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Saturday morning quotes 8.50a: Bach & the lute

Returning after a long hiatus, we share some informed thoughts about the music of Bach played on the lute, and the somewhat contentious idea of whether Bach wrote for the lute or ever intended his music to be played on the lute.

Many modern lutenists, self included, were drawn to the lute after playing the music of Bach on guitar. The personal difference is that self played Bach on a steel-string 1943 Gretsch archtop guitar that was otherwise put to use playing music ranging from fiddle tunes to lounge standards. Oblivious to the bizarre obsessive-compulsive culture of classical guitar, I learned and memorized several pieces by Bach before a fellow working musician who had studied guitar with Michael Lorimer shared some music that was significantly more accessible, specifically the pavans of Luis Milan, and away went I.

Bach on the guitar is a genre unto itself, and classical guitarists usually have several Segovia-approved Bach pieces in their recital repertory. Perhaps guitarists feel a bit of ownership with some of Bach’s plucked-string gems since he had the courtesy of writing a few in guitar-friendly keys like E-major and e-minor, keys that are not so nice to play on a lute tuned to an open d-minor chord. But several 20th-century guitar virtuosos like Julian Bream, John Williams, and Narcisco Yepes set the standard for interpretation of Bach’s so-called lute music on the modern classical guitar, and the repertory became de rigueur for every serious student of the guitar.

Astute readers will have noticed the qualified “Bach’s so-called lute music” for guitar. Among musicologists—and particularly among lutenists—there is a certain amount of disagreement on whether Bach actually wrote music for the lute. This theme was explored in a video that appeared early in 2023, with commentary from a few guitarists and a few lutenists. If readers don’t want to bother with the video, the consensus was that Bach did not actually compose for the lute, and what we know as the lute suites, BWV 995-1000 plus 1006a, were really written for the keyboard in imitation of a lute style. There were several unsupported ideas proffered, including the baseless assumption that Bach certainly could not play the lute, and probably did not understand lute tablature. But the prevailing reason for the presumptive ruling that Bach did not compose for the lute is that the music is too hard to play on the instrument as we know it.

If we spend a few moments examining the treasure trove of surviving information about Bach’s life and background, it is fairly easy to dismiss these misconceptions. Bach, an avid student of the history of music and its sacred and secular use, was well-versed in keyboard tablature, which was in common use throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact, we have an example of keyboard tablature in Bach’s own hand to verify that he understood tablature. Another point that seems to have escaped the experts is that Bach adapted a lute suite—in lute tablature— by his Dresden colleague and near exact contemporary Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687 – 1750) to create a suite for keyboard with a newly-composed violin part, BWV 1025. While Weiss, who is known to have composed only in lute tablature, may possibly have given Bach a standard notation transcription of his suite, it is very doubtful. Bach was born and bred during a time and in a place where lute music was ubiquitous, and if he understood keyboard tablature, as we have seen, he certainly understood lute tablature. By the way, there is a wonderful recording of BWV 1025 by Hille Perl and Lee Santana that is a favorite in our household.

Bach knew full well how lute tablature works, and also how the lute works. Some claim that Bach wrote instead for the Lautenwerck, a keyboard instrument that emulates the characteristic tone of the lute, and it is confirmed that he owned a few of these instruments. But there was also a lute in the inventory of his belongings upon his death. Perhaps the basis for the misconception as to which instrument was intended lies in the rather carefree collation of Bach’s “lute” works known as the original Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, published in 1950. The manner of presentation in this edition is such that we might very well question whether some of the works are really for the lute. And when we get down to the nuts-and-bolts of playing the music, some of the works are less than idiomatic for the d-minor tuned lute common to Bach’s time. But scordatura, or the use of alternative tunings to achieve a particular effect, was and is a common practice for string players.

Much of Bach’s work is quite demanding—the solo violin sonatas and partitas for instance. These works are so challenging that several of the 20th-century violin virtuosi made the egoistic claim that Bach could not have possibly played such demanding music that required a technique equal to their own. Yet we have evidence:

“In his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord.  He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments.”  – CPE Bach in a letter to Forkel, 1774, from The New Bach Reader: A Life of J. S. Bach in Documents and Letters, Ed. by Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolff, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.

It is known that some of the lute works are transcriptions of music for other instruments, but we can’t say for certain that Bach did or did not intend this piece or that piece to be played on the lute. In fact, his own arrangement of the cello suite BWV 1011 for the lute in standard notation, BWV 995, “Piéces pour la luth/ á /Monsieur Shouster /par /J.S. Bach,” states very clearly what the piece is, for whom, and for which instrument. He just assumed that if one is a musician, notation should not be a problem.  And he was not one to leave rhythmic subtlety and ornamentation to chance, which is much more clearly defined in the standard notation he employed for this suite.  Since there was a lute in Bach’s household inventory after his death, we must accept that if he wished to play the lute, he could play the lute.

Merely because a modern lutenist is required to minimally alter the received “standard” tuning and work very hard on the music does not confirm whether or not the music is originally intended for the lute. Most of Bach’s music is quite demanding, particularly if we discern and honor the implied polyphony embedded in every string of notes. We have some exceptionally musical performances by Luciano Contini and the recent recordings by  Evangelina Mascardi that disprove the notion that Bach’s lute music is unconvincing.

