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Saturday morning quotes 8.10: Authenticity 2021

Authenticity.  The Early Music community has bandied the term about for several years, with some performers at first claiming that their particular approach faithfully recreated sounds of the past, then later abandoning the term altogether when challenged to present a defensible case.  By now we have all come to realize that most of the early music we hear in concert halls and on mainstream recordings possesses no verisimilitude and has nearly nothing to do with the historical context of a given repertory.  The unvarnished truth is that, without placing the music in its proper context, it represents nothing more than a modern invention.

So what is authenticity as applies to early music?  An informative answer arises from an article by Bernard D. Sherman found in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael J. Kelly, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

“Musical performance before the late eighteenth century typically focused on new compositions, about which posterity was not expected to care…During the nineteenth century, however, public concerts centered increasingly on music by earlier composers. One reason for this trend was the era’s new awareness of history, which helped bring forth the idea of a canon of masterpieces in music, with Beethoven and a few other composers holding classic status. Other crucial developments included: an unprecedented rise in prosperity…, sufficient to support widespread participation in art music; the growing significance of art music for the expanding middle classes; and the fragmentation of the musical public into diverse “taste groups”…, with one group focused on respectful experience of the music of the classic masters. This group eventually, in the later part of the century, defined the culture of classical-music performance.”

Today, the public at large treats music as a consumer good, and “classical” music is a component of a cultural brand.  We are subjected to a constant barrage of sound and imagery and sales talk that has been carefully crafted to tell us what to think about music and, more to the point, what music we should buy that will provide entry to an established elite cultural norm. 

Now more than ever, it is essential to question the motives behind every bit of information that flickers by on our screens, a necessary response that sadly feeds a wary distrust in our institutions, our news media, and our neighbors.  This sorry state of affairs that can only be overcome by the free and cooperative exchange of ideas and experiences, the act of sharing our joy and sorrow—an act that is ultimately diminished and seems less immediate when we are separated by distance and electronic cables and plastic screens.   We can hope to regain our authentic lives someday soon, but the more time that lapses, the more political maneuvering will come into play as the elites think of yet another way to capitalize on crisis.

But back to the point: How do we cut through the fantasy world that has created today’s Early Music, Inc?  How do we cancel out the marketing BS that puts an artificial sheen on our shared musical heritage?  How do we add authenticity to our experience of music of the past that was composed to serve an actual function and elicit an actual emotional response?  And how do we as musicians present music that actually deserves to be called Early Music? The answer: Engage and learn from the past.  Authenticity is not represented by the use of a particular brand of reconstructed instrument, nor is it achieved by holding that instrument in a particular manner seen in one or two paintings from the past.  It turns out that, in virtually any sort of music, authenticity can be measured by whether a performer can elicit an intended response from the listener.

We tend to listen for authentic interpretations from different genres of music.  Below find a few exceptional examples.

Saturday morning quotes 8.9: Teach music

Given that we presently inhabit an age where elected leaders are more prone to exhibit childish behavior than actually lead, it is high time we pause to consider just what sort of example we are setting for the next few generations in all aspects of life. It’s time to reflect how we arrived at such a point in time, ponder possible remedies and put them in place pronto before what remains of the mess of our hard-won civilization dribbles down the bunghole and seeps into the longanimous earth leaving behind nothing more than a malodorous smudge of a stain.

It turns out that the state of music is a good gauge for measuring the health of our society. In past ages when children were educated in the rudiments of music, society was blossoming, and innovative and useful discoveries were seen as a sign of progress. Music is now nothing more than a consumer good that has been ripped asunder from its creators by digital distributors for the sole purpose of maximum profit. The quality of most commonly heard music today is uniformly appalling, and the meaningful puzzle canons of figures like Ockeghem are now supplanted by angry grunting profanities accompanied by throbbing electronic percussion. It’s really no wonder people now tend towards unkindness and suspicion of their neighbors.

How did we arrive at this unfortunate point? The answer lies in the deplorable defunding of music education that has occurred over the past several generations. A particular parsimonious point of view has crept into state legislatures and local school boards, and the misguided message is that society is better served by a system of education that churns out consumers of products rather than creators of ideas and arts. Tech companies are smothering school systems with seemingly generous donations of computing devices for all, but they are creating dependency on these devices rather than advancing creative and critical thinking.

Examining historical approaches to education reveals that attitudes in the 16th century were much more enlightened than today. Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490 – 1546) was responsible for educating the children of the notorious Henry VIII, and in The Boke named the Governour (1531), set down an outline for the proper education of a person of noble rank who was destined to rule. Elyot describes how and why it is necessary for a ruler to understand the the concept of harmony as a metaphor for the ideal state:

 “…[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

Although many facets of our cultural history bear a distinct class bias, we see that during Tudor times the opportunity for an essential education in music was not confined to the elite class.

“[Prior to the Reformation] Education was generally free, so boys of the poorer classes had an opportunity of specialised training in music…Two principles seem to have actuated the teaching of music in the Grammar Schools; to help diction for the reading of Latin and Greek texts, and to train pupils to sing the musical sections of the Church Services. Apparently music was not taught with a view to fit the pupil with a necessary social accomplishment.”

– David G. T. Harris, “Musical Education in Tudor Times (1485-1603)”, Proceedings of the Musical Association, 65th Sess. (1938 – 1939), pp. 118-121. 

Eliminating funding for education in music and concentrating on coding for and fluency in the use of tech devices is robbing our young people of a life that explores the abstract, the ephemeral, and the practical life skills one gains from an education in music. Dependence on tech devices has unfortunately led us to a drab existence that is defined by manipulative fanatics and identitarian fads that ultimately gain momentum by fomenting division rather than fostering harmony. What we get is now called the “cancel culture”.

“The problem we have online is that an algorithm decides what we want to see, which ends up creating a simplistic, binary view of society…It becomes a case of either you’re with us or against us. And if you’re against us, you deserve to be ‘canceled.’”

“It’s important that we’re exposed to a wide spectrum of opinion, but what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn…So it is scary for anyone who’s a victim of that mob and it fills me with fear about the future.”

Rowan Atkinson

Contrary to marketing philosophy that elevates young people as the bearers of useful information regarding current technology to the disadvantage of the traditional wisdom of the elders—a serious but blatantly calculated public delusion—young people need and respond to benevolent guidance and example. The abysmal level of cultural standards today can be directly linked to our reliance on marketing statistics as a measure of the success of our society. In point of fact, youth culture is for all intents and purposes absent today because young people are crouched over their electronic devices instead of expanding minds and artistic standards by practicing their musical instruments.

