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Saturday morning quotes 7.4: Improv II

Francesco woodcut

“Musical notation is only a secondary witness. What is more, much of the music actually heard in the Middle Ages was never written down at all. The music historian deals not only with loss of evidence, but also with phenomena which were never ‘evident’.”

Reinhard Strohm, “The Close of the Middle Ages”, Antiquity and the Middle Ages : From ancient Greece to the 15th century, Ed. James McKinnon, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1991.

As we pointed out in our last post, the immense amount of historical European music that survives in handwritten manuscripts and in printed form is only the tip of the iceberg.  When we plunge into the shadowy depths and begin chipping away at the circumference of the immense frozen block of ice, as we approach the heart of the matter we begin to understand that the sort of music described so eloquently in historical literary sources was not played from a written score, but improvised by a musician steeped in classical and contemporary literature, trained in composition and more than familiar with sacred music and vocal polyphony.

“Improvised polyphony was everywhere in the Renaissance…In a recent article describing the incredible feats of improvisation required of Spanish choir masters, Philippe Canguilhem (2011, 99) estimates that “the vast majority” of the polyphony heard in Philip II’s chapel in sixteenth-century Spain was improvised. In earlier centuries the amount might have been even higher. The composed polyphony that comes down to us was a small fraction of the musical landscape. This realization transforms our sense of the past.”

Julie E. Cumming, “Renaissance Improvisation and Musicology”, Music Theory Online: A Journal of the Society for Music Theory. Volume 19, Number 2, June 2013.

Historical composed polyphony is what survives and therefore represents the bulk of what our academics study today.  But the act of limiting ourselves to the study of surviving historical scores is tantamount to studying jazz only from the point of view of the published piano scores of songs by Hoagy Carmichael or Jerome Kern.  To really understand, we have to dig.

“For the highly skilled musician, performing fantasias was an act of creation rather than recreation. The ambition of many skilled lutenists was to develop the ability to extemporize imitative counterpoint using materials appropriated or assimilated from both instrumental and vocal models, if not newly invented.”

John Griffiths and Dinko Fabris, editors, Neapolitan Lute Music: Fabrizio Dentice, Guilio Severino, Giovanni Antonio Severino, Francesco Cardone, Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance, 140, A-R Editions, Middleton Wisconsin, 2004, p. xv.

Even though we have a wealth of wonderful historical printed works containing composed fantasias that we play and enjoy today, it follows that lutenists like the famous Francesco da Milano (1497 – 1543) were probably best known by their contemporaries for their ability to improvise.

“The tables cleared, he took up a lute and, as if merely essaying chords, he began, seated near the foot of the table, to strum a fantasy. He had plucked no more than the first three notes of the tune when all the conversation ceased among the festive throng and all were constrained to look there where he was, as he continued with such enchanting skill that little by little, through the divine art in playing that was his alone, he made the very strings to swoon beneath his fingers and transported all who listened into such gentle melancholy that one present buried his head in his hands, another let his entire body slump into an ungainly posture with members all awry, while another, his mouth sagged open and his eyes more than half shut, seemed, one would judge, as if transfixed upon the strings, and yet another, with chin sunk upon his chest, hiding the most sadly taciturn visage ever seen, remained abstracted in all his senses save his hearing, as if his soul had fled from all the seats of sensibility to take refuge in his ears where more easefully it could rejoice in such enchanting symphony.”

– Jacques Decartes de Ventemille, quoted in Pontus de Tyard, Solitaire second ou prose de la musique, 1555.

From the illustration of Francesco at the top of the page, we can’t help but notice he is not staring intently at an open book of music.

Next week we add to this survey of improvisation with some more recent examples.

Saturday morning quotes 7.3: Improv

chinese lute

Improvising on the lute

“…[T]he modern reconstructionist movement has produced many scrupulous realizers of musical notation but has yet to produce a single genuine master of improvisation, which we all know to be nine-tenths of the Renaissance and Baroque musical icebergs.”

– Richard Taruskin, “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself: Some Reflections on Musicology and Performance”, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Jul., 1982), p. 347.

