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Saturday morning quotes 6.2: Traditions

Studying the luteHaving had the benefit of a very long relationship with traditional music, learned by ear and through osmosis, it’s an interesting exercise to reflect on the similarities and differences of approach between historical folk and art music.  The two genres have existed side-by-side since forever, but the points of divergence appear to be more sharply defined the further a given musician-interpreter is removed from the source and function of the music in question.

It is a fairly safe bet that in the 21st century nearly all interpretations of Western historical folk and art music are re-creations, removed from the original sources and functions and thus the result of academic study—with the two exceptions of playing live traditional music for dancing and singing for the Latin Mass. Of course music of the 16th century must be studied from afar and by taking advantage of our cumulative knowledge of historical performance practice.  But study that is confined to the rigors of mechanical instrumental or vocal technique without a deeper understanding of the details of our ancestors’ lives will result in modern interpretations that are simply less human.

A major obstacle to effective interpretation of any music is the absence of empathy.  In the case of 16th-century music, empathy can only be cultivated through reading the words left behind, immersing ourselves in the anti-climactic details of the drudgery and desperation of daily life, absorbing the music with an understanding of pulse, cadence and musical phrasing.  Only then can we begin to apply instrumental or vocal technique toward an honest interpretation.


With historical folk music, we are fortunate to have remnants of certain traditions that were preserved through audio recordings, which may bring us much closer to the humanity of the music.  Like the deep insights and expertise of our best historical musicologists, the approach of those who recorded the remnants of historical fiddle music made a significant difference in our ability to understand and interpret lost traditions and the humanity of the music.

“One of the results of studying traditions primarily through items and without enough regard for the individuals who made them is that we, as folklorists, delude ourselves into thinking we come to know that tradition. Such an assumption is pretentious. At best, we may learn something of the normative patterns within a tradition — the “norm” or “average” — but we can know nothing about that tradition’s limits — if indeed it has limits. I use the term “limits” loosely, for we all know that folk life of all sorts continually shifts and adjusts and refuses to be plugged neatly into any sort of limiting pigeon hole. Flexible limits do exist though, at specific times and places in all traditions. Without boundaries, how do we know when any “traditional” form is no longer traditional and is, in fact, something else?”

“In order to understand more about a particular tradition’s limits, we must deliberately and knowingly seek out those people — again, past and present — who can help us determine them. It is for this reason that folklorists are drawn to the most innovative and creative participants within a given tradition. It is usually through these innovative few that we are able, with care and time, to determine the limits of acceptable artistic creativity possible within a tradition. The problem with concentrating on these individuals, though, is the danger of assigning traditional status to elements which, in fact, have gone beyond the realm of the traditional aesthetic. If this is done, our picture of the tradition as a whole will be skewed if not absolutely wrong.”

– Blanton Owen (1945-1998), Manco Sneed and the Indians

As interpreters of historical music for the lute, we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches with access to nearly 300 years worth of published scores and manuscript sources that we may peruse and perform.  But we skew our understanding when we choose only the best music by those who are accepted as the best historical composers.  This  “greatest hits” approach prevents a contextual understanding of historical music and is an obstacle to effective and empathetic interpretation.

Saturday morning quotes 6.1: Fantasy

UnicornAs we begin our sixth year of Saturday morning quotations, we revisit some of the primary goals of our enterprise as we stated at the outset: How performing historical music for voice and lute “affects our lives, how it appears to be received by the individuals who make up our listening audiences, and why we believe early music is not only relevant but offers a much-needed source of solace in these fractious times.”

While we consider our music to be an essential antidote to the technologically-obsessed present, the elegant and subtle aesthetic qualities of the historical lute fit not so well in our modern times without serious committment and without establishing a context.  We have pointed out that those individuals who are attracted to the instrument today, professional and amateur, become involved for a variety of reasons and with various levels of committment.  And we have stated like a broken record that, while many have made significant inroads, we are of the opinion that historical music for the lute and technology is not a happy combination.