“…You can only play Shakespeare when you have reached a certain stage of technical expertise. So often you will see very young actors who look divine. Then they open their little traps. You think, oh dear.”

Barbara Jefford (1930 – 2020)

If we want to improve the world for the present and for our children, we must teach them through example.

Saturday morning quotes 8.8: At Last

Finally, we bid farewell to a year that has been more than problematic for us and others who provide an essential musical antidote to our modern technology-obsessed present. If you have dipped into our blog before, you know that we offer a calm but important reality-check by pointing out that life should be made convenient by technology rather than allowing our lives to be enslaved by technology run amok. We like to remind all and sundry that it is vital for all humanity to retain actual practical skills rather than blithely allowing so many facets of our lives to be rendered insignificant by so-called artificial intelligence.

We like to remind our readers that the music we perform for voice and lute was a staple of domestic entertainment for a few centuries, eventually replaced by the parlor guitar or piano with the format still in vogue as recently as 100 years ago.  The 20th century marked the age when people were effectively re-categorized from the role of citizens to that of consumers, from active creators of art and entertainment to passive shoppers.  The change did not happen by accident, but by deliberate design wrought with intent by the corporate culture and their paid enablers occupying governmental leadership roles. In 1928, then US President Herbert Hoover told a group of advertisers and public relations specialists:

“You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines. Machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

Today, we suffer the consequences of a century of relentless corporate control of our lives. We appear to be experiencing a pandemic, but we have neither a trustworthy source of news as to the actual severity of the situation, nor the leadership essential to coordinating an effective response. Let us be blunt: Leadership in the US is ineffective in a time of crisis because leadership is beholden to corporate interests and there is zero accountability to citizens. The only way our leaders are accountable to citizens is through their publicly visible votes on important legislation, and they appear to be expending much more energy on avoiding votes than in acting responsibly in our interest. This is business as usual.

The US, having the dubious distinction of winning the contest of maximum neglect of its population in all categories during a time of crisis, is not the only nation exhibiting completely absurd behavior towards its citizens. The New Year marks the implementation of Brexit in the UK, with the absurd undoing of decades of diplomatic and economic progress, all in the name of corporate convenience. Journalist Nikolaus Blome has written that Britain has been “captured by gambling liars, frivolous clowns and their paid cheerleaders. They have destroyed my Europe, to which the UK belonged as much as France or Germany.”

But all is not doom and gloom. No matter how difficult the circumstances, musicians continue to find ways to make music and touch listeners with deeply felt performances that help take us outside of ourselves, albeit with the aid of technology. An example is an amazing concert of music by two musicians with a high degree of empathy in their performance. Of course, one can always take advantage of technology to dip into wonderful recorded historical examples of music by improvising musicians applying themselves to some of the standard baroque repertory. And we can consciously use technology to offer examples of our alter-ego performing the sort of music that happens at our house from time to time.

We sincerely hope that the year 2021 will mark the return of live music played to live audiences, because we are all in desperate need of it. Happy New Year all, and remember to use technology wisely so it does not use you.

Saturday morning quotes 8.7 Fact v. Fancy

“I am prepared to believe, after sifting through all the available scientific evidence, that (1) oat bran lowers cholesterol and that (2) it does not. Meaning only that when confronted by the conflicting arguments of acknowledged experts, I tend to think both sides may be on to something. In any event, argument is the essence of truth-seeking, whether medical or musical.”

– Donal Henahan (1921 – 2012), Music View; Bach looked ahead, or was it back? New York Times, Jan. 28, 1990.

People have a peculiar way of arranging the facts in such a way as to support whatever idea they might wish to advance. This is particularly true in the world of current political discourse, where inventing facts to establish and control the narrative is the way a certain contingent of octogenarians believe the world actually works. But writers of every sort tend to draw upon favorable fragments of ideas to support a theory, sometimes speculating past the point of reason in order to lend credence to an interpretive point of view.

Take the four-note chords that appear in the Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato by J. S. Bach. Having lost touch with playing techniques of just a few generations earlier, musicians and musicologists of the late 19th century decided that Bach must have commonly used a special type of bow that enabled the violinist to sound four-note chords at once, rather than tastefully arpeggiate the notes as we now know was the custom in Bach’s time. The idea for the absurdly arched bow, equipped with a mechanical lever that engaged to slack the bow hair on demand, was first proposed by Arnold Schering (1877 – 1941), musicologist and violinist who studied with the famous 19th-century master, Joseph Joachim. A strong advocate for German nationalist music at an unfortunate moment in history, Schering was an early Bach specialist who had very instructive insights into the disposition of voices in Bach’s choral music. Schering successfully promoted the funny-bow-for-Bach idea to one Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965), another noted musicologist enthralled with the music of Bach, but one whose ideals ultimately followed a very different humanitarian path.

“Every one who has heard these sonatas must have realised how sadly his material enjoyment of them falls below his ideal enjoyment…Anyone who has heard the chords of the Chaconne played without any restlessness, and without arpeggios, can no longer doubt that this is the only correct and, from the artistic standpoint, satisfactory way of playing it.”

– Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach: Le Musicien-Poète, published in 1905 (English translation by Ernest Newman published in London, 1911).

Schweitzer appreciated the musical result of using the novel bow, but acknowledged that this adaptation actually seriously attenuated the incisive brilliance of sound the violinist was able to achieve through the historically-appropriate arpeggios that Bach intended in the score. Paradoxically, filtered through the unfortunate and distinctly unhistorical mechanical contrivance of the bow, Schweitzer was able to hear Bach’s music more acutely, and made an astute observation when he wrote that it was his wish that “the works for solo violin would disappear from the programmes of the larger concerts, and be restored to the chamber music to which they really belong.”

We have come a long way towards gaining an understanding of the techniques that enable us to play old music in a manner that approximates the sounds that may have been heard in days gone by. But we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding the historical context of the music as it was originally heard; in a chamber for a small gathering rather than on the concert stage. Or perhaps we understand the context but it has not been convenient to play to a more intimately-sized audience because that does not fit the 21st-century concert paradigm.

Musical sound transfers as pressure that activates the human ear but is also felt by the rest of the body when in close proximity to the source. Intricate music was meant to be heard in an intimate space by auditors who are capable of engaging with the music. Technical solutions, like the unhistorical bow, only confound the senses. But the otherwise hairy idea actually did inspire some great music by jazz violin virtuoso, Joe Venuti, who used a standard bow that was taken apart so the slack bow hair would cover all four strings. Venuti would then improvise in four-part harmony (5:45 in the video) in a manner that even Bach may have appreciated.