Today’s post revisits the topic of improvisation, an important theme we have touched upon in the past, plunging headlong into the discussion with a contextual quotation extracted from last week’s post.

If, as Taruskin writes, improvisation really was 9/10ths of music that would have been played and heard from 1500-1800, by merely reproducing the notes found in surviving scores most interpreters of early music are missing 90-percent of the point.  And if we read the many surviving early treatises on composition, we learn that composing was as natural as breathing to the educated musician, a small and elite group of professionals.

“Most singers, composers, and players were professionals, and amateur musicians were extremely rare…Musical notation was an arcane art, not to be revealed to all comers; musicians were reluctant, too, to tell all they knew, for the obvious and perhaps sordidly commercial reasons that their livelihood depended on their specialized knowledge and skill.”

– Thurston Dart, from the Foreword of Thomas Morley, A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music. 2nd Ed. (Norton Library). W.W. Norton: n.p., 1973, modern edition edited by Alec Harmon.

Today, many are educated in the skill of reading music, and interpreting early notation is now taught at a growing number of conservatories.  But the art of composing and improvising, particularly in the realm of sixteenth-century counterpoint, is not a skill most musicians possess, even early music specialists.  It is likely that the prevailing reason for this gap in knowledge is the misguided concept of a time-oriented linear progression in sophistication of the art of music that the intervening centuries have introduced, a conceptual travesty that is still taught to music students.  But a comparison may be drawn by looking back at the visual art of Michaelangelo and drawing a line to the art of Jackson Pollack, judging whether art has made a linear progression of sophistication.

We read about 17th-18th century figures like Nicola Matteis, Archangelo Corelli, and right up to C.P.E. Bach as masters of improvisation.  Silvius Leopold Weiss was said to have developed the skill of improvisation on the lute, and was described by Johann Friedrich Reichardt as approaching the level of skill of J. S. Bach in improvising fantasias and fugues—on the lute instead of Bach’s keyboard. Even in the 19th century, improvisation was basis for the music of keyboardists like Lizst and Chopin, who possessed the sprezzatura necessary to evoke a transporting divine frenzy in their listeners.

Perhaps today’s standard of virtuoso technique necessary for interpreting the composed music of past masters is responsible for the decline of improvisation.  Spending endless hours playing rapid passages may develop a deftness in the finger’s ends, but certainly will not develop one’s grasp of counterpoint.

We expand on the theme of improvisation in part II next week.

Saturday morning quotes 7.2: Intentions


“…[M]usic can never under any circumstances but electronic speak for itself. In the case of notated music there is always a middle man, even if it is only ourselves as we contemplate the written symbols.”

–  Richard Taruskin

One’s ideas evolve over time, and our years of tireless research into honest and effective performance of early music have served to refine our ideas and make our performances more sharply focused.  We have written about transparency in performance in the past, and like to think that as performers we step back and allow the music to rise to the surface.  But we are well aware that the effective performance of any music demands a considerable and informed investment of the performer’s personality—performance with intention.

Today’s quotations are from a source briefly referenced in our post last Saturday. Richard Taruskin is a prolific author, and of his rather copious oeuvre we make particular mention of The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009; the very useful compilation of source material by Taruskin and Piero Weiss, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, Schirmer, New York, 1984; and of course the massive six-volume Oxford History of Western Music.

We have previously quoted Taruskin’s sometimes provocative but always distinctly individual ideas in past offerings, but current quotes below are drawn from a single important article, “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself: Some Reflections on Musicology and Performance”, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 338-349.  Taruskin’s ideas are so well developed and his logic so sequential that it is a challenge to slice and dice his prose to create excerpts readily absorbed by the 21st-century attention span.  But give it a try.  We quote liberally.

“…[I]f impossible to realize absolutely, “letting the music speak for itself” may still be a worthy ideal to aspire toward. What does it mean, though? For the moment, let us assume it means realizing the composer’s intentions as far as our knowledge of them permits. What we are really being told, then, is to let the composer speak for himself.”

