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Saturday morning quotes 6.19 In pace

commefemme-clipWe make a slight departure from our usual format for today’s post.  As so much invisible effort goes into a thoughtfully researched concert program—and there is such limited space for printed program notes—we take this opportunity to outline an appealing program of music in the hope that it will offer some small insight into the way we research, assemble, and refine our concert repertory.

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


The concert program begins with a rare two-part setting of the Stabat Mater dolorosa text set to an otherwise unknown melody as found in Amiens, Bibliothèque Centrale Louis Aragon, MS 162 D (circa 1500), a collection of two- and three-part polyphony composed and collected specifically for use by the confraternity of St. Barbara at the Corbie Abbey, modern edition by Danish musicologist Peter Woetmann Christoffersen.  Christoffersen, Emeritus associate professor Musicology, University of Copenhagen, has produced a very impressive body of work focused mainly on the contents of several 15th-century chansonniers, work that is available on line.  The complete Stabat Mater text is set with a counter voice in parallel motion that frequently crosses the tenor line, creating a mesmerizing textural effect. As far as we know, our performance is the first rendering of this setting in 500 years.

Guillaume DuFay’s (1397 – 1474) “Vergene bella, che di sol vestita”, among the earliest surviving musical settings of the poetry of Francesco Petrarch (1304 – 1374), is one the most moving devotional tributes to the Virgin Mary.  While Johannes Ockeghem’s (c. 1425 – 1497) “Quant de vous seul” has not been categorized as a disguised devotional text, the rondeau’s poetry could be interpreted as such.  “D’ung aultre amer” by Ockeghem has been more clearly identified as a devotional text through Josquin’s literal quotation of the text and tune in the secunda pars of his moving four-voice motet, “Tu solus qui facis mirabilia”.

“Comme femme desconfortée”, musical setting attributed to Giles Binchois (c.1400 – 1460), is an evocatively mournful rondeau text that is linked allegorically and musically to the setting of Stabat Mater dolorosa by Josquin des Prez (c. 1450 – 1521). Josquin quoted the tenor of Binchois’ chanson verbatim throughout the motet, quadrupling the length of the notes—a line with endless longae that can only be sung by tenors capable of breathing through their ears.

“In this motet we see Josquin at his best.  He combines extensive imitation with moments of rhetorically sensitive text declamation.  Given the late emergence of the liturgical melody of the “Stabat Mater,” it is unsurprising that Josquin makes no reference to any chant melody.  His sole musical building block is the tenor of Comme femme desconfortée, which he takes as his cantus firmus.”

– Rothenberg, p. 202

Josquin’s sublime setting of the Stabat Mater was quite popular well into the 16th century, with printed versions arranged for solo lute by the likes of Simon Gintzler and Francesco da Milano.  Our performance for solo voice and lute is edited from an historical version published by Pierre Phalese in 1552, with the addition of the sustaining voice of a bowed viol on the important tenor line.

While our concert program is in part inspired by the work of two living musicologists, we also acknowledge Francesco Spinacino (fl. 1507), whose published work anthologized some of the best compositions of the late 15th century.  We dip into his large repertory of recercars and also his ample selection of arrangements of late 15th-century chansons and motets. Historians usually consider Spinacino a 16th-century lutenist-arranger, forgetting that he was a contemporary of Agricola, Josquin and Ockeghem.  This fact adds strength to our choice to draw upon Spinacino’s accidentals and ornamental divisions when performing the original setting, which adds historical spice to our performances.

Saturday morning quotes 6.18: Implied polyphony

ropeTotal immersion in polyphonic music of the sixteenth century may tend to skew one’s perceptions in terms of fitting into modern life.  For instance, polyphony in the context of most modern music usually means digitally multi-tracked cacophony rather than the elegant intertwining of several strands to make a many faceted whole.  Organists typically love to burst eardrums with later music that requires an elaborate chart and 30 minutes of adjusting stops before playing a 5-minute piece, but they always return to the densely polyphonic music of J.S. Bach when they want to impress one another.  Even so, they have ten fingers, two feet, and multiple stops available to highlight the character of different voices in a fugue.