Needless to say that while we have managed to reach many appeciative listeners, taking such a stance does very little for our popularity among impatient consumers who can’t seem to trouser their phones for more than a minute or two.  While we would like to offer these distracted souls a moment of respite from their self-imposed hellish nightmares, we find that quiet, intricate music is inaudible to ears that have been ravaged by modern sounds.  And we used the label “consumers” above intentionally because that is how people are now characterized.

“I couldn’t write about now, I felt, because it was so slippery. Until I thought I knew – what was very definitive about now is that it’s so powerfully self-reverential. Selfies, look at me, novels about me, stories about me …

The complexity of the so-called individual that’s been praised for decades in America somehow has narrowed itself to the ‘me’. When I was a young girl we were called citizens – American citizens. We were second-class citizens, but that was the word. In the 50s and 60s they started calling us consumers. So we did – consume. Now they don’t use those words any more – it’s the American taxpayer and those are different attitudes.”

Toni Morrison, On the selfishness of the modern era

But the fact remains that we live in these modern times and we as thinking persons and as musicians are committed to integrating what we know to be the aesthetics of historical music with our 21st-century context.  The alternative for others who may be involved in early music is to dwell in a fantasy world of lutes and unicorns, trotting out the music and the funny hats occasionally while blithely ignoring the vital message the instrument whispers in our ears; compartmentalizing their lives and turning a deaf ear to the lessons of history.

We would like to take this opportunity thank our many loyal readers and listeners, and we urge those who are capable of appreciating historical music to perhaps appreciate the fantasy for what it is, but listen closely to the message of the music and embrace an integrated life that acknowledges all things are connected.

CHAPTER XIV: Of The Enthusiasms And Ravishments Of The Lute

When old age has made us incapable to relish the pleasure of this life, so that everybody loathes our company because of our infirmities, when the sight fails us for reading of books, the legs for walking, and the teeth for discoursing, the fingers and the ears remain still in a capacity to play on the lute and to charm melodiously as the swans the assault and apprehensions of death.

For it is an admirable thing, and much experimented, that the gout never seizes upon the fingers of those that play the lute. And this wholesome harmony dissipates and subtilizes so well the gross humours that are the cause of deafness, that one never becomes deaf as long as the body is in health and able to touch the lute. Those admirable effects make men so much in love with the lute that when those that play of it do hear a lesson that they like, they are never quiet till they have it, and think no money better bestowed than in purchasing this precious acquisition.

– from Miss Mary Burwell’s Instruction Book for the Lute, c. 1668

Saturday morning quotes 5.52: The future

2bicycles+adrummerAs we write this, the 52nd post of our fifth full year of Saturday morning quotations, we look to  the future with a balance of cautious anticipation and hopeful speculation. Last week’s post offered a summary of highlights from the past year, so we think it’s only fitting to cap the year by examining the future according to a few specialists and offering our own insights as to what may come in the next twelvemonth.

While ours is a lute-centric point of view, we tend to consider our music and our approach in the larger context of early music.  Early music is by its very nature a re-creational art form; performances of old music based on a combination of intense study of source material with a highly developed empathetic response to historical texts and musical conventions.  In the not too distant past, modes of lute performance by revivalists were overly focused on matters of technique and mechanical aspects of the instruments themselves.  The future of lute performance lies in assuming the technical matters are internalized so we can go about the important business of tapping into the emotional depth of the music.

Ever since John Thomson convened a project in 1977 proposing to shape the future of early music in the UK, there has been an unusually well coordinated worldwide effort to define, standardize and mold the look, sound and presentation of early music.  Organizations were formed, objectives were established, syllabi were created, and student-teacher relationships emerged. What was once considered a counterculture movement, early music organizations increasingly evolved to resemble corporate models.