Saturday morning quotes 8.49: Season’s greetings

After quite an extended hiatus we return to wish our readers warm greetings for a Happy Christmas. Today’s temperature has been hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit with a blustery wind chill of minus thirty, and an enforced indoor sequestration allows us this opportunity to reconnect with the world.

Our offering is the video above, featuring Donna Stewart singing an a cappella version of the traditional Irish Wexford Carol. Those readers who know something of our approach to early music may understand that it is generously informed by traditional music, which we feel strongly offers a much more grateful linkage to performance of early music than, say, 19th century art song.

Although it deals more directly in the art of poesy, we readily extrapolate and take a bit of artistic inspiration from an essay by T. S. Elliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as found in T. S. Elliot, Selected Essays, Faber & Faber, London, 1932.

“Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write, not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal, and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.”

This describes our sense of historical music, how we approach it and how we respect it, and how we channel it to listeners of today after years of study, refinement and familiarity. Ultimately, we humbly step aside and allow the past to speak to those today who might bother to listen beyond the surface and embrace the original message of the music and the text.

Happy Christmas to all.

Saturday morning quotes 8.48: Same old story

We have discussed in a number of posts how the early music movement readily morphed from a quest for cultural preservation initiated in 19th-century in the face of a rapidly industrializing world, to a mid-20th century rebellious rejection of received cultural norms, to a 21st-century era of complete standardization and aggressive commercialization of everything that moves.  Early music was subjected to the same exploitation and valorization as any appealing product that was developed and marketed in the late 20th century.  There are many comparative examples including, for instance, health care items that started life as the product of a cottage industry, met with modest commercial success, and were eventually sold to a major corporation where cost-cutting manufacturing processes were introduced and deceptive marketing strategies were implemented to capitalize on the folksy source of their now mass-produced items.

While many still labor under the myth that early music today represents cultural preservation, examining the now declining early music revival more closely reveals a great deal more about late 20th-century consumer habits. Wrested from the hands of misfit-scholar-activists by marketing professionals, the modern early music revival has less to do with representing a genuine effort of historical preservation of a treasured art form, and has everything to do with the terrible taint of the marketing industry. Let’s examine another 20th-century revival for comparison.

“By our interpretive acts, we constructed the very thing we thought we had found. This is not to say there was nothing “out there” called blues…Rather, I am saying that the various activities of the blues revivalists constituted a commodity called “blues” that came to be consumed as a popular music and a symbol of stylized revolt against conservative politics and middle-class propriety.”

– Jeff Todd Titon, “Reconstructing the blues : reflections on the 1960s blues revival” in Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, Neil V. Rosenberg, ed., University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1993, p. 222.

Big Bill Broonzy (1903 – 1958), pictured above, represents an interesting example of a musician operating within a living tradition, but willing to adapt in order to appease modern academic revivalists; listening to old recordings and learning the ideal prescribed repertory so that he might fit into their contrived fantasy world.

“Big Bill Broonzy, a black singer, guitar player and songwriter, had come to [Chicago] from Arkansas in 1920, and in the 1930s began making records and singing in South Side nightspots for black audiences. Yet when Broonzy worked outside that milieu, he sometimes found himself treated more as a symbol of racial politics than the musician and entertainer he had come to be. In a New York concert in 1939, for example, he heard himself introduced as “an ex-sharecropper”—an unaccustomed label for one who had not farmed since 1916. As an entertainment professional, Broonzy, rather than trying to reconcile the expectations of his different audiences, he sang work songs and back-country blues he learned from records and books on country music.”

– Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life, W. W. Norton, New York, 2001, p. 747.

The point is that 20th-century academic revivalists created a fantasy world they called “The Blues” and went to pains to describe and classify the music and those who authentically played it. Dedicated musicians just said, “OK, whatever,” and fed the myth by adapting and cooperating with the contrived parameters set by those who could never understand the realities of making a living as a professional musician. The phenomenon of an entirely modern creation of a performance genre and style has a direct correspondence with the early music revival.

“As we know, the end result of Seconda Pratica was not the music of antiquity (as originally intended) but a nuove musiche that had never existed before…Could it be that unconsciously we have been using [Historically-Informed Performance] merely as a stratagem—or a mindset—to allow the creation of this new style we’re now using? In our optimism and innocence, we call it “Period style.” The inspiration comes from somewhere else…but in reality we know it works because we make it work.”

– Bruce Haynes, The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2007, p. 227.

While appreciation for cultural treasures like historical music will continue among insightful and dedicated connoisseurs, the Early Music revival is for all intents and purposes over. It was a modern creation from the beginning, and it died when marketing professionals examined their balance sheets, frowned, and moved on to the next bright shiny object.

Saturday morning quotes 8.47: Noses & Roses

Astute readers will notice that today’s post marks Saturday morning quote 8.47, yet our blog series has been running for more than 12 years. There are two reasons: 1) We occasionally write on topics not relevant to the general outline of our Saturday morning quotes series and are thus not numbered, and 2) due to innumerable pesky interruptions and the overall fraying at the edges of the world in general and civilization in particular, this past year’s worth of quotes has actually taken nearly two years. But we soldier on.

