Many of today’s lutenists first became aware of the instrument and its music via the playing of Julian Bream through his many recordings and concerts. As the first 20th-century lutenist to perform to large audiences giving lute and guitar equal billing on the concert stage, he not only introduced many modern listeners to the instrument and its music but also set a very high standard for technique, style and interpretation.
A rather tasteless hallmark of the early music revival is the sometimes gratuitous and unspoken, sometimes outright obstreperous need to reject the pioneering work of those scholars and performers who early on took the trouble to research, interpret and share their discoveries. This sad syndrome has its roots in the typical youthful rebellion against whatever came before, but is carried forward by the tide of academics or hotshot performers attempting to make a name for themselves by curling a lip at those who sport the old hat.
Those of us with a sense of perspective admire and revere the work of scholars and artists who managed to pry open the door and remove the first layers of dust obscuring our understanding of music from the distant past. Throughout his illustrious career as a performer and recording artist, Julian Bream has never claimed that his technique of playing the lute was anything other than his personal approach and a way to draw the most music from a quiet and intimate instrument. What could possibly be more authentic?
We offer insightful quotes drawn from Ivor Mairants‘ 1960 interview with Julian Bream, both legendary performers and exemplary musicians.
“I began with the guitar and after 8 years picked up the lute. The reason is that first and foremost I was interested in the music of the lute and while you can play the music on guitar, you can’t play it exactly the same way. The sound of the lute is more abstract for contrapuntal composition…It is lighter in texture. It has less possibility of colour than the guitar but the lute has a more touching quality of sounds; a little more ethereal. Whereas the guitar has more of the quality of sound of this world – you know what I mean? Also, the abstract polyphony of the sixteenth century masters was built up by linear composition in which each part is as important as the other.”
When asked if the lute will become popular again:
“Well, given time there will be a renaissance in lute music, chiefly because more and more music is being delved into in museums and more is being published…There is a terrific revival in early music and I think in many ways the lute is the queen of instruments of old music and providing enough good musicians (I mean, not frustrated guitar players) get on the lute and really make beautiful sounds and play the music beautifully, otherwise there can’t be the same renaissance as there is on the guitar.”
When asked whether he thought of himself as a guitarist or a lutenist:
“What I am really interested in is not so much the instruments as what can be got out of them. And not only that, I think the power of plucked instruments in these days of noise and bustle very important and I think they have very unusual powers, providing that the right people are behind the ‘machine’ (i.e. behind the instrument), and I think they are very arresting instruments and very personal. They affect people when they listen to it – you know, very spontaneous. And that is what interests me with these instruments, too. The contact – the power of contacting people.”
When asked whether he thought a lute solo could create the same enthusiasm in an audience as a virtuoso violin concerto:
“Yes, I found that you can. I think it’s another approach. You bring the audience to you. The instrument is intimate. You don’t go out to them, you only give the feeling that you go out to them, but in actual fact through some cunning devices and some artifice and also by the very nature of the instrument it brings the back rows of the hall to the front.”
– Julian Bream from a 1960 interview with Ivor Mairants, My Fifty Fretting Years: A Personal History of The Twentieth Century Guitar Explosion, Ashley Mark Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1980. p. 279.
Julian Bream’s music can be found and enjoyed through his many recordings and videos but we offer links to a few of our favorites including an informal music session circa 1960, a performance with great violinist Stephane Grapelli, and performing on the lute for Igor Stravinsky.
“…A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world. His faculties refer to natures out of him and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg presuppose air. He cannot live without a world. Put Napoleon in an island prison, let his faculties find no men to act on, no Alps to climb, no stake to play for, and he would beat the air, and appear stupid.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works, volume II, p. 36.
We frequently refer to the “world” of early music to establish a frame of reference and contextualize the words and music that comprise our life’s work. The world of early music can be imagined as a structure—a medieval castle oozing with historical meaning; thick stone walls hung with rich tapestries, upright suits of armor standing sentinel in passageways, high-ceilinged rooms leading to a maze of yet more rooms, furnishings that signify refinement, learning and noble status, all enclosed by a watery moat.
