in the late morning sun. In the framework of clavichord recording these squeaks became thunderclaps, and any acceptable recording made at that time of day had to be sandwiched between them.”
“Throughout the day, at least every nine minutes or even more often, an aeroplane made its way over our heads to or from the Hamburg airport. We tried recording in the small hours of the night, but then the whistles of the barges and steamboats on the Elbe took over. When I finally realized that I was faced with an ordeal even greater than that which I had endured in Paris, I sat for a time shaking from head to foot and thinking that every nerve in my body and consciousness would snap.”
- p. 303
“No one who has never experienced the magic of a good clavichord performance can be expected to understand that these recordings are meant to be played at a level of volume that would be entirely covered by an ordinary speaking voice. Unlike so many of today’s recordings they cannot be overheard, they must be listened to.”
“The strain and focus of attention attendant upon actually hearing what is being played forms part of the intensity of the experience of listening to the clavichord. In these days when the air is polluted from every direction by sound emanating from loudspeakers, a complete reversal of prevailing attitudes is necessary. Under such conditions as still are possible, silence must be rediscovered and no musical sound merely taken for granted. Dimensions are no longer absolutes but determined by proportions.”
“In listening to clavichord music, there is something of gazing into a microscope at the structure and behaviour of the minutest particles or of searching the heavens with a telescope for galaxies billions of light years away. We are transported out of a sense of scale that is determined by our actual physical dimensions, in a sense liberated from space and time and brought into a world of essential imagination.”
- p. 304
The future of quiet music
“I am not certain what the future of the clavichord will be. Almost anything about it is in direct contradiction with the prevailing tendencies of the present-day world, and with the ever-increasing imposition on us of ready-made and mass-produced sensibilities…The clavichord demands resources of concentration, intimacy, and delicacy with which everything around us is constantly at war, for it seems that the majority of mankind has decided henceforth to ban the occurrence of silence even for a moment.
The vogue into which the harpsichord and above all the guitar have returned has become habitual and extroverted, whereas the cultivation of the clavichord perilously resembles the solitary exploit of engraving the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. Yet one can only suppose that as long as people continue to read poetry, to maintain gardens, to observe the cycle of the seasons, to cultivate and refine their sensibilities as human beings, there will always be somewhere a place for the clavichord.”
- p. 305
Kirkpatrick’s observations relate exactly and directly to the experience of playing the lute. Frequent tuning, complete and constant control over each and every note, immense concentration upon details of musical phrasing, a highly nuanced tone that cannot bear interruption by the least whisper of a competing sound: The lute poses all of these challenges in common with the clavichord—but without keys and hammers to moderate one’s touch. Get it?
The clavichord endures to this day and finds favor among the cognoscenti, sometimes turning up in very unexpected places. An absolute favorite is a recording of music from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess featuring guitarist Joe Pass and the amazing Oscar Peterson on clavichord (Pablo Records, 1976). Peterson is more tastefully subdued than usual, using the quiet volume and responsive touch of the instrument to produce some finely-tuned blue notes, and the balance and interplay with Joe Pass, playing acoustically, makes this one of the most sublime recordings ever. Listen to their rendition of the perennial Summertime, and hear for yourself.
Having spent a year in the higher altitudes just south of the Oregon border, on our last trip north to Portland we made a spontaneous turnoff through the sleepy Mennonite settlement of Scio, OR, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade mountains. Where the gently rolling farmland begins to give way to a dense uniformity of conifers, Hungry Hill filters into view, a sight that evokes a wave of happy remembrance. As we drove up the narrow track to the farm, I half-expected Jane—the working border collie who once ran the place—to spring from her command center under the front porch and thoroughly vet the credentials of each and every visitor with military precision. But Jane has done her life’s work, and the place showed every sign of having endured despite her absence.