We return to a subject that we covered some ten years ago in an earlier post; an odd and obscure bit of dedicatory poetry written by John Dowland and published in the 1598 book, Canzonets to fowre voyces by Giles Farnaby (c.1563 –1640). We won’t repeat the entire text of our earlier post, but to summarize, Farnaby was a joiner and a musician, and any lutenist knows the importance of having a good working relationship with someone who can patch their instrument up when it goes wrong, which it will. Others who contributed dedicatory poems to Farnaby’s book include Richard Allison and Anthony Holborne, both lutenists and composers of some repute.

Farnaby was known as an instrumental composer, and his keyboard fantasias, dances and character pieces are strewn about the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Farnaby’s vocal work resides in the lighter madrigalian vein, and while he set a few worthwhile texts, most of his canzonets set poetry with erotic fluffy floral-pastoral themes. Edmund Fellowes drew attention to Farnaby’s many compositional faults in The English Madrigal Composers (Oxford, 1921, 2/1948/R), claiming  that Farnaby wrote more consecutive fifths than any other madrigal composer (p. 235). Indeed, Dowland’s poem in a roundabout way pokes fun at Farnaby’s cadential treatments. Richard Marlow, in his New Grove article on Farnaby wrote, “The music gathers rhythmic momentum, frequently over a pedal point, when approaching the final cadence of the repeated second section.” Perhaps Dowland, a consummate setter of words and stylistically forward-looking song composer, was not impressed with the humdrum pedal-point idea, particularly if overused.

The dedicatory poem:

M. Io. Dowland to the Author

Only thou fit (without all further gloses)
Crouned to be with euerlasting Roses,
With Roses and with Lillies,
And with Daffadoundillies,
But thy songs sweeter are (saue in their closes)
Then are Lillies and Roses:
Like his that taught the woods sound Amaryllis,
GOLDINGS; you that have too, too dainty NOSES,
Auaunt, go feede you them elswhere on ROSES.

Neither Diana Poulton, Dowland’s biographer, nor the late Edward Doughtie could find a deeper meaning in this odd and limping verse. Mrs. Poulton went so far as to attempt to discover a meaning for “Goldings” and rather missed the mark. Goldings capitalized surely refers to Arthur Golding (c. 1536 – 1605) and his book The. xv. Bookes of P. Ovidus Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis, translated oute of Latin into Englysh meeter, by Arthur Golding Gentleman, A worke very pleasaunt and delectable (1567). This famous text was surely the inspiration for song texts, and anyone with a circa 1570 grammar school education would have been familiar with the work.

Searching for more current research into cryptic Elizabethan texts, one cannot help but stumble upon the work of Alexander Waugh, self-described “English eccentric, businessman and writer…author of six books, including The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War and the General Editor of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh.” After watching Waugh deftly dissect some of the printed work of fascinating mystic, John Dee, we contacted him to see whether he might shed some light on Dowland’s odd little poem. Alexander kindly responded with the following remarks:

“The first three lines I think allude to Virgil’s Eclogue X in which Phyllis is a highly prized maiden who is inspired by the sound of the very best music, to make garlands of roses for Gallus who says:

‘Arcadians only know how to sing. How softly then would my bones repose, if in other days your pipes should tell my love! And oh that I had been one of you, the shepherd of a flock of yours, or the dresser of your ripened grapes! Surely, my darling, whether it were Phyllis or Amyntas … my darling would be lying at my side among the willows, and under the creeping vine above – Phyllis plucking me flowers for a garland…'”

“So in this sense Dowland, as a musician is giving the highest possible praise to his musical peer Farnaby. He then goes on to say that Farnaby’s songs are sweeter even than the garland of lilies and roses Phyllis might make – as sweet as Virgil’s poesy whose lines taught the woods to echo Amaryllis (see Eclogue 1 where Virgil takes the pastoral name ‘Tityrus’). I find ‘(save in their closes)’ an odd aside. Is he saying that Farnaby is not very good at composing cadences, or merely that all sweetness is gone when Farnaby’s pieces finish? There could be a double meaning here.”

“The last couplet is I think what causes the difficulty. You are surely right that ‘GOLDINGS’ alludes to Arthur Golding and his famous translation of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ (probably done with the help of the young Earl of Oxford his pupil). The connection to Ovid is underscored by the word ‘NOSES’ – he was called Publius Ovidius Naso. ‘GOLDINGS’ here I think means those who prefer Ovid ‘s more erotic love poetry over Virgil’s pastoral eclogues, It is the ‘GOLDINGS’ who are addressed in the last two lines (note the change from ‘thou’ to ‘you’) and are told that if their Ovidian noses are too ‘dainty’ for Farnaby’s art they must go off and sniff ‘roses’ (which are less sweet than Farnaby’s and Virgil’s lines). Both words ‘dainty’ and ‘roses’ had erotic connotations.”