“I will not rehearse here the familiar epistemological impediments to learning what the composer’s intentions were, especially a composer as remote from us as Ockeghem…And I am not even talking about what are sometimes called “high level” versus “low level” intentions, that is, specific intentions with regard to individual pieces as opposed to assumptions based on prevailing conditions the composer took for granted. No, I mean something even more fundamental: that composers’ concerns are different from performers’ concerns, and that once the piece is finished, the composer regards it and relates to it either as a performer if he is one, or else simply as a listener.”

– p. 340

“What is this thing called authenticity and why do we want it? While most of us would by now agree with the premise, so elegantly and humorously set forth by Michael Morrow in Early Music a few years ago, that authenticity of the kind we usually have in mind when talking musicologically about performance practice is a chimaera, most of us are nevertheless no more deterred by this realization from seeking it than was Bellerophon himself. Again I ask, why?”

– p. 341-42

“Music has to be imaginatively recreated in order to be retrieved, and is where conflicts are likely to arise between the performer’s imagination and the scholar’s conscience, even (or especially) when the two are housed in a single mind. Verdi, speaking ironically about the aims of verismo, said, “it’s to reproduce reality, but how much better to create it.” In a similar spirit I would say, “it’s fine to assemble the shards of a lost performance but how much better to reinvent it.”

– p. 343

“But even at their best and most successful—or especially at their best and most successful—historical reconstructionist performances are in no sense recreations of the past. They are quintessentially modern performances, modernist performances in fact, the product of an esthetic wholly of our own era, no less time-bound than the performance styles they would supplant.”

“Like all other modernist philosophies, historical reconstructionism views the work of art, including performing art, as an autonomous object, not as a process, not an activity. It views the internal relationships of the art work as synonymous with its content, and in the case of music it renounces all distinction between sound and substance: to realize the sound is in fact to realize the substance, hence the enormous and, be it said, ofttimes exaggerated concern today for the use of authentic period instruments for all periods.”

“The artist trades in objective, factual knowledge, not subjective feeling. His aim is not communication with his audience, but something he sees as a much higher, in [T. S.] Eliot’s words “much more valuable” goal, communion with Art itself and with its history, and he enlists musicology’s aid in achieving it. To return once more to the starting point, this is what is meant today by “letting the music speak for itself.”

– p. 346

“The paradox and the problem—or is it just my problem?—is that this way of thinking about art and performance has no demonstrable relevance to the ways people thought about art and performance before the twentieth century.  Applied to the music of the Renaissance and the Baroque, to say nothing of the nineteenth century, it all seems exquisitely anachronistic. And what seems to prove my point is that with the possible exception of the rather ambiguous case of continuo realization, the modem reconstructionist movement has produced many scrupulous realizers of musical notation but has yet to produce a single genuine master of improvisation, which we all know to have been nine-tenths of the Renaissance and Baroque musical icebergs.”

– p. 347

“…[W]hen thinking of the relationship between the musicologist and the performer we usually assume that the former teaches and the latter learns. But good performers can teach receptive scholars a great deal, and communication both ways is needed if a real symbiosis of musicology and performance is to occur.”

– p. 348

Speaking of musicology, Taruskin closes with a quotation attributed to Dmitri Shostakovich from Nikolai Malko, A Certain Art (New York, 1966), p. 180. Shostakovich gave an apt definition of a musicologist:

“What’s a musicologist? I’ll tell you. Our cook, Pasha, prepared the scrambled eggs for us and we are eating them. Now imagine a person who did not cook the eggs and does not eat them, but talks about them—that is a musicologist.”

– p. 349

Saturday morning quotes 7.1: Authenticity redux

stilllifewithsockmonkeyrosesWe finally reemerge with our series of Saturday morning quotes after more than a year of hiatus.  Those faithful readers who have followed our series will know the general thrust of our approach, which remains unchanged and as committed as ever.  But for new readers, we will say that our series of quotes past and present will focus on the following:

  • The nature and status of the early music revival from the perspective of committed performers
  • The lute, both as an historical emblem of musical aesthetic of the past and a viable, if  very sensitive, instrument of the present
  • Mignarda, as a duo specializing in polyphonic music for voice and lute, and as our now expanded vocal and instrumental ensemble


Today’s post revisits the theme of authenticity with a retrospective selection of quotations drawn from a variety of sources and distilled in past postings on Unquiet Thoughts. The first is from a pioneer of the early music revival, Michael Morrow, who elucidates the essentials of communication with the audience of today.