To the average city-slicker, the farm at Hungry Hill seems like 180 acres of park-like splendor, perhaps just a little tattered around the edges. But it’s still a working sheep farm and the home of a sizable chorus of sheep ready and willing to lament their condition in a characteristically deep basso profundo. Sally and John White moved here in the 1960s and spent the best part of their lives raising four children and living off their land with the reluctant cooperation of the sheep—and their byproducts. This endeavor was not without its trials and troubles, but social music helped them through some of the rough patches, sustaining them as both nourishment and reward.
I first met John & Sally in the late 1970s while they were staffing their stall at the Portland Saturday Market, an open-air market operated by craftspeople for the purpose of selling their wares directly to an appreciative public. Sally and John were the very image of the sort of people I wanted to grow up to be: dressed in richly colored handspun woolen sweaters and caps, surrounded by skeins of beautifully-dyed yarn and hand-woven fabrics, and busily indulging in their folk arts while shoppers were eating it up. At their market stall, John would sit quietly at a spinning wheel making yarn while Sally beamed at passers-by in such a way that you knew stopping in, handling the woolens, and paying good money for something, anything, was simply the right thing to do.
John was the self-contained and calmly quiet type, and you might think he had no opinion to offer until you looked into his deep-set, penetrating eyes that conveyed quite enough confidence for six or seven people. Spinning yarn seemed like the logical and productive thing for him to do as long as they were sitting still in one place for the duration. Spinning the other kind of yarn seemed like an unnecessary use of breath and wear and tear on the vocal cords, but if there was something you wanted to know about the way things worked, you only had to ask and he would answer clearly, concisely and respectfully.
Sally, on the other hand, was one of those rare people who could make you feel as though what you had to say was the most important thing she had heard that day, and the world was a much better place for whatever nonsense you were spewing. Possessing an attractive angular jawline, when Sally smiled the entire sphere around her was illumined by the warm glow. And Sally smiled often, particularly when there was a fiddle tucked under her chin.
A real violinist by training until she quit, either to pursue other interests or to spite her professional-musician father, Sally had all the chops necessary to play whatever she chose. And she chose to play fiddle music, by ear and with people she liked being around. I was lucky enough to be one of those people, and Sally was kind enough to put up with a youngish self-taught fiddler trying on different styles of music. Early on, she kindly asked where I had studied and learned harmony so thoroughly, and I had to respond that I had no training at all. That changed and I eventually pursued a music degree, foolishly thinking it would add substance to my musical intuition. Sally was even kind enough to drive a few hours and perform violin-viola duets with me for my final recital.
Sally enjoyed playing a variety of fiddle music, mainly good tunes that offered opportunities to improvise harmonies. We wound up playing in different ensembles with different people but two constants were Sally’s warm, round violin tone and John’s accompaniment, either his sparsely dependable banjo playing or his archaic, charming and wholly appropriate parlor-style guitar. For several years running, we played a regular restaurant gig, countless weddings and occasional dances. Later, the focus was concentrated almost exclusively on dance music after Sally caught the bug to play Scandinavian fiddle tunes.
David Lamb, a composer of some renown and John & Sally’s long-term friend, was the source of the Scandinavian bug. David is mostly known for his delightful music for saxophones but, having spent some time in Sweden, he took up the fiddle, began collecting traditional tunes, and eventually composed quite a fistful of miniatures in the traditional idiom. Being in the right place at the right time, I was fortunate to imbibe in David’s fiddle tunes nearly before the ink was dry, and performed many of these quirky gems for a monthly Scandinavian dance with Sally and John, who had taken up the fiddle himself.
David’s dedicatory tune, “Sally’s Waltz” (#1) was a favorite that was played nearly every time we cracked open the fiddle cases and rosined the bows. You can hear a snippet of the tune in a recording of fiddle duets David made a few years ago with his daughter, Barbara. I simply cannot think of Sally, her beaming smile and her warm tone, without this charming tune as a soundtrack mind-worm.