[E]very musician must constantly measure his instincts against the available fact. This is difficult. Often the musician (like the historian) will find a fact or a body of information which clearly contradicts his assumptions, common sense and musical instincts. This will not be the moment for an impulsive about-turn—something which is difficult enough for the historian but so much more so for the performer. The information must be stored—in the back of the mind, perhaps, or in red letters on some handy cork-board. But it must not be forgotten merely because it is for the moment ignored. That, it seems to me, is where musicology fits into the musician’s life.”

– David Fallows, review of Denis Stevens, Musicology: A Practical Guide, Macdonald, London, 1980, in Early Music, Vol. 9, No. 2, App. 244.

Concert Set: Music for the season

The 2020 Winter season is upon us and we see friends and colleagues across the globe struggling with very idea of celebration during a time when so many have very little reason to celebrate. This year, things are a bit different, but this is not the first time in history that the holiday season has been celebrated under duress. Even the figures in the nativity scene pictured above by Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430 – 1482) appear to be socially-distancing within their respective groups.

Music has traditionally been the ever-present herald of the Christmas season, with shops blaring out canned and sanitized versions of familiar December songs meant to nudge people into a guilt-driven retail mood. Musicians who normally have very busy performing schedules during the month of December are struggling to find ways to be heard at all, and many are resorting to rather awkward online performance platforms that the tech companies are insisting will be the new normal going forward.

Despite the fact that we participate in some forms of modern technology (like this blog), we are resistant to the idea of replacing the concert experience with the burps and blips, the fits and starts of a stuttering streaming concert. While online concerts presented with ample budgetary input can be relatively unproblematic, to us they really represent the surgical excision of the indefinable and ethereal magic of music heard in a live space by humans with engaged and proximate ears.

While we bide our time until we can return to live performance, we offer a Concert Set of recorded music we would normally perform for a live Christmas concert. This selection features music from the British Isles gleaned from our albums Duo Seraphim and Magnum Mysterium, and we hope it helps set a proper mood for the holiday season.

Ther is no rose of swych vertu is a carol from the 15th-century Trinity Carol Roll, a rolled parchment manuscript that measures over six feet long, with music and text for thirteen carols, now in the possession of Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, MS O.3.58.  “Ther is no rose of swych vertu” is a beautifully stark and simple piece of polyphony that alternates in three- and two parts. Text and tune of the original carol have been fodder for a multitude of contemporary arrangements including a segment of Benjamin Britten’s well-known Ceremony of Carols. Our simple and transparent performance is sensitively arranged for the historically-appropriate combination of solo voice and lute, a combination that appears in 15th-century iconography.

Ther is no rose
Ther is no rose of swych vertu
As is the rose that bare Jhesu.
For in this rose conteynyd was
Heuen and erthe in lytyl space.

The aungelys sungyn the shepherdes to:
‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’.
Res miranda.

Ther is no rose of swych vertu
As is the rose that bare Jhesu.

Verbum caro factum est de virgine Maria, text from John Chapter I Verse 14
from the Bodleian Library MS. Arch. Selden B. 26, dated circa 1450. This two-voice macoronic English carol is textlessly arranged for solo lute by Ron Andrico.

This version of “O magnum misterium” is from William Byrd’s Gradualia (II) collection, published in 1607. Having been published in Protestant England at a time when practicing Catholicism was a very risky enterprise, the motet was most likely intended for private worship in the household chapel of Sir John Petre.

The intimate texture of Byrd’s setting transfers particularly well to our format of solo voice and lute, an historically appropriate performing medium for Byrd’s music that is strengthened greatly by the large number of his motets that survive for solo voice and lute in the Edward Paston manuscripts (Folger Shakespeare Library Mss V.A. 405-7). Byrd’s setting, originally for ATTB, sets the full responsory text beginning with O magnum misterium, the respond Beata Virgo, the verse Ave Maria, and completed by repetition of the respond Beata Virgo.

O magnum misterium et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum
jacentem in praesepio.

Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Jesum Christum.

Ave Maria, gratia plena: Dominus tecum.

Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Jesum Christum.

O great mystery
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord
lying in a manger.

Blessed is the Virgin, whose womb
was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

Hail Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with you.

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

We next offer an instrumental interlude having nothing to do with seasonal music that is a setting for lute of John Taverner’s “In nomine”. The piece is a section of the Benedictus from Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, composed sometime in the 1520s, that for reasons unknown was frequently set throughout the Tudor reign up to and including the early 17th-century music of William Lawes. Arrangements used Taverner’s theme buried in the texture as a cantus firmus with elaborations for keyboard, instrumental consort in four or five parts, and solo lute.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, while not strictly from the British Isles, is an Advent hymn that Donna has known and sung in English translation for most of her life. The melody is derived from the traditional French carol, ‘Picardy’, and the communion text is translated into English by Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885). Our unique arrangement and harmonization seems to bear slight differences each time we perform it. Here’s one version.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly-minded,
for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood,
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heav’nly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia,
alleluia, Lord Most High!”

The Wexford Carol is likely to be an ancient carol, but the English text probably dates from the 18th or 19th century. The Mixolydian tune is very effectively performed a cappella by Donna Stewart in our performance.

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born.

The night before that happy tide,
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town.
But mark how all things came to pass
From every door repelled, alas,
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall.

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angels did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Prepare and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born.

With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went the babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Saviour Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side the virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife.

The Christ Child Lullaby is known as “Taladh Chriosta” in Scots Gaelic, and is a traditional song collected from the Isle of Mull in the Outer Hebrides. While the recording offered here is from our album Duo Seraphim, way back in 2008 we also posted a deliberately unadorned live performance of the carol, mostly as an experiment to judge the reaction to our music sung at home in a dry space.

My love, my pride, my treasure, O
My wonder new and pleasure, O
My son, my beauty, ever You
Who am I to bear You here?

The cause of talk and tale am I
The cause of greatest fame am I
The cause of proudest care on high
To have for mine, the king of all

And though You are the king of all
They sent You to the manger stall
Where at Your feet they all shall fall
And glorify my child the king

There shone a star above three kings,
To guide them to the king of kings.
They held You in their humble arms
And knelt before You until dawn.

They gave You myrrh they gave You gold
Frankincense and gifts untold
They traveled far these gifts to bring,
And glorify their newborn king.

My love, my pride, my treasure, O
My wonder new and pleasure, O
My son, my beauty, ever You
Who am I to bear You here?