“In their concluding chapter (‘The future?’), Lawson and Stowell raise the spectre of an historically informed performance movement that has become over-confident of itself and its claims, in which attitudes towards underpinning research have become a little too casual and too willing to compromise in terms of the instruments used, or appropriate playing techniques. The pressure for compromise comes largely from commercial sources. When a big-name guest conductor bringing lucrative concert tours and recording contracts to a period band begins to make interpretative demands that fly in the face of historical evidence that the players know far better than he, what is a reasonable response? As the editors know very well, such compromises are nothing new. One can take an idealistic stand, following the late Bruce Haynes’s caution in The end of early music (New York, 2007) that historically informed performance is losing its ‘counter cultural’ rationale and with that, its ethical credentials; or one can compromise.”

– John Irving, “Performance through history”, review of The Cambridge history of musical performance, ed. Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), Early Music, Vol. xli, No. 1, p. 143.

With the help of specialist academic programs and large early music organizations, we have seen increased access to sources of music, to concert performances and many other benefits and efficiencies over the years.  But those of us who have studied organizational behavior understand full well that hierarchies are a natural result of any coordinated effort, and certain personality-types tend to eventually step in to take over the helm.  It seems that no matter how “counterculture” the original motives may have been, these certain personalities tend to offer stiff competition to egalitarian goals and objectives.

But we live in the (potentially accurate) Information Age; the age of Google and what has been called the disruption economy. Are large organizations still relevant?  Is it possible that we have taken a circuitous route via digital media and are returning to the counterculture roots of the early music movement?

“Google exemplifies and partly drives a huge shift in culture and the attitude to availability of materials.The world of information has progressed from libraries that had no internet access in 2000, to those same institutions planning a mere decade later to put their entire content online, including digital conversion of their catalogues. Online access to a library is now almost taken for granted…”

“If we create universal multi-user access to unique materials there is suddenly a point in being able to understand the notation and navigate around books that originated in a world with a very different mindset from ours. Instead of relying on one scholar’s interpretation of the materials exemplified in a modern edition, digitization and online delivery has democratized early music: we can access the original sources ourselves at any time, usually without cost, make our own edition or, better still, perform directly from the original sources, taking power from the editor and giving it back to the performer, bypassing the various tyrannies imposed on pre-barline music by modern notation, and exploring the process of negotiation that is an integral part of performing and understanding the works they contain.”

– Julia Craig-McFeely, “Digital Man and the desire for physical objects”, Early Music, Vol. xli, No. 1, p. 131-32.

However, access to the sources of music means absolutely nothing if those attempting to interpret arcane old notation have no understanding of its meaning, or lack an essential depth of understanding in historical modes of performance.  And it turns out the disruption economy approach is actually little more than a ploy on the part of the same old personality types using neo diversionary tactics to get around established norms and standards.

The cold hard truth is that, even among established interpreters of early music, we will never approach an understanding of original modes of performance until we specialize in one era of historical music, live without electricity and indoor plumbing, sing a polyphonic Mass with almost no rehearsal in an unheated choir loft, compose canons, practice and perform by candlelight.  Of course, research is important but until a performer fully understands the original context, it’s only playing some pretends.  Convincing performances demand that elusive combination of scholarly elbow grease and musical intuition, and to quote the venerable Mr. Johnson, “To do this, you got to know how.

“Among other things, forensic analysis has the capacity to challenge or demolish myths—in this case, the myth that a seemingly ingenious canon was technically hard to make. The situation brings to mind a series of conversations I once had about a piece of studio pottery I own, a large wheel-thrown earthenware bowl that is impressively wide-brimmed at the top but curves down to the tiniest of bases. I showed this beautiful bowl to an amateur potter and was surprised by her response: ‘pots like that are very hard to make’. This bowl had appealed to me for its form, not its difficulty, and her remark therefore changed my view of it. But then I showed it to a professional potter, this time
commenting that my lovely bowl must have been hard to make. ‘Not when you know how’, he said.”

“…If the Idea is to pass cleanly from composer’s conception to hearer’s comprehension in sound alone, we are dealing not so much with hard composing—quite easy, in fact, when you know how—but rather with some hard performing and some very hard listening.”

– John Milsom, “Hard composing; hard performing; hard listening”, Early Music, Vol. xli, No. 1, p. 108, p. 112.

