Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 5.14: Musical education

The warm season grinds to an unsatisfying close as, for many, murmurs of matriculation begin to crowd out any thoughts of summer idyls. We honor the current “back to school” theme by sidling back to our series of quotations on musical education.

We have seen that even nasty and brutish (if not short) rulers such as Henry VIII took great pains to educate his children in music, with a surviving manuscript devised for the purpose.  His (legitimate) daughter Mary was even supplied with a lute and instructed by the great Philip van Wilder while banished from court.  The young Edward and Elizabeth were both instructed by Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490 – 1546), who encouraged skill in music as a necessary precursor to wise governance.

In the later 16th century, we see echoes of Elyot’s message in the writing of Niccolò Vito di Gozze, from his treatise, Dello stato delle Repubbliche secondo la mente di Aristotele con esempi moderni, Venezia, 1591.

“It is from the education of children that it is certain and reliable to predict if a certain state will last long or soon decline…I cannot see greater traitors of state than those who, by governing it, take little care about good education of children in their early age, and later be obliged to govern it.”

“…Children should also be taught the art of music, which was not included in the liberal arts without reason by ancient philosophers, because it helps us to spend leisure time in a correct and non-contaminated way.  But, along with being indispensable it is also manifoldly appropriate, because it offers by its nature great embellishment to governing and benefit to the state of mind, as music by its influence incites various emotions in souls…”

– from Monika Jurić, “Paideia and the Neo-Platonic Ideas on Music Education and Culture in Renaissance Dubrovnik in the Works by Niccolò Vito di Gozze (Nikola Vitov Gučetić, 1549 – 1610)”, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 44, No. 1 (June 2013), pp. 3-17: published by Croatian Musicological Society.

We take a giant leap to the first half of the 20th century on the eve of the second great war with the wise words of Leo Kestenberg as translated by Arthur Mendel.

“In every step of the educational process, and in every branch of education, the teacher’s role is to strive to give form to human material, or to help it to find its own form, just as in every branch of art the first task of the artist must be to learn to give form to the materials of his art.”

“It follows that music education must have a particularly important place in art education, and therefore in any education that strives towards the attainment of a natural and systematically developed sense of form.”

“Another feature of music education connected with the pedagogic tendencies of recent decades is its community character. The tension between the “Me” and the “Thee” that underlies all the crises of our time, as perhaps of all times, has led to an emphasis in education of everything that would tend to reinforce the community sense. In a chorus, as on a baseball or a football team, there is more than a hint of how the interests of the individual and of the community may be harmonized. The moulding of every individual voice into an organized and “harmonious” whole solves the problem of finding a balance between the centrifugal and the centripetal forces in society.” p. 446

– Leo Kestenberg and Arthur Mendel, “Music Education Goes Its Own Way”, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct., 1939), pp. 442-454

By now we should all know that a musical education results in a more intelligent and empathetic individual.  Prior to the onset of the late 20th-century techno-war on culture, which artists appear to have lost, music was always considered an essential component of education, and skill in music was a hallmark of a cultured person.  And skill in music was also taught to the general public because musicians were necessary in church, at court, and for public entertainment.

At some point in the not too distant past the monopolists of Silicon Valley convinced the general public that skill in manipulating an ever-shifting set of devices and their never-quite-functioning software is more important than skill in music, and they appear to have bought themselves a collection of legislators to help make it so.  In fact, education in general is cast as the enemy by a large and unintelligent group of sub-presidential personalities.

Let’s return to the good old days and institute a lute-test for anyone with presidential pretensions—because if you’re smart enough to play the lute, you can do just about anything.

Saturday morning quotes 5.13: Assumptions II

August 15th marks the Feast of the Assumption, an important feast day in the liturgical calendar and an active day for those inclined to dedicate their Saturday to singing a Missa Solemnis.  In addition to the chant propers, today we are treated to a banquet of renaissance polyphony as we sing the “Missa Ave maris stella” by Victoria and the motets “Hodie Maria Virgo caelos ascendit” by Luca Marenzio, “Quae est ista quae ascendit” by Thomas Crecquillon, and “Surge amica mea” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. This last motet is from Palestrina’s Motettorum liber quartus ex Canticis canticorum 5vv, Rome, 1584, the text is directly from the Song of Solomon 2:13b,14.