The picture we have of Dowland today is that of a talented musician and composer who used his gifts to attain some level of prominence among the fickle elites. But he never quite got what he wished for, and thus lumped through life as a deeply unhappy grumbletonian, walking the streets with a sandwich-board sign reading, Semper Douland, semper dolens. In fact, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…” Dowland embraced his role as a purveyor of fashionable melancholy but he was indeed playing a role. If nothing else, the frivolous dedicatory poem reveals that 1) Dowland had musical friends in high places, 2) he possessed a little learning, 3) he had a sense of humor and 4) he was perhaps not the best poet.

Saturday morning quotes 8.46: Evolution?

Living as we do in our cynical age where all the angles have been discovered and exploited, individuals seeking to understand the elemental worth of the human race invariably look to the past in search of a sense of cultural heritage that perhaps justifies the unpleasantness of the present. Peering through an objective lens, what we see when viewing the past is not an innovative and insistent propulsion toward the future, but rather the collected accomplishments of individuals who wished to dwell in—and perhaps improve upon—their present.

Problems arise for the researcher emerging from an exhaustive examination of historical culture only to find that today’s present simply lacks quality and substance. I’m reminded of the unfortunate food available on a long cross-country train trip, and the dismay and disgust outwardly exhibited by a group of French tourists when they approached the Amtrak snack bar. “Is this all there is?” It is sometimes difficult to accept an insubstantial present when one has been spoiled by the richness of the past. Nevertheless, we crack on.

Having just released Donna Stewart’s second album of solo Gregorian chant, we follow up with a bit more background on how plainchant is the very basis of all early music, and how it figures into the sort of instrumental music many of us know and love, but few understand.

Historians accept that we know very little about medieval instrumental music, other than the scribblings left behind in a few manuscripts from the 15th century. There survives a wealth of pictorial evidence in paintings, woodcuts and sketches that show how music was shared, mostly in domestic surroundings. But what music did they play? Apart from dance tunes, such as those anthologized in Medieval Instrumental Dances by Timothy J. McGee (Indiana University Press, 1992), it is apparent that nearly all other music that circulated was derived from sacred polyphony or popular chansons of the day, which we shall see were one and the same.

“Very slow, augmented cantus firmi against ever more rapid and formulaic passagework seem to denote an increasing virtuosic pride of the performers. Organists would have practiced this as well, of course: the monorhythmic style of plainsong settings could have been used by instrumentalists as a training ground for improvisation. Paumann’s fundamenta, and those of his apprentices, paved the way for codification and consolidation of improvisatory practices over cantus firmi with predictable rhythm…Equally predictable, at least for a good German wind or string player, were the cantus and tenor lines of the six or seven most famous chansons of his age. He knew them all by heart, of course. The practice of literal quotation of the borrowed voice (even in augmented values) suits him perfectly: when performing with new colleagues, he might well ask them to be allowed to prove himself with new figurations against a universally known tune which they can play to him.”

– Reinhard Strohm, The Rise of European Music, 1380-1500, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p. 536.

The Paumann mentioned above of course was the German organist and lutenist Conrad Paumann, credited with having first devised the system of tablature to create a score of polyphonic music from separate partbooks to display on a single staff, a system of notation used by historical keyboardists and lutenists. The cantus firmi mentioned by Strohm were frequently plainsong melodies that were adapted to secular chansons, as detailed by David J. Rothenberg in The Flower of Paradise: Marian Devotion and Secular Song in Medieval and Renaissance Music. As Rothenberg points out, we now understand that many seemingly secular chansons were actually Marian devotional songs in disguise, a fact reinforced by the use of sacred cantus firmi as the core of the composition that was contrapuntally complex and frequently canonic.

Compare the richness of this historical past with the flavorless aesthetic poverty of the present day, and please explain to us how irritatingly ubiquitous disposable electronic devices enrich the mind and feed the soul. Or just listen to Donna’s new album instead.

Saturday morning quotes 8.45: Plainchant

We are very pleased to announce the release of Donna Stewart’s second album of solo plainchant, Veni, Sancte Spiritus. The album is available for streaming at the usual sites, and CDs will be available on our website by mid-July.

“Plainchant is liturgical music, music to be performed during the celebration of a divine service…Practically the whole of the plainchant repertory is music sung with a text. This is another reason why the music cannot always be discussed as a thing in itself: one has to see whether, and how, it articulates the texts being sung.”

– David Hiley, Western Plainchant: A Handbook, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993, p. 1.

“The music at the fountainhead of the Western musical experience, Gregorian chant, arose in the late eighth century from complex adjustments in the long-term geopolitics of east and west involving Franks, Romans and Byzantines. The work seems to have begun when the first Carolingian kings of the Franks resolved to import Roman plainsong into certain churches…Charlemagne did not think like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, distinguishing the political domain from the religious, and the familiar view that the Carolingians disseminated Gregorian chant by acting as a central power, sending out court-trained singers to the provinces, is precisely the kind of judgement one might now wish to refine.”

– Christopher Page, The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2010, p.3.

Plainchant is the very foundation upon which western historical music is built, and to perform early music without making an effort to understand the role of plainchant in the daily musical experience of our ancestors is akin to debating civil rights in the US today without having read the Constitution and/or Declaration of Independence—that is to say, embarrassingly uninformed and sadly all too common.