Time marches on and all things change. I finished school, moved away and lost touch with John and Sally. In 2004, Donna and I were making that trip from south of the Oregon border to record our first CD, Divine Amarillis, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to make an unannounced detour to Hungry Hill for a last short visit before heading east. Jane, the highly-efficient border collie, had long since gone to her reward, and John’s health had declined to the point that he was in care by then. But Sally was just as warm and hospitable as ever, and she dusted off a spare instrument so we might play a few fiddle duets for old time’s sake. She politely inquired about the current preoccupation with early music, and when I played some atmospheric French lute music and Donna sang a few choice airs, she beamed and made us believe it was truly the most important thing she had heard that day.
John White (1934 – 2005)
Sally White (1937 – 2013)
Last week’s quote from Richard Taruskin pointed out that recreating music of the past is nothing more than a pretense—we are simply relabeling music of today under a different name. In a parenthetical aside, he indicated that we dwell on music of the past because we appear to have little use for music of the present. Luthier Robert Lundberg observed (in print and in personal conversation) that the trend of recreating early music indicated a rejection of current music, which he thought was in a state of crisis.
But from every indication, the music industry, in a relentless quest for market share, seems to have watered down the meaning of the early music revival by imprinting on the phenomenon all the less desirable aspects of today such as mass marketing, multimedia presentation, flash, glitz, pointless novelty, and funny hats. The quest for music that has meaning is further confounded by conservatories and individual teachers who have forsaken the nuts and bolts of a traditional musical education for a cult of personality, vowing to teach students and amateurs the “correct” way to play, and offering a false sense of legitimacy through mere association.
Does anyone else see the absurdity here? A quest to gain a better understanding of historical musical aesthetics really demands that we step outside of the comfort zone of today and attempt to recreate the context in which the music was created.
I mean created. A musician in the 16th century was trained in composition—not in hopes of attaining a successful career on the international stage, but as a matter of course in daily life. In the words of Thomas Whythorne (1528 – 1595):
“I cannot here leave out or let pass to speak of another sort that do live by music and yet are no musicians at all. And those be they who, after they have learned a little to sing pricksong, or else have either learned by hand or ear or else by tablature, to play or sound on musical instruments such music as hath been and is made by others, and not by them, by and by they will usurp on music, and account and call themselves musicians. Of the which pettifoggers of music there be both schoolmasters, singingmen and minstrels.”
- The autobiography of Thomas Whythorne, edited by James M. Osborn, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1961). ppg. 205-206 (Modern spelling edition).
Hopefully, the early music revival will continue and have a lasting influence by replenishing with meaning the rather empty vessel of modern musical aesthetics. But those of us who teach can be more effective by conveying a broader context than the simple mechanical placement of fingers on a lute. Improvisation is a good place to start.
And for the school board types who are relying on ALEC for advice on how to slash your music budget, Whythorne has this to say:
“And if music were not a virtue to be esteemed of, would so many saints and holy men and women and also wise and learned men, have learned and esteemed of it, as is before spoken? Now judge you what frenzy and madness remaineth in those blockheads and dolts, who will so utterly condemn it. There is none that do despise it but such as be either delighted to drudge and toil for their livings in servile and filthy trades, or else be ignorant in all sorts of learnings.”
- Whythorne, p. 207.
“…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.
Provocative words that we have referenced before, but timely. Today, themes of the present are rather maniacally focused on things electronic and therefore insubstantial, and we collectively cling to the remembrance of a past when art was representational and human interaction was real. But is our vision of the past blurred? Do we rewrite history for our own ends?
Today, we are overburdened with so much information coming from so many sources that it is nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction. It is a Herculean task to discern the useful detail from the annoying verbiage, the helpful facts from the deliberately abstruse and misleading, and the heartfelt and sincere from the humorous and ironic. By extension, there is so much clutter and randomness of detail that the time-honored uphill journey of absorbing information, trying and tempering that knowledge through experience, and finally converting it to wisdom, has truly become a Sisyphean exercise.
Eric Arthur Blair (1903 – 1950), better known as George Orwell, wrote in his prophetic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), that “who controls the present controls the past.” In the US, we have seen some fairly deliberate examples of also defining the shape of the future by rewriting the past, particularly through politically-motivated infiltration of school boards and rewriting history by those who may be called the more theologically-certain. But Orwell also wrote, in the introduction to his novel, Animal Farm (1945):
“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas of which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the high-brow periodicals”.
