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Saturday morning quotes 6.15: Emotional power

CommeFemme-clipOur primary motivation for continuing this weekly series is to readjust received ideas, clarify misconceptions, and dispel stereotypes that have been handed down concerning the emotional power of historical music.  We need not delve into who may have created the manifold misconceptions or to what purpose, but we are firm in the belief that when musicians inform themselves and make an effort to imbue their performances of historical music with an appropriate level of historically-informed sentiment, an appreciative listening audience will respond to the immediacy of the music just as they respond to the directness of more modern music.

Music of the 15th century has been given a bad rap.  A cursory survey of available performances reveal either a bevy of jaunty costumed performers cavorting with whistles and drums, or Violetta-like performers, or listless waifs in castles evoking a thin, detached and bloodless style that may very well intend to convey elegance, but instead only induces barely stifled yawns and fidgety feet that ultimately aim for the door.

We think there is another way that acknowledges the visual remnants of the period but really begins with a familiarity with the sources, and not just from a visual point of view but with an understanding of the poetry and its forms, the intellectual depth and rhythmic shape of the music, and with a well-informed sense of the historical context.  This demands a  complete and focused immersion but, fortunately, we have help available through the work of eminent scholars who have devoted a lifetime of research to the subject.

We quote from Alejandro Enrique Planchart, “Du Fay and the Style of Molinet”, Early Music, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 61-72

“The language and rhetorical gambits of the great majority of the poems set to music are by and large those of the high art of the tradition of courtly love: serious and sentimental expressions of love and unswerving devotion, even when complaining about suffering at the hands of the beloved. A good example of this tradition is Antoine Busnoys’s A vous sans aultre. The text is a perfect example of decorous love poetry, but the song’s enormous power derives largely from the music, with the three voices sinuously intertwining around each other. Were two people behaving in public like the lines of this song surely the local constabulary would suggest that they go somewhere more private.”

Of course not every piece from the period is quite so racy and composers like Ockeghem were adept at creating satisfyingly artful yet eminently more subtle music that lends itself to a declamatory style of rendering the meaning of the poetry, as in Planchart’s characterization of  “Ma bouche rit” by Ockeghem.

“The lines do not do anything that could be regarded as expressive of the text either in 15th-century or later terms, but rather allow for an exquisitely clear declamation of the text, whose grammatical and poetic structure is subtly supported by the music.”

An example of this declamatory style is Ockeghem’s “Quant de vous seul je pers la veue”, which can be heard here, from our ten-year old recording La Rota Fortuna: Chansons & lute solos in honor of Francesco Spinacino, fl. 1507.  Ockeghem disguises strict imitation between the cantus and tenor with a beautifully composed melodic line, and the poetry is very effectively rendered by the calm setting in tempus imperfectum diminutum.

Planchart also describes the evocative chanson attributed to Binchois, Comme femme desconfortee.

“Another exception is the outright lament, not the measured lament of Nymphes des bois, but the outpouring of raw grief one finds in Du Fay’s Las, que fera or even more extraordinarily in Comme femme desconfortee, which if it is by Binchois, is his most powerful work and unique in his canon.”

“The poem is a woman’s lament over the death of her lover couched in terms far bleaker than those of Las, que feray or any other such lament I have seen from the period. The final line of the refrain, ‘Desire la mort main et soir’, is set by the composer in a startling manner, which suggests that he read it not just as a desire for release but almost a last step before suicide. The phrase is preceded by the longest pause within the song and starts at the lowest pitch of any of the phrase openings. Further, it starts over two entirely motionless voices and at the words ‘la mort’ all voices move in rhythmic unison, but ‘mort’ is followed in the cantus by a semibreve rest, even though there is no punctuation in the text and nothing is happening in the other voices.”

“This is a unique moment in the song and, I should add, in the entire repertory of the time. It is a moment of heart-stopping grief for the persona of the poem, and on the part of the composer, who like most men of his time surely held to Catholic orthodoxy, an awareness that the persona has stopped at the very edge of the abyss of eternal damnation.”

Josquin used the intact but seriously augmented tenor line of Comme femme as the cantus firmus in his five-part Stabat Mater dolorosa, which will be the centerpiece of our annual September concert to commemorate the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, and includes evocative music of the late 15th century by Agricola, Binchois, DuFay, Josquin and Ockeghem.