While Palestrina’s setting of the Canticum Canticorum, or the Song of Songs, is listed among his sacred works, the texts are quite racy, describing in evocative terms the love between a man and a woman.  The “sacred” designation is premised on the ancient belief that the songs are an Old Testament allegory describing the love between God and Israel.  The updated New Testament twist and likely Palestrina’s inspiration for his lovely settings places the Virgin Mary as object of adoration.

Those of us interested in the better sort of late-medieval/early renaissance music know that it was common practice to borrow musical material from secular chansons for adaptation as sacred polyphony, some of the best-known examples being DuFay’s “Missa Se la face ay pale”, and Ockeghem’s “Missa De plus en plus”.  David J. Rothenberg has made a particular study of the phenomenon in a few chapters of his book, The Flower of Paradise: Marian Devotion and Secular Song in Medieval and Renaissance Music, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011.

Rothenberg provides convincing evidence to support the idea that the texts of well-known chansons such as Hayne van Ghizegheim’s popular “De tous biens plaine” were actually paraphrasing devotional texts, thereby demonstrating their suitability for adaptation as sacred polyphony.  Rothenberg gives specific comparisons of textual similarities with Marian devotionals, and shows how the opening line, “De tous biens plaine” scans as compared to the Latin words “gratia plena”.

“We have seen repeatedly that courtly love lyrics could sound very much like Marian devotional texts, but none that we have encountered thus far has such strong Marian overtones as De tous biens plaine.  Its symbolism could hardly be clearer.”

– David J. Rothenberg, The Flower of Paradise, p. 163

Rothenberg’s text also provides helpful insight into DuFay’s Vergine bella, a piece which was featured in some depth in an earlier blog post complete with links to our live performance and our recording.  And here we make a small departure from our usual format.

It turns out that August 15th is also the birthday of the more vocal half of Mignarda.  And since said person is not as gifted at the task of self-promotion as she is at singing, the party of the first part shares some feedback below as a small birthday gesture.

“Your version of Vergine Bella is my favorite in many senses and your pure singing is simply amazing.  The text of Petrarca comes out clear and full of elegance: a text that is the spiritual testament of his existence.”

– Marco Beasley

“Donna, I love your expressive, plaintive quality – and such intelligence shines behind every word and sentiment.”

– Anthony Rooley

Lute songs are great but Donna’s a cappella recordings stand alone, so to speak.  Donna’s video of Tantum ergo sacramentum has had 10,000 views in the past six weeks alone and Adoro Te, her solo recording of chant hymns and Marian antiphons, is a must-have for your cat.

Happy Birthday.

Saturday morning quotes 5.12: Aesthetics – part III

“In truth, from a human being whose imagination is sufficiently attuned to the feeling for the beautiful and whose heart is sufficiently attuned to the sensibility for the good, one can, through a wise application of the fine arts, realize everything of which he is capable…[the artist] whom the muses love will, like another Orpheus, bring people even against their wills, but with soft, gentle compulsion, to the assiduous achievement of everything that is necessary to their happiness.”

– Johann Georg Sulzer (1720 – 1779), Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste, p. 613-14.

Continuing our bit of background on the use of rhetorical devices in music, we offer a summary of some of the best thinkers on the topic of musical aesthetics.  As we pointed out, visual artists are typically trained in aesthetics as a matter of course while conservatory musicians are typically focused on mechanics.  And conservatory musicians are likewise told that competition for positions is fierce and if their fingers aren’t bleeding, they’re not practicing enough. Sadly, a primary source of competition for positions today is the teachers themselves, who in many cases are unwilling to step aside in a timely fashion.

When it comes to the question of musical aesthetics, we mentioned in an earlier post that music students must at some point put aside their instruments or still their voices and take the initiative to discover their own way to enlightenment.  That is not to say that there is a dearth of literature on the subject. Writers as early as Plato and Aristotle had very clear ideas of the use of music and clear descriptions of its effects on the listener.

Moving forward in time, explicit descriptions from the middle ages are, like other aspects of performance practice of the time, a bit obscure and must be unraveled with a particular sensitivity to the tenor of the times.  According to Umberto Eco, medieval ideas of aesthetic value were influenced by the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas, and concepts of beauty were integrated with those of utility.  Since religious practice was a significant part of daily life, an appreciation for beautiful things was balanced with a love of the spiritual realm.

