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Saturday morning quotes 8.17: Future is now

Arthur C. Clarke predicted the technology-obsessed present, including the internet, in 1964. But Clarke, like many other old-time futurists, optimistically believed that technology might possibly make the world a better place, and the ubiquitous use of computers could offer greater leisure time to one and all. To those who have been paying attention, it turns out that the futurists’ idealized dream did not transpire. Technology has successfully made the simplest of human interactions complicated and effectively turned each and every human being into a set of data points ripe for manipulation and monetization. But among the more insidious effects of modern technology is the slow seepage of traditional wisdom into the abyss, never to be revived. The tradition of wisdom passed down from sage to neophyte has been supplanted by instructional videos made by would-be viral video stars, a phenomenon that results in 1) the spread of a great deal of faulty or incomplete information, 2) the misconception that information easily translates as skill, and 3) promotion of the idea that professionals are no longer necessary and anyone can become an expert merely by watching videos.

Ease of access to information has led to the phenomenon of the Everyman Expert whose creed is no more waiting to learn by trial and error or develop and refine skills through guided repetition. Now, anyone who needs a [insert profession] goes to Googlytube to learn the ins and outs of every aspect of [insert profession] before getting into a muddle and eventually and reluctantly hiring an actual professional. At that point the Everyman Expert positions him- or herself to watch over the professional’s shoulder, peppering them with laughably rudimentary questions or offering unsolicited, ill-informed, and sometimes dangerously misguided advice at every step of the job.

Peering into the world of early music reveals a microcosm of similar trends. Early music was once the province of the scholar/performer who, proceeding happily unchallenged, convinced the listening audience of the truth in his or her approach and set about teaching the same to eager and willing students. We now have a proliferation of generically-trained musicians whose research has been limited to the plentiful examples of late 20th-century performers and scholars, many of whom simply invented their characteristic but historically indefensible modern approach to interpretation and, through well-funded PR campaigns, proclaimed and sold that approach with supreme confidence.

The lute occupies a narrow and dusty cobwebbed corner in the realm of early music, and historical lute tablatures are now readily accessible via online facsimiles available through academic libraries. There are several industrious souls who have made it their life’s work to copy those tablatures into modern fonts and make them available to the 2000-odd lute players scattered across the globe. While the process of copying tablatures from facsimiles of original sources is time-consuming, it is not an overwhelming challenge. But correcting the many mistakes found in historical printed and manuscript sources is the sort of detail work that demands thorough understanding of music from the original period. It is important to understand that tablatures meant something completely different to denizens of the 16th and 17th centuries than it does to amateur guitarists today. Musicians of the period were not just locating finger positions on the staff, they absolutely considered the tablature characters to represent musical notes. They universally understood that a tablature score was a reservoir of polyphonic music condensed onto a single staff, and they understood how to identify and bring to life those polyphonic lines while following the universal rules of composition and counterpoint. Realizing lute tablature as sound demanded more skill, not less, and that same understanding is required when editing historical tablatures today.

We should celebrate increased access to information but, as demonstrated in recent memory, we must question the accuracy and validity of information at every step. Of course, questioning validity leads to biased fact-checking, which further complicates matters by pitting organizations or individuals against one another in a quest to promote deliberately skewed “facts” that support an ideology or a profit motive. In other words, we’re screwed.

Probably the best solution is to unplug and return to the original model of learning, storing, retrieving and teaching information, for no other reason than it is but a moment’s task for tech giants to erase and/or rewrite history. Besides, they have already accomplished rewiring our brains and training the public to trust the search results the tech giants choose to display. But let’s consider for a moment Link Rot and the durability of information on the internet.

“A 2013 study in BMC Bioinformatics looked at the lifespan of links in the scientific literature — a place where link persistence is crucial to public knowledge. The scholars, Jason Hennessey and Steven Xijin Ge of South Dakota State University, analyzed nearly 15,000 links in abstracts from Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science citation index. They found that the median lifespan of Web pages was 9.3 years, and just 62% were archived. Even the websites of major corporations that should know better — including Adobe, IBM, and Intel — can be littered with broken links.”

“A 2014 Harvard Law School study looks at the legal implications of Internet link decay, and finds reasons for alarm. The authors, Jonathan Zittrain, Kendra Albert and Lawrence Lessig, determined that approximately 50% of the URLs in U.S. Supreme Court opinions no longer link to the original information. They also found that in a selection of legal journals published between 1999 and 2011, more than 70% of the links no longer functioned as intended.”

Moreover, we have learned that uses of technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation, and we are plunging headlong toward a new feudalism. Hope y’all enjoy the ride.

Saturday morning quotes 8.16: So what?