Modern lute revivalists simply cannot comprehend the true role of our instrument and its historical music without gaining a working familiarity with plainsong melodies upon which many pieces in the repertory are based. For instance, the circa 1517 Vincenzo Capirola manuscript (pages 129 and 132), where Et in terra pax and Qui tollis peccata mundi, drawn from the Gloria movement of Missa Pange lingua by Josquin des Prés, are arranged for solo lute and copied into the manuscript in sequence. Or the piece for solo lute from the Herbert of Cherbury manuscript (f. 67) titled “Susanne un jour” and attributed to Jacob Polonois, where the plainsong melody of Ave maris stella is quoted verbatim in the bass line. Or the many contrapuntal “In nomine” variation settings for consort and solo instruments by English composers from the Elizabethan age (linked example from the Marsh lute ms., p. 426), the theme of which is drawn from the Gloria tibi Trinitas plainsong tune quoted in the Benedictus of John Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas a 6. There are many, many other examples from the lute music of Francesco da Milano to that of John Dowland, but we’ve made our point.

“I prepared a little talk for a local choir this week, and the piece we focused on particularly was Palestrina’s Sicut cervus, and I was searching around—we’ve all got a favorite recording—but I found a beautiful recording by Mignarda, which is an American lute and voice duo, and the whole motet is just sung as a song with lute, and it’s revelatory, I think, in terms of the sunniness and the longing in Palestrina’s writing.”

– David Allinson, Director of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University, February 5, 2021

“Mignarda, the longstanding soprano-lute duo of Donna Stewart and Ron Andrico, doubled its forces at St. John’s Cathedral on Sunday afternoon, February 24 for “Byrd songes,” a program of devotional and liturgical music by William Byrd. By adding José Gotera and Malina Rauschenfels to their roster, Mignarda created a splendid vocal quartet who sang revelatory versions of Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices and Ave verum corpus.”

– Daniel Hathaway, March 11, 2019.

“Revelatory” is a descriptor that frequently crops up in reviews and commentary on our music and, in all humility, while we appreciate the observation it is just us doing our job well. We have taken the time to immerse ourselves in the aesthetic of the music we perform, and there is simply no substitute for attaining authenticity in performance. Historical music for voice and lute in our repertory is convincing because we take the time and make the effort to understand the words and music and their historical context. The plainchant that permeates early music is more easily recognized and interpreted by performers who actually understand the perspective of historical musicians and their experience of singing the Mass.

“…Stewart makes full use of the church’s reverberent acoustic. Each phrase gets a chance to resolve itself into silence. And she doesn’t hesitate to use a judicious amount of rubato in her singing – never schmaltzy – just the right amount of plasticity that beautiful vocal lines demand. Importantly, Stewart has the beautiful voice equal to those melodies; it is seamless and rich. Not an imitation boy-choir white tone, but a restrained and attractive adult woman’s voice…This is the album to give to folks who might find it a window into understanding the chant ethos. And it’s an album worth listening to yourself because its very different style can open an experienced singer to new ways of thinking about both text and melody.”

– Commentary on Donna Stewart’s Adoro Te, reviewed by Mary Jane Ballou, August 20, 2014.

Since cats rule the internet, we share an unsolicited testimonial.

“The Lady listening to Donna Stewart’s  voice on “Adoro Te” – usually she leaves when I put on music…She seems to enjoy Donna’s singing! It has been interesting to watch her as she seems to listen to the music. BTW I can recommend this CD wholeheartedly – A complete recording for voice alone. The first production of that kind I really enjoyed listening in one run.”
– Thomas Schall

We’re very pleased with this new recording, available for streaming and download now, and we invite you to check out the video below for more background and samples.

Saturday morning quotes 8.44: A novel idea

This is just a short post to feature an interesting article that reflects a bit of our own philosophy in approaching performance of early music. Those familiar with Mignarda’s music understand that our interpretations are quite different compared to most other early music professionals. While we keep up with current (useful) academic research, our approach is informed by gaining a contextual understanding of the sources of historical music; what the music meant originally and how it was performed and received when it was new. This premise seems like a “no-brainer” for performers of historical repertory but we aren’t content to engage in hollow sales talk—we actually mean it. A case in point is that we spent many years singing the Latin Mass, a practice that is ironically disconnected from the PR-driven “castle and cathedral” fantasy world of modern early music performance. Performing historical functional music connects art with actual practical considerations, a process that reveals the sort of joys and frustrations historical musicians experienced when the music was new.

Our featured article illustrates how the guitar was used by professional musicians and amateurs in the 17th century to accompany popular songs, because the music many early music professionals elaborately present today as sacred relics were really just popular songs in their own day.

“…Playing the Spanish guitar in early modern Italy is a topic that yields many rewards, thanks in large part to the volumes of textual evidence that mark the surging numbers of aspiring and professional musicians who took up the instrument starting around the year 1600. The number of guitar sources produced c. 1580–1700 is staggering: about 100 or so manuscripts (tutors, books of songs, dances and sonatas), several dozen printed Spanish guitar tutors (reprinted in great numbers throughout the century)…”

“Seventeenth-century guitarists will be the knowing selves and subjects of this essay, and the texts that they produced, learned from, played from, and marked up will here be the material traces of the musical logics and epistemologies born out of holding the guitar in the hands, touching the fretboard and strumming the strings. From these texts guitar logic materialises as a way of both ‘doing/playing’ and ‘knowing/thinking’, a mutually dependent technê and epistêmê defined in accordance with the bodily and intellectual relationships that develop between guitarists and the instruments they play.”