For our next year of Saturday morning quotes, we will continue to draw upon wisdom old and not so old.  But we will also be demonstrating in more detail our process of research and assimilation of old music.  Stay tuned for our first podcast.

Saturday morning quotes 5.51: Another year

Parable of the fig tree After five years of tending our figurative fig tree, we stop for a moment to spread a bit more fertilizer around its roots.  Is it worth the trouble to sacrifice a few hours of our Saturday mornings despite a busy schedule and other unforeseen impediments?  Have we made a difference with our weekly alternative insights into early music, its historical context, and its relevance in the current century?  And besides, do our many readers here in the US and across the globe really care a feather or a fig?

Putting these questions aside for a moment, we  can’t resist applying a touch of retrospective summation as we approach the conclusion of our fifth year of weekly Saturday morning quotations, touching on a few of our designated categories.

Musings about lute music

Throughout the past year, our series of quotations has somehow managed to maintain a thematic focus on the many aspects of music for solo voice and lute, which is really our bread and butter.  This is no mean feat since music for the lute is such an arcane field, and particularly since we seem to avoid discussing the topics that usually attract the interest of lutenists (selfies, strings, and free music).  But we continue to research and explore the lute’s historical repertory and its context, and we anticipate sharing a great deal more of interest in the coming year—more about that later.

While having been sidelined to a degree this year due to health issues we have not been idle, but we are at last returning to performing and touring.   We have also been called upon to perform music associated with Shakespeare and it seems that our Shakespeare’s Lutebook has generated a bit of interest among other lutenists in the US during this, the anniversary year of the author’s death.  We’ve also had the opportunity on several occasions to delve into some of our favorite repertory of 16th-century French, Italian and English airs, including more music by Dowland.  But we are very pleased to be returning this year to music of the late 15th century for our new ensemble of a cappella voices in addition to our tried and true format of solo voice and lute. We’ll keep you posted on some very interesting projects on the horizon.

In memoriam

“It is clear that when you write a story that takes place in the past you try to show what really happened in those times. But you are always moved by the suspicion that you are also showing something about our contemporary world.”

“Take a lot of WikiLeaks papers. I was very amused because I published the novel in Italy one year ago, exactly one month before the WikiLeaks affair blew up. Simonini is a forger, and understands that in order to tell secret information to a secret service you always have to tell what is already known. Otherwise they will not believe you. From what I have seen, all the WikiLeaks communications sent by the American embassies to Hillary Clinton were just saying exactly what was published in Newsweek the week before! So you see that there is a sometimes a slight difference between fiction and reality.”

– Umberto Eco, interviewed by Andrew Martin in The Paris Review, November 15, 2011.

Over the last twelvemonth we have experienced the loss of far too many friends, family members, colleagues and heroes.  Among the latter, Umberto Eco (1932 -2016) will be sorely missed in our household.  Nearly all of his writing is worthwhile but Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (2011) and Numero Zero (2015) represent shining examples of how the format of a novel can used to present a tangled mess of seemingly unrelated historical strands that are brilliantly and entertainingly woven together to reveal truths about the past and the present.  Some may mourn the loss of pop music icons; we mourn the loss of Umberto Eco, an intellectual giant.

On Politics

“Last night I thought about all that kerosene I’ve used in the past ten years. And I thought about books. And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up. A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper. And I’d never even thought that thought before.”…”It took some man a lifetime maybe to put some of his thoughts down, looking around at the world and life and then I come along in two minutes and boom! it’s all over.”…”We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Our musically-inclined readers always seem to transmit vibes by return of telluric current; vibes that translate to an almost palpable curl of the lip whenever we mention politics.  To us, that just means we must be doing our job effectively because we believe all things are connected.  Although we are normally circumspect when it come to expressing our political points of view, these are times when it simply can’t be helped.