“The drama of the ascetic discipline lies precisely in a tension between the call of earthbound pleasure and a striving after the supernatural. But when the discipline proves victorious, and brings the peace which accompanies control of the senses, then it becomes possible to gaze serenely upon the things of this earth, and to see their value, something that the hectic struggle of asceticism had hitherto prevented. Medieval asceticism and mysticism provide us with many examples of these two psychological states, and also with some extremely interesting documentation concerning the aesthetic sensibility of the time.”

– Umberto Eco, Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale, in Momenti e problemi di storia dell’estetica, vol. 1, 1959; translated by Hugh Bredin as Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, Yale University Press, New Haven,1986.

There is a wealth of additional information on aesthetics of the renaissance to be gleaned from the commentary of musicians, theorists and various observers of 16th-century life—information which is really the backbone of this blog.  Readers need only scroll through the 4+ years of our weekly posts to find more commentary.  But we will share a few other excellent resources that fall into the category of musical aesthetics as pertains to the lute.  David Van Edwards, President of The Lute Society, offers a very useful descriptive analysis of lute iconography on his website, as well as in the contents of each issue of the Lute News.  John Griffiths offers a thought-provoking essay titled “Architecture, rhetoric and music in early modern Europe” on his website.  And Jane Hatter’s article, “Col tempo: musical time, aging and sexuality in 16th-century Venetian paintings“, Early Music (2011) 39 (1): 3-14, contains some very interesting interpretations of symbolism found in 16th-century paintings.

The resources listed here are but a drop in the ocean of available literature on musical aesthetics, which includes the writing of Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Johann Georg Sulzer, and a great many others.  But for a good summation we skip forward to the age of rediscovery and distillation—the 20th century—and share quotations from the writing of Dewitt H. Parker from his book, The Principles Of Aesthetics (1946), 2nd edition, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn.,1976. Chapter VIII – The Aesthetics of Music.

“Music is the most signal example of a mode of expression that has attained to a complete and pure aesthetic character, an unmixed beauty.”

“…The richness of feeling in the tones of certain instruments as compared with others is doubtless due to the fact that through the presence of more overtones and the admixture of noise, the reaction is more complex; the tense excitement of high and loud tones, as compared with the soft and low, is probably connected with the fact that their higher vibration rate and greater amplitude of vibration produce a more marked effect, a more pervasive disturbance,–the organism does not right itself and recover so rapidly and easily. These direct and native elements of feeling are then broadened out and intensified through other elements that come in by way of association. For example, in order to sing high tones, a greater tension and exertion of the vocal chords is needed than for low tones; loud tones suggest loud noises, which, as in breaking and crashing and thundering, are inevitably associated with fear; the loud is also the near and present and threatening, the low is distant and safe.”

“Music is a language which we all understand because it expresses the basic mold of all emotion and striving; yet it is a language which no two people understand in the same way, because each pours into that mold his own unique experience. In itself abstract and objectless, it may thus become, in varying ways, concrete and alive.”

“Music does for the emotions what mythology and poetry do for the imagination and philosophy for the intellect–it brings us into touch with a more magnificent life, for which we have perhaps the potency, but not the opportunity here. And in doing this, music performs a great service; for, outside of love and war, life, which offers endless occasions for intense thought and action, provides few for passionate feeling.”

– Dewitt H. Parker, The Principles Of Aesthetics

What is the point of this rather lengthy description of musical aesthetics through the ages?  The point is that, like other aspects of performance practice, we really must take giant steps outside of our 21st-century mindset in order to understand music of the past—even the recent past.  Without a concerted effort we will lose our way, just as we have already lost the context of musical performance.  Without such a perspective it is far too easy to dismiss important signposts of history pointing directly to dimensions of creativity that really define who we are as a species.

And for those who readily share their opinions as armchair music critics, there is also the important aspect of knowing the fullness of a particular style of music from a particular era before they are qualified to judge its merits, either as pure music or the qualities of its interpretation by today’s artists.

Saturday morning quotes 5.11: Aesthetics – part II

We continue our short side trip into the subjective realm of aesthetics as applied to the interpretation of early music.  In pursuing this subject, we risk nudging the noble pursuit of aesthetic inquiry into the dreaded minefield of the pompous and subjective classical music review.  We always take great pains to mention that early music has nothing to do with the modern marketing category of classical music—or it darn well should not.  Those who cram the vast and variegated repertory of early music into the chafing tuxedo of classical music do so for matters of categorical convenience or for blatant economic reasons.  But we state plainly that a millennium of music deserves several categories and should not be judged by the criteria used to evaluate music mostly originating in the 19th century.