“…The chief aim is to make a case for the Spanish guitar as an instrument through which knowing subjects sought and secured an epistemology of musical practice, a way-of-knowing and-doing that could even surpass other musical epistemologies already in circulation.”

– Cory M. Gavito, “Thinking Like a Guitarist in Seventeenth-Century Italy”, Early Music History, Volume 40, 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press, ppg. 37-84.

We applaud an approach to scholarship that honors practical considerations such as the timeless application of fingers touching strings of an instrument. There is no better way to understand how historical music actually worked than investing time and energy in learning how an historical instrument with proper stringing defined the interpretive possibilities. For starters, it becomes obvious that an historical guitar was not used in a large concert hall setting, but rather in small rooms at home for domestic music-making.

Saturday morning quotes 8.43: Disinformation

We like to think that the early music revival was a late 20th-century attempt to reclaim our highly developed cultural heritage at a time when historical standards and traditions were rapidly disintegrating. Perhaps this was true and the motivations of many of our pioneers of the early music revival were pure from the outset. But when early music attracted the attention of marketing professionals it became just another commodity to package as a luxury item and sell to a susceptible public. As we have come to understand through the incisive writing of Richard Taruskin, the audience for early music may have been subject to a (sadly unremarkable) disinformation campaign.

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste…”

– Richard Taruskin, “The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” New York Times, July 29, 1990

Through aggressive marketing strategies targeting deep pockets, the audience for early music was made to believe they were the privileged spectators of the past come alive through sound, and that by attending concerts and listening to recordings they were rubbing elbows with historical nobility. Selected performers were touted as highly-skilled adepts who had unlocked the secrets of old music, and their performances would purify and transport the listener to a different, less cynical time. The reality is that performers were just musicians using their 20th-century training and technique, mostly making it up as they went along.

“The truth is we invented the early music vocal sound based on what we wanted it to be like, and on the voices of a small number of singers with particular talents. The small-scale, refined, straight, disciplined early music singing that we were used to came out of nowhere..Even when singers began to look at pedagogical sources and so on, they (we) chose to ignore those bits that didn’t fit the model we had in our heads. An entire pedagogy was developed by people who claimed to know how 17th- or 18th-century singing was supposed to go, but whose knowledge was based mostly on their own experience of the late 20th-century early music movement, rather than an understanding of the sources.”

– Richard Wistreich and John Potter, “Singing early music: a conversation,” Early Music, Vol. XLI, No. 1, February 2013

Over the past 40 years, nearly everyone who was successful at performing early music succeeded because 1) they managed to get involved at the right time, 2) they possessed a trust fund or other means to support their musical life, and 3) they took advantage of the skills of mercenary marketing professionals who knew how to package and sell any product. While early music retains its historical and academic interest to individuals who care deeply about preserving such things (or retired academics endeavoring to remain relevant), brand fatigue has clearly set in. From a marketing perspective, early music is over. Since the early music revival more accurately represents late 20th-century taste, it is useful to examine how marketing permeated every aspect of society for an entire century, successfully turning citizens into consumers.

Turning to the example of Carole Lombard, the famous singer/actor depicted in the illustration above, attitudes, techniques and standards have changed significantly with the times. I (RA) recall a conversation with Bill Gavin (1907 – 1985), a singer and broadcast performer during the heyday of radio, in which he said singers were once encouraged to smoke to add richness to the voice. Today, no legitimate singing coach would recommend intentionally breathing carcinogens. Smoking is well recognized as generally problematic for singers, but it was at one time considered a glamorous mark of social sophistication. How did smoking become so normalized in the first half of the 20th century? Emerging from the rather strict social norms of the Victorian era, how is it that women (or anyone for that matter) were encouraged to smoke in public? The answer lies in the meteoric 20th-century rise of the discipline deceptively labeled Public Relations (PR), a conveniently palatable misnomer for propaganda, which is the very foundation of marketing.

How did deceptive modern marketing strategies get their start and why? Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information in 1917 for the express purpose of persuading the American public that entering the First World War was a good thing—after having campaigned for reelection just the previous year on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”

“Immediately upon entering the war, the Wilson administration brought the most modern management techniques to bear in the area of government-press relations. Wilson started one of the earliest uses of government propaganda. He waged a campaign of intimidation and outright suppression against those ethnic and socialist papers that continued to oppose the war. Taken together, these wartime measures added up to an unprecedented assault on press freedom.”

– Christopher B. Daly, “How Woodrow Wilson’s Propaganda Machine Changed American Journalism“, Smithsonian Magazine, April 28, 2017.