Donald Trump represents an unfortunate result of the badly skewed and wayward trajectory American politics has been tracing for several decades now since our last president who actually wanted to do some good.  History indicates that from the earliest beginnings of our experiment in self-governance, our leaders were the deepest thinkers and the best orators, although there have been periods where our leadership has not always been of the highest caliber.  But things took a very bad turn in the late 20th century.

Television made it possible for political candidates to create a false impression that was transmitted into the homes of the receptive masses.  But if television made the American consuming public dim-witted and isolationist, the advent of the internet amplified the problem to a degree of magnitude far beyond the threshold of absurdity.  If this is the Information Age in which any data and all imagery is available to anyone with a phone and by the merest swipe of a greasy fingertip, we have to ask, “Do you trust the information?”  If you trust the information, your reward is Donald Trump and the manifestation of Ray Bradbury’s nightmarish book-burning future.

On what used to be the more reasonable side of the aisle, we have a candidate who is an unrepentant warmonger with firm connections to the banking-military-industrial complex whose social policies are quite a bit further to the right of old-school conservatives like Ronald Reagan.  This person, we are told, is simply the frontrunner and we are wasting our time and energy to think otherwise.  We find this tone to be distinctly and inexcusably undemocratic.

Then there is Bernie Sanders, who has made an incredible dent in the established system merely on the strength of his message and the passion with which it is delivered.  Sanders’ message has suffered an inexcusable blackout on the part of the American press and, sadly, one of the worst offenders is not US press at all but rather The Guardian.  A once-respected source of news, the recently hired managing editor of The Guardian must have materialized in a puff of sulfurous smoke sent (collect on delivery) from the Mephistophelian school of objectivity.  The particular relentlessness of their negative reporting (meaning almost none) and their snarky attitude towards the Bernie Sanders campaign has forever tarnished the reputation of a once-trusted source of news.


Back on track, our sixth year of weekly posts may feature more elaborate monthly podcasts dedicated to selected topics in historical music.  This will give us the opportunity to delve more deeply into the subject matter and offer a bit more insight into our musical methods.  It will also be an opportunity to feature sound clips and present our growing library of unique scores of music for voices and lutes. If this endeavor is of interest to you, please let us know your thoughts.

Saturday morning quotes 5.50: Intuition

Einstein fiddle“The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”

– Albert Einstein in correspondence with Shinichi Suzuki, 1969. “Nurtured by Love. A New Approach to Education”, p90).

As any informed person knows, the study of music is essential to the development of a creative, inquisitive and balanced mind. Study of the science of music requires the ability to apply the framework of hard numbers to the ephemeral realm of musical tones, and develops both logic and intuition.  But in our increasingly austere global economic picture, music education is a forlorn hope—always the first victim when short-sighted bean counters begin their barbaric exercise in budget slashing.  Sadly, it is particularly so in already underfunded schools that serve financially-challenged populations, further advancing the elitist rep of “classical” music as the playground of the well-off.  But in a bit of irony, the more important skill of developing musical intuition is frequently overlooked in better funded music programs that are more focused on conventional classical music.

A distinguishing feature that separates “classical” musicians from the vast world of other musicians working with great distinction in many genres of music, is not technique but the skill of reading music.  While sight-reading and intuitive musicianship need not be mutually exclusive skills, the technical ability to rapidly reproduce information in a musical score tends to force other important skills—like musical intuition—to take a back seat.

For those of us who first learned to play by ear and then learned to read music, the very idea of sight-reading skills taking precedence over intuitive musicianship is ludicrous.  Musicianship is developed by learning nuance and detail by ear from recordings of great players and/or playing music by ear with other highly skilled players. Imagine any successful jazz or pop artist being judged by how well they read a score rather than their ability to compose, improvise and render sometimes stunningly complex music in an effective and entertaining manner from memory.  We call score readers paper-trained musicians.

Since there are no surviving recordings of Josquin or John Dowland, effective interpretation of early music begins with reading the source material and gaining an understanding of archaic musical notation as an interpretive tool.  But effective interpretation reaches perfection with a complete understanding of the details of ancient but enduring performance conventions that can only be gained by getting off the page and into the context of original performance styles; indulging in the risky give and take of informed instrumental improvisation and spontaneous vocal ornamentation.