But the integrity of the castle is very likely suffering the ravages of time, the stone walls moist and furry with damp, the tapestries faded and mildewed, the suits of armor rusted, dented and pierced from battle, the passageways close, dim and uninviting, the cultural accoutrements—likely stolen in the first place—emblematic of life, rank and position wrested from the hands and houses of defeated unknown men and women, and the moat can easily serve its original function to keep out uninvited guests.
Depending upon one’s perspective, the world of early music can be a multidimensional place of study and reflection where we discover how sounds of the past can soothe the soul, inspire a higher level of creative artistry using historical instruments and techniques; a place where an inclusive and meaningful exchange of ideas concerning the past can tell us how to solve problems of the present. Or the world of early music can be maddeningly insular, inbred, self-referential and populated by cloistered academics, amateur status seekers, musical technicians and trust-fund types, all marching to the shrill whistles of the workshop faculties astride their unicorns while traversing a yellow-brick road invented by public relations specialists.
It was ever thus. Fortunately for us, the world of early music intersects neatly with the other musical worlds we visit from time to time. But all things are connected, and the cross-fertilization that ensues when the world of early music collides with the world of church music, for example, produces a happy result in both realms. Early music concerts frequently include a Mass setting or motets sung completely out of context, allowing the performers to indulge in cute programming tricks. Singing for a Mass, however, requires listening, responding, and a real-world level of responsibility and pragmatism not found in the concert hall. Likewise, folk performers are expected to interact directly with their audiences, not stare fixedly at a music stand save for the occasional sharp look when someone’s phone chirrups.
The point is music, and music is not just a metaphor but a connective tissue that binds together the various worlds. Whether it’s renaissance lute duets or 19th-century Italian mandolin duets, it’s music played by people for people and musical involvement is what makes the difference.
“Thus architecture is called “frozen music” by De Staël and Goethe. Vitruvius thought an architect should be a musician. “A Gothic church,” said Coleridge, “is a petrified religion.” Michael Angelo maintained, that , to an architect, a knowledge of anatomy is essential. In Haydn’s oratorios, the notes present to the imagination not only motions but colors also; as the green grass. The law of harmonic sounds reappears in the harmonic colors. The granite is differenced in its laws only by the more or less heat from the river that wears it away. The river, as it flows, resembles the air that flows over it; the air resembles the light which traverses it with more subtile currents; the light resembles the heat which rides with it through Space. Each creature is only a modification of the other; the likeness in them is more than the difference, and their radical law is one and the same.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works, volume I, p. 45.
As a duo, we benefit from a uniquely single-minded approach to early music that favors clear communication of text sung in a natural voice and a supple yet elegant command of rhythmic gesture. While to some it may seem a happy coincidence or a serendipitous meeting of the minds, our approach is really the result of much discussion and endless hours of committed rehearsal time. But our individual perspectives on early music were formed by treading very different musical paths, meeting at the intersection of folk music and art music.
When discussing the intersection of folk music and art music, composers Béla Bartók and Ralph Vaughan Williams merit mention. Both were adept at arranging folk tunes they collected in the field into monumental forms or, in the case of Bartók, instruments of torture. For our purposes, folk music is defined as traditional music that was mostly transmitted orally (or aurally), a means of assimilation that conveys a level of information that simply cannot be notated.
My (RA) serious (aural) connection with folk music really began when I bought the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music some twenty years after its 1952 release. Harry Smith, compiler of the anthology, recognized the value of preserving a sampling of the vast number of records made from the 1920s onward, records that were routinely trashed when musical tastes changed. The variety and intensity of the music Smith chose to anthologize was a revelation that consumed a good bit of my attention for the next several years. But the way the music was organized and presented left an impression of its own with the three volumes of Smith’s Anthology divided into Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. When we dip into our folk music persona, as we occasionally do, Harry Smith’s Anthology remains a useful source of repertory.
Through the work of Claude M.Simpson (The British Broadside Ballad and its Music. Rutgers University Press, 1966) and John M. Ward (“Apropos The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1967), we know that there was a significant cross-fertilization of ballads and early English lute songs. Surviving 16th century printed and manuscript sources of poetry from the British Isles indicate a rather free approach to accompaniments, identifying optional tunes that were commonly known at the time; a process that goes hand in glove with the oral transmission of ballads with their freely adapted tunes.