Lutenists have four fingers of the left hand and four fingers of the right hand and tactile contact with strings to achieve the same effect.  How about a little respect?

Nevertheless, as players of stringed instruments possessing a more compact range, we find it necessary to understand and manage polyphonic music, even when it’s not entirely clear from the notation that polyphony is intended.  This case applies to the better sort of music from the late 15th century through the 18th century: Nearly every instance of what appears to be a long monophonic string of notes has a latent or implied polyphonic character, and it is up to the performer to identify and realize it as such.  Total immersion in 16th-century polyphony helps if one’s mind is open and one’s ears are alert to implied polyphonic passages, but it is baffling when recordings of even some of the most facile players demonstrate that a quite a bit more attention to detail is required.

Early and thorough grounding in polyphonic music, such as learning the duos from Mass movements intabulated by Fuenllana and Valderrabano, is a valuable aid to lutenists.  But perhaps a good middle ground for guitarists discovering lute repertory is found in the music for solo stringed instruments by J.S. Bach. Our quotes are from an excellent paper by Stacey Davis, “Implied Polyphony in the Unaccompanied String Works of J.S. Bach: A Rule System for Discerning Melodic Strata“,from the Sixth International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, Keele, UK, August 2000, Proceedings edited by C. Woods, G.B. Luck, R. Brochard, F. Seddon, & J.A. Sloboda.

“One of the most striking and oft discussed characteristics of these pieces is their polyphonic structure. Although there are certainly movements within these sonatas that reflect the predilection of 18th century German composers for multiple stops in solo string music, the majority of these pieces are almost completely monophonic. Still, countless performers, pedagogues, and theorists maintain that there is a sense of polyphony in these movements, and that Bach created counterpoint by outlining multiple voices within a single instrumental line.”

“In a 1968 dissertation entitled Heinrich Biber and the Seventeenth Century Violin, Elias Dann made the following reference to Bach’s unaccompanied violin pieces.”

“Any superficial examination of these solos, the most polyphonic pieces ever written for the violin, will reveal so many single notes rather than double-stops or chords that the musician unacquainted with these works (a hypothetical one, if necessary), may well wonder where the polyphony is to be found . . . If these movements, in which only one tone at a time is sounded, are to be considered polyphonic, it becomes obvious immediately that no usual definition of polyphony, predicated upon the combination of several sustained parts, will suffice. Any attempt at a coherent analysis from the standpoint of melody alone soon raises more questions than it can possibly answer. Careful study would seem to suggest that either these movements are polyphonic or they cannot be explained at all (196-97).”

“From this and many other similar comments, it is apparent that a general consensus about the existence of this implied polyphony has been reached. There is, however, very little explanation of how this monophonic music is actually parsed into these different voices.”

“General principles of auditory stream segregation may help to explain some cases of this type of linear polyphony. In many ways, these principles coincide with the fundamental claim of Gestalt psychology. As Lerdahl and Jackendoff describe, this claim is that “perception, like other mental activity, is a dynamic process of organization, in which all elements of the perceptual field may be implicated in the organization of any particular part.”

“In creating melodies, composers have long realized the influence that these grouping principles have on perceptual coherence, especially the repetition rate and the frequency separation of tones. For instance, various studies have shown that much Western music is dominated by small melodic intervals, thereby reflecting the idea that notes closer together in frequency tend to produce stronger perceptual groupings.”

“In an interesting reference to the very style of music that Bach’s unaccompanied string pieces represent, Bregman states,

“Rapid alternations of high and low tones are sometimes found in music, but composers are aware that such alternations segregate the low notes from the high. Transitions between high and low registers were used by the composers of the Baroque period to create compound melodic lines – the impression that a single instruments, such as a violin or flute, was playing more than one line of melody at the same time. These alternations were not fast enough to cause compulsory segregation of the pitch ranges, so the experience was ambiguous between one and two streams. Perhaps this was why it was interesting.”