Early music seems to be dominated by paper-trained musicians who might deliver clean and accurate performances, but frequently sound as though they are nearly quaking in mortal fear of getting it wrong.  The trick is to spend enough time in a particular genre of music from a particular place and time period in order to absorb the musical conventions, and then learn to respond to a highly developed and informed musical intuition.  Focus and commitment required.



Saturday morning quotes 5.49: Numbers

Fludd number“And indeed all things that are known have number. For it is not possible that anything whatsoever be understood or known without this.”

Philolaus  (c. 470 – 385 BC), Fragment 4

Number symbolism has always had a close relationship with the structure and description of music, and music historians have spilled much ink on the subject.  Today, numerology has generally been assigned to the realm of wild-eyed ranting conspiracy theorists who occupy their mother’s basements cataloguing back issues of L’Ordine Nuovo while researching the role of Operation Gladio in current continental unrest.  But understanding the use of number symbolism by composers like Josquin des Prez and its role in historical music offers yet another important contextual clue to those of us engaged in deeper interpretations and performances that stir the soul.

Rather than attempt to describe the details, we refer you to the specialists:

The idea that number is the principle which governs the creation is the distinguishing feature of Pythagoreanism as an intellectual system. This is not the place to attempt a summary of Pythagorean number symbolism; what must be emphasized, however, is that this body of doctrine can in no sense be described as esoteric: on the contrary, there is scarcely a major classical philosopher or Church Father whose thinking was not coloured by Pythagorean principles. The study of numbers formed the very basis of the medieval quadrivium; in providing man with a means of plumbing the mysteries of the universe and so of appreciating the moral beauty of the divine plan, numbers possessed an important ethical value. In the Renaissance, Pythagoras himself came to be regarded as a type of that humanist ideal of moderation which combined piety with practical wisdom.

…Indeed it would be surprising if the geometrical intricacies of the typical renaissance lute rose did not conceal a symbolic meaning of one kind or another. It was, after all, the product of an age whose passion for the arcane reflected itself in pageantry, in emblem books, in allegorical portraiture, in architectural conceits, in literary puzzles and conundrums and in number symbolism of all kinds. Moreover the lute itself, as the noblest of musical instruments, was widely treated as a symbol of the harmony which underlies the cosmos. William Drummond, for example, elaborates this familiar conceit in the manner of an emblem-book writer:

GOD binding with hid Tendons this great ALL,
Did make a LVTE which had all parts it giuen;
This LVTES round Bellie was the azur’d Heauen,
The Rose those lights which Hee did there install;
The Basses were the Earth and Ocean,
The Treble shrill the Aire: the other Strings
The vnlike Bodies were of mixed things:
And then His Hand to breake sweete Notes began.

– Robin Headlam Wells, “Number Symbolism in the Renaissance Lute Rose”,
Early Music, Vol. 9, No. 1, Plucked-String Issue 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 32-42.

Number symbolism provided a framework for the way our ancestors understood the nature of science and music—and even the very nature of being.  And there is no doubt that number symbolism likewise pervades important historical literary works, particularly at the points where poetry and music intersect.

I suggest that Shakespeare deliberately linked sonnets 8 and 128 both musically and mathematically.  They are the only two sonnets which he wrote on mainly musical themes and their numbers, either separately or combined, are packed with musical and mathematical symbolism. In Shakespeare’s philosophical environment the combination of the following features could hardly occur by chance:-

1. The subject of sonnet 8 is music, perfect concord, ‘unions’, marriage and procreation. This is a nuptial theme which, as Fowler has established beyond doubt, was regularly symbolized in Elizabethan times by the musical octave, the octave’s  2 : 1 ratio and the number 8.

[Musick to heare, why hear’st thou musick sadly,
Sweets with sweets warre not, ioy delights in ioy:
Why lov’st thou that which thou receavst not gladly,
Or else receav’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well tuned sounds,
By unions married do offend thine eare,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singlenesse the parts that thou should’st beare:
Marke how one string sweet husband to an other,
Strikes each in each by mutuall ordering;
Resembling sier, and child, and happy mother,
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechlesse song being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee thou single wilt prove none.]