One of the many paradoxes of modern life is that we must look to the past for examples of culture and to find a measure of quality that simply is not in evidence today. Current cultural examples share many characteristics with the wretched disposable plastic objects that litter our streets, clog our oceans and disrupt our lives, whether they be plastic bags, cracked automobile bodywork, or outdated smart phones—objects that have no lasting appeal simply because they have no enduring value. Just a few short decades ago, our understanding of history was through discovering and reading books, digesting information through the tactile experience of turning pages, organizing that digested information in our own minds as knowledge, testing our knowledge against real world experience, and eventually forming what once upon a time was universally valued as wisdom.

At present, most people access knowledge of the past in a form entirely filtered through modern technological means. Because of commercial considerations to do with search engine optimization, the less than ideal experience of the failings and foibles of technology has become a determinant factor in the quality of information, and a source such as Wikipedia acts as an algorithm-skewed conduit of history that we must accept is constantly revised by control freaks or the CIA. Think search engines or music playback devices that turn recorded or printed music into a select if soulless set of ones and zeros that can be retrieved on demand. Today, very few musicians visit libraries and fewer still have had the tactile experience of hand-copying old music, the only truly effective way to recreate historical performance practice in a manner that puts us in the shoes of our forebears. It is no wonder that shallow virtuosity in performance is valued today much more than depth of interpretation. We dwell in an age that is ruled by the lowest common denominator.

How do we rectify the rapidly declining interest in meaningful music of the past? We must encourage engagement with and involvement in historical music in terms that make sense to young people. That means honest and direct engagement because, despite the best efforts of willful PR specialists and gate-keeping public arts funding agencies, young people do not want your dumbed-down greatest hits presentations that only trivialize our rich cultural past. They know a scam when they see one because they’ve seen it all and more on Youtube. Young people of the 21st century possess a large and intricate set of life skills, they just have no structural framework of meaningful historical value to provide cultural context and act as a testing ground necessary to convert information to knowledge to wisdom.

That said, we must avoid steering new audiences toward a black-and-white or right-and-wrong concept of historical interpretation. To put it simplistically, we must avoid foisting “cancel-culture” judgements on the inexperienced innocents who may very well like what you don’t. Far too many people of a certain age who have acquired a passing acquaintance with music of the past love to describe to others just what is a correct interpretation of that music. Back off and let them discover what they like without imposing your outdated ideas of taste. And relax about the rigid high-brow Victorian Night at the Opera rules of conduct: Young people don’t understand or care about the unhistorical modern convention of no applause between movements, and they just won’t sit quietly for an entire concert with trousered phones. There are modern tales of young people attempting to attend the symphony only to be dramatically shushed for displays of normal behavior, an act that really is all about entitled persons exerting power.

“Perhaps it’s because of trying to keep classical music audiences living in the dark, in perpetual fear that they might not understand the secret and elite codes of long-term insiders, brainwashing core subscribers into an irrational hatred of anyone who dares to disrupt their peace-and-quiet even if accidentally, regimenting the experience with a coerced and inculcated rigidity that would be abhorrent to any composer worth his or her salt: This is how we have made classical music so awful.”

– Richard Dare, “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained

Of one thing we can be certain: early music as we know it will not survive. Just as well, since early music has become just another modern exercise in commercialization and slick PR. Young people can’t afford the ticket prices, let alone the instruments. But if we play our cards shrewdly, it is possible that an appreciation for music of the past will be rediscovered in the future—on someone else’s terms—and that appreciation may possibly be as rich for them as it was for us.

“‘Call me Early, mother dear, for I’m to be authentic today’: not really. Put a viol or a gut-strung Baroque violin in a modern player’s hands and you may still leave the human frailties of incompetence, dullness and insensitivity as a barrier to a true interpretative re-creation. But for the best artist, the historic instrument may be the best tool. Sheer experience, sheer work – not solitary, but in communion with listeners and other performers – evolves the style: it did evolve the style.”

– Arthur Jacobs, “Early Music and the Critic,” The Musical Times, Jul., 1982, Vol. 123, No. 1673, Early Music Issue (Jul., 1982), p. 466

Saturday morning quotes 8.15: New or old?

Our new CD, Unquiet Thoughts, has been making the rounds over the past few weeks and we have been receiving a very positive response to our unique take on English music for voice and lute from circa 1600. This is quite satisfying because we put a great deal of effort into this recording, intentionally aiming for a warm and intimate sound to convey the spirit of an excellent collection of profound poetry and moving music from the age of Shakespeare. Our recorded program opens with four songs from John Dowland’s groundbreaking First Booke (1597), contrasts Dowland’s innovative work with that of his contemporaries Thomas Campion, Robert Jones and John Danyel, and closes with some of Dowland’s most iconic songs from later prints. This is music we love, and we hope it shows.