Leaping from the generic dystopian view of Orwell to a lofty topic specific to interpretation of early music, we observe Taruskin’s remarks above that history is frequently adapted and rewritten to serve the sensibilities of our modern minds. And also to keep the closets of certain academics well-stocked with their favorite tweeds.
As a musician steeped in the improvisatory elements of a broad variety of music, and one with far too many years of practical seat-of-the-pants experience in harmonizing melodies—simple or more complex—on the fly, I (RA) am always amused by conversations in print on the technical aspects of playing continuo in historical music from the late 16th century onwards. We have some very skilled specialists teaching others how to realize historical continuo playing from figured or unfigured basslines, but invariably drawing upon a vast storehouse of anachronistic theoretical constraints that simply were not considered by the musicians who played the music originally. Keyboard players were obviously held to a higher standard in later 18th-century music, as evidenced by surviving treatises and anecdotal evidence. But in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, plucked-string players used the resources of their instruments to serve the music with less concern about what we might think of their choices today.
Evidence? In his preface to Euridice (1600), Giulio Caccini (1551 – 1618) wrote, “I have not avoided the succession of two octaves or two 5ths.” Vincenzo Galilei (c. 1525 – 1591) wrote (c. 1590), “The law of modern contrapuntists that prohibits the use of two octaves or two 5ths is a law truly contrary to every natural law of singing.” Lodovico Grossi da Viadana (c. 1560 – 1627) in his important collection Centi concerti ecclesiastici (1602), wrote “The organ part is never under any obligation to avoid two 5ths or two octaves.” Agostino Agazzari (1578 – 1640), in his Del Sonare sopra’l basso con tutti li stromenti e dell’ uso loro nel Conserto (1607), wrote that foundation instruments, which includes a variety of plucked strings, “must maintain a solid, sonorous, sustained harmony…consonances and the harmony as a whole are subject and subordinate to the words, not vice versa.” Agazzari wrote in great detail about the practice of improvising and ornamenting continuo and the finer points of his treatise are outlined so well by Andrew Lawrence King that it is pointless to summarize further here.
The point is that, particularly when improvising a continuo on plucked strings, the rules of good counterpoint always took a back seat to taste and the spirit of the moment. If we study to death the best possible way to thwart the natural resources of a plucked string instrument in a quest to improve upon historical practice, we are missing the point. Sure, it is a good idea to apply one’s learning and eliminate sounds we all agree are not in the interest of music, even if we are applying anachronistic standards.
But folks, get over yourselves. It’s a well known fact that just about any lounge guitarist improvising from a fake book, or just about any guitar player in Nashville will play rings around your perfect voice-leading. If you are paying undue attention to scrubbing away any stray parallel fifths and octaves, you are probably not investing enough emotional energy in listening and performing with the necessary sprezzatura. Rewriting history by applying Bach’s compositional standards to music of Caccini turns the music into something it was never intended to be.
In this case, Taruskin’s remarks hit home, and the spirit of old music is ground into submission under the heel of our 21st century hi-tech running shoe—a practice that smells just like the odor of defeat.
Now celebrating our tenth year as a duo specializing in music for voice and lute, we reflect on how Mignarda is unique in many ways. The aesthetic of gentle, quiet domestic music of the 16th century is highly incompatible with the 21st century and the technology-driven preoccupation with flash, volume and speed. We think of our music as a necessary antidote to the pace of modern life – and it seems that many others agree.
Mignarda’s presence is based entirely on our own hard work. We have never paid for a recording review and we have never used search engine optimization services. Unlike performers and recording artists who place fund-raising well before musical matters, we have carried out our work without the support of state, academic or institutional grants. Mignarda does not benefit from organizational connections, recording contracts, or artist representation. We carry out all aspects of the production, from research to recording and design of our CDs, to typesetting, photography and design of our music publications and promotional materials.