Saturday morning quotes 6.14: Mythologies

big-fish-small-pond-shutterstock-8451121-big-fish-small-pond-20151229064458-56822bea09d05“And so it came to pass that he heard an LP of Julian Bream, an excellent master upon the lute, and he quick got him an instrument that pleased not his hand nor his ear but used his study of modern classical guitar to great advantage until he charmed the unschooled ears of others by such rare and uncommon sounds, be they ever so inaudible, and no other had nor played such an instrument; and thus he was a very great fish in a very small pond until others studied to usurp his station, whereupon he inveigled to hold close to himself his lessons and cloak his hand and change his tune, and told all others that their method of play was in error be it true or no, and thus kept all and sundry usurpers in the dark and long on the placement of fingers rather than on the discovery of the rare celestial quality of the music, a path which he had himself eschewed and discovered not.”

This playfully fictitious—if fractious—fable might well describe a cynical mythology of the modern rediscovery of the lute for many players.  The lute is such a magnificent emblem of the aesthetics of historical music that it is no wonder so many modern players immerse themselves in the physical and mechanical properties of the instrument, as well as indulge in the ardent pursuit of historical music.  But perhaps many have overlooked what the contemporary master Julian Bream had to say about his own journey of discovery of the vast repertory of lute music, and the great deeps one may find if one probes the emotional qualities of historical music for the instrument.

The most effective way (yes, that’s right) to approach and understand historical music is to take the time to read what the old ones had to say and to make every attempt to learn the way they learned.  This truth may chafe among those who would create their own world and discard facts that don’t fit into their way of thinking.  Nevertheless, the information is there for all to discover and only takes a quiet and receptive mind and an open heart.

“The lute is a modest interpreter of our thoughts and passions to those that understand the language. One may tell another by the help of it what he hath in his heart.”

We revisit the writing found in Mary Burwell’s lute book, circa 1660, which is essentially a treatise copied by students of an unidentified teacher, the premise being that through the physical act of copying the text, the student would digest and thus know the information.  This tried and true method of old is quite different from using Google as a ready reference for an immediate need and then moving on to the next bright shiny object, because the information is absorbed and retained.  Our quotes are drawn from the essential article by Thurston Dart, “Miss Mary Burwell’s Instruction Book for the Lute”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 11 (May, 1958), pp. 3-62

“If wee consider the excellency of the Lute wherof we shall make a whole discourse heerafter or if wee trust piously the Devines wee shall easily beleeve that the Lute hath his derivacon from heaven in effect that had the happines to be present at the birth of the Incarnate word and that heard the admirable Consort of Musicke which the Angells made for to manifest there joy and the Interest that heaven tooke in the happines of Mankind or those who by spetiall favours since haue heard Celestiall melodie…”

It may be a difficult concept in our secular age, but the lute was indeed considered a celestial instrument, and study of the lute was considered a pathway to the Divine.  This passage also reveals where the ensemble, Consort of Musicke, may have derived their name.

“Therefore do we feel in churches that music raises up our souls, softens our hearts, and draws from us tears of joy which are very proper to dissolve those of our contrition. And why should it not be possible that, as Amphion made the stones to move by his harmony, gathered them in order the top of one another round about the city and so builded the walls of Thebes, is it unlikely said of that music may contribute much to move our stony hearts, to place them in good order, and build in the end the walls of the temporal Jerusalem against whom all the forces of Hell shall not prevail?”

The power of music to move our hearts, minds and souls was well understood, and the metaphor of music’s power to move inanimate objects was appropriately used as an example of how the senses of susceptible listeners may be moved.

“…There is a great dispute amongst the moderns concerning the shape of the lute. Some will have it somewhat roundish, the rising in the middle of the back and sloping of each side…The reason is that the lute so framed is capable of more sound because of his concavity, and that the sound not keeping in the deep and hollow bottom but, contrariwise, being put forth by the straitness of the sides towards the middle and so to the rose, from whence it issues greater and with more impetuosity.”

“The other have for their defence and reason the handsomeness of the figure of the pear, [and] the comeliness of it—because, being more flat in the back, they lie better upon the stomach and do not endanger people to grow crooked. Besides, all Bologna lutes are in the shape of a pear, and those are the best lutes; but their goodness is not attributed to their figure but to their antiquity, to the skill of those lutemakers, to the quality of the wood and [the] seasoning of it, and to the varnishing of it.”

Mary Burwell’s lute tutor had a great deal to say about the physical properties of the instrument.  The descriptions above reveal the reasons why the lutes made by Frei and Maler of Bologna were preferred over the rounder, deeper-bodied Venice lutes.