Ballad tunes appear scattered throughout the Elizabethan/Jacobean lute manuscripts, many with pages filled with virtuoso variations, their presence only confirming the universal appeal of singable tunes as grist for the mill. Lutenists like John Dowland and Daniel Bachelar bothered to write down variations on ballad tunes with the same care as their more serious fantasias and pavans. I say if folk tunes were good enough for them, they are good enough for me.
We humbly quote ourselves from a post featuring singer/guitarist Martin Carthy:
“While we adhere to historical modes of performance that are more in line with today’s approach to early music, we also embrace the directness of performers of folk music. Lute songs are much more relevant to audiences of the 21st century if they are given a more direct transmission rather than treating them like museum pieces on display and not to be touched.”
And for those of you who have made it this far, your reward is a lute-sighting from an article featuring an early 16th-century book on fashion accessories.
This is just a short post to let folks know that we are making available a good quality version of Tunes from the Heart of the Valley, music from a recording made in 1983 by exemplary fiddler, Jon Bekoff with Ron Andrico, banjo.
As was the case with many repertoire tapes from days gone by, this one was copied and re-copied again and again, passed from hand to hand and eventually sounding as scratchy as any old field recording. For your listening pleasure, we have decided to release the versions from the original master tape as a tribute to Jon, who passed away far too soon on June 15, 2015. The Bandcamp format does not allow us to list the tracks as free but we’re confident folks will figure the system out. We will be adding the full complement of tracks as we have time, so check the site later.
For a bit of background on Jon and the recording, read our earlier blog post:
And find the recording on our Bandcamp site here:
Those of us interested in the more obscure corners of historical music from Elizabethan times owe a debt of gratitude to Edmund Horace Fellowes (1870 – 1951). Fellowes unearthed, studied, transcribed and published an enormous amount of historical music, including Tudor Church Music, madrigals, and thirty-two volumes of English lute songs, making all available for further study by those who followed in his footsteps. As is usually the case with those who lead the way, he got quite a lot of the details wrong, and his published “corrections” to the lyrics of lute songs inspired Diana Poulton to restore the originals, giving us a heightened sense of appreciation for the marriage of Tudor/Stuart language and music.
In the earlier stages of the 20th-century early music revival, the role of the lute was misunderstood and greatly underestimated and if we were to believe the thrust of most music history survey courses, the a cappella madrigal reigned supreme. But historical scholarship is progressive, and those with a probing curiosity eventually come round to the facts. It turns out that one of the better-known madrigal composers, Thomas Weelkes (1576 – 1623) was actually filching his ideas from our old friend John Dowland.
“Perhaps the most tangible evidence of Dowland’s skillful chromatic manipulation in The First Book of Airs is to be found in the solo song All ye whom love (I, 14). The many parallels between this air and Thomas Weelkes’ three-voice Cease sorrows now from the English madrigalist’s first publication, The Madrigals to 3, 4, 5 and 6 Voices is particularly noteworthy, and it is quite possible that Dowland’s work might have served as a vital catalyst in Weelkes’ experimentation with conspicuous chromaticism in as early as around 1597.”
“As far as chromaticism is concerned, Dowland seems to have made some impression on Weelkes’ use of the device.Two of [Dowland’s] more serious airs from the First Book, Burst forth, my tears (I, 8) and Go, crystal tears (I, 9) probably paved the way for Weelkes’ use of expressive chromatic notes in My tears do not avail me (no. 23) from the 1597 publication and O Care, thou wilt despatch me from the 1600 publication…”
“In Cease sorrows now, Weelkes appears not only to have derived most of his ideas from Dowland, but also follows some of his harmonic organisation and tonal plan…This deep concern for selecting and ear-making of motivic figures for imitation may partly explain the rather segmented (and occasionally short-breathed) character of the piece. There are too many cadences and there is little of the flow and continuity of Dowland’s piece.”
“Cease sorrows now and All ye whom Love and Fortune are significant for being the first English compositions in print that contains expressive and extended chromatic writing. Indeed,it may not be too much to say that along with several other vocal and instrumental compositions of Dowland, their passionate utterance represent a new experience in English vocal music just before the turn of the century.”