Saturday morning quotes 8.6: Music is medicine


Musica mentis medicina mæstæ [Music is medicine for a sad mind/soul.]

This Latin inscription seems to have been quite popular in the late 16th century, and the words are carved on a sandstone slab marking the grave of one William Walker, Batchelor of Music and Clerk of the Parish of Leyland, died April 20, 1588 (gravesite located approximately 20 metres south of chancel of Church of St. Andrew, Leyland Church Road in Lancashire.)  The Latin phrase also appears on the front endpaper of the earliest lute manuscript penned by Mathew Holmes (Cambridge University Library MS Dd.2.11), likely begun sometime during the same decade of William Walker’s demise.  The point being, in the slightly less polarized past, music was known to have curative properties and was commonly used to relieve the symptoms of a great many medical conditions.

Of course, the late 16th century was also a time of serious pandemics, including the plague known as the Black Death, and modern medical science has advanced to the point where some diseases can be effectively treated or cured with seemingly miraculous pharmaceuticals, mainly developed through taxpayer-funded research grants.  But the seemingly miraculous effectiveness of allopathic medicine makes absolutely no difference if the miracles of modern science are not made available to the entire population, which is currently the case in the US.

Editorial commentary aside, it has long been known that epidemics develop and spread as much through individual perception and a very human tendency toward hypochondria as through the actual presence of a particular pathogen.  This is known as sociogenic illness, and an excellent historical example called St. Vitus’ Dance is depicted in the illustration at the top of the page.

We quote from Robert E. Bartholomew and Simon Wessely, “Protean nature of mass sociogenic illness: From possessed nuns to chemical and biological terrorism fears,” British Journal of Psychiatry (2002).

“Mass sociogenic illness is an under-appreciated social problem that is both underreported and often a significant financial burden to responding emergency services, public health and environmental agencies and the affected school or occupation site, which is often closed for days or weeks.”

– p. 300

“Prior to the 20th century, most reports of sociogenic illness involved motor hysteria incubated by exposure to long-standing religious, academic or capitalist discipline. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, exceedingly strict Christian religious orders appeared in some European convents. Coupled with a popular belief in witches and demons, this situation triggered dozens of epidemic motor hysteria outbreaks among nuns, who were widely believed to have been demonically possessed. Episodes typically lasted months and in several instances were endured in a waxing and waning fashion for years.”

– p. 300

“The social, psychological and economic impact of mass sociogenic illness and associated anxiety may be as severe as that from confirmed attacks.”

– p. 303

“No one is immune from mass sociogenic illness because humans continually construct reality and perceived danger needs only to be plausible in order to gain acceptance within a particular group and generate anxiety. As we enter the 21st century, epidemic hysteria again will mirror the times, likely thriving on the fear and uncertainty from terrorist threats and environmental concerns. What new forms it will take and when these changes will appear are beyond our capacity to predict.

– p. 304

We believe that the powers that (unfortunately) be should immediately fund a “warp speed” project that identifies and distributes music with curative properties.  We have a suggestion for a place to begin.

Saturday morning quotes 8.5: Nouvelles oeuvres

“The miserable have no other medicine / But only hope.”

– Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, III:i

“These are times that try men’s souls” wrote Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809) in his pamphlet, The American Crisis (1776), but we resist the urge to mine Paine’s ideas further inasmuch they may or may not pertain to our current crisis. We are now firmly in the grip of a natural phenomenon made much worse by opportunistic political posturing, and our leadership has done virtually nothing to inspire us to come together to overcome the problem. But enough of that.

The challenge is for us all is to find ways to overcome the divisiveness that has been imposed on citizens of the world as a remedy to the pandemic, and find ways to maintain our connections to one another, in spite of the pervasive delusion that human connections can be maintained online. Face it, Zoom and Skype are a little better than tin cans with bits of string, but they are still complete crap. And the quality of any online presentation is determined by factors that are entirely out of our control; factors like variable bandwidth, latency, completely undependable audio transmission, the ineluctable and only choice to appear to other viewers as tinted either red or green no matter how stupendous your lighting.

Musicians are delusional if they think performances can be dependably live-streamed. Replacing an actual concert season with a series of videos and charging normal ticket prices may make us feel a little better about the situation, but it is no replacement for live music and we all know this to be true. We must bide our time and prepare to resume live concerts as soon as practicable.

But rather than succumb to nonspecific despair and the accustomed gnashing of teeth, we have been busy. The one constant that enables us to maintain a connection with our audiences is audio recordings that can be heard on quality audio equipment time and again. We have used our time these past few months to create three new CDs that showcase different facets of our musical activities: 1) Heart-Songs, a new recording of our folk music alter-ego (normally kept well-concealed from Mignarda fans, but you just knew something funny was up with us), 2) Mater Dolorosa, a recording of live ensemble tracks from our annual concert of sacred historical music, and 3) our much-anticipated recording of English lute songs, entitled, Unquiet Thoughts.

Heart-Songs, released November 4, 2020

Here is your chance to hear what we do when we’re off-the-clock.

Pre-Mignarda Donna was mainly a happy chorister, reveling in the lush arrangements and intricate polyphony of the likes of Ralph Vaughn Williams, only now and again stepping out of the chorus for the occasional Scottish or Irish folk song.

Ron is the real deal: a seasoned veteran of several old-time and bluegrass bands, a founding member of the Portland Folklore Society, and a driving force behind Portland, Oregon’s now burgeoning square dance scene as early as 1977. Renowned as an old-time fiddle and banjo player, tapes of his playing with legendary fiddler Jonathan Bekoff have circulated underground for many years, serving as a standard resource of fiddle-banjo repertory for countless folk musicians.

Our middle ground is something special. Over the years, reviewers of Mignarda’s  music have often praised Ron’s gift for merging lute with voice “into a virtuoso rhythmic unity”, saying “when he plays a galliard or an almain you can dance the steps to it.”. Thirty years of playing for actual dancers makes for an almost uncanny sense of pulse and tempo, a vital element of early music. Likewise, reviewers have likened Donna’s heartfelt, “elegiac” interpretations to sean nos singing. The way we see it, people have been telling each other stories through song for as long as there’s been language, and genre is irrelevant to the craft of breathing life into these stories and moving us to tears or laughter.