Playing a long string of notes with a “destination” point of view simply will not do, and in order to find the polyphony in a single line, it’s necessary to seek it out.  By way of example, we offer a live recording (on a lute tuned in F) of a well-known prelude in D by Henry Purcell, originally for keyboard but arranged for lute in viel ton.  Most keyboard players zip through this music as though they can’t wait to be done because it is considered to be a rudimentary didactic piece.  Upon closer examination, Purcell’s genius for weaving many strands into a single line becomes apparent.


Saturday morning quotes 6.17: Perfection

shiny-cdAs we prepare to release our long-awaited CD Magnum Mysterium, the concept of perfection frequently pops up in conversations about the the project.  Producing a recording of live performances of solo voice and lute in today’s environment of digital perfection is nothing less than an act of courage, and as the leading voices of the alt-early music movement, it is a process we embrace with pleasure.   First, a bit of context.

The early music revival is a phenomenon that gained currency and an ample audience in the last two decades of the 20th century.  Listeners were treated to the results of scholarly research and performances by truly stellar performers, mostly through recordings that were financed by larger specialist record labels.  With an ample budget and an expanding market, performers were encouraged to explore and record lesser known repertory, even to the point of financing reproductions of old instruments.

The lute was an essential but awkward contributor to the re-created sound of early music; essential because of the enormous surviving repertory and the many other historical graphic and literary references to the instrument, awkward because at best it was far too quiet and nearly impossible to play well.  But the solo repertory for the lute received quite a bit of attention in the 70s and 80s from classical guitarists whose standard of technique and latent perfectionist tendencies suited them to the task.  Those who were sufficiently drawn in by the instrument and its music soon discovered that modern guitar technique was not appropriate to the lute, so a special study of historical technique was required.  This aesthetic still defines the sound and style of lute recitals and recordings today.

Recordings featuring the lute are much more widely available now, thanks to evolving technology.  But the recordings, particularly those of solo lute recitals, are uniformly pieced together from many parts in order to achieve a manufactured perfection, simply because it is possible.  The result is that the listening public now demands that level of perfection, even in live performances.  News Flash: Without exception, every live performance includes imperfections which, at best, reveal less than optimal interpretive choices and, at worst, involve distracting mistakes and misfingerings.

In the essential article, “Recording the lute”, by John Taylor, published in the (UK) Lute News No. 62 (June 2002), prominent early music recording engineer Taylor reveals that iconic recordings by some of the more frequently recorded lutenists are pieced together from a multitude of takes, sometimes punching in individual notes.  Sadly, on repeated listening these recordings simply sound sterile and lack emotion and the essential breath of life.  Furthermore, we are plunged into a fantasy world of an acoustic that doesn’t exist in real life; a sound world that a Gramophone reviewer once described as “a psycho-acoustic nightmare” where the sound is close and far away at the same time.

While we understand that listeners in faraway places desire access to our music, we fully realize that the (now obsolete) CD and its digital offspring the mp3 constitute a poor replacement for a live performance.  But is the level of perfection one expects from recordings at all reasonable?

“The CD will be seen within a history of industrial design as the quintessential product of the 1980s-clean, shiny, a beautiful object in itself which creates a perfect, pure sound. It is the ultimate fetish object which allows the listener the ideal state of disavowal of the body of the performer. The particular ideology of sound of the 80s was one of purity and cleanliness, of static-free, interference-reduced, pristine brilliance.”

Donald Greig, “Sight-Readings: Notes on “A cappella” Performance Practice”,  Early Music, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 124-148

Why have we come to expect perfection?  Because it sells.  And marketing psychologists are keenly aware of the human foible of perfectionism, as is evident in this article brimming with statistical jibber-jabber that provides fodder for developers of the multitude of algorithms that now rule our daily life:

“Compulsive shoppers routinely buy goods—like clothing, shoes, compact  discs, household items—that they hardly use afterwards…, in  many instances, purchased items are not even removed from packages, as if  they “cease to matter” once they are purchased. There is anecdotal evidence  for various similar behaviors: some people like to buy advanced electronic devices, but use only basic features afterwards; or acquire high-brow books with  out reading them; or pay marathon fees and skip the race, etc.”