– Kenneth K. S. Teo, “Dowland and “Cease Sorrows Now””, Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, T. 36, Fasc. 1/2 (1995), pp. 5-10.
I do account it a folly to flatter, gloze or lie, the which needeth a glorious and painted speech, whereas the truth needeth but a plain and simple utterance…It is a slave-like and servile trade to be a flatterer…
– Thomas Whythorne (1528 – 1595)
As we have seen, early music as we know it today is linked to the past by a frayed and tenuous thread, and performances have much more to do with the aesthetics of 2000 than with 1600. So many aspects of original performance practice—readily gleaned from historical sources at the expense of a little focused research—are set aside in favor of attention-grabbing visual displays of questionable taste. Baroque bands believe they convey vitality and authority if they perform while standing, but the spasmodic jerking of heads and unwieldy flapping of elbows only robs the music of its elegance and immediacy. Vocalists routinely reject a flexible production that suits the music in favor of physical antics and volume that will fill a hall, singing their voices rather than conveying the emotional content of the text.
A fact of twenty-first century life is that nearly every cultural fad we experience and appreciate is somehow a thing excised from the past, stripped of its nascent freshness, given a dose of irony and repackaged as “retro”. The missing component is the truth of the original context. When removed from its context, any art form is distorted and subject to being re-formed and reinterpreted according to influences of its new environment. When that art form is early music and the new environment is the modern concert hall, the music becomes secondary as performers concentrate on the visual aspects of presentation.
When it comes down to it, all approaches to performance of early music represent a point of view. Some choose to skip lightly over the content and depend upon a bag of tricks to put the music over to an easily distracted audience, many of whom sit restlessly with thumbs twitching, waiting anxiously until the intermission allows them a safe opportunity to pull out the phone and get back to the business of tweeting or twitting or whatever it is they do.
Other performers choose to get at the heart and soul of the music and text and give committed performances that place trust in the audience and their receptivity to the power and depth of the music, even the quietest, most intricate repertory. This path is not for the faint of heart because performing with a single voice and lute there is absolutely no place to hide. But trusting in our audiences and giving them a powerful experience without power of volume is one of the most satisfying aspects of our work.
And that’s the truth.
“…Relations of force and the play of power are the very stuff of history. History exists, events occur, and things that happen can and must be remembered, to the extent that relations of power, relations of force, and a certain play of power operate in relations among men..”
– Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976
If one accepts our received historical accounts at face value, we see the past as a world primarily populated by assertive men of noble rank—and the occasional exceptional individual who is remembered mainly due to happenstance. As we have mentioned before, what we have come to call the Renaissance was really the result of an economic anomaly. In rather simplistic terms, the Renaissance was just a blip in time when brazen bankers were able to successfully flout the the ban against usury and acquire mountains of cash. Since bankers have always been better known for their tendency toward ruthless exploitation rather than for noble refinement, the next logical step was to buy the illusion of nobility by paying architects, artists, poets and musicians to be nice to them and surround them with the trappings of culture.
Isabella D’Este (1474 – 1539) was an exceptional woman who ruled Mantua during the perpetual absence of her husband Francesco Gonzaga, who was either pursuing prostitutes, rampaging across Italy on military matters, or being held captive by the Venetians. In addition to her skill in statecraft and other intellectual pursuits, Isabella happened to indulge in a passion for poetry and music, and was patroness of our favorite frottolists, Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marco Cara.
Isabella was not content to be entertained by the best musicians, but developed and indulged in her own skill as a musician. Our quotations outline Isabella’s skill in music and are drawn from a fascinating article by William F. Prizer, “Una “Virtù Molto Conveniente A Madonne”: Isabella D’Este as a Musician”, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 17, No. 1, A Birthday Tableau for H. Colin Slim (Winter , 1999), pp. 10-49
Prizer’s research demonstrates that Isabella learned to read music and studied sight-singing and vocal technique rather than learning the traditional way by ear and by rote.