“…[W]e must never forget that in any age the artist is addressing himself to his contemporaries, and his language is composed of a system of familiar conventions — musical, visual or literary. If we don’t or can’t learn these languages, the conventions will be as meaningless to us as the hand gestures of an Indian dancer are to the average western audience.”

– Michael Morrow (1929 – 1994), Early Music, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1978.

Richard Taruskin pointed out the inconvenient truth that simply performing on early instruments does not mean that performers are recreating the past.

“Old instruments and old performance practices are in themselves of no aesthetic value. The claim of self-evidence for the value of old instruments, like the claim of self-evidence for the virtue of adhering to a composer’s ‘intentions’, is really nothing but a mystique, and more often than one can tell, that is the only justification offered. Consequently, though he is happily less in evidence than before, the naked emperor still parades through the halls where ‘authentic’ performances are heard.”

– Richard Taruskin, from “The authenticity movement can become a positivistic purgatory, literalistic and dehumanizing”, Early Music, Vol. 12, No. 1, Feb., 1984, p. 7

“…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.

Anthony Rooley, now retired from performing, has had an active career as a scholar, performer, and an insightful researcher into the aesthetics of early music.

“There are two ways of looking at authenticity. The first is pragmatic—where you try to recreate the sound the composer actually heard, using original instruments in the original setting. This is only the first step. The second way is to examine exactly what authenticity meant to the composers themselves. In asking this we may hope to capture the spirit of the music. This is anathema to the modern scholar and to the majority of performers because the terms are so ill-defined—it frightens people. You talk about the spirit, the power, the energy of something and you’re into a language which becomes poetic, almost divine. It’s a threat to the pragmatic mind; but renaissance man was infinitely more interested in the quasi-divine than in pragmatic data.”

– Anthony Rooley, as interviewed by Peter Phillips, “Approaches to Performance: The Lutenists’ View”, Early Music, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Apr., 1979), pp. 225-235.

Bernard D. Sherman authored an enlightening book, Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers, Oxford University Press, 1997.  More to the point, Sherman is also the author of an important article on Authenticity in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics.

“…Few audiences share the emotional or theological associations that period audiences felt toward specific texts, chorales, or plainchant melodies. This is an example of another broad argument for impossibility, involving reception, which says that composers wrote for audiences whose experiences not only of music but also of much that music refers to differed from those of our time.”

“Some of today’s most distinguished historical performers agree that their own work will someday appear to reflect the tastes of our time rather than of the historical eras being reconstructed.”

“The most important legacy of the historical performance movement may be those performances that attain authenticity in the senses more often used in the arts: those of conviction, self-knowledge, spontaneity, and emotional honesty.“

– Bernard D. Sherman, “Authenticity in Musical Performance” The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael J. Kelly (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, four volumes).

When we get to the heart of the matter and distill the convoluted descriptive verbiage, authenticity in the performance of early music has much more to do with the intent, integrity and the musicianship of the performer than, for instance, the type of strings one uses.

One of our very favorite ensembles consists of the lute duo of Anna Kowalska and Anton Birula, who specialize in virtuoso arrangements of baroque lute music, at times creating dazzling new renditions of Bach’s keyboard works that sound much more appealing and aesthetically pleasing than the keyboard originals.  In a bold display of authentic spirit, they describe their recording of sonatas by Silvius Leopold Weiss as an homage to the early music revival.  We heartily applaud this approach.

The current program features works by the most prominent Master of lute composition, Silvius Leopold Weiss. Weiss composed during the Baroque era, which saw the peak of the lute`s development. Here Weiss` works are performed by XXI century musicians, whose musical influences have been shaped by a colorful array of later voices: Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Dave Brubeck, and Pink Floyd among others. Many great musicians developed their skills by being rooted in the music of the past, while inspiring millions who play and compose the music of the present. We hope that the music of Silvius Leopold Weiss will be an inspiration to you as it has been to us.”