The CPI was directed by George Creel, muckraking journalist and political wannabe. But the key participant in this committee was the father of propaganda himself, Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays actually wrote the book on propaganda in 1928, and he openly boasted that he was capable of selling anything to anyone. For instance, as a consultant to the American Tobacco Company Bernays was paid $25,000 for a very successful 1929 public relations campaign to encourage women to smoke cigarettes, which he described as “torches of freedom.”

For more background on how propaganda/marketing influenced the trajectory of the 20th century, readers are encouraged to seek out the 2002 BBC documentary The Century of the Self, which should be required viewing for all eyes before it disappears forever. The official BBC trailer offers a synopsis which may be more easily digestible for skimmers afflicted with the modern attention span.

Since one of Bernays’ chief clients throughout the 20th century was the US government—and more specifically the CIA—it can plainly be seen that the marketing-driven culture in which we still live is dependent upon control of the media in order to mint and circulate the desired message. This is how we were sold the dubious stories of the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK. This is how wars in Vietnam, Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan were made palatable to a susceptible public. This is how the distracting “greed is good” Reagan, Bush (twice), Clinton and Obama years masked despicable governmental actions at home and abroad, and enabled corporate takeover of nearly every aspect of public service. A targeted marketing campaign was created and delivered to the public (both left and right) via the news media to cover and spin each and every abomination.

The problem, from a perspective of governmental control of the message, is the internet. With readily available, uncensored and rapid means of communication, it is rather a challenge to maintain lies large and small that can easily be exposed by vigilant individuals with open eyes. So far, the government’s plan has been to create and maintain the narrative (trusted content) by colluding with social media platforms to flag as disinformation any information counter to the official message.

“So we’re helping get trusted content out there. We also created the COVID Community Corps to get factual information into the hands of local messengers. And we’re also investing in the President’s, the Vice President’s and Dr. Fauci’s time in meeting with influencers who also have large reaches to a lot of these target audiences who can spread and share accurate information.”

Jen Psaki, former White House Press Secretary

We live in interesting times. The controlling sector in the US is awkwardly scrambling to retain control of the message through traditional media, resorting to labeling anything off-message as “disinformation.” Controlling interests went so far as to create what has been appropriately called a Ministry of Truth for the internet, headed by an extremely creepy character who has herself been caught red-handed spreading disinformation. Fortunately, polling revealed that the Ministry of Truth concept is wholly unacceptable to the majority of the public, and they “paused” the idea—meaning it will surely go forward in secret. The creepy character who was to lead the effort resigned, claiming she was the subject of a disinformation campaign. See where this is heading?

As for early music, we urge our readers to listen, play and indulge in historical sounds of the past, and seek to discover the meaning of music that was created at a time when every educated person understood the essential value of music and how it affects the emotions. And we urge our readers to recognize sales talk and resist marketing nonsense for the disinformation it is.

Saturday morning quotes 8.42: Odd connections

“Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune.” – Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

This apt quotation from the great 20th-century composer demonstrates that he was well-informed about historical music, for the quote itself was obviously derived from a similar observation about tuning the lute by the great 18th-century lutenist, Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687 – 1750). Stravinsky was keenly aware that “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal,” and we take comfort that he also remarked that the lute was the most intimate and certainly the most personal of instruments.

Stravinsky’s uniquely modern compositional style was not to everyone’s taste; in fact it was found to be wanting among the Boston elite—and it was also found to be on the wrong side of Massachusetts law when he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in 1941. The composer was threatened with a $100 fine under Massachusetts law forbidding rearrangement of the national anthem in whole or in part, and at a subsequent 1944 radio performance, Boston police descended on the BSO venue and seized the parts to his arrangement from musician’s stands, preventing the music from being broadcast. The following account was from the earlier performance.

“At the start, the audience began to sing with the orchestra in customary manner, but soon the odd, somewhat dissonant harmonies…became evident. Eyebrows lifted, voices faltered, and before the close practically everyone gave up even trying to accompany the score. Earlier, Mr. Stravinsky … said he retained the melody but introduced different harmonies, suggesting Puritan times with chords in the old contrapuntal style. The composer described the orchestral sound as full, rich, more like a church hymn than a soldier’s marching song or a club song, as the anthem was originally. “I tried to express the religious feelings of the people of America.” But Bostonians found little religious feeling.”

– from H. Colin Slim, “Stravinsky’s Four Star-Spangled Banners and His 1941 Christmas Card”, The Musical Quarterly, Summer – Fall, 2006, Vol. 89, No. 2/3, pp. 321-447

Stravinsky may have appreciated the lute but he was not exactly politically-correct, and he had a reputation as having anti-Semitic leanings that conveniently bolstered his standing in prewar Germany. But he was also an avowed anti-communist, stating, “I loathe all communism, Marxism, the execrable Soviet monster, and also all liberalism, democratism, atheism, etc.” On the other plucking hand, the venerable English leading lady of the lute revival, Diana Poulton, was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party from as early as 1920.