“The exact nature of Isabella’s vocal training is crucial, for it was not the traditional rote or “unwritten” method of teaching music, but was firmly rooted in the written tradition. Not only were her identifiable teachers Northerners associated primarily with the written tradition, but there is evidence that she was using notated music and a singing method for her study.”
– Prizer, pg. 15
Always on the lookout for a capable tutor, from Isabella’s correspondence we learn a bit about the desirable vocal characteristics of a singer and instructor from the late 15th century—a soft voice was used in chamber music and balance with the volume of plucked instruments was important. From a letter dated October 24, 1491 written by Francesco Bagnacavallo, a courtier of Cardinal Ippolito I d’Este in Ferrara, addressed to Isabella:
“…Your brother says that [the Hungarian singer] does not have a large choir voice, but that he is sufficient as a chamber singer and says that he sings well to the lute, cittern, [and] lira; he knows how to sing well with such instruments…”
– Prizer, pg. 14
We read historical accounts of improvised accompaniments to poetry based on grounds or harmonic formulas, for example those notated and indicated in the (much later) Bottegari manuscript. While professional musicians were known and respected for their skill in improvising song settings, the amateur was not expected to indulge in such pastimes.
“There is no trace of Isabella’s improvising settings of poetry anywhere in the large body of documents that mention her singing, and it seems unlikely that amateurs were trained to take part in the complex unwritten tradition of Italian secular music.”
– Prizer, pg. 18
Of course Isabella played the lute.
“If Isabella had already studied voice and clavichord in Ferrara, then it seems likely that she would have begun study of the lute there as well, since the instrument was in many ways the basic instrument for any Renaissance musician. Certainly, children did study lute as an early musical step: Isabella herself, for example, had her daughter Leonora (1494-1570) and son Federico (1500-1540) studying lute as children. Furthermore, her brother Alfonso definitely studied lute during his childhood: in 1489 there is a payment for the repair of the “liuto de don Alfonso.””
– Prizer, pg. 20-21
Prizer points out that it is difficult to discern just how well Isabella played the lute and sang, but she did perform among professionals and reputed notorious poisoners.
“In the refined climate of the courts, with its constant flattery of the ruling family, it is not easy to determine the exact level of Isabella’s abilities as a musician. Nevertheless, we can ascertain something of her caliber through accounts of her actual performances; these can give a notion of her level of proficiency, of the kind of occasions on which she performed, and, in at least one case, the precise repertory she performed. The earliest evidence comes from February 1502, during the marriage festivities for Alfonso d’Este to Lucrezia Borgia in Ferrara. During the celebrations Isabella gave a dinner for an impressive list of luminaries: the French ambassador, Ferrante and Giulio d’Este, Elisabetta Gonzaga, Laura Bentivoglio, Niccolo da Correggio, and four of the major Spanish dignitaries. Here Isabella had Marchetto Cara sing.”
“She also performed herself, although, in her letter to her husband, she modestly insisted that she was forced to do so: “After dinner, we danced the hat dance. When this was done, so many requests and demands were made of me that I had to demonstrate my singing to the lute.” The Marchesa of Crotone was more specific in her comments: “after dinner, her Excellency the Marchesa, because of the requests of these lords, sang two sonnets and a capitolo, and they were as delighted as it is possible to be.” Once again, Isabella was mirroring Castiglione’s statement that a woman should perform only after having allowed herself to be “begged a little, and with a certain shyness.”
– Prizer, pg. 25
We are impressed by Isabella’s many accomplishments but most pleased to find that she was an advocate for the musical education of other women, if only because it had to do with good taste. From a letter written by Isabella in 1512 to the Abbot of San Benedetto Po:
“Reverend in Christ, our dearest Father. You must remember that when we spoke we asked you to arrange that these venerable nuns of San Giovanni have a way to learn singing and psalmody, because it is truly a great shame that such a venerable and outstanding college of women does not have reason and order in this particular thing, as they do in others. Thus we ask you again now to have your chapter come to terms with those reverend fathers [the nuns’ advisors] and be sure to assign practiced and discreet persons who know how to teach them. This will not only be honoring religion and a greater glory to God, but we also will be most satisfied, because when we go to the said nunnery and hear such discord, our ears are much offended and we are little consoled…”
– Prizer, pg. 24