“The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”
– Albert Einstein in correspondence with Shinichi Suzuki, 1969. “Nurtured by Love. A New Approach to Education”, p90).
As any informed person knows, the study of music is essential to the development of a creative, inquisitive and balanced mind. Study of the science of music requires the ability to apply the framework of hard numbers to the ephemeral realm of musical tones, and develops both logic and intuition. But in our increasingly austere global economic picture, music education is a forlorn hope—always the first victim when short-sighted bean counters begin their barbaric exercise in budget slashing. Sadly, it is particularly so in already underfunded schools that serve financially-challenged populations, further advancing the elitist rep of “classical” music as the playground of the well-off. But in a bit of irony, the more important skill of developing musical intuition is frequently overlooked in better funded music programs that are more focused on conventional classical music.
A distinguishing feature that separates “classical” musicians from the vast world of other musicians working with great distinction in many genres of music, is not technique but the skill of reading music. While sight-reading and intuitive musicianship need not be mutually exclusive skills, the technical ability to rapidly reproduce information in a musical score tends to force other important skills—like musical intuition—to take a back seat.
For those of us who first learned to play by ear and then learned to read music, the very idea of sight-reading skills taking precedence over intuitive musicianship is ludicrous. Musicianship is developed by learning nuance and detail by ear from recordings of great players and/or playing music by ear with other highly skilled players. Imagine any successful jazz or pop artist being judged by how well they read a score rather than their ability to compose, improvise and render sometimes stunningly complex music in an effective and entertaining manner from memory. We call score readers paper-trained musicians.
Since there are no surviving recordings of Josquin or John Dowland, effective interpretation of early music begins with reading the source material and gaining an understanding of archaic musical notation as an interpretive tool. But effective interpretation reaches perfection with a complete understanding of the details of ancient but enduring performance conventions that can only be gained by getting off the page and into the context of original performance styles; indulging in the risky give and take of informed instrumental improvisation and spontaneous vocal ornamentation.
Early music seems to be dominated by paper-trained musicians who might deliver clean and accurate performances, but frequently sound as though they are nearly quaking in mortal fear of getting it wrong. The trick is to spend enough time in a particular genre of music from a particular place and time period in order to absorb the musical conventions, and then learn to respond to a highly developed and informed musical intuition. Focus and commitment required.
“And indeed all things that are known have number. For it is not possible that anything whatsoever be understood or known without this.”
– Philolaus (c. 470 – 385 BC), Fragment 4
Number symbolism has always had a close relationship with the structure and description of music, and music historians have spilled much ink on the subject. Today, numerology has generally been assigned to the realm of wild-eyed ranting conspiracy theorists who occupy their mother’s basements cataloguing back issues of L’Ordine Nuovo while researching the role of Operation Gladio in current continental unrest. But understanding the use of number symbolism by composers like Josquin des Prez and its role in historical music offers yet another important contextual clue to those of us engaged in deeper interpretations and performances that stir the soul.
Rather than attempt to describe the details, we refer you to the specialists:
The idea that number is the principle which governs the creation is the distinguishing feature of Pythagoreanism as an intellectual system. This is not the place to attempt a summary of Pythagorean number symbolism; what must be emphasized, however, is that this body of doctrine can in no sense be described as esoteric: on the contrary, there is scarcely a major classical philosopher or Church Father whose thinking was not coloured by Pythagorean principles. The study of numbers formed the very basis of the medieval quadrivium; in providing man with a means of plumbing the mysteries of the universe and so of appreciating the moral beauty of the divine plan, numbers possessed an important ethical value. In the Renaissance, Pythagoras himself came to be regarded as a type of that humanist ideal of moderation which combined piety with practical wisdom.
…Indeed it would be surprising if the geometrical intricacies of the typical renaissance lute rose did not conceal a symbolic meaning of one kind or another. It was, after all, the product of an age whose passion for the arcane reflected itself in pageantry, in emblem books, in allegorical portraiture, in architectural conceits, in literary puzzles and conundrums and in number symbolism of all kinds. Moreover the lute itself, as the noblest of musical instruments, was widely treated as a symbol of the harmony which underlies the cosmos. William Drummond, for example, elaborates this familiar conceit in the manner of an emblem-book writer:
GOD binding with hid Tendons this great ALL,
Did make a LVTE which had all parts it giuen;
This LVTES round Bellie was the azur’d Heauen,
The Rose those lights which Hee did there install;
The Basses were the Earth and Ocean,
The Treble shrill the Aire: the other Strings
The vnlike Bodies were of mixed things:
And then His Hand to breake sweete Notes began.