Music on our new album draws from the well of parlor songs and ballads that were sung at home around the turn of the 20th century. Some of the ballads are much older and at least one song dates from the last time we had a Great Depression. The term Heart-Songs is inspired by a collection of songs by that title published in 1909, representing the most popular songs of the day. The book’s editor described the collection as “Songs that have entertained thousands from childhood to the grave and have voiced the pleasure and pain, the love and longing, the despair and delight, the sorrow and resignation, and the consolation of the plain people…”

“Well, I’m a sucker for this stuff. Put me down in advance for an album…”
– Rob MacKillop, February 18, 2012

(We won’t hold you to it, Rob, since the statute of limitations has run out.)

We first intimated that we might record this album several years ago when we released the song “When you and I were young, Maggie” on this blog. You can find out more about this aspect of our lives on our Eulalie website.

Mater Dolorosa, released November 11, 2020

The 130-year-old sanctuary of Immaculate Conception Church in Cleveland provides a perfect setting for Mignarda’s annual concert commemorating the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The programs vary, as do the wonderful artists who join us each year in mid-September to explore with voices, lutes, harp, or viol the rich repertory of Marian music, including polyphonic masses and motets and an ample offering of Gregorian chant.

Our concert entitled Mater Dolorosa is built upon the little-understood intersection of sacred and secular music of the late 15th century, a theme inspired in part by ideas that are distilled in The Flower of Paradise: Marian Devotion and Secular Song in Medieval and Renaissance Music, by David J. Rothenberg.

Mater Dolorosa is a compilation of live recordings from our program of the same name featuring Mignarda and our guest artists, all recorded live between 2016 – 2019 at Immaculate Conception Church, and includes two settings of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, together with seemingly secular chansons from the late 15th century which reveal themselves to have been dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Ron & Donna first met at “the Mac”, singing together in the schola cantorum for the Latin Mass, and it seems fitting this year, when live concerts are so rare, for us to be able to share a taste of this evocative program in the glorious acoustic that suits our music so well. You can sample music from the recording or order CDs here.

Unquiet Thoughts, release date November 30, 2020

English lute songs are the foundational repertory of music for solo voice and lute, and most lutenists and singers who dabble in this music first wet their whistle on well-known songs by John Dowland. Perpetual iconoclasts, our duo began by surveying the correspondingly ample selection of French airs de cour for solo voice and lute as our initial repertory, but we soon formed a vocal quartet and explored the part-song versions of Dowland’s essential music.

Returning to the iconic collection of historical English lute songs after 17 years of performing as a duo, we are struck by the depth of both poetry and music and the sensitivity of the settings of such stellar texts, and we have worked perseveringly to give the songs the deep interpretations they deserve. While Dowland stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries as a songwriter, we add ayres by Thomas Campion, John Danyel, Robert Jones, and Anonymous, all selected for the high quality of both poetry and music.

As always, we pitch these songs in a range that best communicates the poetry, as we are certain was done when the songs were new. Employing a bass lute in D and a tenor lute in F, we offer interpretations that are the result of many years of singing thoughtfully balanced polyphony with a recorded sound that is intentionally warm and intimate. Added to the program are lute solos, all collected from a single manuscript source, that add context and variety to the songs. We are very pleased with this new recording and look forward to sharing it in a matter of weeks from now. Meanwhile, you can sample the title track, also the name of our blog, here.

Saturday morning quotes 8.4: Guest post

Remarquez le pouce

This is our first guest post on Unquiet Thoughts and, as we continue to press forward with recording projects, probably not the last. Today we feature an article by Martyn Hodgson on a pertinent facet of a subject near and dear to our hearts. The general topic was first mentioned in a paper published by the The Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments (FoMRHI), authored by the late Jeremy Montagu, who passed away September 11, 2020, aged 92. Martyn Hodgson’s article also first appeared in the FoMRHI Quarterly, and we are grateful to the author for sharing his work on our platform.

“…We may not be able to hear the music with earlier ears but we can, and we should, play it in earlier ways, and then perhaps our audiences could hear it as something like it was in the earlier days.”

– Jeremy Montagu (1927 – 2020), “The Fakery of Early Music

by Martyn Hodgson                                  

[This paper first appeared as a Communication (Comm.) 2128 in the FoMRHI Quarterly No 149, April 2020. The Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments was founded in 1975 by Jeremy Montagu and Ephraim Segerman to disseminate information on and debate matters relating to historical musical instruments and has a wide international membership.  However the range of subjects covered is extremely catholic and not just restricted to organological matters but frequently includes other aspects of period/historic performance practices such as the present paper. The article has also appeared in the UK Lute Society magazine.

Subsequent to publication various helpful comments were exchanged and, in view of the subject’s relative importance, it was suggested circulating the paper via other channels to allow an even wider debate on a core matter affecting the future of the lute. A few minor changes have therefore been made, but essentially this version remains much as it originally appeared in FoMRHI Q. and the UK Lute Society magazine.]


Jeremy Montagu’s recent and challenging FoMRHI paper  ‘The Fakery of Early Music’ (Comm 2121)  reminds us that it is not really possible to recreate musical performances and hear music exactly as early composers expected, the performers produced it and audiences heard. In short, since any performance is subject to modern tastes and the interpretation of historical evidence it is, inevitably, a sort of fakery.  He also explains how difficult it is to reproduce the music and sounds heard by the ‘Old Ones’ – not just in ensuring that the original (‘authentic’) playing techniques are correctly employed, but also because passing modern fads may impose a musical interpretation at odds with what the original composer expected and auditors experienced.

I certainly agree that one fundamental problem is a fairly recent tendency amongst some ‘period’ musicians to wilfully ignore hard evidence which doesn’t chime with their own preconceptions – thus producing a performance which satisfies them personally (and perhaps some modern auditors) but is not what the ‘Old Ones’ would have expected and heard. However, I’m not entirely pessimistic and believe that performances may still be achieved which, if not precisely identical to those heard by early audiences, are not too far removed. In particular, whilst some extant instruments may have significantly changed and deteriorated over a long period of time (such as many of the wind family Jeremy highlights),  I believe it quite practicable to produce some stringed instruments which the early makers would have recognised as being not too dissimilar to their own productions. Similarly, should players choose to do so, there is much historical evidence to allow the re-creation of early playing techniques to something close to that of earlier times.

Nevertheless, as well as the areas of fakery Jeremy outlines, there are many others and, in particular, a significant and growing problem amongst the instruments I make, play and love – those of the lute family. Quite a number of the culpable players are professionals, who should know better, and so this particular modern trend for lute fakery continues to be perpetuated and even to become the established practice. The implications of this on the lute and its playing are briefly explored here.