“Of all the instruments of music the lute pleaseth most the French, though it was not framed nor touched as [it] is at present, every eye having contributed to the perfection of  that famous  instrument, as we see by the shape of the ancient lutes and by the  composition of our lessons. The lute hath had a long time but thirteen strings, then fifteen, then seventeen, then nineteen, where he hath remained a long time that is, nine double strings and the treble (for ’tis but of late that we use but one second). All that while the lute had but one head.”

Mary Burwell’s tutor tells us that seven, eight, nine and ten-course lutes were long in common use without extended necks, and that the second course was always doubled until circa 1660.  The latter detail is important information for those who like to obsess over historical accuracy in performance.  That means music by Vieux Gaultier should always be played with a double second course.

“Lorenzini [Vomigny], Perrichon and the Polack [i.e.Jacob Reys] are furthest lutenists in the memory of man that deserved to be mentioned and to have a statue upon the mount of Parnassus, for having given us the rudiments of the lute and cleared the first difficulties that hindered production of this masterpiece. Afterwards Monsieur Mezangeau [Mezangeot] appeared upon the stage of music and, using the lute with nineteen strings, hath so polished the composition and the playing of it that, without contradiction, we must give him the praise to have given to the lute his first perfection”

Thurston Dart inserted many helpful corrections in his transcription of the contents of Burwell’s book, but one wonders how “Vomigny” morphed into “Lorenzini”.  Lorenzini, Laurencini, or Lorenzo Tracetti was a famed Italian lutenist and noted teacher of the prolific but error-prone anthologist, Besard.  There is a Lake Vaumigny located between Le Mans and Orléans, noted for its many big fish stories, and the “Vomigny” mentioned in the book may very well refer to another unknown historical lute master.  Mesangeau’s music is notable for its subtlety and the use of higher positions, and requires calm study and a receptive mind to uncover the attributes described by Mary Burwell’s tutor.  We offer our edition of three courantes for those who would like to try.

“By this it is easy to see what vast capacities the lute hath, what abundance of music, what variety both of things and manners, of fashions of playing and composing, the lute being like an ocean that cannot be emptied but is full of so much riches that the more we take from it the more remains to take, and in such sort that all his beauties are different according to the genius of the lute master that composes our plays, and dives in that spring of science and charms.”

We can choose to dip a toe into that spring of science and charms, or we can choose to dive in after those who have immersed themselves in the music.  But it most certainly requires that we approach the water’s edge with a calm mind and without the hum and distraction of electronic gadgets.  Give it a try.

Special Note: Protocols

Over the past few months, we have received angry, bilious commentary from sitting board members of both the American lute organization and the American early music organization.  While we are pleased to have actually reached these people, and we invite their respectful comments, we will say outright that when we name names on our blog it is with full awareness that said names will receive searchable hits on what is an internationally known and popular source of information.  We do not choose to offer that advantage to all and sundry.

We always welcome comments on our blog, but we reserve the right to exclude commentary that is offensive, immature or that displays the ranting quality one associates with the currently popular Fox-news style of communication.  We don’t mind helpful corrections or thoughtful criticism respectfully presented, but if you want to rant, get your own blog.


Saturday morning quotes 6.13: Assumptions III

Too hotToday we return to the modern world after having had a welcome vacation from the internet—and an unwelcome vacation from electric fans and such—after experiencing a power outage lasting three full days of weather featuring days and nights of incessant heat and humidity.  This sort of summertime weather-related inconvenience tends to cause some people to become rather choleric, but we are the forgiving type and we press on with our characteristic optimism tempered by an open-eyed acknowledgement of reality.

Monday August 15th is Donna’s birthday and also marks the Feast of the Assumption, an important day in the liturgical calendar.  But the entire weekend is also given over to an intense carnival atmosphere that consumes the Little Italy neighborhood of Cleveland.  Celebration of the Feast of the Assumption, which one of us calls the “Feast of the Consumption”,  features activities involving fried food and vats of alcohol, a full-service gambling casino in the basement of the Church of the Holy Rosary, and very, very loud canned music pulsating from behind a banner that reads “Disco Inferno”.  Interesting way to celebrate a religious holiday.

For those of you interested in music for voice and lute, we offer our score of a piece composed specifically for the historical Feast of the Assumption by Gregor Aichinger (1561-1628), an organist who served the famous Fugger family of Augsberg. The pdf also includes our edition of a score of the three-voice motet for those of you interested in seeing how vocal music is readily adapted for solo voice and lute, an instrument which can easily handle the lower two voices.