– Robin Headlam Wells, “Number Symbolism in the Renaissance Lute Rose”,
Early Music, Vol. 9, No. 1, Plucked-String Issue 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 32-42.
Number symbolism provided a framework for the way our ancestors understood the nature of science and music—and even the very nature of being. And there is no doubt that number symbolism likewise pervades important historical literary works, particularly at the points where poetry and music intersect.
I suggest that Shakespeare deliberately linked sonnets 8 and 128 both musically and mathematically. They are the only two sonnets which he wrote on mainly musical themes and their numbers, either separately or combined, are packed with musical and mathematical symbolism. In Shakespeare’s philosophical environment the combination of the following features could hardly occur by chance:-
1. The subject of sonnet 8 is music, perfect concord, ‘unions’, marriage and procreation. This is a nuptial theme which, as Fowler has established beyond doubt, was regularly symbolized in Elizabethan times by the musical octave, the octave’s 2 : 1 ratio and the number 8.
[Musick to heare, why hear’st thou musick sadly,
Sweets with sweets warre not, ioy delights in ioy:
Why lov’st thou that which thou receavst not gladly,
Or else receav’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well tuned sounds,
By unions married do offend thine eare,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singlenesse the parts that thou should’st beare:
Marke how one string sweet husband to an other,
Strikes each in each by mutuall ordering;
Resembling sier, and child, and happy mother,
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechlesse song being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee thou single wilt prove none.]
2. Sonnet 128 emphasizes heavily the musical fingering of the keyboard of the virginals with words such as “wood” (twice), “motion”, “fingers” (three times), “hand”, “Iackes” (jacks, twice), “hand”, “tikled” and “chips” (keys). Split as 12/8, this number symbolizes the poet’s discordant ‘envie’, mimicked first by this sonnet’s suggested effect of the discord of the 12 musical semitones fingered in sequence (a discordant ‘wiry’ combination which ‘confounds’, line 4), followed by the octave concord or union of an invited “kisse” (line 14), which is suggested by the symbolic ‘union’ of the octave number, 8. Sonnet 128 is metaphor for musical and human “temperament”.
[How oft when thou my musike musike playst,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently swayst,
The wiry concord that mine eare confounds,
Do I envie those Iackes that nimble leape,
To kisse the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poore lips which should that harvest reape,
At the woods bouldnes by thee blushing stand.
To be so tikled they would change their state,
And situation with those dancing chips,
Ore whome their (thy) fingers walk with gentle gate,
Making dead wood more blest then living lips,
Since saucie Iackes so happy are in this,
Give them their (thy) fingers, me thy lips to kisse.]
Like the works of Shakespeare, scholars have pored over the works of Johann Sebastian Bach searching for clues that help us understand his musical genius. But tempering our quest for deeper meanings with a small dose of common sense will save time and allow us to concentrate on more important things.
“As for the modern examples of elaborate number-symbolism, there is probably some cryptography in the Canons. A man who is writing a puzzle for his friends makes it as puzzling as he can. But I do not believe that the first fugue of the ‘Forty-Eight’ [Preludes and Fugues] contains a cryptogram, any more than I believe that Bach deliberately emphasized the number seven in the Credo of the B minor Mass. Coincidences are not uncommon in real life. In the world of symbolism, where almost anything can be made to mean something, they can be found in hundreds by anyone who has nothing better to do. These speculations are on a par with Ernest Newman’s ‘ proof’ that the ‘ Forty-Eight’ is ‘ a sort of musical cipher in which the initiate, but of course only the initiate, can detect a series of settings of the incidents in ” Alice in Wonder-land” ‘.