It is not our goal to define what is good music or bad music, nor to judge what might be a good interpretation or a bad interpretation of historical music.  Nor do we wish to handle the topic of musical aesthetics with the white gloves essential to the ensemble of 19th-century evening dress.  Instead, we ask our readers to take a step back as we gain a bit of perspective by tapping into the topic of aesthetics as applied to visual arts and adapting some pertinent elements of analysis.

A quotable source that offers a concise and well-organized description is the article by Donald W. Crawford, “Aesthetics in Discipline-based Art Education,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 21, No.2, Summer 1987, pp. 227-239.  Crawford scribes a line that joins aesthetics and philosophy, describing aesthetics as “the philosophy of the beautiful”, as well as making the important distinction between philosophical reflection and researching facts.

“…Philosophy is a reflective or deliberative inquiry rather than a historical investigation or a series of scientific experiments aiming to acquire new facts…Philosophy, then, is not simply reflection but critical reflection.”

“Philosophical inquiry, being both reflective and critical, always begins by taking one step back from the phenomena it seeks to understand.  To take a simple example: I visit a local art gallery and look at a number of different sculptures, but I am continually drawn back to one in particular. Suppose at some point I notice what has happened; I become aware that my behavior indicates a preference. When I ask why this is the case, I am beginning to engage in philosophical reflection. In seeking to understand my own experience, to explain it to myself, to integrate it with other things I know about myself, I am engaged in critical reflection.”

“Aesthetics is that branch of philosophical activities which involves the critical reflection on our experience and evaluation of art. Critical reflection consists in part of conceptual analysis and the formulation of principles of interpretation, of critical reasoning, and of evaluation. Art-historical concepts such as style and innovation provide material for analysis, and art criticism affords examples of interpretation and evaluation.”

p. 228-229

We can easily glean useful information from this descriptive summary and adapt and apply the framework to historical music.  One experiences the same reaction to certain types, styles or pieces of music that Crawford does to sculpture, sparking a philosophical reflection and initiating a critical reflection.  That is, we experience these reactions if we care to go beyond simply registering a preference and thoughtfully examine the possible reasons for our preference.

“Socrates, the intellectual father of philosophy, maintained that the unexamined life is not worth living. Implicit in his claim is the view that our actions and attitudes are guided by our beliefs, our principles, and our values and that the rigorous, critical examination of these is an important part of what it is to be a human being. Socrates believed that self-knowledge is the highest type of knowledge, without which one can never be truly happy.”

p. 230

Crawford asks some important questions that, again, transfer directly to an interpretive musical context, and then draws a distinction between personal preference and objective standards.

“What makes one interpretation better than another? Is an understanding of the artist’s intentions either necessary or useful to interpret a work correctly? How do we decide between competing interpretations of a work?”

“A major concern of aestheticians is whether the evaluative judgments they make are legitimate claims to knowledge-as opposed to mere expressions of personal preference or reflections of contemporary opinion. Aestheticians ask whether critical judgments about art can be supported by sound reasons, whether there are objective standards or criteria for determining if a work of art is good.”

p. 233-234

And here we turn to a few interpretive examples of music composed by Bartolomeo Tromboncino (1470 – 1535), chosen because the music appears to be extremely simplistic if we only look at the notes that come down to us over the span of 500 years.  But Tromboncino set the beautifully complex and evocative poetry of Francesco Petrarca and Michaelangelo Buonarroti, and what appears simplistic comes to life if we examine the form, structure and context of the original modes of performance.

The first example is a project that self-consciously incorporates historical gestures into performance of Tromboncino’s music, presented in cooperation with Robert Toft, who proposes that gestures typical of historical oratory should be used in musical performance. The video example (link is the title of the piece) is a performance of “Come harò donque ardire“, text by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) and musical setting by Tromboncino, features Kate Macoboy with Robert Meunier, lute, in a video recorded at Arab Hall in Leighton House, London, 2014.

Kate Macoboy’s performance of the song is very effective, sung from memory and performed with historical gestures, two elements that help connect the listener with the emotional power of the text and its musical setting.  The singer’s delivery is warm and engaged, sung with a conventional, if restrained, production with a beautiful quality of tone and control of dynamic contrast. The lute accompaniment is accurate and subtle, if a bit aloof. And despite the fancy camera work that zooms in on the lute, one’s attention continues to be focused on the singer, her beautiful sound and her theatrical gestures.  While the gestures serve to heighten the emotional dimension of the song, they seem a bit studied and strike the eye as an external element rather than a natural mode of expression.  A method actor would only need to spend a little time with Italians to understand and incorporate the difference.