“While working on this recording, we wanted to recreate the atmosphere and feeling musicians had when recording lute in the time of the XX century early music revival. We desired to recreate that atmosphere, when albums that made us dream of playing the lute were created. Therefore, we turned to the analog medium and worked with Tascam reel-to-reel recorders during sessions and the post production process. This CD represents an AAD recording.”

“The Pyramid strings on our instruments were widely used towards the end of the XX century, and are still among the most respected of brands. It was a great experience to combine historical instruments, traditional tape machines, and strings that were crucial in the revival of the lute.”

Anna Kowalska and Anton Birula

What could be more authentic?


PayMeThe dense fog begins to lift, the swirling mists wisp away and we emerge from a very long silence.  We’ve had our reasons, including a momentous move and tiresome medical maladies that seem to pile on like negative comments on an internet forum.  But we return nevertheless.  Think of this post as a slight tremor of an awakening volcano.

The real reason for today’s post is to make mention of an important milestone.  Nearly seven years ago, we posted a video of Donna singing the last two verses of the Pange lingua hymn, beginning with Tantum ergo sacramentum.  It was among Donna’s first efforts to create a video with Windows software, and it was nothing less than an absolute time-sucking bother that would have collapsed in on itself completely if she had tried to edit the video and (for instance) put the correct music to the chant.  But we figured the video would not get much traffic, and thought it best to just post it so people could hear the chant.  We discussed the experience in more detail a few years ago in a blog post here.

It turns out that the video did receive some traffic: A million views as of February 11, 2018, in fact.  And some 41,000 more over the past month.

We’re very pleased that a million listeners have had the chance to hear Gregorian chant sung with depth and intelligence in a woman’s voice.  So, we should now be millionaires, right?  If we even received one cent for every view, that $10,000 would go a long way towards mitigating the ever-rising cost of living for dedicated professional musicians.  In nearly seven years, we have barely made $100 from the video, at a rate of around $0.0001 per view.  In plain terms, not very much.

Someone makes money from Youtube videos.  But it is certainly not artists.

While we celebrate the number of listeners who have had a chance to hear Donna sing, and we are motivated to continue making our music accessible, we want to remind the world that live music is best. We have a series of concerts planned for 2018, several with our new vocal ensemble, and we invite all who appreciate live music to get in touch and inquire when and where.

Meanwhile, Donna has posted a new(ish) video of Ave regina caelorum in honor of our now not being millionaires.

We will return to our usual programming very soon.


Happy News Year

“Mark Twain wrote, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you think you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Spotify’s in serious trouble because they’re powerfully sure of something that just ain’t so. They think this is all about them. It’s not.”

– Blake Morgan (#IRespectMusic)

We have been very quiet for the past year for reasons we’ll explain in a more finely finished re-entry post that will appear soon.  But today we are taking the extraordinary step of re-posting an important story from another source.

The story has to do with censorship in response to industry pressure on a well-known news site, the Huffington Post.  When artist rights advocate Blake Morgan reported on a conversation with representatives of Spotify, Spotify leaned on Huffington Post to remove the story because it clearly outlines the way Spotify works.

Spotify routinely forgets to compensate or drastically underpays artists for their music as part of a coordinated effort to attract investors.  Please read the revealing story before it disappears entirely.

Spotify’s Fatal Flaw Exposed

Saturday morning quotes 6.35: Sheepdipping


All we like sheep have gone astray, and to those who have ever experienced actual farm work—you know, back in the day when people actually did real things—sheep-dipping involved immersing the hapless animals in a toxic brew of pesticides and fungicides, apparently for their own good.  Today, the term has taken on a slightly different meaning, something to do with the way our leadership does business.