“In my opinion, the most beautiful music is in singing well and in reading at sight and in fine style, but even more in singing to the accompaniment of the lute, because nearly all the sweetness is in the solo and we note and follow the fine style and the melody with greater attention in that our ears are not occupied with more than a single voice, and every little fault is the more clearly noticed—which does not happen when a group is singing, because then one sustains the other. But especially it is singing poetry with the lute that seems to me the most delightful, as this gives to the words a wonderful charm and effectiveness.”

– Baldassare Castiglione, Il Cortegiano (1528).

We were particularly taken by a comment from a listener who appreciated our “modern” approach to this music, a comment that led us to scroll through and review our writing on this blog in order to clarify our position on just what is a modern approach to early music. If you are a regular reader of our blog, you might very well guess that we have made a broad and deep investigation into historical performance practices, and we feel strongly that our approach is securely rooted in the performing tradition of Dowland’s time. But the comment made us pause to consider just what inspired the person to think that our sound is “modern.” Again, if you have read our posts on the natural voice, or on the importance of strong rhythmical phrasing, or even on recording the lute, you know exactly where we stand.

The first consideration is that the original music was almost always sung in small rooms for the performers themselves or just a few listeners.

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

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

– Mary Burwell’s lute teacher, circa 1670

The aptness of smaller rooms being the case, a projected voice was never used and specifically discouraged by the likes of Nicholas Lanier, known to be the singer who first introduced the Italian stile recititavo to England.

“It shall therefore be a profitable advertisement, that the Professor of this Art, being to sing to a Theorbo or other stringed instrument, and not being compelled to fit himself to others, that he so pitch his Tune, as to sing in his full and natural Voice, avoiding feigned Tunes of Notes. In which, to feign them, or at the least to inforce Notes, if his Wind serve him well, so as he do not discover them much; (because for the most part they offend the Ear;) yet a man must have a command of Breath to give the greater Spirit to the Increasing and Diminishing of the Voice, to Exclamations and other Passions by us related; and therefore let him take heed, that spending much Breath upon such Notes, it do not afterward fail him in such places as it is most needful: For from a feigned Voice can come no noble manner of singing; which only proceeds from a natural Voice, serving aptly for all the Notes which a man can manage according to his ability employing his wind in such a fashion as he command all the best passionate Graces used in this most worthy manner of Singing.”

– Nicholas Lanier, An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, John Playford, London, 1674, ppg. 54-55.

Dance rhythms with strongly articulated phrasing were the norm, and those rhythms are particularly evident in the music throughout Dowland’s First Booke. To fail to articulate those rhythms is a grievous oversight, surely akin to reading poetry in a monotone drone, which robs the words of proper articulation, meaning, spirit and life. But the thing must be done with sensitivity and with the understanding of a nimble-footed musician who can indeed dance.

“Dauncing (bright Lady) then began to be,
When the first seedes whereof the world did spring,
The Fire, Ayre, Earth and Water, did agree
By Love’s perswasion, Nature’s mighty King,
To learne their first disordred combating:
And, in a daunce such measure to observe,
As all the world their motion should preserve.

Since when they still are carried in a round,
And changing come one in another’s place,
Yet doe they neyther mingle nor confound,
But every one doth keepe the bounded space
Wherein the daunce doth bid it turne or trace:
This wondrous myracle did Love devise
For Dauncing is Love’s proper exercise.

– Sir John Davies, Orchestra, a Poem of Dancing, 1594

As for recording techniques, yes, recording is a modern technology that facilitates the act of performing our music in living rooms across the globe. We have produced 14 (soon to be 15) CDs in an epic struggle with this technology, persistently attempting to capture a natural sound in a manner that conveys the spirit of the music. Our last four CDs were all recorded live, which is a significant act of derring-do if you know anything about recording the lute. For Unquiet Thoughts, we entered the recording studio with very specific ideas as to the sound we were seeking. Among the problems associated with recording in live spaces, balance of voice and instrument is of paramount concern. In the studio, we are able to record both voice and lute with a close microphone placement that conveys the warmth of texts and music but, again, close placement is an act of bravery that exposes each breath and every movement of the fingers. There is a very good reason most recordings involving voice and lute have a “cathedral” sound despite the character of the music; it is mostly to insulate the performers from the inevitable exposure of their human imperfections when examined under a microscope. But we feel the close mic placement conveys the warmth of sound heard in a small chamber, bringing the listener closer to the original historical experience of the music. How often does a listener get to feel the resonance of a lute as though it were in his or her lap?