A rationalistic view of symbolism, somewhat on the lines sketched out above, has obvious advantages; but there does remain the question whether it was Bach’s view. Strictly speaking, this question is unanswerable. Bach left nothing in writing that bears directly on this subject, and if he ever discussed it with his pupils, his opinions have not been recorded. The most one can do is to study the writings of other musicians, and try to guess whether Bach agreed with them.”
– Walter Emery, “A Rationale of Bach’s Symbolism (Concluded)”, The Musical Times, Vol. 95, No. 1341 (Nov., 1954), pp. 597-600.
We frequently receive positive feedback from colleagues and listeners who have stumbled across our recorded music, for which we are always very grateful. The most commonly mentioned theme has to do with our sense of rhythmic unity and the closeness of connection between singer and accompanist. While we would like to graciously accept these kind comments from friends and supporters who may think our ensemble sound is merely the happy result of a serendipitous meeting of the minds, it is actually the product of 1) extensive research into historical composition and performance practice, and 2) many years of ensemble work that requires careful listening and empathetic response. Plus, we have never for a moment considered our duo as “singer and accompanist”, but rather two musicians collaborating in a rendering of polyphony.
Collaborative accompaniment describes a partnership that places equal weight upon the roles and responsibilities of vocalist and accompanist, and is is a term often used to describe newly-plowed acreage in the field of the piano profession, where a keyboardist consciously learns skills that facilitate active collaboration with a singer or with other instrumentalists. It turns out that specializing in historical polyphonic music is a very good way to circumvent a few centuries’ worth of performance practice that has been more focused on the discreet roles of “singer and accompanist”, moving directly into a genre that has always required a collaborative equal partnership.
For those who specialize in accompanying on the lute, most will ignore the enormous amount of music specifically written for the combination of voice and lute, and ply their trade in baroque bands or accompanying soloists in 17th-century monody.
“Given the primacy of text declamation and rhythm in the Florentine monody repertory, it seems strange that the one aspect of these manuscript sources that has attracted the most scholarly attention has not been the text setting but the tablature accompaniments themselves. In no other song repertory from any period have we devoted so much attention to accompaniments. They have been examined in an evolutionary sense as containing the seeds of the development of basso continuo and functional harmony; as frozen versions of the venerable improvised tradition and sixteenth-century practices of arranging vocal polyphony; and as sources that argue for and against their use as representing accurate notions of performance practice, instrumentation, and pitch. Taken together, our investigations of these often elementary accompaniments have led us down the paths of history, historiography, humanism, theory, performance, and context.”
-Victor Anand Coelho, “The Players of Florentine Monody in Context and in History, and a Newly Recognized Source for Le nuove musiche”, Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music, Volume 9, no. 1 (2003). par. 2.3.
Lutesong tablatures can seem rudimentary or too prescriptive if not viewed in the proper context. Upon closer examination, one discovers that lutesong tablatures more often than not actually contain a condensed score of vocal polyphony—music that requires deep understanding in order to reconstitute the condensed linear movement of separate lines into music that has texture and dimension. After the lutenist performs this miraculous feat of knowledge, comprehension and physical dexterity, then he or she must set about the task of accompanying: Mind-melding with the vocalist in order to make the most of the interweaving lines, bringing to the surface the points of melodic imitation, shaping the phrasing with sensitivity and, most importantly, rendering the meaning of the text. This is all basically fundamentally essential to effective performance of music with voice and lute. But you don’t have to take our word for it:
“Whoever wants to play well needs three things: first he must know counterpoint or at least know how to sing confidently and hear intervals and the beat and read all the clefs; know how to resolve the dissonant with the consonant, know the major and minor thirds and sixths and other similar things. Secondly he must play his instrument well, knowing tablature or notation and have a lot of experience of the keyboard or fretboard so as not to have to seek the consonances or the beat while one is singing; given that the eye is busy watching the parts placed before him. Thirdly he must have a good ear so as to hear the movement that the parts make between themselves; of this I will not speak since I cannot correct, through my discourse, what is naturally bad.”