Modern lutes and makers

However, all is not doom – the ‘authenticity’ (that now abhorred word!) of many lute (and guitar) type instruments made nowadays is pretty good: – that is, they are often closely modelled on extant period instruments and based on sound research including iconographic and documentary evidence. Thus many professional modern makers generally produce lutes which reasonably reflect what the early makers themselves made.

To set this in context, it is useful to very briefly consider the modern history of lute making. The pioneers making new lutes in the early twentieth century (such as Arnold Dolmetsch in England and various, mostly German, makers on the European continent) generally made quite sturdy and often heavy instruments (‘fakes’ in fact) and therefore without much of the delicate and rather subtle resonant responses of early lutes. It was in the 1960’s that makers (many English) started more seriously to come to grips with the true features of historical lute construction. For example, Ian Harwood making instruments with some features of the early lute: – lightweight, properly barred, reasonably delicate bridges and so on.  (As an aside, I still treasure a printed leaflet by Ian from the late 60s offering new 8 course lutes for £40!  In my impecunious state, even this relatively small sum was beyond my truly modest student means and so I didn’t buy, but decided to make an instrument myself – though that’s another story….).

Suffice it to say that by the mid/late 1970s there were quite a few makers, both in the US as well as Europe, producing instruments incorporating important aspects of historical lutes. This was further developed by some fine makers, such as Michael Lowe, starting to look in even more detail at extant examples of particular instruments and making close copies directly modelled on them.

Stephen Murphy was also important by making available, at very reasonable prices, drawings of instruments from many important collections. Thus from the 1980s there were many makers offering a good range of historically based lutes and guitars.  In short, whilst there may still be a few present day lute makers who seem unaware of, or ignore, some of the historical evidence (such as the various sizes and stringing of theorbos and archlutes), many now produce recognisable historically based instruments.

So, I hear you cry, where’s the fakery if most makers these days closely model their instruments on extant lutes and other relevant information? The answer is that it’s in the manner of playing them that the fakery can now appear:  it is not the instruments themselves, but the increasingly widespread employment of an inappropriate playing technique for much of the lute repertoire, which perpetuates a deception. This is the target of my polemic.

Lute playing and performance

Thus, whilst lute making now mostly follows historical principles, many players (both amateur and professional) increasingly adopt an anachronistic (unhistorical) plucking technique. This is to employ what’s nowadays known as the ‘thumb-under’ technique for virtually all the lute repertoire, and not just for the earlier period up to the late 1500s for which it can be appropriate. This might seem an esoteric matter only relevant to lutenists but, in fact, the right hand technique makes a significant difference to how the music sounds and is therefore, of course, important for wider audiences too.

For non-lute players, such as most members of FoMRHI, perhaps a few words of explanation about this particular early technique is called for. From the late fifteenth century, when finger plucking generally took over from plectrum playing, the right hand plucking fingers were held almost parallel to the strings and so the thumb lay behind (or ‘under’) the foremost fingers. This seems to have developed naturally from the earlier use of the plectrum held between the fingers and thumb in a similar roughly horizontal position. To allow this hand position it is generally best to have the right forearm come over the belly of the instrument close to the base or bottom edge of the instrument. For almost a century, to around the 1570s, this technique was that most employed (although by no means universal as clearly shown by many early depictions) and generally requires the strings to be plucked quite high up on the belly and, indeed even over the rose – this position naturally produces a gentle, soft and homogenous timbre.

However, by the later decades of the sixteenth century, changing musical demands gave rise to a radical change in the general plucking technique and arm position – partly to do with changes in musical texture and of the kind of sound now being preferred. This was the more widespread adoption of the ‘thumb-over’ plucking technique. With this technique the forearm rests on the side of the lute (roughly just behind the bridge position) and the fingers now attack the strings at a much less shallow angle than that best for the old ‘thumb under’ approach. This change was also generally accompanied by resting the lute on the right thigh rather than having it held high on the chest (as is, indeed, more comfortable for the old ‘thumb under’ approach). The relatively new hand position allows more vigorous plucking and frees the thumb for a more independent role and, incidentally, in a position more suited to addressing numerous additional bass courses which soon became increasingly common. The early instructions are also very clear: the little finger still rests on the belly but now much closer to the bridge, perhaps even touching it, and indeed could occasionally even be found behind. All this produces a much more focussed, brilliant sound and allows considerably more light and shade, dynamics, and the like.

This new hand position can be seen in numerous pictorial representations and is clearly described in texts from the late sixteenth century onwards. For example, the historic change is recommended and reported in the Varietie of Lute-lessons (London 1610) and directly reflects the developed practice of Dowland at this time:

     ‘First, set your little finger on the belly of the Lute, not towards the rose, but a little lower, stretch out your Thombe with all the force you can, especially if thy Thombe be short, so that the other fingers may be carried in a manner of a fist, and let the Thombe be held higher then them, this in the beginning will be hard. Yet they which have a short Thombe may imitate those which strike the strings with the Thombe under the other fingers, which though it be nothing so elegant, yet to them it will be more easie. ‘

But perhaps the best wider contemporary description is that given in Stobäus MS 23. This important source clearly records the momentous change in plucking technique (translated):

    ‘The right hand is to be held close to the bridge, and the little finger firmly placed there and held down. The thumb is to be stretched out strongly, so that it stands out almost as a limb, by one knuckle, to the other fingers. The fingers are to pluck cleanly inwards under the thumb, so that the sound resonates cleanly and strongly. The thumb is to be struck outwards, not inwards like the people in the past used to do……. For it has been shown that it is far better to strike the thumb outwards: it sounds purer, clearer, and brighter, the other way sounds very faulty and dull’.

This ‘thumb-out’ plucking position remained the general style for the remainder of the historical lute’s existence (as an organological aside, the ‘lute’ or ‘theorbo’ stop on the harpsichord mimics this more brilliant sound by placing its row of jacks closest to the bridge). However, it is precisely this clearly documented and historically preferred playing style which is effectively denied by many modern lutenists who now employ the anachronistic early ‘thumb-under’ technique for the entire lute repertoire and not just the earlier part for which it is, of course, often generally entirely appropriate.

Why does such anachronistic lute playing fakery persist?

As Eph Segerman perceptively and presciently remarked many years ago when modern ‘thumb-under’ started to be employed:  the general use of this technique, even by those who should have known better, was often a conscious attempt to distance themselves from the despised (and now embarrassing for them) modern ‘classical’ guitar which, ironically, many had started out playing. So then, even as now, many players, perhaps unwittingly, adopt this ‘inauthentic’ manner for the entirety of the lute repertoire – possibly also hoping that modern audiences will see that not only does the lute not look like a guitar, but that its right hand playing style is quite different too – and even, by some supposed implication, superior and more refined to that nowadays employed on its abhorred and less elevated relative.