While we respect as an approach interpretations by our peers following the modern conventions of today’s early music aesthetic, after studying the sources and absorbing the context of the original music, we are secure in the understanding that our interpretations are historically appropriate. It is a well-established fact that the vocal quality of singers circa 1600 was nothing like that of our modern conservatory-trained singers indulging in modern bel canto style, affecting what is really a post-Victorian approach to vocal projection and diction. And we are just a bit dismayed when this patently unhistorical approach is reinforced by teachers as the standard 21st-century voice type, regrettably applied to early music. We have heard many promising singers possessing beautiful natural voices emerge from their degree program saddled with a voice that is sadly unsuitable for early repertory. The sources are very clear on this matter: A natural voice was preferred by and expected from singers in Dowland’s time. Full stop.

Perhaps the one aspect of our approach that might misguidedly be construed as modern is that we do not venture near the slippery slope of attempting to recreate an Elizabethan accent. But one must consider that singers in Dowland’s time would certainly not have indulged in employing an outdated Old English pronunciation dating from before Chaucer’s time, primarily because no one would have understood the words. Our phrasing and engagement in rhythmic devices simply represents an attentive involvement in the poetry and the music in a manner that we are certain was expected by the original composers. Our approach effectively leapfrogs over the Victorian influences of today’s early music norms to restore an intimate aesthetic that communicates historical poetry and music. If our directness and intimacy reaches beyond the bounds and has some appeal to listeners dwelling outside the moated castle of modern early music norms, we’re OK with that.

Saturday morning quotes 8.14: Unquiet Thoughts

We are pleased to announce the release of our long-awaited recording of English lute songs, available as of today, April 10, 2021. Unquiet Thoughts, Mignarda’s 14th album, is the capstone of decades of insight into the songs of John Dowland and his peers.  Having edited and published Dowland’s complete music for voice & lute in 2020, our new album represents the fruits of the long labor of having touched each note and every word of Dowland’s collected lute songs. To round off the selection of Dowland’s magisterial songs, the album includes a few exceptional works of poetry set by Dowland’s composer-contemporaries Thomas Campion, John Danyel and Robert Jones. 

As always, our interpretations are based upon deep research into historical context and performance, and we have lived with and performed each song for the necessary number of years to uncover the context and meaning of the poetry, giving equal time to musical phrasing and rhythmic gestures.  Our interpretations honor the original songs as the popular music of their day: These are popular songs that can come off as mere trifles when performed as though they were light Art Songs of a later era, but are songs full of art when sensitively rendered with directness and intimacy.

Unquiet Thoughts presents a selection of rarities and perennial favorites by John Dowland (1563 – 1626) and a few of his contemporaries, concentrating on songs with exquisite poetical texts by some of the best poets of the Elizabethan age. It is no accident that we chose the very first song from Dowland’s First Booke as the title of our album, as the eloquent term so appropriately describes a genre that pairs an intimate voice with the most personal of instruments to express the secrets of the soul. Unquiet Thoughts is also the title of this blog (soon to be published in book form), which since 2010 has been a platform that offers our insights and experience of music for voice and lute and its relevance in the modern era.

English lute songs circa 1600

John Dowland’s ayres for voice and lute represent the pinnacle of a musical form that appeared in manuscript and printed sources throughout Europe for at least 100 years prior to the publication of Dowland’s First Booke in 1597. Continental examples of lute songs distilled an arrangement of polyphonic vocal music that assigned the lower parts to be played on the lute. English music for voice and lute prior to Dowland’s First Booke consisted of psalm harmonizations and secular poetry set to Italian dance grounds.

Building upon this foundation, Dowland retained the rhythmic vitality of dance forms that were improved with his gift for melody and expressive text setting. Strongly influenced by French and Italian examples, Dowland forged a new style of accompaniment that drew upon the resources of the lute, employing characteristic plucked-string techniques such as cross-string suspensions, rhythmic syncopations and running passages interspersed with expressive chordal events, creating a rich and complex musical effect.

Our recording opens aptly with Dowland’s very first song from his First Booke, “Unquiet Thoughts.” We feature our definitive performances of other iconic songs by Dowland as bookends, surrounding worthy works of poetry by Thomas Campion, Sir Philip Sidney and Samuel Danyel, all published in The Mignarda Songbook Volume One: English Ayres. Dowland’s song texts set poetry by mostly anonymous authors, but in recent memory Anthony Rooley has proposed that some of the poetry set by Dowland may be attributed to Robert Devereaux, the famous Earl of Essex, adding an interesting twist to the broad story of Elizabethan melancholy.