“It’s true that simply, certain rules of progression can be given in general, but where there are words, they must be dressed with a suitable harmony that makes or demonstrates the affect. Not being able to give fixed rules, it is necessary that the player relies on his ear and on the work and its movements…”
“It is useful finally, to know how to transpose the melody from one note to another, provided there are all the natural consonances of the tone…[to avoid unintended dissonances] transposing to the fourth or fifth is more natural and suitable to all…”
– Agostino Agazzari, Del Sonare Sopra’l Basso Con Tutti Li Stromenti E Dell’ Uso Loro Nel Conserto [On Playing above the Bass with all instruments and on their use in an Ensemble], Siena, 1607.
A singer is a storyteller, and effective accompaniment requires a highly refined degree of collaboration in order to maximize expressive potential. Lute accompaniment must be in absolute synchronization with a vocalist and how she tells the story right down to pronunciation of vowels and consonants. In a truly successful collaboration of voice and lute, the lutenist must have an equal sense of commitment to the musical piece, its meaning, and the nuances of the text, as that of the vocalist.
For this sunny Saturday morning, we offer a small example via our recording of “Donna leggiadr’ et bella”, a sunny setting of the poetry of Giovanni Brevio (1480 – 1539) with music by Philippe Verdelot (c.1480 – 1530).
Since 2017 will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, we consider it’s impact on music. And having recently presented a lecture-recital on psalm settings as the soundtrack of the Reformation, we muse about the ubiquitous fashion of psalm arrangements for lute solo and for voice and lute, either published or hand-written in music manuscripts throughout the 16th– and into the 17th century. But first we briefly characterize and contextualize the Reformation, a phenomenon that not only left a lasting impression on music but seems to have provided the spark that ignited the inferno that is our modern consumer culture.
Prior to the Reformation, “European” and “Catholic” were synonymous terms. The constant inherent friction among city-states and the greedy expansionist tendencies of certain bloated representatives of distant kingdoms was a given. But by the close of the 15th century, the sometimes justifiable but politically-motivated bile aimed at Rome as the central authority provided a spiritual dimension and justification to the idea of rebellion and revolution. Initially, the Church responded to rebellion with a revival of the Inquisition. But it seems that an element of what we now call social justice contributed to a rising sense of indignation aimed at what was seen as an unjustly administered central authority.
“It is probably fair to say that medieval heresy persecutions were used at least as much in defence of the balance of wealth and power in civil society as in defence of individual souls or the integrity of the Church.”
– Felipe Fernandez-Armesto and Derek Wilson, Reformations – A Radical Interpretation of Christianity and the World 1500-2000, Scribner, New York, 1996, p. 227.
We know the Reformation gained momentum and prevailed, largely due to the efforts of Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and Huldreich Zwingli (1484 – 1531), both of whom were known to be lutenists. Luther was more realistic and characteristically sanguine regarding the role of music as integral to a normal life experience:
“Here it must suffice to discuss the uses of this great thing called music. But even that transcends the greatest eloquence of the most eloquent, because of the infinite variety of its forms and benefits. We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions – to pass over the animals – which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found – at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage those full of hate–and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good? – what more effective means than music could you find?”
– Martin Luther, Symphoniae jucundae, 1538
Zwingli is considered by posterity to have indulged in a classic case of overcompensation. The Swiss reformer was musically gifted but his reforms promoted an antagonistic approach towards music in public worship. Zwingli published a revision of the liturgy in his De canone missae epicheiresis, 1523, in which musical settings were severely pared down. A second revision, Aktion oder Brauch des Nachtmahls, 1525, was written entirely in the vernacular and the Catholic model for the mass was nearly obliterated, with music entirely absent. Zwingli’s reputation as rabidly anti-musical is perhaps a bit misleading—he disapproved of music in the liturgy but encouraged private and personal music for recreational or devotional purposes.
From the earliest known appearance of the term “psalm”, it was defined as a poem of praise sung to the accompaniment of plucked strings.
“Psalm (from Gk. Psalmos; Lat. Psalmus). An ancient Greek term which, though originally meaning a ‘striking’ or ‘plucking’, especially of the strings of a musical instrument, was given to the poems of the Hebrew ‘Book of Praises’…”
– The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
Inspired by Martin Luther’s examples, psalm singing in the vernacular was a hallmark of the 16th century Reformation, the same era that saw a dramatic rise in publication of music for the most popular instrument in domestic use—the lute. Singing psalms in harmonized settings began to emerge as a domestic pastime and it was a natural progression to arrange harmonized settings for lute accompaniment or for lute solo.