As for the more nuanced elements of this performance, the first thing one notices is the positioning of the lutenist, a little forward and to the singer’s right.  While many performers seem to choose this arrangement, it registers in the subconscious as “Singer and her Accompanist” rather than “Duo.”  The lute’s pegbox points toward the singer’s face and acts as a barrier to an effective connection, as though it were a wordless statement of “further off”.  My theater professor (long ago) had sharp and succinct words whenever he observed behavior that interfered with effective communication to the audience—Don’t do that.

Toft and the performers provide a great deal more descriptive detail that gives some insight into their intentions and their choices. But one senses that they are attempting to add legitimacy to what seems like simple music by applying external effects, rather than tapping into the more natural elements of performance that can be discovered only by absorbing essential information and allowing the gestures to surface spontaneously.

Our second example is a performance of “Zephyro spira e il bel tempo rimena“, text adapted from Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374) and musical setting by Tromboncino, featuring Andrea Alejandra Nicolás with Emilio Cervini, lute, in a live performance at the Concierto Museo Isaac Fernández Blanco, Buenos Aires, July 2010.

The duo of Andrea Alejandra Nicolás and Emilio Cervini offer a contrast to the more cerebral example of similar music by the same composer mentioned above.  The first thing we hear is Emilio Cervini’s introductory recercar that prepares our ears for what is to come, and melds seamlessly into the song.  Andrea Alejandra Nicolás sings with a rather natural production that is instantly engaging.  Singing from memory, she incorporates a great deal of gesture that appears so natural that it almost negates the need for a translation of the text, which is sung with a very charming Spanish accent.

Cervini’s lute accompaniment is at once supportive, improvisatory and very creative—adding appropriate melodic movement, playing a solo interlude and segueing into a triple-time accompanying passage as though it were the most natural thing.  It seems as though he is inventing the accompaniment on the spot, surely the most effective mode of interpretation. The duo’s performance may seem a bit rushed, but the song is delivered effectively with a youthful vigor and a spirit of improvisation that leaves one with a sense of satisfaction.

Summation to follow in our next installment.

Saturday morning quotes 5.10: Aesthetics – part I

Pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent. (Things are considered beautiful when their perception gives pleasure.)

– Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), Summa Theologica

Aesthetic beauty is a term we frequently use to describe music and informed interpretive choices.  While aesthetic beauty is part and parcel of an artist’s training, its meaning is not so clear-cut when applied to something as temporally subjective as musical sound.  Musicians are typically left to their own devices to discover beauty in music, which really must be defined on an individual basis.  This is particularly true today, given that the world has been reduced to what may be seen on one’s phone and accessed with one’s thumbs: What was once described as objective beauty is now cynically considered trite.  But for those willing to put down their plastic screens for a moment, a quick peek at the past will at least lay the groundwork.

While the term “aesthetics” was first used by the 18th-century German philosopher, Alexander Baumgarten, the concepts were described much earlier. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas proposed three objective features that may describe a thing that is beautiful; integritas (perfect wholeness), proportio (proportion), and claritas (splendor), elements that Umberto Eco defines as “formal criteria” of the beautiful. St. Thomas described harmony or proportion as best realized in music, and is credited with having written the hymns and prayers of the Office for Corpus Christi, including Pange Lingua, from which is drawn the well-known Tantum Ergo :

“Music is the exaltation of the mind derived from things eternal, bursting forth in sound.”

– St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

Eco’s “formal criteria” of the beautiful may be readily applied to the physical appearance of the lute, with its elegant proportions and design based on geometric principles.  But the same criteria may be found in the compositional structure of historical music as well as the form and meter of poetry.  Extending the conceptual framework, larger works such as Francesco Petrarca’s Rime sparse were conceived with an overarching formal structure in mind, as were his classical models including Horace’s Odes, and Virgil’s Eclogues.

This formal structural design is likewise found in collections of musical works, for example, John Dowland’s Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares figvred in Seaven Passionate Pauans (c. 1605).  When the music is broken into bits that are easily digestible as snack food by those with short attention spans, the formal structure that was designed with such care is undermined and rendered meaningless.

More to come.