But we’ll shift our focus to an ovine piece of music that highlights the wandering pan-European nature of music from the 16th century, and the plot involves a piece that was composed for four voices by a non-papal Belgian and published in Antwerp, arranged for solo lute by an Hungarian and published in Poland, adapted for lute by an Italian musician and spy who likely came across the music while employed in France, and eventually found its way into an English manuscript, sandwiched between two unique pieces by John Dowland.

The piece in question is inscribed “A Phantazie” and is attributed to Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543 – 1588).  While the music appears elsewhere, for the purpose of this discussion, the primary source of our fantasia for solo lute is the Board lute manuscript (f. 29v).

The fantasia also appears in the Mathew Holmes manuscripts in the Cambridge University Library, Dd. 5.78, f. 58v, arranged for bandora (and credited to Richard Allison) in Dd. 2.11, f. 28v, and also British Library Add. Ms. 31392, f. 40v. A transcription (and facsimile) of “A Phantazie” may be found in Alfonso Ferrabosco of Bologna: Collected Works for Lute and Bandora, edited by Nigel North, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.  The piece also appears in a many-paged tablature/transcription in Richard Charteris’ Opera Omnia of Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder (1543 – 1588).

As is the case with many 16th-century instrumental fantasias, Ferrabosco’s “Phantazie”, long thought to belong in the canon of English music for plucked strings, is based upon a motet for four voices, composed by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c. 1510 – 1556).  Clemens was a prolific composer who, like most successful musicians of the 16th century, was employed as a church musician and composer at Bruges Cathedral, at Ypres, and may have been Kapellmeister to Philippe du Croÿ, Duke of Aerschot and an important general of Emperor Charles V.  There is some question whether Clemens actually held this post because it was reported that he was “un grant ivrogne et tres mal vivant” (a great drunkard and lived badly), and therefore suspect.  This assessment may very well be true as one may discern by the naughty bawdy character of Clemens’s chanson, “Venes mes serfs et Bacchus adorons“.  Nevertheless, Clemens composed at least 15 masses, 233 motets and over 100 secular works, and some of the latter were arranged for solo voice and lute and published by Pierre Phalese in Antwerp, 1552.

Clemens’s motet for four voices, “Erravi sicut ovis quæ periit“, is found in Cantiones ecclesiasticæ : quator vocum, Liber I, 1553, from the printing press of Tielman Susato (c. 1510 – 1570), also located in Antwerp and with whom Clemens had a close working relationship. “Erravi sicut ovis quæ periit”, and its secunda pars, “Delicta juventutis meæ”, represent a sensitively composed text setting that is a masterful display of fugal treatment.

“Clemens motets in the sample group feature prominent fuga development, whereas it is almost absent from two of the Crecquillon motets…The topic of fuga development is a large and important one, leading as it does into the issue of how sixteenth-century composers variously “researched” their fuga subjects, and demonstrated their ability to work them in a wide variety of ways.”

– John Milsom, “Crecquillon, Clemens, and four-voice fuga”, Contemporary Fame: Reassessing the Art of Clemens non Papa and Thomas Crecquillon, Edited by Eric Jas, Centre d’études Supérieures de la Renaissance, p. 328.

The text of the motet is drawn from Psalms 118 (Vulgate), verse 176:

Erravi sicut ovis quæ periit;
quære servum tuum, Domine,
quia mandata tua
non sum oblitus.

I have wandered like a sheep that is lost:
seek thy servant, Lord
because I have not
forgotten thy commandments.

The secunda pars of the motet, “Delicta iuventutis meæ”, is drawn from Psalm 24 (Vulgate) and is part of the text for the Office for the Dead (Matins, Second Nocturne).  While both sections of the motet were arranged for solo lute by Valentin Bakfark (c. 1526 – 1576) and published as Valentini Greffi Bacfarci pannonii harmoniarum musicarum in usum testudinis factarum tomus primus, Kraków, 1565, we will focus only on the first section of the motet.