Jean Calvin’s (1509 – 1564) Pseaumes de David (1562) was the first complete edition of all 150 versified psalms, with texts by Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze and tunes attributed to Loys Bourgeois, although other plain and polyphonic settings of selected psalms appeared earlier. Adrian Le Roy’s Tiers livre de tabulature de luth, contenant vingt & un Pseaulmes, Le tout selon le subjet (1552) initiated what became a very popular trend of printed psalm settings for the lute, arranged as instrumental solos with variations or set for voice and lute and aimed at domestic audiences. The trend continued well into the 17th century and reached a high level of refinement with the settings by Nicolas Vallet (c. 1583 – 1642).
Psalm settings for domestic use typically presented the psalm tunes in their unadorned glory or with minimal decoration, but instrumental composers for lute and keyboard created more elaborate settings that evidenced a reflection of musical style popular at the time. A setting that is representative of French music from the mid-16th century is “Quand Israel” (In exitu) from Guillaume Morlaye’s intabulations for voice and lute of the psalms à 4 by Pierre Certon, Psaumes de Pierre Certon réduits pour chant et luth par Guillaume Morlaye (1554).
The four-voice psalm settings of Claude Goudimel (c. 1520 – 1572) were particularly influential, although these settings were typically performed in singing schools or at home rather than for liturgical purposes. Goudimel published separate collections with varying degrees of musical elaboration and his homophonic settings (Paris, 1564; Geneva, 1565) enjoyed wide distribution, probably due to their accessible style and limited demands upon the singers. Goudimel’s setting of the 23rd Psalm “Mon Dieu me paist”, from Les Cent Cinqvante Pseavmes de David. nouuellement mis en Musique à quatre parties, par C. Goudimel (Paris, 1564), is one of the slightly more elaborate settings that places the psalm melody in the cantus part with the lower voices in closely-spaced imitative texture. The lute plays these lower three parts in our arrangement to which we add Nicolas Vallet’s variations for solo lute.
Some see the Reformation as having made worship a more inclusive experience, others view it as having a deleterious effect on music generally, and still others view it as ultimately having initiated the eventual secularization of our western culture. But what has passed is past and we look for the positives—for without the Reformation there never would have been a Church of the Quivering Brethren.
Captain Hastings: Well, there she was, as you say, a glamorous young woman, and with a bit of a wig and a few bits of make-up she could transform herself into that dowdy hag of a nurse.
Hercule Poirot: Yes, it was indeed very well done, Hastings.
Captain Hastings: But… Well, I mean… If a woman can do that one way, she can do it the other.
Hercule Poirot: Oh, Hastings.
Captain Hastings: Well, I mean then where are you?
Hercule Poirot: At the beginning of wisdom, mon ami. Now, that also is something to celebrate, n’est-ce pas?
– Agatha Christie: Poirot, “The Million Dollar Bond Robbery” (1991)
Awareness is indeed the beginning of wisdom. In our consumer culture, shaping the message is the key to selling goods and ideas, and we are subjected to the manipulation of information at every turn—even in the world of early music. This seems incongruous given that early music is considered by many to be a pure and unadulterated art form that is cleansed of the superfluous packaging of more heavily-hyped classical repertory. An apt parallel may be that of paler but supposedly more healthful organic produce offered in contrast to apparently more robust and highly-polished fruit that is conventionally grown.
But awareness of how publicity shapes the message leads us toward the beginning of wisdom. Looking slightly beneath the surface, one learns that publicity cannot be trusted. For starters, any and every recording review from certain sources (sound the trumpets) is paid for by artists or their representatives. Quotes from these purchased positive reviews seem to find their way into other publicity materials, and there you are—a message that is based upon false pretense used to shape public perception of an artist’s worth.
One longs for the good old days when musicians were recognized for their ability to move the passions of the listener. But did those good old days ever exist? Probably not. While there may be a few honest, forthright, and egalitarian public relations specialists and/or artist representatives, the baser element has always been with us, slyly shaping perceptions of the worth of their clients while demanding high fees from concert producers in the pursuit of an ever greater percentage.