Our readers know Donna Stewart as the voice of Mignarda and contributor to this blog. But she is also an artist whose creative work is informed by a multiplicity of interests and skills. Some of her work can be seen on her website Eglantyne Design
Or you might just notice the changes to Unquiet Thoughts and visit the Mignarda website to see the results of her work. Finding the language of self-promotion a bit gauche, the following quotes are more or less in her words.
So what’s changed?
Regular blog readers will notice a small change in the appearance of Unquiet Thoughts. First, there are no longer adverts on our blog. This has been bothering us from the outset, since previously we didn’t see the ads placed on or near our blog posts, we had no control over the content of the ads, and we received no financial benefit from the ads.
The menu bar above our blog posts now displays links to our new website, seamlessly integrating the blog with Mignarda’s other on-line offerings.
Did you just mention our new website?
Yes. We now have a completely updated website that is optimized for display on the mobile devices that so many people use today. The design is “responsive” which means that important text and menus will display usefully whether you are viewing on a full-size screen, an iPad, or a mobile phone.
What else is new?
The new site is “retina-ready,” meaning images conform to newer standards developed by certain unnamed tech companies for devices that feature enhanced resolution when displaying images. Also, the latest posts for Unquiet Thoughts can now be accessed directly from the home page of our web site.
Mignarda specializes in the aesthetics of old music and we keep going on about opting out of technology and fast-paced modern life. Why bother with these new features?
We may opt out, but our listeners, readers, and customers do not. I’ve been making web sites professionally since 1995, and my overriding concern has always been “useability”. The point is to ensure that all our users have access, can actually navigate the site, and can use the content – whether they’re running bleeding-edge technologies, limping along with an ancient desktop on its last legs, or using screen readers and other adaptive technologies.
If it’s any consolation, the font, at least, is a product of the past. IM Fell, inspired by and named for the 17th century Bishop of Oxford who collected and developed types until his death in 1686.
Three new recordings in 2014, plus a completely revised web site design and blog format. What else could you possibly be up to this year?
The book will tell all…
Change thy minde since she doth change,
Let not Fancy still abuse thee:
Thy vntruth cannot seeme strange,
When her falshood doth excuse thee…
- The Right Honourable Robert Earle of Essex: Earle Marshall of England.
The poem “Change thy minde” was given a simple musical setting by Richard Martin, and was published as the second song in Robert Dowland’s A Musicall Banquet (1610). The first verse, printed above, suggests a theme of reevaluation, acceptance and adjustment, a theme that unfolds as we continue to browse through a rather enormous and unwieldy stack of old copies of Early Music, dating back as far as 1973. Looking at slightly earlier repertory, the theme gathers even more interest as we read more up-to-date retrospective comments from musicologists who were involved early on.
“Much of what we do in performing medieval music is based on hypothesis; and without these hypotheses nothing would be possible. The only important issue is that people should be aware of where the areas of hypothesis lie.”
- David Fallows, quoted in The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. (p. 145).
From the beginning of its publication, contributors to Early Music like David Fallows conveyed the excitement of discovery and indulged in a spirit of sharing interpretive ideas and the results of research. But somewhere along the way, there emerged a certain elitism among a cadre of contributing writers, an attitude transmitted through recording reviews as the clear message that “if you are not doing it our way, you’re doing it wrong.”
“…Another more serious problem concerns their use of instruments. Like most early music groups the Medieval Ensemble is based on a nucleus of instrumental performers, and consequently it is not surprising that when performing songs they should wish to use instruments for at least the untexted lower parts…But as Christopher Page has pointed out, ‘it has yet to be demonstrated that instruments participated in the performance of any music during the Middle Ages, other than dances and intabulations’.”
- Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, in a review of Matteo da Perugia: Secular Works, Medieval Ensemble of London, Florilegium DSLO 577, Early Music, vol. 9, no. 2, April 1981, p. 271.
We’ve all seen this phenomenon, particularly prevalent in the academic world among a competitive sort of individual lacking the necessary imagination required to initiate original research, making their way in the world mainly by criticizing the work of others. The attitude is sneered into the airspace through curled lips, atomized like a nasty virus, replicating itself via whispering campaigns and ultimately infecting all those who come in touch with the topic.