2. Sonnet 128 emphasizes heavily the musical fingering of the keyboard of the virginals with words such as “wood” (twice), “motion”, “fingers” (three times), “hand”, “Iackes” (jacks, twice), “hand”, “tikled” and “chips” (keys). Split as 12/8, this number symbolizes the poet’s discordant ‘envie’, mimicked first by this sonnet’s suggested effect of the discord of the 12 musical semitones fingered in sequence (a discordant ‘wiry’ combination which ‘confounds’, line 4), followed by the octave concord or union of an invited “kisse” (line 14), which is suggested by the symbolic ‘union’ of the octave number, 8.  Sonnet 128 is metaphor for musical and human “temperament”.

[How oft when thou my musike musike playst,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently swayst,
The wiry concord that mine eare confounds,
Do I envie those Iackes that nimble leape,
To kisse the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poore lips which should that harvest reape,
At the woods bouldnes by thee blushing stand.
To be so tikled they would change their state,
And situation with those dancing chips,
Ore whome their (thy) fingers walk with gentle gate,
Making dead wood more blest then living lips,
Since saucie Iackes so happy are in this,
Give them their (thy) fingers, me thy lips to kisse.]

– Fred Blick, “Number symbolism in Shakespeare’s Sonnets 8 and 128 Pythagoras, Perfect Numbers, Triangular numbers and Musical Harmony”.

Like the works of Shakespeare, scholars have pored over the works of Johann Sebastian Bach searching for clues that help us understand his musical genius.  But tempering our quest for deeper meanings with a small dose of common sense will save time and allow us to concentrate on more important things.

“As for the modern examples of elaborate number-symbolism, there is probably some cryptography in the Canons. A man who is writing a puzzle for his friends makes it as puzzling as he can. But I do not believe that the first fugue of the ‘Forty-Eight’ [Preludes and Fugues] contains a cryptogram, any more than I believe that Bach deliberately emphasized the number seven in the Credo of the B minor Mass. Coincidences are not uncommon in real life. In the world of symbolism, where almost anything can be made to mean something, they can be found in hundreds by anyone who has nothing better to do. These speculations are on a par with Ernest Newman’s ‘ proof’ that the ‘ Forty-Eight’ is ‘ a sort of musical cipher in which the initiate, but of course only the initiate, can detect a series of settings of the incidents in ” Alice in Wonder-land” ‘.

A rationalistic view of symbolism, somewhat on the lines sketched out above, has obvious advantages; but there does remain the question whether it was Bach’s view. Strictly speaking, this question is unanswerable. Bach left nothing in writing that bears directly on this subject, and if he ever discussed it with his pupils, his opinions have not been recorded.  The most one can do is to study the writings of other musicians, and try to guess whether Bach agreed with them.”

– Walter Emery, “A Rationale of Bach’s Symbolism (Concluded)”, The Musical Times, Vol. 95, No. 1341 (Nov., 1954), pp. 597-600.


Saturday morning quotes 5.48: Accompaniment

TheConcertWe frequently receive positive feedback from colleagues and listeners who have stumbled across our recorded music, for which we are always very grateful.  The most commonly mentioned theme has to do with our sense of rhythmic unity and the closeness of connection between singer and accompanist.  While we would like to graciously accept these kind comments from friends and supporters who may think our ensemble sound is merely the happy result of a serendipitous meeting of the minds, it is actually the product of 1) extensive research into historical composition and performance practice, and 2) many years of ensemble work that requires careful listening and empathetic response.  Plus, we have never for a moment considered our duo as “singer and accompanist”, but rather two musicians collaborating in a rendering of polyphony.