I first noticed the similarity between Bakfark’s intabulation and the Ferrabosco “Phantazie” via use of my ears when I heard a recording of the former by Jacob Heringman on his recording Black Cow: Lute music by Valentin Bakfark and Matthaeus Waissel, Discipline Global Mobile DGM9906, 1999.  The intabulation is a virtuoso setting that adds a significant amount of decoration to what amounts to four-voice fugal writing.  Bakfark, whose music is always challenging, achieved a fairly strict arrangement of Clemens’s motet by using a method of splitting the strings of the double courses of the lute in three separate instances.  This is akin to the probably apocryphal story that J. S. Bach would add as many voices as possible to his finger-crunching keyboard fugues, sometimes by pressing extra keys with a stick placed in his mouth.

Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543 – 1588) came from a musical family, and his father Domenico Maria was a famed composer in his own right.  Alfonso and his two brothers were farmed out early on to a foreign court, and established a youthful reputation in the employ of Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine. The three brothers Ferrabosco were known to sing to their own accompaniment, probably lutes, and record of their singing survives as chronicled by Pierre de Ronsard.  In 1562, Alfonso was retained as a musician at the court of Queen Elizabeth, whom he served until 1580 when he returned to Italy for good, leaving a family in England.

Ferrabosco’s return to Italy was fraught, and he was under suspicion for having worked as a spy for the heretic Queen Elizabeth.  We know of his less than admirable reputation via a 1578 letter written by Anselmo Dandino, the papal nuncio in France, to Ptolemy Gilli, cardinal of Como, in Rome.

“I understand that this is a most evil-spirited, evil-minded man, and very knowing, and excellently informed of the affairs of those countries; that the queen of England makes much use of him as a spy and complotter, in which character he might now be employed, so that if one had him in one’s power, one might learn many things; that it is in order that he may better play his game that he affects to have a grudge against the queen of England; and that therefore he will go to Italy, and in particular to Rome and Bologna. I know not what of good to believe, as here he has gone to dine with the ambassador of England on Friday, and has eaten meat, and is constantly busy there: and as I have learned that before going to Bologna he desires to know what Cardinal Paleoto’s feeling may be towards him, I have warned his Most Illustrious Lordship to avoid saying aught in reply that may hinder his going; and my reason for writing to your Most Illustrious Lordship is that, in case he should come to Rome, the pope may hear of it. Meanwhile I have placed persons about him to try if they can penetrate his mind, and I will apprise you of the result.”

– From Richard Charteris, “New Information about the Life of Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder (1543 – 1588)”, Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, No. 17 (1981), pp. 97-114.

Alfonso came before the Inquisition and was actually sentenced to three years imprisonment for his carnivorous crimes, but he served no time because of a fortuitous connection with Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti (1522 – 1597), who was a significant player in implementing the dictates of the Council of Trent.  Connections matter, and it turns out that Paleotti had studied music with Alfonso’s father, Domenico, and was quite musical himself:

“[Paleotti] composed not inelegant songs, and sang them, in correct rhythm and harmonized and accompanied, sometimes on the lute and at other times on the viol…Indeed, even in his old age he employed the practice of singing and playing, simply for the recreation of his soul and the relaxation of his spirit, which were exceedingly preoccupied with those weightier studies, and oftentimes exhausted.”

– From Craig Monson, “The Composer as ‘Spy’: The Ferraboscos, Gabriele Paleotti, and the Inquisition”, Music & Letters, Vol. 84, No. 1, February 2003, p. 4.

Returning to Ferrabosco’s “Phantazie”, we can clearly see Alfonso’s borrowing in the example below:


Ferrabosco’s setting wanders off a bit after measure 5, and generally condenses the strict fugal treatment in Clemens’s motet.  But the music is most assuredly the same, and this begs the question: Just how much instrumental music from the 16th century is actually adapted from vocal polyphony?  Based upon our working familiarity with sacred and secular vocal polyphony, we suspect the answer is that the majority of surviving instrumental fantasias began life as motets, chansons, and madrigals.

The theme of our post may appear to have wandered like a lost sheep, but we can assure our readers that it is all connected.   But we take this opportunity to announce that, after nearly six full years of weekly posts, we will be taking a much-needed break to concentrate on a number of projects that deserve our full attention.  We will return eventually with a new format, so check back from time to time.  Thanks for your support.