The widespread adoption of this unhistoric technique misleadingly purports to suggest that the performer is playing their instrument with the same historical technique used by all early lutenists and so they are therefore reproducing the correct (‘authentic’) sound.  Alas – they are often not.  It is, in practice, a deception on the audience who attend such concerts (or listen to recordings) fully expecting to hear works performed in the same manner as of ‘olden times’.

This modern fakery may also be perpetuated by some players with a vested interest (they don’t have to become skilled in two very different techniques) and, of course, by the recording industry which allows modern sophisticated ‘sound engineering’ to turn anything into something considered more desirable – ‘don’t worry the bass is a bit weak, we can always boost it later’.  And not just by some professional players, but also by amateurs misleadingly instructed by some teachers that this fake practice is right (ie historically accurate) for the whole of the lute repertoire. And so we end up in the present bizarre situation where, for much of the repertoire, the correct historical playing technique is frequently ignored, and indeed even criticised, and an incorrect anachronistic uniform performance style is promoted.

What can be done? 

The first days of the modern post-war early music revival (say, from the 1960s) were frequently experimental, but also therefore exciting, and lively debates – sometimes heated (but in retrospect generally enjoyable) – could properly arise. However, there was also great effort to try and understand alternatives and properly explore them – much of this outlook has now, to a regrettable degree, disappeared from parts of the early music world, including from within the lute community. This modern reactionary conservatism, linked to a reluctance to properly consider the historic evidence but to rely instead on the current fashionable ‘group-thought’, is I suggest the core problem – especially for the lute.

So, how can we recapture the earlier exciting and highly desirable situation and also thereby attract young people to early music in large numbers as, for example, the lute once did? Perhaps a second early music revolution is now required, not only to address those many issues Jeremy identified but also those in the smaller, but still much loved, world of the lute.

In the UK the full restoration of music and instrumental tuition in schools would be a first good step and the government’s recent consultation on shaping a National Plan for Music Education might be an important avenue to influence this. Sadly, there seems to be little input expected, or indeed being offered, from the early/period music movement and no significant debate about it in any relevant journals. Surely we cannot, and should not afford to, miss this opportunity to shape the future of music education and so ensure that period performance, including that on the lute, is not relegated to some minority eccentric interest group as it once was? 

But, fundamentally, I suggest that a much more diverse and properly critical exploration of early music performance practices, based on the historical evidence, might engender some of the  excitement of earlier times – as well as having a real benefit for the lute of encouraging the appropriate playing techniques in performance.

Postscript – some other fakery in early music performance….

In addition to fakery in playing the lute and the examples Jeremy mentions, there are, of course, many more and in the FoMRHI paper I generally left it to others to comment on these. Nevertheless, I could not resist mentioning a couple of other modern early music practices which, in my view, are also highly debatable:

– the use of the falsetto male voice (ie using just the vocal chord edges) as an acceptable substitute for the early male soprano (ie mostly castrato) roles  (what’s wrong with a suitable stentorian woman with her full vocal chords?);

–  the ubiquitous involvement of modern sound recording engineers who often seem ignorant of how early voices and instruments actually sound in the flesh or, if they do know, prefer to suppress the knowledge and substitute their own preferred ‘balance’.

Martyn Hodgson, September 2020

Saturday morning quotes 8.3: Empathy

This brief post has a dual purpose: 1) to discuss the quality of empathy and why it is a trait that is essential for musicians, particularly in ensemble, and 2) to address the current state of the English language as a measure of the true decline of civilization.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empathy is defined as:

“The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

Or in the context of psychology:

“The quality or power of projecting one’s personality into or mentally identifying oneself with an object of contemplation, and so fully understanding or appreciating it. Now rare.”

Although “now rare” refers to the usage, we agree that the ability to fully understand and appreciate the object of contemplation is indeed now rare. In more practical terms, according to Psychology Today:

“Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character. Developing empathy is crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately. It involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial, or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced.”

For musicians, particularly musicians who concentrate on effective interpretation of historical music, empathy is an essential quality. First, one must develop empathy with the historical meaning and purpose of the music in order to comprehend, in a basic sense, just how the music works. Next, one must delve into the cultural context of the music in order to identify, absorb and translate the rhythmic shape of the music and, in the realm of vocal music, the meaning of the words. Thirdly, the interpreter must live with the music over a span of time long enough to actually perform the result of his or her understanding.

The next step applies to ensemble musicians. After having thoroughly embraced the music one is to perform, ensemble musicians must possess the quality of empathy in common with one another to project interpretive ideas that have been agreed upon and rehearsed to the point at which the performance presents to the receptive audience organically as easy and agreeable conversation.

According to Neuroscience News,

“Highly empathic people process familiar music with greater involvement of the brain’s social circuitry, such as the areas activated when feeling empathy for others. They also seem to experience a greater degree of pleasure in listening, as indicated by increased activation of the reward system.”

But here we must mention the difference in usage between “empathic” and “empathetic”. The journalist who penned the above quotation effectively “jargonized” a term in a manner that, while perhaps not exactly wrong, is not nice. The author meant to say “Highly empathetic people…”, which refers to the class of people possessing empathic traits. Or, if you will, a class of people displaying the hallmarks of an empathic condition. The condition is empathic, the people are empathetic.

If we give in to dehumanizing usage and the callous incorporation of jargon into the English language, we have entirely lost our footing and we are careening uncontrollably down the slippery slope upon which our civilization has been teetering for decades, and landing full stop mired in the muck of incomprehension. Now we have come to understand that “irregardless” has entered the lexicon, and we simply cannot stomach non-words shooting from the lips of political commentators who should know better, such as uttering “architected” to describe the act of design in the past tense. This is just too much.

Saturday morning quotes 8.2: Corrections

Since we have been preoccupied with rather time-consuming matters, we are taking the unusual step of re-posting an essay from 2012. This one was not part of our regular Saturday morning quote series and therefore quite likely missed by many of our regular readers.

The post is among several we have offered collating known facts and speculative details concerning the life and music of John Dowland. Since we have in recent memory published a new edition of Dowland’s Complete Ayres for Voice and Lute, and since we are just now engaged in recording more songs by Dowland and his contemporaries, we like to check in now and then to revisit questions of historical context, the answers to which help keep us on the straight and narrow. We will return soon with more music to share; meanwhile we direct our readers to an understated and direct performance of Dowland’s most emblematic song for voice and lute.

