Our weekly posts are unapologetically focused on vocal music of the 16th century and the lute as it was regarded in its golden age; an emblem for all that was civilized and sophisticated, refined and nuanced. Firmly committed to providing contextual references, we hope we might steer today’s lutenists away from their classical guitarist roots and and toward the sense and sensibility of an earlier time and a more intimate aesthetic. Many guitarists turned lutenists tend to favor the more extrovert repertory that projects outward, and conversations with conversos often turn toward a discussion of the mechanical technique required to play the flashy pieces.
Likewise, we hope to offer a reality check for those modern instrumentalists who assume that historical figures like John Dowland (1563 – 1626) experienced music just as a modern musician would. Dowland did not have a run of piano lessons imposed by a strict yet hopeful parent followed by a stint playing rock and roll guitar, then discovering his technique would be improved by studying classical guitar, leading to discovering music for the lute and finally finding a proper instrument and learning to play it. As we pointed out in our series on Dowland’s training, his musical talent was most likely nurtured because he could sing. It is unlikely that a member of the artisan class would have had access to an expensive musical instrument strung with enormously expensive strings if he did not demonstrate musical talent in the normal fashion for the times—singing, most likely as a chorister in a parish church or a small wealthy household.
As true today as it was in the 16th century, information is power, and another aspect of Dowland’s musical life was his role as a well-placed servant who was required to keep his ears tuned to the quietly uttered words and random asides falling from loose-lipped courtiers. The question of “Was Dowland a Spy?” invariably conjures misguided references to Magnus Pym, or even James Bond. But like many aspects of 16th-century life, spying was not the same kettle of fish. No spiffy electronic gadgets, no exploding speed boats, probably no trysts with glamorous and scantily-clad double agents. But as we will see, there was the equivalent of encryption in the form of secret codes devised for the passing of information.
Dowland was known to have traveled to France as servant to Sir Henry Cobham when he was Queen Elizabeth’s Ambassador to France. Rumors and lies about diplomatic integrity aside, the role of the 16th-century ambassador was to discover and report information about the goings on of foreign powers, just as it is today.
The choices a king made when appointing his diplomats was taken as an indication of what sort of prince he was: it could tell another court whether he was learned, interested in cultural trends, philosophically skilled, linguistically adept, pious or militarily capable. Consequently, ambassadors’ actions and qualities were read for evidence of what the king or queen from whom he had been sent thought and was. Sir Francis Thynne, who wrote the first English treatise on the role of the ambassador in 1576, therefore recommended that the men chosen to be ambassadors should be ‘learned, well born, free, no bond-man, of good credit in respect of his honesty, of good estimation in respect of his calling… wise, valiant, circumspect, furnished with divers Languages, eloquent of quick capacitie, of ready deliverance, liberall, comly of person, tall of stature, and…adorned with all vertues required’.
Those chosen were usually men of high social status such as dukes, earls or bishops. Such embassies were usually of short duration and were often lavish affairs. Resident ambassadors were expected to gather information about the politics of the host court and international events; their reports back to England are full of such affairs. In critical moments in England’s international relations, the information ambassadors relayed from the continent could prove critical in gauging how to formulate foreign policy.
– Dr. Tracy Sowerby, University of Oxford, “The Role of the Ambassador and the use of Ciphers”
Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1530 -1590), Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State from 1573 until his death in 1590, was known as the Queen’s spymaster. Possessing all the traits of an extremely paranoid and manipulative government official, Walsingham invested heavily in agents and double-agents throughout the Continent as well as at home. As Secretary of State, Walsingham was responsible for filtering all communications between his many minions and the Queen, and was uniquely positioned to understand the intricacies of diplomacy between England and France having himself served as Ambassador to France from 1570 – 1573, managing to survive the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572.
Here the story becomes interesting. Sir Henry Cobham (Henry Brooke) was Walsingham’s Ambassador to France from 1579-1583, and among his entourage was a youthful lutenist, John Dowland. Cobham’s short-term directives included acting as go-between in Elizabeth’s marriage negotiations with Hercule-François, duc d’Alençon et Anjou (1554 – 1584), also known as Elizabeth’s “Frog”. Walsingham was apparently opposed to the marriage and probably had a hand in ensuring its unsuccessful conclusion. Cobham was reassigned in 1583 and whether Dowland returned to England with him or stayed on to serve his replacement, Sir Edward Stafford, is simply a matter of speculation. However, if Dowland did remain in Paris, he would have been involved in the tension and intrigue that ensued between Stafford, a tool of the Cecils, and Walsingham.