The three lute solos featured on our album are all drawn from a single manuscript source: Cambridge University Library Add. MS. 3056, formerly known as the Cosens Lute Book. The manuscript includes several well-known solos from the golden age of English lute music, but each piece is given a unique twist one way or another. The version of Dowland’s famous “Frogg galliard” (lute solo version of the song, “Now O now I needs must part”) bears idiosyncratic yet appealing decoration. The untitled Fantasia attributed to Dowland is a veritable discourse on the famous “Lachrimæ” theme and the many ways it may be woven into the fabric of a free-standing fantasia, and the recording gives the piece time and space to allow the many quotations of the theme to rise to the surface. John Danyel’s “Rosa” is an instrumental setting of his brother Samuel’s 1592 poem “The Complaint of Rosamond,” which illuminates the legend of Rosamund Clifford and her unhappy dalliance with King Henry II. The tolling of the death knell in the third section of the pavan says it all.

A word about interpretation

From the beginning of our work as a duo specializing in music for voice and lute, we have followed a very different interpretive path from most performers in the genre. Our interpretations delve deeply into the meaning of the language—and the clever bits hidden in the music—in an effort to attain a level of performance that honors the original context and performing style of each and every song.

As working musicians, we understand from an insider’s perspective that the published scores of the repertory of English lute songs represent only a starting place, and that 17th-century musicians would never have been bound by the constraints of our modern pitch reference (A=440 Hz) with the resulting chirruping sounds when performed without judicial adjustment. It is well-understood today that historical lutes were larger, strings were thicker, and reference pitches were generally lower. The evidence indicates that most of Dowland’s solo songs were intended to be sung in the tenor range with the octave transposition implied. We make use of different lutes tuned to gentler pitches in order to adjust the range of the song for optimal communication of the text, as we are certain was done originally.

Unquiet thoughts your civill slaughter stint

The very first song in Dowland’s First Booke (1597), was described by Diana Poulton as “charming and melodious” but a deeper interpretation reveals much more substance may be assigned to both text and music. At face value, the cantus part is notated in a rather high tessitura and the song could be (and has been) performed as a chirpy little number with a bubbling lute accompaniment. But examining both text and musical devices in the accompaniment, “Unquiet thoughts” becomes a gripping and passionate journey into the restless soul of a melancholy lover. The anonymous poet is served well by Dowland’s sensitive musical setting that borrows subtle lute technique from the French luthistes whom Dowland surely met while in Paris, and, all in all, the composition is breathtakingly advanced compared to music of his English contemporaries. Our recording of the song follows the logical and historically-accurate performance practice of accompanying on a lute tuned a fifth lower than the standard G-lute typically used today, resulting in a warm and intimate interpretation of the text in a range that restores the communicative properties of the song that Dowland thought should occupy pride of place in his innovative First Booke.

Unquiet thoughts your civill slaughter stint,
And wrap your wrongs within a pensive heart:
And you my tongue that maks my mouth a minte,
And stamps my thoughts to coyne them words by arte:
Be still for if you ever doo the like,
Ile cut the string, that maks the hammer strike.

But what can staie my thoughts they may not start,
Or put my tongue in durance for to dye?
When as these eies the keyes of mouth and harte
Open the locke where all my love doth lye;
Ile seale them up within their lids for ever,
So thoughts and words, and looks shall dye together.

How shall I then gaze on my mistresse eies?
My thoughts must have som vent els hart wil break,
My tongue would rust as in my mouth it lies
If eyes and thoughts were free and that not speake.
Speake then and tell the passions of desire
Which turns mine eies to floods, my thoghts to fire.

We quote a paraphrase of the text by David Hill from John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute, Volume One, Mignarda Editions, 2020.

You disturbing, rebellious thoughts that fight and kill inside my head: cease,
For I must keep the wrongs (that have been done to me) in my heart, and consider them.
And you, my tongue, who mints words out of my thoughts in my mouth, by giving voice to them,
just as a coiner stamps blank metal into coins, you must be silent.
But if you cannot be still,
I must cut the string that controls your ‘minting’.

But what can stop these thoughts which have put my tongue under sentence of death?
My eyes (which are the keys to the locks of my mouth and my heart), open both,
revealing my unrequited longing to my mistress.
Perhaps I should therefore seal up my eyes (rather than punish my tongue),
so that my thoughts, words and looks are all killed at the same time,
by being withheld from her?

But, if I were blinded, how could I then gaze at my mistress’ eyes?
I must have some release for my thoughts, or my heart will break.
My tongue would simply seize up, whilst it lies in my mouth,
were I not able use my voice when my eyes and thoughts remained free and uncontrolled.
Therefore I’ll be brave. I’ll speak to my mistress, and explain to her my passionate and painful desire,
which causes my eyes to weep floods, and my thoughts to burn like fire.

It turns out that Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) had previously published a poem with the title “Unquiet Thought” in Amoretti, a collection of 89 sonnets written in Petrarchian form, but with an interesting conceptual framework in that the poems all correspond with the scriptural readings prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer for specific dates in 1594, the year of Spenser’s marriage to Elizabeth Boyle.