When lute enthusiasts a see reference to the Fugger family, they immediately think of the famous collection of surviving lutes and the historical inventory of instruments, as described by Douglas Alton Smith in the article “The Musical Instrument Inventory of Raymund Fugger”, The Galpin Society Journal Vol. 33 (Mar., 1980), pp. 36-44.  The renowned historical luthier, Sixtus Rauchwolff, or Rauwolff, (c. 1556 – 1629), apparently also worked for the Fuggers, and examples of his work survive in the Metropolitan Museum collection of instruments, and have even been restored and put into playing condition, as in the example by the late Stephen Gottlieb.

The Fuggers were heavily involved in banking and were historically significant for having  accumulated a great deal of wealth through the brutal practice of usury, setting an example for managing wealth that is still in modern practice:

“Divide your fortune into four equal parts:  stocks, real estate, bonds and gold coins. Be prepared to lose on one of them most of the time. During inflation, you will lose on bonds and win on gold and real estate; during deflation, you lose on real estate and win on bonds, while your stocks will see you through both periods, though in a mixed fashion.  Whenever performance differences cause a major imbalance, rebalance your fortunes back to the four equal parts.”

– Jacob Fugger the Rich, 1459-1525

Through their banking empire the Fuggers had a stranglehold on the European economy throughout the sixteenth century and, while the Fuggers have a lasting reputation as patrons of the arts, were they really authentic and generous patrons?  Or were they self-aggrandizing narcissists who owned an enormous pile of instruments?  There is a difference, and we should refrain from making assumptions without delving more deeply into history.  That’s why we’re here.


Saturday morning quotes 6.12: Grace, dignity and truth

Not van wilderOne of the most attractive qualities of early music is the calm sense of grace the music is meant to convey.  Sure, one can find plenty of sets of florid divisions or bawdy songs one might sing in the month of May.  And from the 17th century forward, a great deal of music showcases a frivolous and hollow virtuosity that seems to pander to the lowest common denominator.  But the best composers of earlier music conveyed in notes and well-chosen song texts a sound world informed by the depth of what was in their minds, hearts and souls—not simply what was in their fingers.  As we repeat often, John Dowland had very sharp words for those who considered themselves musicians but whose skill only resided in their fingers’ ends.

For revivalists to truly understand the aesthetics of early music, more than a passing familiarity with the literary sources and song texts from a given period is essential—Richard Barnfield nailed it when he described music and poetry as the sister and the brother.  An open-eyed exploration of the treasure trove of historical music and poetry leads revivalists to the beginning of an understanding of just what music meant to our ancestors and how it served a daily function to foster and sustain a calm sense of grace.

“Just as grace is the expression of a beautiful soul, dignity is the expression of a noble disposition of mind.  It is, indeed, the person’s task to establish an intimate accord between his two natures, always to be a harmonizing whole, and act with his full-voiced entire humanity. “

– Friedrich Schiller, “On Grace and Dignity”,  New Thalia, 1793

As a duo, we strive to promote the calm sense of grace that we draw from our exploration of the repertory. And as we delve more deeply into historical aesthetics, we are affected by the inherent calm sense of grace in the music, and we find ourselves simply stepping back from our own personal ideas and just allowing the music to speak on its own terms.  Without apology, we consider that to be an arrival at a very important station prominently situated well down the track that leads to informed artistic interpretive authority.

We are committed to sharing our very well-informed interpretations of historical music in this forum and on the concert stage because we are firm in the belief that the world needs exposure to more of the calm sense of grace drawn from historical examples.  Now more than ever, the world suffers from an epidemic of blustering personalities and rash words—an unfortunate trend seen across the globe but particularly emanating from the US at present. We find this distasteful in the extreme and we are not above contributing calm, respectful commentary as a means in some small way to counter the embarrassing image of the blustering narcissistic American who, with fistfuls of cash, buys his way to prominent notice.

The plays of [Ben] Jonson deal with the impact of self-assertive egoism on an ordered society.   But Jonson makes little attempt to understand his monsters; he regards them as instruments of evil, whether horrible or ludicrous, who destroy civilization…

– Wilfrid Mellers, Harmonious Meeting: A Study of the Relationship between English Music, Poetry and Theatre, c. 1600-1900, Dobson Books, London, 1965, p. 18

What can an independent musician do to counter this trend?  Speak the truth. As an illustrative example of the morally ambiguous things an independent musician must do sometimes, several years ago I was contacted by a well-known physician with a medical degree from the most highly regarded school in the US.  He had ceased his practice and instead created a very lucrative franchise in a specialized field of health care.  But like many “successful” personalities he wanted more.