Walsingham dictated the terms on which a government agent should report…In addition, as the patron of aspiring diplomats, Walsingham normally managed to provide ambassadors with staff whose first loyalty lay to himself…
The irruption of Sir Edward Stafford into such a sensitive yet ‘safe’ part of Walsingham’s territory created trouble almost immediately. Lord Cobham, the outgoing ambassador, departed without offering Stafford more than a handful of documents, and no details of informants whatsoever. Stafford retaliated by sending copies of all his despatches to Lord Burghley…
– Mitchell Leimon and Geoffrey Parker,”Treason and Plot in Elizabethan Diplomacy: The ‘Fame of Sir Edward Stafford’ Reconsidered”, The English Historical Review, Vol. 111, No. 444 (Nov., 1996), pp. 1134-1158
Perhaps this little spat is the reason there is no evidence of Dowland in England until 1590, the year of Walsingham’s death. Perhaps it simply was not safe for him. While he was in service, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that the young Dowland was excused from keeping his ears open and reporting what he may have heard while playing for and near the local luminaries. This does not necessarily constitute spycraft in the modern sense but merely doing the job of an upwardly mobile servant. Since Dowland was later known to be well connected with the Cecils, it may very well be true that he remained in Paris and was involved in the shift of power away from Walsingham and towards William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and his son Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1563 – 1612), the dedicatee of Dowland’s 1609 translation of Andreas Ornithoparcus’ Musicae active micrologus.
Just as in a police-state where no one’s phone conversations or e-mail communications are free from the prying eyes of the government and their corporate overlords, no 16th-century letter was expected to reach its destination without being opened and read, sometimes repeatedly. Creatively devised secret codes were commonly used for the transmission of even the most mundane information. A fascinating look at Ciphers during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I reveals a host of codes in common use in diplomatic communication throughout the 16th century—the equivalent of encryption today.
These bits of contextual information help us to understand the depth of Dowland’s humanity and the sort of constraints that affected a successful upwardly mobile musician of his time, something to consider when exploring the highs and lows, the nooks and crannies, the bravura and the pathos of his music.
Whenever the subject of Philip van Wilder (c.1500 – 1553) is broached, the conversation inevitably must turn toward things he was not, or the music he did not compose. For instance, the portrait, “Unknown Man with Lute” by Hans Holbein the younger that is preserved in the Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin is not Philip Van Wilder, as many would wish it to be. David Van Edwards has identified the object hanging on a gold chain around the sitter’s neck as the insignia of office of the Lord High Admiral of England. While it would be nice to put a face to Van Wilder’s illustrious name, the office of Lord High Admiral was not among the few but lavish benefices bestowed by Van Wilder’s sometimes generous patron, Henry VIII.
Van Wilder’s surviving music consists mainly of a handful of sacred motets and some 31 French chansons in four or more parts, ably edited and anthologized in Philip Van Wilder, Collected Works, Parts I and II, ed. Jane A. Bernstein. “Masters and Monuments of the Renaissance”, iv. The Broude Trust, New York, 1991. According to the New Grove article by Bernstein and John Ward:
Van Wilder’s wages and rewards reflect not only his special status but also the various services he performed at court. He played at royal ceremonies, entertained the king in his private apartments, supervised the purchase of musical instruments and lute strings (later he was named Keeper of the Royal Collection of Musical Instruments at Westminster), and gave lute lessons to the royal children (Princess Mary in 1537–43, Prince Edward in 1546). He also accompanied the king on his various journeys within and outside of England. One of the most important was the meeting in late October of 1532 between Henry and the French king François I at the Field of Cloth of Gold between Calais and Boulogne, where musicians from both the English and French courts entertained the royal retinues.
John Ward devotes an entire chapter to Philip Van Wilder and his music in Music for Elizabethan Lutes, Clarendon / Oxford University Press, 1992. While ever so slightly more generous with his speculative attributions than Bernstein, Ward dismissed the works commonly ascribed to him by today’s wishfully thinking lutenists. Of the conjectural possibilities, Bernstein’s collected works includes only a single lute piece as attributable to the man who was first described as a “lewter” at the Tudor court. A Fantasia found in the earliest of Mathew Holmes’ vast lute manuscript, Dd.2. 11, now in the Cambridge University Library, bears the stamp of a lutenist immersed in heady realm of vocal polyphony but possessing an understanding of the resources of the lute.
The set of variations on a tonic/dominant ground found in the Marsh lute manuscript titled “Dump Phili” is certainly not by Van Wilder. While an attractive piece in its own right, attribution of this piece to Van Wilder is wishful thinking in the extreme. The first clue lies in the very “Englishness” of the piece, as well as its stylistic commonality with the many other sets of anonymous variations in the book. Van Wilder was valued as a musician and composer for his Continental sophistication and, as a highly-placed courtier, he was unlikely to have “dumbed-down” his style in order to pander to a royal court that still mainly spoke French.