Collaborative accompaniment describes a partnership that places equal weight upon the roles and responsibilities of vocalist and accompanist, and is is a term often used to describe newly-plowed acreage in the field of the piano profession, where a keyboardist consciously learns skills that facilitate active collaboration with a singer or with other instrumentalists. It turns out that specializing in historical polyphonic music is a very good way to circumvent a few centuries’ worth of performance practice that has been more focused on the discreet roles of “singer and accompanist”, moving directly into a genre that has always required a collaborative equal partnership.

For those who specialize in accompanying on the lute, most will ignore the enormous amount of music specifically written for the combination of voice and lute, and ply their trade in baroque bands or accompanying soloists in 17th-century monody.

“Given the primacy of text declamation and rhythm in the Florentine monody repertory, it seems strange that the one aspect of these manuscript sources that has attracted the most scholarly attention has not been the text setting but the tablature accompaniments themselves. In no other song repertory from any period have we devoted so much attention to accompaniments. They have been examined in an evolutionary sense as containing the seeds of the development of basso continuo and functional harmony; as frozen versions of the venerable improvised tradition and sixteenth-century practices of arranging vocal polyphony; and as sources that argue for and against their use as representing accurate notions of performance practice, instrumentation, and pitch. Taken together, our investigations of these often elementary accompaniments have led us down the paths of history, historiography, humanism, theory, performance, and context.”

-Victor Anand Coelho, “The Players of Florentine Monody in Context and in History, and a Newly Recognized Source for Le nuove musiche”, Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music, Volume 9, no. 1 (2003). par. 2.3.

Lutesong tablatures can seem rudimentary or too prescriptive if not viewed in the proper context.  Upon closer examination, one discovers that lutesong tablatures more often than not actually contain a condensed score of vocal polyphony—music that requires deep understanding in order to reconstitute the condensed linear movement of separate lines into music that has texture and dimension.  After the lutenist performs this miraculous feat of knowledge, comprehension and physical dexterity, then he or she must set about the task of accompanying: Mind-melding with the vocalist in order to make the most of the interweaving lines, bringing to the surface the points of melodic imitation, shaping the phrasing with sensitivity and, most importantly, rendering the meaning of the text. This is all basically fundamentally essential to effective performance of music with voice and lute. But you don’t have to take our word for it:

“Whoever wants to play well needs three things: first he must know counterpoint or at least know how to sing confidently and hear intervals and the beat and read all the clefs; know how to resolve the dissonant with the consonant, know the major and minor thirds and sixths and other similar things. Secondly he must play his instrument well, knowing tablature or notation and have a lot of experience of the keyboard or fretboard so as not to have to seek the consonances or the beat while one is singing; given that the eye is busy watching the parts placed before him. Thirdly he must have a good ear so as to hear the movement that the parts make between themselves; of this I will not speak since I cannot correct, through my discourse, what is naturally bad.”

“It’s true that simply, certain rules of progression can be given in general, but where there are words, they must be dressed with a suitable harmony that makes or demonstrates the affect.  Not being able to give fixed rules, it is necessary that the player relies on his ear and on the work and its movements…”

“It is useful finally, to know how to transpose the melody from one note to another, provided there are all the natural consonances of the tone…[to avoid unintended dissonances] transposing to the fourth or fifth is more natural and suitable to all…”

– Agostino Agazzari, Del Sonare Sopra’l Basso Con Tutti Li Stromenti E Dell’ Uso Loro Nel Conserto [On Playing above the Bass with all instruments and on their use in an Ensemble], Siena, 1607.

A singer is a storyteller, and effective accompaniment requires a highly refined degree of collaboration in order to maximize expressive potential. Lute accompaniment must be in absolute synchronization with a vocalist and how she tells the story right down to pronunciation of vowels and consonants. In a truly successful collaboration of voice and lute, the lutenist must have an equal sense of commitment to the musical piece, its meaning, and the nuances of the text, as that of the vocalist.

For this sunny Saturday morning, we offer a small example via our recording of “Donna leggiadr’ et bella”, a sunny setting of the poetry of Giovanni Brevio (1480 – 1539) with music by Philippe Verdelot (c.1480 – 1530).



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