Igor Kopylov, “Perfectionism and Choice”, Econometrica, Vol. 80, No. 5 (September 2012), pp. 1819-1843

The upshot is that perhaps there is cause to be concerned about your public behavior as a perfectionist when every online move you make is anticipated and constantly evaluated by commercial entities.  Under a democracy, the demos consists of citizens who play various vital and interdependent roles.  Under our current corporate rule, you are no longer a citizen—you are now a consumer.

We will be adding more context about our upcoming release in future posts.  And of course we want listeners to buy our CD or download mp3s.  But our recording will present a distinct alternative in a more human listening experience because our primary intent is to offer a live sound in order to convey the spirit of the music.   More to come in future posts.



Saturday morning quotes 6.16: Music & Art

athos28eA primary source of information that informs our modern-day interpretations of music from the 16th century is visual art; representations of musicians depicted performing for one another, before an audience, or in private, whether in real or fanciful situations. Literary descriptions invariably tend toward the latter with fawning flattery or exaggerated imagery, but visual depictions of instrumentalists plying their trade constitute the closest thing we have to photographs from a very distant past.

Lutenist and luthier Alfonso Marin has assembled a large collection of historical paintings depicting lutes and other plucked strings, and luthier David Van Edwards has made a very particular study of the topic and publishes an ongoing series that includes an insightful and detailed description of a different painting in each issue of the Lute News, published by the Lute Society.

The physical evidence available to us for examination may answer many questions that have to do with how a particular instrument was held, and how instruments may have been used in ensemble.  Or not.  From the illustration above, are we to believe that a lute (played by a left-handed lutenist) was played outdoors with a consort of fiddle, trumpet, and a cow-horn?  Was a lute the deciding factor in bringing down the walls of Jericho?

Of course we have to use our intelligence when interpreting real or fanciful depictions of instruments found in old paintings and sculpture.  There are probably just as many cases of virtual impossibilities as there are genuine representative examples of instruments and instrumental technique to be found in historical art. But the crux of the matter lies in a well-informed interpretation, which is really a matter of judgement based on years of experience and an understanding of the difference between the real, the fantastical, and the contrived.

We like to hammer home the point that without a contextual understanding of early music, interpretations simply lack depth and dimension.  The same is true of our interpretations of visual art: It is entirely too easy to interpret historical symbolism in a way that fits our modern ideas and our modern agendas.  Our quotes are from an article “This ‘Sistine code’ theory is daft. Michelangelo is not a feminist hero” by art critic Jonathan Jones.

“It’s a lovely thought. Up in the heights of the very chapel where the all-male cardinals of the Catholic church meet in conclave to elect popes, there is a 500-year-old feminist code that mocks the misogyny of the Christian religion. A code so well-hidden and so subversive that only now can its shattering satire on Catholic patriarchy be revealed.”

“So claims Dr Deivis de Campos…Using their 21st-century medical knowledge, De Campos and his collaborators can discern uncannily accurate renderings of the human uterus, ovaries and Fallopian tubes hidden in the shapes of curly-horned ram’s skulls that Michelangelo included among the dizzying illusory architecture, colossal male nudes, and scenes from the Bible that he painted right along the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. These allusions to the female reproductive system are a concealed attack on Catholic misogyny, suggest the scientists, by an artist who thought Christianity could learn a lot from the more matriarchal traditions of Judaism and the pagan world.”

“This was not Catholic dogma. The scientists have got it completely backwards: Christian art in Michelangelo’s time was full of strong, beautiful, holy women. Nor did anyone force Michelangelo to paint this misogynist image of the Fall. He had huge artistic freedom.”

“We cannot just transpose our own ideals and values on to the past.”

The same concept applies to our interpretations of historical music.  If we truly care about interpreting the music of Josquin, we have to make an effort to understand the important role liturgical and devotional music played in daily life during the 15th and 16th centuries.  The very first piece in the very first published music for lute, Francesco Spinacino’s Intabolatura de lauto libro primo (1507) is an intabulation of a setting of Ave Maria by Josquin: This was not a random choice.


Saturday morning quotes 6.15: Emotional power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday morning quotes 6.14: Mythologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Note: Protocols

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

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


Saturday morning quotes 6.13: Assumptions III

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jacob Fugger the Rich, 1459-1525

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