Van Wilder’s reputation as a lutenist was recorded for posterity in Tottel’s Miscellany or Songes and Sonettes, written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other…(1557–87), which includes an elegy for Philip Van Wilder penned by an unnamed poet.
“On the death of Phillips”:
The stringe is broke, the lute is dispossest,
The hand is colde, the bodye in the grounde.
The lowring lute lamenteth now therfore
Philips her frende that can touche her no more.
But in our vain search to discover Philip Van Wilder’s surviving music for the lute, we need only examine his vocal polyphony. Our appreciation of Van Wilder’s music stems from performance of his four- and five-part chansons, in vocal ensemble and in beguiling arrangements for solo voice and lute. As a composer of secular polyphony, Van Wilder’s style is both delicate and engaging, elegant and sensitive. You can hear our recorded version of his setting of the popular text, Pour un plaisir que si peu dure, here, and his unique setting of Puisqu’ ainsi est que suis escondit here.
Therefore I would give this Caviat, of Cautioon to any who attempt to Exercise Their Fancies, in such Matters of Invention; That They observe Times, and Seasons, and never Force Themselves to any Thing, when they perceive an Indisposition; but wait for a Fitter, and more Hopeful Season; for what comes most Compleatly, come most Familiarly, Naturally, and Easily, without Pumping for (as we use to say).
– Thomas Mace, Musick’s Monument, 1676
Sometimes one’s invention is indisposed or lies fallow and simply can’t be forced. Between living a fairly subnormal modern life and delving deeply into sixteenth-century polyphony, generating overly long strings of words that collide, congeal, describe and reinforce an intelligent theme week after week can take its toll on the old steel trap thinking machine. Occasionally one’s fount of ideas runs slightly thin, if not pumped dry. So today’s post briefly touches on a few random matters of invention.
Invention in historical music is what happens when a musician elaborates on the outline of notes that appear on the page. Famous historical lutenists like Francesco Canova da Milano were esteemed for their ability to improvise a fantasia with points of imitation that were developed and elaborated upon according to the rules one learned during the course of a conventional musical education. While Francesco’s improvisations must remain legendary, his music that survives in written form demonstrates a groundbreaking approach to writing for the lute in a style that emulates vocal polyphony while expressively and idiomatically maximizing the resources of the instrument. According to Victor Coelho,
“During Francesco’s service under Clement VII, the lute fantasia developed from a functional, preludial (and postludial) work written to be played in conjunction with other pieces, to an autonomous work, an artistic creation, that is formally conceived along the lines of rhetoric.”
– Victor Coelho, “Papal Tastes and Musical Genres: Francesco da Milano ‘Il Divino’ (1497-1543), and the Clementine Aesthetic,” in The Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture. Ed. K. Gouwens & S. Reiss. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005, p. 286.
It is certain that improvisation remained an integral part of music making throughout history, as it remains today among musicians who thrive outside the realm of the conventional classical conservatory. While it’s important to study historical sources and strive to sensitively reproduce the notes on the page, if we probe just a bit deeper into the context of historical music we find allusions to the longstanding tradition of improvisation. The notes on the page are frequently no more than an outline of ideas that require elaboration in order to realize the intended musical result.
The long-winded title to Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument (1676), states that the bulk of the book
“Treats of the noble lute, (the best of instruments) now made easie; and all its occult-locked-up-secrets plainly laid open, never before discovered; … directing the most ample way, for the use of the Theorboe, from off the note, in confort, &c.”
Mace’s mention of using the theorbo “off the note” clearly indicates that his instructions will enable the musician to improvise musical solos and accompaniments, as well he should. Those of us who come from a background of musical improvisation are amused no end by the mystique and the amount of intense study given over to realizing harmonies over a written bass line. Most good jazz guitarists will not only improvise harmonies but also create the missing bass line from scribbled chord symbols. Like the 16th-century lutenists, guitarist George Van Eps was skilled in improvising three- and four-part polyphony, all the while maintaining interesting and proper voice-leading.
How do we learn to improvise? The phenomenon has, of course, been studied.
“A summary of brain structure and function reveals the importance of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to creative thinking.”
“The frontal lobe is the seat of executive function and is essential to our ability to plan, to make decisions, to form judgments, to assess risk, and to formulate insight. The PFC, which occupies half the frontal lobe, integrates already highly processed information to enable even higher cognitive functions…”
“In regards to cognitive processes, improvisation can thus be defined as the spontaneous generation, selection, and execution of novel auditory-motor sequences. Since musicians must generate a potentially infinite number of contextually meaningful musical phrases by combining a finite set of notes and rhythms, researchers consider musical improvisation an optimal way to study the neural underpinnings of spontaneous creative artistic invention.”