Saturday morning quotes 5.9: Amateurs again

“Yea, so that thou haue any skill in [playing the lute] be not ashamed at the request of honest friends to shew thy cunning: but if thou chancest to get an habit of perfection, prophane not the Goddesse, with making thy selfe cheape for a sleight gaine.”

– John Dowland, Varietie of Lvte-lessons, 1610 (after Besard, 1603).

Having received feedback from a few amateur lutenists over what seemed an unquiet excess of bile emanating from this quarter, we revisit the topic to offer a clearer perspective.

First of all, we love amateur musicians and we count several amateur lute enthusiasts among our friends.  In many respects, amateur lutenists make the world wobble round for professional early music specialists involved in teaching, publishing and music-making.  Amateur lutenists also provide the primary source of income for some of our better luthiers, enabling them to eat regular meals as they indulge in and refine their craftwork.

People from all walks of life are drawn to the lute for a host of good reasons. The lute appeals to the artistic because of its aesthetic beauty and its graceful form.  The lute appeals to historians because of the abundance of written records describing its ubiquitous presence in the noble circles of early modern Europe.  The lute appeals to specialists in historic literature and poetry; for music and sweet poetry are indeed the sister and the brother.  The lute appeals to those with a scientific bent because of its unique design elements and its geometric proportions. The lute appeals to woodworkers because of the unusual challenges of its shape and construction.  The lute appeals to librarians and archivists because there was so very much historical music printed and scribbled for the instrument that wants to be organized and cataloged. The lute appeals to hoarders for the same reason—and they must have it all.

Most importantly, the lute appeals to sensitive musicians drawn by the quiet elegance and beauty of its sound, and because it is a “perfect” instrument—it is capable of producing at once, melody and harmony together.  In the right hands, the lute is capable of producing true polyphony with separate and distinct interweaving lines.  While in the lute revival’s recent past emphasis was placed upon hollow virtuosity, more refined ears today favor the playing of sensitive musicians who understand the music’s depth and the spaces between the notes.  Those who possess taste and judgement mark this to be the most important happy result of the lute’s inherent magnetism for the simple reason that sensitive and musical performers provide inspiring examples for all types of amateurs mentioned above, as made evident through the availability of recordings and through public concerts.

Public performance and commercial recording is the point at which the path forks for amateurs and professionals.  A dedicated professional musician working as a specialist in the field of early music today unfortunately faces nearly insurmountable financial hurdles just in order to survive.  And anyone who approaches playing the lute with an informed sensitivity, taste and judgement soon discovers that it takes a lifetime of committed work to play the instrument well, and constant practice to maintain a technique.  And any vocalist in possession of an informed sensitivity, taste and judgement who has attempted to sing appropriate repertory with lute accompaniment soon discovers that a generic modern technique simply will not do.

Early music is a very narrow niche market, and music for the lute represents a paper-thin slice of that market.  Within the confines of that thin slice, early music that features voice and lute must be measured in microns.  In today’s unfortunate environment of music as a vastly undervalued commodity, we see that nearly all professional musicians are clinging to the frayed threads of a once viable livelihood.  Making matters worse, we also live in age that has seen the dramatic opportunistic rise of the pretentious and competitive amateur.  You know the type.  Armed with generic skills in Photoshop or Garage Band, or alternatively armed with ample funds to pay others for an unnatural result, we see the same pattern affecting different areas of the arts.  Much to the detriment of the less assertive, if more talented and capable professional, this dynamic has a particularly toxic effect when competitiveness is coupled with increased selfie opportunities for the morbidly narcissistic.

I (RA) became a staunch defender of the fundamental right of a professional musician to make a living at his or her art in 1978 when a folk group I was performing with shared a concert program with Tracy Schwarz and his family.  Schwarz, best known for his long tenure with the legendary folk revival group, the New Lost City Ramblers, had very pointed remarks about amateurs performing public concerts for free: They were interfering with his ability to feed his family.  For the same reasons rehearsed above, Schwarz had no problem with amateur musicians indulging in a passionate love affair with music and in fact encouraged the same.  The tipping point is when amateurs play in public for free because, momentarily leaving aside questions of quality, it is plain and simple a matter of patently unfair competition.

As for quality, while an audience may be comprised of individuals who possess taste and judgement, any gathering of people tends toward the lowest common denominator.  This maxim is particularly true when “free” is factored into the equation.  A case in point is the absurd wholesale acceptance of low-fidelity mp3 format as the current standard for listening to music of all types.  While some individuals will notice the difference and opt for the better format, standards are subject to group norms, and large groups behave according to the laws of Brownian motion.  Good judgement will nearly always be deferred if the choice is between free streaming and\or downloading, and paying for a higher-quality format.