“It had taken courage to remain a Communist in England after 1945 as the Cold War between the western powers and the Soviet bloc developed and deepened. There were several occasions, both during and after her years in the Party, when Diana’s membership had caused difficulty for her. One of her close friends and fellow researchers into the lute and its music was Michael Prynne, at one time Brigadier in the British army and, between 1951 and 1953, military attaché at the Moscow Embassy. Their friendship rang alarm bells for the ‘watchers’ from MI5. Diana and Michael were regular correspondents and shared the results of their researches in order to develop one another’s understanding of the lute. They often exchanged lute tablature by post between London and Moscow … MI5 were puzzled by the tablature, which to the uneducated eye does look very odd. Naturally suspicious about the reason why a known communist should be communicating with their military attaché in a sensitive embassy, they apparently spent hours trying to decipher this unusual and confusing ‘code’ before someone explained that it was just music and old music at that.”

Thea Abbott, Diana Poulton: The Lady with the Lute, Smokehouse Press, Norwich, 2014, ppg 130-131.

Early music enthusiasts today seem to find old music and politics an ungrateful mixture, but the two disciplines have been intertwined in the distant past and in more recent memory, and it should be no surprise that vocal proponents of early music feel compelled to speak out on contemporary issues, going to some lengths to equate the complex dynamics of the past with the first world problems of the present.

We normally feel inclined to keep our political opinions to ourselves, although subtle hints of our leanings may rise to the surface from time to time in these pages. Mainly, we like to grant historical figures a voice and the opportunity to share their timeless observations that often mean as much today as in the past. But we are informed thinking individuals, and we feel inclined to point out the bloody obvious fact that we no longer have leaders in government. Instead, we have followers who obey the deceptive dictates of their corporate donors, and who react grudgingly and belatedly to emergency situations only after following polling data that alerts them to the general level of outrage among citizens.

“The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”

“When once a Republic is corrupted, there is no possibility of remedying any of the growing evils but by removing the corruption and restoring its lost principles; every other correction is either useless or a new evil.”

Thomas Jefferson

Saturday morning quotes 8.41: Anyone listening?

Sometimes we wonder whether anyone out there is listening. Sometimes we feel like the earnest musicianer depicted in the illustration above must have felt; sometimes we feel as though the art form that has consumed countless hours of our time and attention is falling on deaf and disinterested ears. Obviously, we know there is a listening audience for our music—our weekly digital distribution statistics affirm a surprisingly large and growing global desire for quiet, intimate historical sounds that cause the listener to feel something. But over the past few years, the entire global population has undergone a serious recalibration, and we have all been instructed by absurdly unaccountable algorithms to stay at home, be suspicious of our neighbors, and just buy happy-making stuff that is not-so-subtlety suggested by out-of-control surveillance capitalism. It is unsurprising that many of the enormous number of small businesses negatively affected by the health scare have simply evaporated never to return. And that certainly holds true for performing musicians who are still facing significant barriers to concertizing.

A glaringly obvious example of how to deal with a global outbreak of an infectious disease can be found by studying the 1918 influenza epidemic (history revised or strenuously ignored by promoters of the new paradigm). Sensible precautions were taken in 1918, but the world did not shut down. Public concerts continued because music was and is necessary, and there were very limited alternatives available for listening to recordings at the time. This was the era of Elgar, Fauré, Hindemith, Poulenc, Puccini, and Stravinsky, all of whom continued to compose, travel and concertize despite the threat of influenza. Popular songs like “After You’ve Gone” and “Fidgety Feet” were published in 1918, and were enormously successful because they were played live and in-person by musicians unafraid to share a little spit. Fortunately for all artists at the time, their chances and choices were not directed and/or limited by the unchecked power and authority of the technology sector and their enablers.

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.  We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in.  Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.  Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness hard and unkind.  We think too much, and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities life will be violent, and all will be lost…You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work that will give youth a future and old age a security.”

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator, 1940

A gauge of whether anyone is listening is the time-honored measure of bums on seats at the concert hall. Early music as a concert genre has given up the ghost, and its remains are fated to be recalled whimsically, if uneasily, as a musty odor emanating from the sepulcher of current correctness. Early music as a subspecies of classical music was in a tailspin well before the pandemic put the kibosh on all concerts, and the downfall of such a specialized niche market of the entertainment world has been abetted by overcautious hosting organizations and hyper-vigilant academic institutions. But live concerts were given the coup de grâce by unwitting performers falling over themselves to appear pure of heart and mind—not to their audience, but to their corporate, institutional and academic sponsors.

Public health agencies have issued confused and sometimes contradictory directives we are told we must follow in future. But thinking persons will understand the nature of regulatory capture of public agencies by corporate entities and the resulting public policy that aims to advance corporate goals over the public good. The phenomenon has been well-documented over the years in the UK and the US, along with timely and very pertinent observations concerning transparency of data that appeared in a respected medical journal. The upshot is that overzealous public health policy has a serious effect on live entertainment, and has severely dampened enthusiasm for early music concerts, already a diminishing phenomenon. It is important to understand the lessons of history and consider the motivations and the mechanics behind the creation of current public health policy.

“…Two-thirds to three-quarters of global pharmaceutical profits come from the United States.  All that money creates this huge machine that can lobby, that can hire PR, that pays doctors to be key opinion leaders, and that money itself distorts our healthcare system.”

Dr. John Abrahamson, broadcast interview.

The solution to ever-changing rules and untrustworthy leadership? Experience the ultimate in historical accuracy by making music for yourself, your family and your friends.