Initially, I was asked to give his wife mandolin lessons and I successfully taught her how to play a few pieces by rote.  I was then asked to give him guitar lessons and teach them how to play and sing together.  Again, as a competent teacher, I patiently instructed them with a successful result, and they were able to play and sing a few simple pieces together.  And as unpleasant as I may have found the task, I bit the bullet and graciously taught them the music they requested despite my aversion to the Grateful Dead.

But when dealing with acutely narcissistic personalities, such encouragement can easily create a monster. It was not long before the couple asked me to produce a studio recording of their playing that they could then distribute to the people involved in their worldwide franchise (meaning forcing them to buy it).  Independent musicians require income and, with moral misgivings, I agreed to help them with this project.  Needless to say, there was an enormous amount of very expensive post-session editing, time-shifting and auto-tuning in the studio and, perhaps most disturbingly, the very capable engineer was quite accustomed to the phenomenon and produced an acceptable if marginal result.

We have produced 10 CDs of Mignarda’s music for voice and lute and we say unashamedly that not one of them cost more than $3000 to produce including recording, editing, mastering, design and artwork, manufacture  and shipping of the first run of each CD title.  Our recordings are minimalist and our audiences respond to this honesty.

The couple then announced that they were going to begin teaching others to play music based on what they had learned from their experience with my teaching.  In theory, I thought it not a bad idea to foster an appreciation for playing music no matter at what level.  But the couple were patently delusional about their abilities, and were frankly incapable of ever reproducing a live performance of what was on the recording, even at the most rudimentary level.

I felt morally obliged to convey face to face, in kind and respectful terms, the cold, hard truth that, while sharing music for fun is a good thing, they needed quite a bit more personal work before embarking on a career in teaching music.  This seemed to displease the couple, who were accustomed to a filtered reality colored by their monetary wealth and, sadly, reinforced by the hordes of fawning hangers-on who lived in hope of some of that wealth trickling down to them.

“The greatest fools are those that do not know their folly; the next are those that cannot hide their folly.”

– Mary Burwell’s lute tutor, c. 1660

Encouraging such personalities at some point boils down to perpetrating falsehood and fraud.  Donald Trump achieved a public platform by buying his way to prominence in this manner.  We feel a moral obligation to mention the fact that the Emperor is naked, and it’s an embarrassing sight.  We’ll say nothing more about the alternative embarrassment who sports the pantsuits, other than she sometimes looks like Captain Kangaroo.

We received a comment on another forum regarding a previous blog post that quoted an article by Maria Schneider on the subject of artists’ rights and the enormous amount of piracy that appears to be encouraged by Youtube.  The comment included the following:

“So, you have claimed on your blog to be the ultimate arbiter of HIP performance, what should be played and in what order, who is qualified to play it, how society should reimburse for it, what modern rep is acceptable to play and now good vs evil. Since you like to bring politics into your blog posts, this sounds like one of the current US candidates for president (hint: the one that doesn’t wear pantsuits (in public)).”

Pot, kettle, black. We provide informed, well-researched, carefully documented and respectfully presented commentary on early music and related matters, conveyed with grace and dignity.  We offer our insights with frequent regularity to an international audience of appreciative readers, and we can see how our success and productivity may chafe among those associated with the corporate early music establishment in the US. [The unnamed source of the quote is a board member of Early Music America.]

And, yes, we speak the truth.

As for the rest that would faine informe men, they know something by their generall dislike of euerie thing; I will not so much as desire them to be silent [lest] I should thereby teach them at least how they might seeme wise.

– Robert Jones, The Second Booke of Songe and Ayres, 1601, To the Reader.

An issue of concern

singer and luteWe have been very busy with recording projects and are taking a short pause to catch our breath. We’re happy to say our new Christmas CD, Magnum Mysterium, will be released and available by November and we are very pleased to be presenting live performances of four different polyphonic settings of the Christmas responsory text, “O magnum mysterium”, as well as other related seasonal music.