The same concept is put to the test when a concert audience is faced with a choice to attend a free lunchtime concert that hosts amateur musicians, or a higher-profile concert that features higher-quality music carefully prepared, packaged and presented by well-known professional musicians who perform for a fee.  Invariably, the free program is well attended while the other is often less so, depending upon the stature (or PR) of the artist.  Excepting pop-tinged performances, which aim for a different target, the current US market for early music reflects this unhappy phenomenon, and even affects performers who are—or should be—at the top of the heap.  The result is that even some top musicians end up playing the free lunchtime concerts in order remain remotely relevant, creating an ugly Catch-22 situation in which mere survival takes a back seat to actually earning a living.

“The dilettante and the amateur should, as a rule, stay out of paid positions, or at least they should not work gratuitously in those which should yield pay: and in those few cases where it seems fair and desirable for them to do any public work at salary they should stubbornly maintain a price and conditions which will aid professionals to hold the same ground.”

– Charles E. Watt, “A Square Deal for the Music Teacher: Let Us Have a Better Financial Status for the Professional Musician,” The Etude, Vol. 39, September 1921, p. 561.

I (RA) have met amateurs who may not be top-notch musicians but who are wonderful human beings.  I have met amateurs who may be capable musicians but who are also ids-on-a-stick in possession of oversized egos paired with a distinct lack of social skills. Although many teeter on the brink, only one particular amateur lutenist I have met falls squarely into the category of a blight upon the earth, which is a remarkably low statistic.  Mostly, I care not a whit whether a lutenist is an amateur, a semi-amateur, a semi-conductor, or semi-truck driver.  What matters is this: Are you performing in public and, if so, are you charging for your performance?  Or, as Dowland chastises, do you “prophane the Goddesse”?

Saturday morning quotes 5.8: A nut to crack

“But Gentlemen, once more I will make you promise, that if these Masterlike rules, and Scholerlike lessons, doe but any whit content you, I will come forth, With Cracke mee this Nut…wherein I will striue either (for euer) to winne your fauours, or starue in the dole of your disgrace.”

– Thomas Robinson, The Schoole of Mvsicke: Wherein is Tavght, the perfect Method, of Trve Fingering of the Lute, Pandora, Orpharion, and Viol de Gamba; with most infallible generall rules, both easie and Delightfull, London, 1603.

We return in a roundabout way to our ongoing theme of Rhetoric and education, touching the topic lightly with a rhetorical question: How great a role does Rhetoric play in 21st-century interpretation of music for voice and lute? To arrive at a qualified answer, today we tap into the writing of Robert Toft and his book Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: The Art of Eloquent Singing in England 1597-1622. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Toft has led a busy academic career, but has churned out some eminently useful writing just the same.  His important book, Aural Images of Lost Traditions: Sharps and Flats in the Sixteenth Century, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, is required reading for anyone and everyone who edits 16th-century vocal polyphony.  What is frequently and erroneously called musica ficta as applied to historical music is a simple matter for those of us with an understanding of 16th-century compositional practice tempered by an intimate working knowledge of the historical instrumental scoring notation known as tablature.  Questions of accidentals are resolved when one sees unmistakeable answers revealed in lute tablatures, which depict a clear locational map of the instrument’s fingerboard.  Tablatures also allow us to see interpretive differences that relate to general historical periods and regional tastes.

As for the less clear-cut questions of the interpretation of lute songs in performance, Toft engages in a speculative romp through a host of historical sources, presenting very enticing examples, generic though they may be.  All quotations are given in their original language with English translations.  Toft approaches the rediscovery of modes of interpretation using an analogy of concentric circles (p. 10).  His innermost circle contains the song, positioned as the kernel of the nut to crack.  Lacking specific information elucidating questions of phrasing, articulation, tempo, dynamics, tonal quality of the voice, Toft scribes a second concentric circle wherein dwells information gleaned from more general historical writings about music.  His third concentric circle encompasses historical writings about Rhetoric and spoken discourse. Toft then channels this aggregation of non-specific information from the outermost circles towards the kernel of song, innocently at rest in the center circle.