Original title – Dowland and Correctness

The recorded music industry has for years targeted as a market group those of us who are more than mildly interested in history, and who long to have a connection with a more ‘reality-based community’ than is possible in our current culture; a culture that is wholly based upon illusions conceived and communicated through technology.  They have appealed to our need for a sense of tradition.  They have encouraged us to think that there was an ‘authentic’ interpretation that rendered all others invalid, available only on a particular label and recorded by approved musical stars.  They have actively encouraged our tendency to collect objects that evoke a mythologized, sanitized and newly-fabricated tradition that really never existed as it is described in the adverts.

They have played us for saps.

One could argue that the invention of the printing press did the same thing.  Technology made possible the refinement, codification and dissemination of information and ideas.  The difference is that the creation of printed matter was something to which one committed his thought, time and attention.  A printed book was the result of intensive effort in writing, editing, and laying out for coherence of theme and enduring visual appeal.  The production, manufacture and distribution of a book required expert human activity.   Discovering a book required physical activity in visiting a bookshop or a library, taking the book from the shelf where it was displayed, hefting its weight, opening the cover and cracking open the newly-cut pages.  It required active participation to digest the information and even to store or display the book once it was read, hopefully to be re-read or referenced.

Today, real and substantial things to which we have assigned significance and value are crumbling and vanishing before our very eyes.  Electronic transmission and storage of music has served to undermine the attractive packaging and presentation of a recording project that may represent a lifetime of scholarship, artistic insight and the pursuit of technical skill.  Now music is sampled online by listeners who are overwhelmed by diversity and choice, and who are easily distracted by bright, bold colors and movement. The advertising industry tells us this.  They also tell us that music now must be given away if an artist hopes to attract attention to his or her catalog of expensively-produced recordings.  Glamorous videos must be made available, filmed according to the latest visual style and standard with top-quality resolution for sound and picture.

Those of us who actually care about history and tradition are well and truly assaulted with an  overload of sensory information, a multitude of choices, and packaging that adds a phony glamorous sheen to products that never seem to satisfy.  The instant we purchase the item, we are told that there is something more needed to make it better, more complete — or even barely functional.  In the end, electronic music files and pdf copies of important written matter simply get filed away on some storage device, out of sight and out of mind.

The point?  Those of us who care about ideas and artifacts of the past are constantly bombarded with commercialized reconstitutions of old things, packaged and promoted to convince us that we really need to see, hear and buy this fresh and novel approach.  In the end, it’s all just sales talk.

Take the music of John Dowland (1563 -1626).  Based on surviving written descriptions, Dowland was surely a fantastic performer on the lute and a highly-skilled composer for the instrument, both solo and in ensemble with voices and viols.  His reputation is backed up by the existence of a great deal of surviving music, both published and hand-written in manuscript sources.

But some 400 years after his time, how do we judge Dowland’s music today?  The four centuries that separate us from the currency of his music have placed between us the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, John Cage, Charles Ives and Harry Partch.  As a culture, we have ‘progressed’ in technology from travel by horse and cart to supersonic aircraft.  Music that was quiet, intimate, and only available live and in person can now be electronically amplified past the threshold of pain.  The magic achieved in live performance can now be electronically captured and played repeatedly to the point where it can become wretched and repulsive.  How can we possibly judge the quality of Dowland’s music with the enormous gap in time, space and culture that separates us?

We can’t. The best we can do is make an attempt to understand how the music was created and received in its original context, and appreciate the elements of the music that affect us today.

What does not seem appropriate is judging Dowland’s music for ‘correctness’ in retrospect and applying a misdirected standard based on music that came later, and the work of musicologists and historians who cannot help but insert examples and references to other ‘great’ composers by way of comparison.  This phenomenon, beginning as early as the 18th century bile of Charles Burney, taints our perception of the intrinsic value of old music by judging it against an inappropriate standard.

“After being at the pains of scoring several of Dowland’s compositions, I have been equally disappointed and astonished at his scanty abilities in counterpoint, and the great reputation he acquired with his contemporaries…”

“Besides want of melody and design, with the confusion and embarrassment of a Principiante in the disposition of the parts, there are frequently unwarrantable, and, to my ear, very offensive combinations in the harmony; such as a sharp third and flat sixth; and extreme flat fourth and sixth, etc…”

“As a composer, the public seem to have been right in withdrawing that favour from Dowland which had been granted on a bad basis; but with regard to his performance we have nothing to say: as at this distance of time there is no judgement what proportion it bore to others who were better treated.”

– Charles Burney, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, 1776

Then there is the question of whether surviving sources not written in Dowland’s hand or printed under his supervision actually represent what the composer had in mind.  This is a waste of time that is premised on the misdirected anachronistic idea that an URTEXT of the Master’s work survives bearing the stamp of his approval.  Most of Dowland’s music was in dance forms that were quite likely repeated and embellished ad lib in live performance, and all of his music was meant to be re-created in intimate spaces in performances that depended absolutely on the sound and resources of the lute.  That some of his lute music works on other instruments, or that his music composed for voices or instrumental ensemble works so well on its own merits, attests to the depth of of the composer’s artistic skill.  But there is no reason to wrench that music out of its time and context and compare it to what came later by composers who learned from Dowland’s example.

Of course mistakes in printing and hand-copying happened and lutenists have always made corrections on the fly, adding a bass note here or resolving a suspension there.  But the plain fact is that many musicians and listeners in Dowland’s time just did not care so much about what we have come to think of as ‘correct’ voice-leading and parallels that resulted from stringing.  Presumably, they did not have the benefit of attending lectures by our modern day continuo specialists who have since put things right.  Dowland stated plainly that lutenists should understand “Pricke-song”, and saw fit to mention that he preferred not to employ the more commonly used octave strings on his bass courses as “irregular to the rules of Musicke”.  But his very mention of this indicates the norm was acceptable to most ears.  Octave stringing on citterns, renaissance guitars and re-entrant tunings on theorbos and  baroque guitars create inversions that are quite irregular to the rules of music, but are an artifact of the stringing, the tuning and the times.

As for the question of correcting Dowland’s music and restoring it to what the composer himself would have expected, this really should go without saying.  Anyone with a good musical ear and training in historical music will spot and fix errors and omissions in the score, hopefully remaining true to the conventions of the period.  But musical notation in any form is merely a guide to performance, and if we all described in minute detail our process of interpretive performance, we would never hear the ample selection of his music now available in recorded form, which, we are told, is better than it sounds.