Until recent health-related issues intervened, our income was based solely on our music; performances, teaching, and sales of CDs and downloads.  When you stop and think about it, this is a fairly significant achievement for a duo specializing in 16th century music for lute and voice—probably unprecedented and quite notable because we receive exactly zero support from the established early music organizations in the US.

We have our standards, but we also have an opportunity to produce a video of some of the music from our new CD, and we are wrestling with the thought of rolling over and allowing ourselves to be consumed by the nefarious beast that is Youtube/Google.  While our existing Youtube videos have received an appreciable response, we haven’t posted anything new for a few years, mainly because of Youtube’s blatant unfairness when it comes to compensation. Our video of Donna singing the chant, Tantum ergo, has seen over a half-million views in the past few years, and more than 17,000 views in the past three weeks alone, yet we have received less than a cumulative $20 total from Youtube.

Most users of Youtube have no idea of the absurd level of unfairness that currently exists in the current Youtube format for compensating artists, and it’s about to get worse.  For more information, we encourage our readers to peruse this article by Grammy award winning composer and band leader, Maria Schneider, briefly quoted below.

“…YouTube’s ad revenue has proven paltry when compared to the real cost of producing music.  Like an Atlantic City casino, YouTube wants us to believe that we just might hit the jackpot.  Stories of viral videos make the news and seem like the new brass ring for rights-holders, but…of the very, very few who achieve viral, who can sustain it and make a career of it?”

“While we’re haggling over paltry ad revenue, we’re diverted from the far greater value that is being generated from our music.  Every month, our music drives billions of users to YouTube’s platform, and the data that Google then gathers from following our fans around the web is where YouTube’s true value lies.”

“Google and Facebook didn’t get their billion dollar valuations from ad revenue.  YouTube’s valuation largely comes from the mountains of hoarded data collected on the backs of all musicians and creators.  Therefore, part of the value of the YouTube empire should fairly belong to musicians.  Not only should musicians and creators share in the value of data gathered, but they should also have access to the data their creations generate.  Why in the world is it fair for YouTube to keep all of this data as a “trade secret” when it’s generated from our own fans, often through piracy YouTube expressly facilitates?”

– Maria Schneider

We invite your input.

Saturday morning quotes 6.11: Judgement

Old Queen LizAs much as one would like to remain immersed in music and literature of the past and ignore the news of the moment, the world is literally being bombarded with hyperbole about the historic occasion of a rather mature woman dressed in white being nominated for president of the US. Yes, we all know that the US is behind the rest of the developed world in many respects that have to do with equality, justice, stewardship and humanitarian issues.  But there are today and historically have been many exemplary women in leadership roles—and some of them even possessed the character, wisdom and judgement that can only be developed through a deliberate and balanced education in the skill of music.

Queen Elizabeth I for example.  As we mentioned in one of our earliest posts, Elizabeth received a balanced education in the liberal arts taught by a tutor possessing enlightened views on the education of women.

…[H]e shall commend the perfect understanding of music, declaring how necessary it is for the better attaining the knowledge of a public weal, which as I before said, is made of an order of estates and degrees, and by reason thereof containeth in it a perfect harmony: which he shall afterward more perfectly understand, when he shall happen to read the books of Plato and Aristotle of public weals: wherein be written diverse examples of music and geometry.  In this form may a wise and circumspect tutor adapt the pleasant science of music to a necessary and laudable purpose.

– Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490 – 1546)  The Boke named the Governour (1531)

Our quotations are drawn from the article by Katherine Butler, “By Instruments her Powers Appeare: Music and Authority in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I”, Renaissance Quarterly 65 (2012): 353-84.

“Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) had a reputation as a musical monarch.  She played the virginals, the lute, and similar plucked string instruments; she sang, danced, and on one occasion claimed to have composed dance music.  Yet while a musical education was typical for women of royal and noble birth, Elizabeth’s unusual position as a ruling queen allowed her music-making to develop a political role as part of her royal image.”

– Butler, p. 353

That’s right.  A woman who managed to reign for 45 years played the lute and used her skill in music as a subtle political tool.  We can only surmise what sort of high-level discourse goes on behind closed doors today.  But as we know from the famous Holbein painting, The Ambassadors, in Elizabeth’s time, it sometimes involved the heightened symbolism of music and of the lute.

“Performing on the lute was itself a means to fashion private space.  Lute performances were not public spectacles, but took place in private contexts, while the lyrics of lute songs were introspective and often enacted seemingly personal confessions, especially of melancholy or love.”