The fault in Toft’s mode of analysis lies in his premise that an extrovert, performance-centered oratorical approach is the interpretive goal.  Imagine Dowland’s reaction if we were to equate the pompous bluster of a lawyer, or the rantings of a purblind Puritan, with the singing of a quiet, delicate and intimate lute song.  Perhaps the tools of Rhetoric were seen as a foundation for understanding and not meant to be systematically applied externally, nor noticeably, to the interpretation of a lute song.  The approach Toft presents is akin to swinging a sledgehammer in order to crack the nut that contains the song.  A lute song is not a nut to crack, but rather more like a fresh fig with a yielding husk that responds to gentle coaxing.  Of course the sweet fig could instantly turn to a dripping mush in the untrained hands of a novice, or the insensitive hands of the tasteless.

We think the tools of Rhetoric are meant to provide a framework for our understanding of the world we inhabit, that we may approach the task at hand knowingly with care and grace.  We need no distracting external antics to guide us toward an effective performance because the interpretive information is there, inherent in the very nature of the music.  After gaining a foundational understanding and internalizing rhetorical devices, one need only respond to the cues from within the text and the tune.

The primary interpretive clue lies in the characteristics of the lute itself, which is and always has been celebrated for its subtlety.  If a voice is well-balanced to the volume and timbre of the lute, and one hears the interaction of polyphonic interplay, then the singer has achieved the first interpretive step.  Until the advent of the modern early music revival, it was well understood that the lute cannot abide the shouting we endure from the brash pipes of the loud singer.

The lute is a closet instrument that will suffer the company of but few hearers, and such as have a delicate ear; for the pearls are not to be cast before the swine.

…If we must incline to one side, the gentle and soft playing is to be preferred before others, so that you play neatly and in a little room or to please a small company (the lute not being fit to play in a hall before a multitude of people; there the violin is most fit).

– Mary Burwell’s lute teacher, circa 1670

The generous amount of historical information Toft quotes and translates in digested and summary form is very useful to the performer.  But a premise from which Toft proceeds, and one which we question, is that one need not alter a modern vocal technique to sing music for solo voice and lute.  This rather flies in the face of manifold examples of vocal characteristics found in the historical sources with which he is obviously familiar, and one suspects he is simply leaving the door open for potential modern converts to lute songs.  In his defense of the bel canto style, of which he a proponent, Toft writes, “the bel canto manner of delivery originates in and best suits smaller rooms (perhaps up to 600 – 800 seats).”  To be fair, Toft considers bel canto technique as an alternative to what he calls a “loud voice” that can be heard over a modern orchestra.  But one likes to point out that a lute performing in a 600-800 seat hall is participating in a most inauthentic mode of performance.

Further, the very idea that lute songs were mainly intended for public performance is simply inaccurate.  Sure, we have a few examples of masques and royal entertainments that included lute songs.  But the English song books printed between 1597 and 1622 were primarily meant for domestic use, a fact reinforced by the many surviving paintings from the era that depict intimate domestic music-making.

This raises the question of the need for the ill-fitting gesticulations that Toft champions.  Rather than presume that appropriate interpretive techniques point toward an extrovert oratorical delivery, it is much more likely that the educated, informed and sensitive singer-lutenist would have known and understood elecutio and pronunciatio, and would have proceeded from an internalized understanding.  For—we would like to point out—the lutenist was more often than not the singer, and therefore would not have been inclined to make fists and flail about in the manner of Il Duce while performing on an an instrument that rather demands one’s attention.

While these performances that incorporate gestures are a novelty, we find that anything that distracts from the combined and well-tuned dynamic of a song, in which singer and lutenist are playing as one, is simply that—a distraction.  Mainly, it seems the intense and overworked performances that incorporate gesture are an end unto themselves, and are simply an academic exercise.

I (RA) am reminded of a singer I was coaching who wanted to understand the appropriate choices for historical ornamentation as applied to “No more shall meads be decked with flowers”, a song setting by Nicholas Lanier.  I steered her toward the essay on singing in the Italian style, attributed to Lanier himself found in Playford’s An Introduction to the Skill of Musick (Seventh Edition: London, 1674).  The singer dutifully learned every example in the essay and incorporated all of them into her interpretation.  As one might imagine, the excessive ornaments obscured the pastoral character of the song and turned it into a circus act.  True in ornamentation and true in gesture, a tasteful restraint matters.

Since we mention “No more shall meads be decked with flowers”, we recently came across a previously unreleased recording of the song from our first recording session in 2005.  In fact, it was the very first song we recorded as a test for microphone balance, and you can now hear the result.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 61 other followers