Vnquiet thought, whom at the first I bred,
Of th’ inward bale of my loue pined hart:
and sithens haue with sighes and sorrowes fed,
till greater then my wombe thou woxen art.

Breake forth at length out of the inner part,
in which thou lurkest lyke to vipers brood:
and seeke some succour both to ease my smart
and also to sustayne thy selfe with food.

But if in presence of that fayrest proud
thou chance to come, fall lowly at her feet:
and with meeke humblesse and afflicted mood,
pardon for thee, and grace for me intreat.

Which if she graunt, then liue and my loue cherish,
if not, die soone, and I with thee will perish.

There are echos and a conceptual similarity in that Spenser’s poem is about restless thoughts that must escape the womb and be expressed, but the use of metaphor is sharply divergent from that of Dowland’s poet and the idea of stamping thoughts with a minter’s hammer. 

A Tribute

Our recording of English lute songs is dedicated to the memory of Edward Doughtie (1935-2014), Professor of English Literature at Rice University and a specialist who possessed a broad and deep knowledge of the poetical texts from which the songs of Dowland and his contemporaries were drawn.

In his iconic Lyrics from English Airs, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970 — in near-constant use in our household — Doughtie traced with conciseness and clarity the evolution of the unique marriage of words and music that became known as the Golden Age of English lute songs.

Generous with his knowledge of the sources, context, and meaning of English lyrics, Ed informed our interpretations through our many conversations on the subject. His influence on our approach to the texts of English lute songs was at first through his essential publications, but was later reinforced through a very active correspondence and culminated in his contribution of an essay published in the booklet of our 2013 recording John Dowland: A Pilgrimes Solace.

Ed kindly expressed his appreciation for our interpretive insights, and he even composed a new lute song for us. He clarified many textual details that bridge the vast chasm that lies between simply performing a song and completely inhabiting the emotional context of a piece, and he is with us in spirit whenever we perform English lute songs. We are honored to have been bequeathed his notes and annotated copies of facsimiles from his indispensable research on English lute songs. 

Dedicated to the memory of Edward Doughtie, Unquiet Thoughts honors the artful marriage of Elizabethan words and music, offering performances that channel the aesthetic of circa 1600 and bridge the gap between then and now.

Saturday morning quotes 8.13: Cost of re-creation

We live in a jaded age that is bereft of truly original artistic innovation. The concept of “retro” is embraced wholesale as a marketing angle because it is generally accepted that today’s dependence upon technology only undermines creativity, forcing users of technology to overload their minds with memorized menus, keystrokes and passwords. In a world that places the gathering and monetizing of data first and foremost, we are compelled to look to the past to explore and re-create older forms of artistic achievement if we care to identify as culturally literate.

Attempts to rediscover the soul of our shared cultural heritage after decades of rampant industrialization was a primary motivation for the early music movement that first began more than a century ago. But what happens to an art form when it is studied as an historical curiosity from the detached perspective of a later age; when cultural heritage is wrested from its original context and subjected to classification and categorization for the convenience of scholarship? When priceless instruments—like those pictured above from the Henry Ford museum—are taken out of circulation and suspended as silent and listless objects in glass boxes, they no longer produce sound and therefore entirely lose their significance as musical instruments. The items in the display case might just as well be a hammer and sickle as musical instruments.

“[Henry Ford’s historic Greenfield Village] represents the American world which Ford’s revolutionary achievements destroyed. Adjacent to the village the immense museum deepens the paradox still further. Inside a one-story building fourteen acres in extent—its façade, features a replica of Independence Hall—stands one of the world’s finest memorials to the Industrial Revolution. Here an astounding array of tools, engines, machines and devices record the progressive mechanization of agriculture, the evolution of lighting, of communications, of transportation, and most important of all, the great record of modern man’s efforts to harness mechanical and electrical power.”

“Henry Ford’s museum, in short, is a monument to all the great technical achievements that put finish to the life represented in Ford’s re-created American village. There is no resolving that contradiction and no reason to try. It is nothing less than the grand contradiction of modern American life, the San Andreas Fault in the American soul—the schism between our faith in technological progress and our profoundly gnawing suspicion that the old rural republic was a finer, braver and freer place than the industrial America that now sustains us. If that contradiction runs through Henry Ford’s titanic reconstruction of the American past, it is because no American ever experienced the contradiction more intensely than Henry Ford himself.”

– Walter Karp, Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America, 1980.