– Butler, p. 364

The implication is that the medium of intimate music fostered honesty and the better sort of human qualities in the context of important political negotiations.  But Elizabeth was operating in a man’s world, and found it necessary to employ her deep understanding of music as symbolic of intelligence, refinement and judgement.

“Portraits of mature men communicated experience, wisdom, and power, while those of aging women were positive only when showing a mother with her children.  Otherwise, old women were associated with sin, vice, decay, and even witchcraft, as opposed to the virtuous Virgin Mary, who was always depicted as young.  The atmosphere of love and attraction that Bacon suggested was an important aspect of Elizabeth’s style of government, relied on her remaining desirable. The reality of aging had to be disguised by pretence, and Elizabeth’s music-making played a part in this.”

“However, images of Elizabeth in her role as musical patroness moved away from the purely sensual, with its implications of frivolity and wantoness, and developed music’s potential connotations of intelligence, refinement, rationality, and harmony of mind.  When court musicians William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623) and Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-85) dedicated their 1575 Cantiones Sacrae to Elizabeth, they praised “the refinement of [her] voice or the nimbleness of [her] fingers,” but they also claimed that her practical skill made her able to judge their work.”

– Butler, p. 366

Of course Byrd and Tallis were engaged in fawning sales talk, and we must avoid using such words to define historical fact.  But the idea of music as symbolic of intelligence and refinement is well-taken.

“Furthermore, musical judgment was more highly esteemed than practical skill in music because it involved reason and intellect.  In his De Institutione Musica, Boethius distinguished performers (with physical skill but little understanding of music) and composers (who compose song by natural instinct) from those with the ability to judge music, of whom he wrote: “This class is rightly reckoned as musical because it relies entirely upon reason and speculation.  And that person is a musician who possesses the faculty of judging.”  Tallis and Byrd therefore associated Elizabeth with the highest form of musicianship, where music is no longer merely sensual but responded to rationally and intellectually.”

– Butler, p. 366

To contextualize the translated words of Boethius, he assumed that judgement was the result of deep understanding gained through diligent study. There is a vast difference between refined judgement graciously expressed and based upon personal skill and deep understanding, and today’s unfortunate culture of unformed opinion based only upon overblown ego and easy access to media in which to express the same.  And by “class”, Boethius was not referring to a caste system, but rather to the equivalent of “sort” or “category”.

In a nutshell, a balanced education in the traditional liberal arts prepares the intellect for critical thinking and the moral temperament essential to developing the judgment necessary to make decisions for the greater good.  Music was defined as a science among the Seven Liberal Arts.  Training in music helps develop judgement by blending science with art, enabling the person to understand just how beauty and proportion can be tempered by reason and hard facts in order to arrive at thoughtful decisions.  This is opposed to the current system that for baffling reasons seems to honor an apparent success based upon deception, dishonesty, deflection and dirty tricks.  Could it be that the missing ingredient is an education in music?



Saturday morning quotes 6.10: Giving voice

canbeltoDespite our dwelling in the age of the painfully obvious, from time to time we feel compelled to offer a few remarks on the subject of voice, our thoughts on vocal qualities and our conscious interpretive choices.  As with the shining example of one of our very favorite singers, Marco Beasley, interpreting early music with a natural vocal production points the way toward more sensitive and much more communicative historically-appropriate performances.

But pursuing such a path has not made for a particularly easy journey in a field of musical performance that, oddly, remains influenced more by Victorian rules and aesthetics than by 16th-century ideals.  Recordings of early music continue to feature vocalists employing conventional conservatory training that, while practical for a very wide range of music from the 17th century onward, employs techniques having very little to with the aesthetics of earlier music.

“For he, Sire, that hearing the sweet accord of instruments or the sweetness of the natural voice feels no joy and no agitation and is not thrilled from head to foot, as being delightfully rapt and somehow carried out of himself – ’tis the sign of one whose soul is tortuous, vicious, and depraved, and of whom one should beware as not fortunately born.”

– Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), from the dedication of Livre des mélanges, 1560.

Since singing with the lute requires an acute sense of balance and sensitivity to polyphonic interplay, Ronsard’s “natural voice” is the most justifiable solution for such intimate music.  But we also perform sacred and secular ensemble music for a cappella voices, and are aware of the need for adapting projection to meet the demands of singing polyphony with larger forces in larger spaces.

“A particularly striking crudity is that of singing the high notes with a loud tone, indeed with full lung power…The lower notes are to be sung entirely from the chest, the middle ones with moderate strength, the high ones with a soft voice.”