But what about those of us who eschew artist representation, who depend upon unsolicited recording reviews and who rely solely upon honest audience feedback? Well, I mean then where are you? I believe “under the bus” is the proper term for those who would offer competition to the better-financed artists. Early music publicists are cut from the same cloth as any other public relations specialist, and there is a tendency to stretch the truth when aggressive marketing enters the picture. And please don’t make the mistake of confusing public relations with journalistic reporting.
“The public relations practitioner is portrayed as a paid mouth and spin doctor intent on promoting his client’s interests at the price of truth. The journalist is portrayed as someone who neither distinguishes between fact and opinion nor lets the facts get in the way of spinning a good story. In terms of public perception of both professions perhaps those images are widespread which may explain why both journalists and public relations practitioners tend to be rated poorly in surveys of public esteem.”
“The naïve view that writers must be devoted to separating fact from opinion and telling the truth needs to be qualified. Fiction writers, such as poets or novelists, may be using a fabricated story to express a truth about the human condition. In that case we may concur with Coleridge’s comment – “That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”. In order to gain the intrinsic value from a piece of writing we may need to turn off our empirical or common sense critical faculties.”
“In the case of both public relations and journalism the related notions of trust and truth are central to their professional activities. At a simple level most journalists require that the reader believes their story is true; most public relations practitioners aim to gain a primary public’s trust through a belief that what is said is true.”
“In the financial and commercial sector transparency is often given as a key prerequisite for gaining trust. In the fifteenth century merchants swearing an oath had to do so with their hands above board and in plain view so they could not cross their fingers.”
“For “hard” journalism and public relations transparency of the identity of the communicator is of paramount importance. That which matters from the perspective of the media user or public relations audience is the identity of the individual communicating. Audiences and publics should disregard “soft” communicators and judge the extent to which a message should be given credence from the perceived trustworthiness of the individual making the communication. This would preclude “soft” public relations practitioners hiding behind the “cleft stick” that they were simply advocates for their client’s cause and so avoiding moral responsibility for what was communicated. Public relations practitioners sometimes claim a parallel with diplomacy, that one is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country. It may be bad form to execute the herald or messenger but in a metaphorical sense to preserve the integrity of “hard” public relations it is a necessity.”
– “Public Relations and Journalism: Truth, Trust, Transparency and Integrity”, by Frank Davies, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, U.K. (PDF)
The “truth” as applies to early music lies in the performer’s adherence to historical principles in interpretation. Or at least it used to be so. Much of what is being passed off as an historical performance has as much verisimilitude as any modern production of a play by Shakespeare. Directors are forever altering the play—cutting, slashing and burning large blocks of script premised upon a lack of understanding of the original dramatic intentions or, more often, misguided perceptions of limited audience attention spans. The same is true of most concerts of early music. But publicists are paid to try to convince you otherwise. Attend and enjoy as a modern concert experience. But don’t believe the hype.
It’s been quite a while since we posted a short essay on recording the lute; in fact it was nearly six years ago, right around the time we initiated our series of weekly Saturday quotations. The post was not part of our regular Saturday series and readers continue to stumble across the essay as a summary of what is rather a multidimensional issue. Six years of performing live and recording have passed since the original post and we pause to consider those many dimensions. In the interim the entire field of making and distributing recordings has been turned on its head, and we revisit the topic with some additional insights and observations from a few different perspectives.
Since we 1) pride ourselves on having built our reputation as early music specialists from entirely outside of the conventional commercial mainstream world of early music, and 2) we work with a budget that frequently involves counting out pennies from our jar of loose change, we learned to record on a shoestring and have developed a working relationship with a handful of recording engineers, none of whom had previous experience with our particular sort of music.
Our first complete recording was engineered by Dean Baskerville, who at the time had just been honored for his work with pop singer Sheryl Crow, and he kindly sandwiched our project in between sessions with the band Everclear. Dean embraced the challenge of recording our music with enthusiasm and pragmatism. When Donna was carefully positioned in front of a very expensive microphone that Dean had chosen, her first words were “I’m probably the only singer in the world who has never dreamed of being a recording artist.” Dean successfully put her at ease and our very first test recording, a song chosen because of its range of lows and highs, turned out quite well.