The topic that comes closest to our home in the woods is the interpretation of music from the 15th – through the early 17th centuries, a topic that has been our major focus and continues to occupy our time and energy. Frustratingly, from an historian’s point of view, performance of music from this span of time was often described in floridly aesthetic terms of the music’s reception, rather than plainly written details clearly describing the nuts and bolts of how the sounds were produced. One can see how the dearth of practical guidelines might frustrate the historian who, for whatever reason, may be unable to experiment with producing the sounds in their proper context. Because context is everything.
“…Every musician must constantly measure his instincts against the available facts. This is difficult. Often the musician (like the historian) will find a fact or a body of information which clearly contradicts his assumptions, common sense and musical instincts. That will not be the moment for an impulsive about-turn—something which is difficult enough for the historian but so much more so for the performer. The information must be stored—in the back of the mind perhaps, or in red letters on some handy cork-board. But it must not be forgotten merely because it is for the moment ignored. That, it seems to me, is where musicology fits into the musician’s life.”
- David Fallows, in a review of the book Musicology: A Practical Guide, Denis Stevens, MacDonald, London, 1980, Early Music, vol. 9, no. 2, April 1981, p. 244.
It is a given that anyone who truly cares about old music should thoroughly familiarize him or herself with any and all surviving descriptive information regarding the theoretical concepts and mechanical practices of making music from a particular historical time and place. But the musician who complements careful research with taste, judgement, an intuitive musical sense, and a creative pragmatism will always create a more convincing interpretation.
Musicologists and performers will at times stubbornly advance a particular point of view that deliberately challenges both historical evidence and musical results. For instance, if you require your choir to sing that odd-sounding, extra-modal natural in a plainchant (that may have been a mistake in the first place), then apply the same raised interval to a related polyphonic motet (where it really doesn’t belong) just to prove a point, the oddness does not convince. Or if you lack the creative courage to sensitively compose measures of music mistakenly omitted from the original score of a set of instrumental variations on a ground, it still sounds like you’re just playing a mistake. In either event, the performer only demonstrates his lack of training, taste and musicianship by reproducing and featuring theoretical anomalies or scribal errors, not to mention creating for his audience odd sounds that were just as likely never meant to be heard.
But, it’s better to be mistaken about an interpretive detail and deliver an informed result that serves the music, than to doggedly defend a baseless supposition that does not pass the cheese test. And, as in the lyric by Essex quoted above, one is always allowed to change one’s mind. The mark of a true scholar is demonstrated through his willingness to admit to a misguided hypothesis and revise his ideas. Even when the hypothesis was advanced as much for commercial reasons as for scholarly pursuit.
“For myself, I can say it was so difficult to obtain good clean performances of Du Fay songs with voices only, to say nothing of tuning problems, that I turned with relief to harps, lutes and voices during some later recording sessions. I can well understand why many have done so since, and I am sure they will continue to perform them that way.”
- Christopher Page, introductory remarks to Essays on Renaissance Music in Honour of David Fallows: Bon jour, bon mois et bonne estrenne, Edited by Fabrice Fitch and Jacobijn Kiel, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2011 (ppg. 7-8).
Too bad about the casualties of the experiment, including The Medieval Ensemble of London. And it turns out that the famous choir schools churned out some very good vocal technicians whose singing can be heard on quite a sizable stack of recordings made during the early 1980s on; recordings that were exported by the boatload and sold to Americans who believed that this must be how it goes. But recordings no longer sell and a retrospective reevaluation of the a cappella hypothesis now admits that a convincing interpretation of quite a bit of repertory requires more—the sort of intuitive musicianship and sprezzatura required to take the music beyond a mere accurate rendering of the notes. And in order to touch the heavens as though they were a lyre, the lyre is an essential component if one is to create a celestial harmony.