– Conrad von Zabern, Modo bene cantandi, 1474

Currently focusing on the music of Josquin, we are fortunate to have come across the work of Rebecca Stewart and her timeless article, “In principio erat verbum. A Physiological and Linguistic Study of Male Vocal Types, Timbres and Techniques in the Music of Josquin des Prez”.

“Information provided by physiological, linguistic, musical and historical data shows the following: Firstly, the music of Josquin (and consequently the manner of its performance) was initially molded by his French linguistic background. Secondly, partially as a result of living in Italy for most of the years between 1459 and 1504 and of learning the language, this music and its performance underwent a major transformation. During this period the Italian language was beginning to compete with French as a language of the cultured and artistic classes. Thirdly, an understanding of the at last partially linguistic change in Josquin’s style of composition, makes it possible to discuss the various vocal types, timbres and techniques appropriate for the singing of this music, without having to rely completely on one’s own instinctive preferences.”

“Leaving aside the musical and historical evidence, the two primary arguments in support of these contentions are the following: (1) Physiologically, the human larynx has remained basically unchanged since man became a speaking and singing creature. Taking into consideration the influence upon it of racial types, this mechanism can be used as a reliable measuring device in the determination of basic vocal types and ranges. (2) The singing voice is largely determined and limited by the language spoken since early childhood. Thus, questions concerning vocal timbres and techniques may in part be answered when viewed as an aspect of linguistic bias. Although genetic characteristics do influence the size of the vocal folds and other physiological aspects, such as the construction of the mouth, it is the language which influences the habitual use of the lips, tongue, soft palate, nose and larynx. These organs, working together in very specific ways, create the timbres and techniques which we associate with equally specific vocal styles.”

– Howard M. Brown and Rebecca Stewart, “Workshop IV. Voice Types in Josquin’s Music”, Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, Deel 35, No.1/2, Proceedings of the Josquin Symposium. Cologne, 11-15 July 1984 (1985), pp. 97-193.

While we are not capable of retooling our genetic material in order to reproduce historical geographic and linguistic mannerisms with complete accuracy, we can at least be guided by this information when pursuing historically sensitive performances.  But what is more important is the idea of incorporating such historical information as refinements of our personal style, and voicing our interpretive choices in ways that move the listener.  Successfully giving voice to any sort of music requires understanding.

“The expressions ‘voicing an idea’, ‘giving voice’, the ‘voice of the nation’,and the like are derived from this power of the voice. Voting, casting a vote, in our political system also means to give or actually temporarily ‘lend’ our voice to someone else. In German and Dutch this is even more evident; the German word Stimme means both voice and vote, exactly like the Dutch word stem. Stimme in German and stem in Dutch also connect to a completely different dimension of voice. In both languages the derived noun Stimmung/stemming and the verb stimmen/stemmen mean ‘(the) tuning (of) an instrument’ and at the same time a ‘mood’. This is particularly interesting, as it creates an intricate web of interconnected applications of the voice-complex.”

“Voice is a way to express emotions and ideas, but voice also is emotion and idea. The connection between tuning and mood is well known in musicological literature, and the fact that this is also related to voice – as the primary carrier of emotion – only underlines its relevance. Additionally, there are ‘voices’ in a musical piece; especially in polyphony it is common to consider each melodic line to represent or actually to be a voice. Again, in English this meaning is less evident, as the ‘voices’ are often called ‘parts’.”

Music, Dance and the Art of Seduction, Edited by Frank Kouwenhoven and James Kippen, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014. Chapter 4. “Enchanting voices”, by Wim van der Meer

Interpretive success in music, as in speech, can only be measured by whether the listener is convinced by the performance.  “Voicing”, in an intentionally backwards hierarchy of importance, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Speech, talk, vocal utterance”, or “A manner of performing music for the voice; the composition or arrangement of vocal parts in a piece of music”, or finally as “The action, fact, or process of voting by voice; election, nomination, or decision by vote.”

“Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been ignored, neglected and abandoned…These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice”… I am your voice.”

– Donald Trump

The more thoughtful and critical thinkers among us would take issue with the very idea of ceding our voice to a person incapable of speaking in a gracious and dignified manner using complete intelligible sentences.  There is something sinister yet vaguely familiar about the idea of a person—whose only apparent qualification for office is having been born to wealth—acting in the interest of the disenfranchised.  We sincerely hope the disenfranchised are capable of learning from history.


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