We went on to record our first CD, Divine Amarillis in less than 10 hours time, including mixing, mastering and one single edit where we spliced a better complete second verse on one song. If you aren’t involved in recording, you might not understand—or care—that this is a bit minimalist. The end result was not exactly what we had hoped for but we had drained our meager finances by moving across the country and decided to just leave it the way it was.
A few years later (2009) the CD won an award for the best “classical” vocal recording on behalf of an organization called Just Plain Folks. We have no idea who entered the recording in their competition—in fact we kept deleting the notices telling us that we had won an award until they finally sent us a very direct personal message. What this experience told us was that our particular approach to music appealed to a very broad audience, and we have since taken it as a challenge to continue to reach that broad audience by categorizing and cataloguing our recordings of very transparent early music among many diverse non-early music genres. Judging by the number and diversity of people who contact us with kind words about our music, it has been a successful move.
We have since worked with a number of different engineers across the country and it has been a learning experience for us and for the engineers. The first thing we do when working with a new engineer is have them read an excellent article, “Recording the lute”, by John Taylor, published in the (UK) Lute News No. 62 (June 2002). Taylor has recorded some of our top lutenists and his observations translate as essential baseline information that every engineer should know before they even plug in a microphone. His first observation is that the lute “is impossible to play” and that playing the instrument is like constantly “walking on eggshells”. Taylor discusses optimal microphone placement and the different ways one can manage recording in a very resonant space. But the beauty of the instrument’s sound and the reinforcing synergy of the space can be completely undone if there is the least amount of background noise present.
Other perspectives from those involved in recording early music can often be quite applicable to the process of recording the lute, for instance Ralph Kirkpatrick’s detailed description of recording the clavichord. We can also learn from producers with experience in recording a broad range of early vocal and instrumental music. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood had this to say about recording a viol consort:
“Tempermental, fickle and bolshy, [viols] can simply refuse to come out and play. If the executor is tired or under strain, the viol like Fido will have the sixth sense to follow his master. The challenges for player and producer can therefore become compounded by ‘organic’ period instruments: the sound of a viol consort changes in minutes, the instruments affected by temperature, humidity and clammy or frozen hands. Early takes can be fresh and alive or under-nourished, even scratchy. There is no knowing how quickly the sound will settle and gel.”
– Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, “A question of balance”, Gramophone Early Music, Winter 1999/2000, pp. 48-49.
Anyone who has attempted to record the lute can draw an exact parallel from these words. The main difference is that the lute is even more difficult to manage because it’s even more lightly-built and the fingertips of both hands are involved in tone production at a microscopic level of detail. Freeman-Attwood also points out the differences between a live concert and the rigors of the recording process:
“Adrenalin flows in a live performance but often needs to be manufactured in a studio when the piece in question may already have been played six times in the past hour – without an audience – and still calls for a thrilling extra take at the crucial moment. Musicians can get tired, disillusioned, and plain difficult, like anyone else. Added to which studio nerve is quite different from the steel nerve a performer must wheel out for the exposed solo in a live broadcast. Here, it is all about setting the mind to do the job again and again: as if for the first time after it has gone wrong; then doing it again when someone questions the effectiveness of the articulation; not getting over-wrought when your best take is ruined by the Concorde; then yet again when the producer tells you it’s infinitesimally flat.”
– Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, p. 45.
In the Lute News article referenced above, John Taylor lays out for all to see the soiled linen of the world of lute recordings by pointing out that most recordings are spliced together from many takes, right down to individual notes if necessary. He estimates that the average lute recording has at least 200 edits, and that it is rumored that some recordings have up to 2000 edits.
Despite this very modern standard of manufactured perfection, we are committed to performing music that has genuine human emotional content. We are also committed to working with a minimum of technological interference, and our current recording projects are all completely live—meaning we perform each piece until it is right from start to finish. The resulting recording may not be absolutely perfect, but it is perfectly human.