This installment in our regular series of Saturday morning quotes follows a short but winding trail that offers an interesting viewpoint on the evolution and use of English lute songs. Inspired by a comment to last week’s post, we riff a little more on the theme of the firmly established practice of adapting polyphonic music for solo voice and lute.
A brief comment made by one of our favorite contemporary composers offered a suggestion to investigate the Autobiography of Thomas Whythorne (1528 – 1596), a little-known English musician and composer. Whythorne made his way serving as a music tutor in upper class households during a time when Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528) was not only current, but made locally relevant through the English translation, The courtyer of Count Baldessar Castilio diuided into foure bookes. Very necessary and profitable for yonge gentilmen and gentilwomen abiding in court, palaice or place, done into English by Thomas Hoby., Imprinted at London : By wyllyam Seres at the signe of the Hedghogge, 1561.
Hoby’s descriptions of the qualities of an ideal courtier “done into English” are even more charming than the available modern renderings of Castiglione’s original.
For I shall enter into a large sea of the praise of Musicke, and call to rehearsal howe much it hath alwayes bene renowmed emong them of olde time, and counted a holy matter: and how it hath bene the opinion of most wise Philosophers that the world is made of musick, and the heavens in their moving make a melody, and our soule framed after the very same sort, and therfore lifteth up it self and (as it were) reviveth the vertues and force of it with musick: wherfore it is written that Alexander was sometime so ferventely styrred with it, that (in a maner) against his wyll he was forced to arise from bankettes and runne to weapon, afterward the mustien chaunging the stroke and his maner of tume, pacified himself againe and retourned from weapon to banketting.
And I shall tell you that grave Socrates when he was well stricken in yeares learned to playe uppon the harpe. And I remember I have understoode that Plato and Aristotle will have a man that is well brought up, to be also a musitien: and declare with infinite reasons the force of musicke to be to very great purpose in us, and for many causes (that should be to long to rehearse) ought necessarilye to be learned from a mans childhoode, not onely for the superficial melodie that is hard, but to be sufficient to bring into us a newe habite that is good, and a custome enclyning to vertue, whiche maketh the minde more apt to the conceiving of felicitie, even as bodely exercise maketh the bodie more lustie, and not onely hurteth not civyl matters and warrelyke affaires, but is a great staie to them.
Whythorne’s Autobiography survives as a handwritten manuscript, now found as Bodleian Ms. Eng. misc.c.330, and a modern edition can be found in J. Osborn (ed.), The autobiography of Thomas Whythorne (Oxford, 1961). Employing his own unique version of the English language, Whythorne’s wry descriptions of the variety of teacher-pupil interactions is of even more interest than references to actual music. Nevertheless, Whythorne also published one of the earliest books of English part music, Songes for three, fower and fiue voyces (1571).
Not to overlook excellent secondary sources, a worthwhile description of Whythorne and other 16th century English music tutors can be found in an article by Katie Nelson, “Love in the music room: Thomas Whythorne and the private affairs of Tudor music tutors,” Early Music, Vol. 40, No. 1, February 2012, p. 15.
For even better contextual information on Whythorne, we quote from the standard reference:
“Consort songs provide a link with the first of the Elizabethan printed songbooks, Thomas Whythorne’s Songes, for three, fower and fiue voyces (1571). One of Whythorne’s songs is clearly a consort song (“By new broom”), and others, though all the parts have words, were no doubt performed as consort songs. We learn from Whythorne’s Autobiography that he wrote his own song texts, and that he was in his youth a servant of John Heywood, the poet and musician, for whom he copied poems and psalms by Wyatt, Surrey and Sternhold (p. 14). Whythorne’s own poems show these influences clearly: they are very plain, didactic, and often proverbial in the maner of Heywood. His autobiography is ostensibly given as a context for his poems, and its original title, significantly echoing Tottel, is A book of songs and sonetts.”
It is a pleasure to acknowledge this work and state yet again that it is and will remain the best source of information concerning the lute ayres of Dowland, his antecedents and his contemporaries. The forty-one pages of introductory material at the front of Doughtie’s book is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand and perform English lute ayres. That’s all.