Henry Ford (1863 – 1947) was overseer to the destruction of a way of life, a fact that dawned on him later in life and, like his Robber Baron contemporaries, he established a philanthropic organization in what has been cast as an attempt to pay society back for laying waste to a rich cultural landscape. The Ford Foundation was established in 1936, and during its early years was under the leadership of Ford family members who allocated their resources for “scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare.” The Ford Foundation was responsible for contributions that helped establish several symphony orchestras, and their alignment with political figures promised that high culture would “rid our society of its most basic ills–voicelessness, isolation, depersonalization–the complete absence of any purpose or reason for living.”

Following the lead of philanthropic organizations, the federal government established the National Endowment for the Arts, which sparked the growth of new orchestras from 58 in 1965 to 225 in 1988. But we know now how all that happy cash was destined to dry up by the 21st century, funneled back to the one-percent who simply lost interest in sharing. Upon closer examination, it turns out that the Ford Foundation had a slightly different broad idea in mind, and its close connections with the CIA allowed for the advancement of ulterior motives, nefariously disguised behind the smiling façade of philanthropy.

When we delve into the more substantive areas of early music, we feel a connection—not just with the sounds—but with the entire context of the music, its creation and its reception. As performers, we find that there is very little opportunity today to present intimate music to receptive listeners who might be affected in the same manner as our ancestors: Singing the music of Josquin for the Latin Mass is about the nearest we can come today to the original context of historical music. We have little commentary to offer to the growing tide of performers who feel as though they must turn early music concerts into multimedia circus acts, except that such gimmicks only rob the music of its dignity and leaves us with the feeling of having visited the very equivalent of Henry Ford’s museum.

We are obliged to point out that some modern approaches to early music only succeed in creating a false impression of the true value of our shared cultural heritage, and we believe that value lies in the depth, dignity, intimacy and intensely personal nature of the music. And we are obliged to point out that Henry Ford, the man who was responsible for setting fire to a way of life and then collecting artifacts from the ashes to place in his museum, was the driving force behind bland party-machine presidential candidate Warren G. Harding, who ran successfully in 1920 on a platform of a “return to normalcy.” Sound familiar?

Saturday morning quotes 8.12: O Death rock me asleep

“O Death rocke me asleep” is an interesting example of a lute song originating from the sixteenth century that bears a distinctive accompaniment of an instrumental character, rather than a distilled arrangement of vocal polyphony. The piece also fits into the category of mid- to late-century consort songs, or solo songs with accompaniment in multiple parts for bowed strings like those of William Byrd. But it was also arranged for solo voice and lute in British Library Add MS 15117 (circa 1599), “a collection, mostly comprising compositions for the lute, as well as songs, anthems, madrigals, duets, and an extract from an opera, all with lute accompaniment.”

A digitized version of Add. MS. 15117 can be examined on the British Library site, with the lute song appearing on folio 3 verso. The historical consort song version of “O Death rocke me asleep” is available in the Musica Britannica series Volume 22, Consort Songs, edited by Philip Brett, Stainer and Bell, London, 1967, with an additional version seen on the Choral Public Domain site.

An historically significant resource often overlooked today is William Chappell’s, Popular Music of the Olden Time, published in two volumes in 1855-1856. Chappell transcribed and printed “O Death rocke me asleep” in its version from British Library Add. MS. 15117, but, as was often the case in early musicology, the editor filled out the rather sparse lute accompaniment in an adaptation meant for the keyboard.

“The accompaniment here given is little more than a translation of that written in tablature for the lute under the song in the MS…A few chords have been filled up, where they were disagreeably bare in the original, but in form and substance the composition is given practically as found. I draw attention to the fact, because the song affords the earliest example, so far as I know, of an independent accompaniment; which, moreover, in this case is an accompaniment in the most modern sense of the word, the knell supplying a kind of comment throughout.”
– Chappell, 1855, Volume 1, p. 113.

Certainly, the lute part as transcribed by Chappell could appear to be chordal (vertical) but, as usual, effective realization of the lute tablature demands a more horizontal (contrapuntal) point of view. The consort version exhibits a great deal of interplay among the parts, with frequent passing of the tolling knell figure from one part to the next.

The text of the song is attributed to Anne Boleyn (c. 1501 – 1536 ), or possibly to her brother George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford (c. 1503 – 1536). The poetry is found in British Library Additional MS 17492, and while the conjectural attribution lends an interesting dimension to the death by separation of head from body of Henry VIII’s number two wife, the attribution appears to have no supporting evidence.

O Death, rock me asleep,
Bring me to quiet rest,
Let pass my weary guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

My pains who can express?
Alas, they are so strong;
My dolour will not suffer strength
My life for to prolong.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

Alone in prison strong
I wait my destiny.
Woe worth this cruel hap that I
Should taste this misery!

Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

Farewell, my pleasures past,
Welcome, my present pain!
I feel my torments so increase
That life cannot remain.
Cease now, thou passing bell;
Rung is my doleful knell;
For the sound my death doth tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

We created a performing version of the song toward the end of the last century, and augmented the accompaniment as Chappell did, but filled out the sparse lute part by adding notes from the consort song version to create a more contrapuntal realization than that of Chappell. Over a quarter-century, our particular version has been passed around and fallen into the hands of that discourteous brand of unappreciative lutenists who willfully neglect to cite the source of their music, but we will now make our version freely available to any who bother to write and ask via the contact form at the top of this page.

As far as we can tell, no other scholar has mentioned that the tolling knell accompaniment figure of the 16th-century “O Death rocke me asleep” was used by 18th-century composer Marin Marais in his Sonnerie de Ste. Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris from La Gamme et Autres Morceaux de Symphonie, No.3, (1723). Marais picked up precisely where the original song left off, adding instrumental filigree for violin and viola da gamba but creating the same somber effect.

Saturday morning quotes 8.11 Musical Literacy

“I have always belonged to the well-to-do classes, and was born into luxury, so that necessarily I ask much more of the future than many of you do; and the first of all my visions, and that which colours all my others, is of a day when that misunderstanding will no longer be possible; when the words poor and rich, though they will still be found in our dictionaries, will have lost their old meaning.”

– William Morris, “The Society of the Future (1887),” in A. L. Morton, ed., The Political Writings of William Morris, International Publishers, New York, 1979, p. 190–91.

An important aspect of so-called Early Music is that the surviving music found in hand-written manuscripts and from the early printing press is representative of music of the nobility. The cost of paper and books in general was dear, and only the wealthy class possessed libraries and provided private musical instruction for their children. But as we dig deeper into the past, we see a history of noblesse oblige that guided the wealthy in their responsibility for the welfare of the less fortunate, and we see a trajectory of the lower classes having access to education.

“[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. 

This trend led to the rise of an educated society that promoted literacy for all and, by extension, widespread musical literacy. The innovation of the printing press had everything to do with literacy, and the eventual decline in the cost of paper after 1650 led to an increase in access to printed materials, with the advent of affordable prose novels and almanacs in the 18th century. In Britain, 100 new titles of popular literature per year were printed circa 1750, and the number increased to 600 per year by 1825 with up to 6,000 per year before the end of the 19th century.

“In 1840, two-thirds of all grooms and half of all brides in England and Wales were able to sign their names at marriage; in 1900, 97 percent of each group was able to do so. This increase contrasts with the roughly constant proportion signing at marriage between 1750 and 1840…Surveys of reading habits in the 1840s suggest that in London most working class families possessed books and newspapers, while in rural areas printed matter was largely confined to religious material.”

– David Mitch, “The Spread of Literacy in Nineteenth-Century England,” The Journal of Economic History, Mar., 1983, Vol. 43, No. 1, The Tasks of Economic History (Mar., 1983), p. 287.

In the US, the received notion of the uneducated backwoodsman having no use for books or printed music is shattered by examining the facts. Since the US is primarily populated by immigrants, there has always been a strong tradition of European musical literacy, seen in collections such as the American Vernacular Music Manuscripts, ca. 1730-1910, where we find some 345 manuscript music books including books of fiddle tunes and song collections like The American Harmony, a manuscript music book of untexted psalm and hymn tunes, set in four parts and copied in 1798 by Aaron Cowling, the namesake of my grandfather who was born some eighty years later.

“Where urban life tended to dominate Northern culture, cites in the Upland South were small and relatively few. Southern industries were restricted to processing products drawn from the local countryside. High value was placed on family connections, maintained across generations and geographical distance. The region was populated chiefly by people of English, Scotch-Irish, and German background: people with strong cultural ties before they migrated. Their identity was closely tied to religious affiliation…[L]ong after the music of Billings and Company had all but disappeared from the composers’ native region, it remained alive and well in the South. Moreover, it continued there in a practice of sacred singing that revolved around oblong tunebooks and singing schools teaching the four-syllable New England system of note reading.”

– Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life, W. W. Norton, New York, 2001, p. 159.

Musical literacy can be considered a given for any educated person up until the 1920s, when a convergence of factors undermined its importance. The post-WWI and post-Spanish influenza economy constituted a “great reset” that employed the entertainment industry to broadcast and instill new attitudes that converted every person from a citizen to a consumer. Moving pictures portrayed an idealized template for the modern lifestyle, and entertainment in the home could now be had with the flick of a switch, and the wireless and the gramophone cancelled the need for widespread musical literacy.

Today, musical literacy is can be described as a class distinction. Public musical education for the many now concentrates on how to use software to create synthesized sounds, and the cost of musical instruments and private tuition is such that only the wealthy can afford to teach their children actual music in the historical tradition. Sadly, the utopian future of William Morris was not founded in reality.

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.