Just as civilization has witnessed the decline and disappearance of once great historical cities and important cultural landmarks through plain ignorance or outright malicious machinations, such has also been the case with the understanding of the performance conventions of historical music. For centuries, trained singers fully knew how to sing their music with a complete understanding of the hexachord and its mutations, and how to spot where, when and why to apply implied sharps and flats. But not today.
With a millennium of notated music at our disposal we have a very modern luxury of dipping into all manner of historical music. But every genre of historical music possesses the common characteristic of an ever-changing and sometimes ambiguous set of stylistic conventions, many of which were never described and preserved for posterity. At the onset of the early music phenomenon, it was quite common to hear performances of 12th-century monophonic songs on the same concert program or recording as a chanson by Sermisy and a set of Elizabethan lute songs. While there seems to be a bit less of that among today’s professional early music performers, one is nevertheless still subjected to a significant slathering of the performer’s personal interpretive quirks; modernisms applied to a mix of chronologically and nationally diverse musical styles. Simply sight-reading old music will never result in a transparent, sensitive and empathetic rendering based on a deep understanding of important stylistic details of a particular era or genre.
This is particularly true of vocal ensembles. One finds an attitude among trained singers that since they can manage to read the notes on the page, they merely require a good full-score edition with the proper marks and they can sing anything that comes their way. But with most early music, modern editions can vary wildly in quality and accuracy—and in the proper notation of accidentals. What many modern musicians (maddeningly) call musica ficta actually refers to the editorial application of information that was omitted from the original source material—omitted because historical singers conventionally knew when and how accidentals were applied. And they were required to use their ears since they typically sang from individual part-books rather than a full score.
“Late-medieval notation operates on linear planes, symptomised by the persistent use of notation in separate parts for vocal polyphony, a presentation which is not designed for simultaneous visual control by one musician. This linear quality obviously applies to mensural notation, with its dependence on contextual evaluation, and I now believe it to be equally valid for the notation of pitch. In late-medieval terms, as already stated, a note may be identified in isolation as a semibreve; F, but the actual sounding pitch of the F in relation to other sounding pitches is as dependent on context as is the precise duration of the semibreve. The context dependency operates in two ways: visually, from the individual notated part (i.e., what the singer would do in monophony or expect to do in polyphony unless forced to do otherwise); and aurally, from the process of listening and adjusting to simultaneities that may require the singer to do something other than scrutiny of his own part would have led him to expect.”
“What singers of the time did instead of depending on visual grasp of the musical entity was to make music by applying their knowledge of contrapuntal simultaneities, acceptable sounds, to the incompletely prescriptive notation. No notation has ever been fully prescriptive, and the success of a notation depends in different ways on the kind of musical equipment to be presumed for those who realise it. Late-medieval singers were in a very real sense collaborators with the composer in making the music happen—realising it—within the limits of his intentions. Those limits included the possibility of different realisations, of different actual sounds at some but perhaps not all places which are underprescribed by our standards—as indeed they do for many later repertories demanding initiatives from the performer.”
– Margaret Bent, “Diatonic ‘Ficta’” Early Music History vol. 4, 1984, p. 14.
Singing early music requires more than modern sight-singing skills, and showing up and reading your part, however accurately, is simply not good enough if singers wish to sing music of the 15th and 16th centuries without committing musical barbarisms. A basic understanding of the hexachord and how hexachords overlap is fundamental. And finding a trusted editor is essential, because it takes a significant degree of compositional understanding to accurately place those little sharps and flats in parentheses above the notes.
And those little notes are not optional. The reason they are in parentheses is because a conscientious musicologist attempted to create an interpretive score that provides intelligent singers the necessary information while following proper editorial procedures. That is to say the editor is not adding arbitrary information to the original source but instead clarifying what has been left out—because historical singers didn’t need it.
We have mentioned this subject before here and here, but it is surprising how frequently the matter becomes a topic of discussion and debate. One despairs. Singing early music without a proper understanding is the aural equivalent of the unfortunate restorations of historically significant art and architecture we have seen of late.
Lutenists familiar with vocal polyphony have a much greater insight into proper application of accidentals because historical tablatures clearly mark their use. It seems apparent that the only ones who really understand the application of sharps and flats in vocal polyphony today are lutenists who sing.