– Mónica López-González, “Musical Creativity and the Brain”
Matters of invention are really part of our daily life and musical improvisation is merely mindful use of our normally functioning faculties. Whenever we find shortcuts to avoid traffic, or substitute ingredients in a recipe, or crack a joke, or lie to our guitar teacher about why we could not practice, we are indulging in invention. Musically speaking, there was a very creative band called the Mothers of Invention fronted by Frank Zappa, surely the musical heir of the demented Carlo Gesualdo in their mutual use of dissonance and themed cacophony.
Another organization that calls itself the Mothers of Invention, sponsored by a car manufacturer that will remain unnamed, in 2014 rewarded a creative person from Texas who invented a way to bridge the ubiquitous language gap that is a barrier to effective communication commonly encountered in one of the largest states of our nation of immigrants. But in 2015, hyperactive police types in the same state rewarded a creative high school student with arrest, handcuffs, illegal interrogation and suspension from school for taking his creative project to school just to show his teacher. Matters of invention have taken an ugly turn.
One is overcome both by extreme irritation and utter dismay at the complete absence of intellectual capacity and the arrogant misuse of authority by those in positions of responsibility. But at least you have to give them credit for inventing an alternate reality where the inarticulate and mean-spirited trumps human logic and historically accepted Christian values.
The statement of facts…is a speech instructing the audience as to the nature of the case in dispute…Most writers…hold that it should be lucid, brief and plausible…[so that the audience will] remember and believe what we say.
– Quintilian IV, ii
We seem to be living in the age of spin where facts and truth are a matter of interpretation. Way before the internet and even before radio and television, the idea of the news cycle was simply nonexistent. News is and always has been tainted by a distinct commercial slant, and facts and so-called truth must somehow be crammed in between commercial announcements. Then along came death to live entertainment in the form of motion pictures—and mass media advertising disguised as movie reviews.
In 2000, Sony executives decided it would be smart idea to invent a critic who would miraculously always love all of their movies. David Manning, aka thin air, thought that Hollow Man was “One helluva scary ride!” while Rob Schneider’s critically loathed comedy The Animal was “Another winner!”…Around the same time, it was revealed that Sony had also used employees to pose as moviegoers in a TV spot for Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. One of them described the violent drama with implied rape threats as “a perfect date movie”.
– Benjamin Lee, “How my negative review of Legend was spun into movie marketing gold”
Anyone in the entertainment business knows that talent means absolutely nothing as a measure of exposure and success. Success results from solid inside connections and well-paid PR professionals.
Eventually, it occurred to me to investigate – and the answer was that the PR industry simply wrote its own history. Despite PR professionals regularly telling us they’re storytellers, the only tale they’ve woven is an elaborate farce of empty self-importance that borders on the religious.
– Ed Zitron, “I work in PR – and we’re all terrible people”
Paradoxically, the spin doctors of early music, sell to the public a cast of performing artists, and their recordings and live performances, lavishly presented and characterized as historically-informed, honest and transparent. But peering behind the curtain reveals that we are treated to a product that is at best unsatisfying and at worst downright dishonest.
To begin, chosen tempos we hear today, frequently from one or two well-publicized renaissance lutenists but mostly in baroque ensemble performances, are not even close to historically accurate. Every historical writer on the subject tells us that taste and elegance are primary, and that tempo is ultimately based on the beat of the heart. One can only surmise that some musicians have had heart transplants to the disadvantage of severely inconvenienced chipmunks. Some orchestras sound like they are falling over themselves in an attempt to make the music seem more exciting, but we hear clipped notes, mangled phrasing and barely managed dynamic contrast—the absolute antithesis of taste and elegance. Among those of us with experience in theater, it is well known that flash and speed are merely cheap tricks used to cover a lack of depth.
A particularly egregious example was heard last week when I (RA) entered the room to hear a radio broadcast of a certain group playing Vivaldi in what was once a live performance. I instantly experienced the sensation of eating a perilously dripping ice cream cone on a very hot day as quickly as possible in order to avoid a sticky melting mess. But when the performance was over, the encore brought on a serious attack of dyspepsia. This group had the audacity to purloin a down-and-dirty Kentucky fiddle tune that is near and dear to my heart and make a foot-stomping quasi-Celtic arrangement out of it. I felt the same sensation of dismay when someone stole boxes of our CDs at gunpoint and later blithely sold them on Amazon—and the law said there was no recourse.
As a musician who has (true confession) spent a good deal of his life playing traditional American fiddle music, I felt empathetic toward legends like Gus Cannon, who lived in a cardboard shack in the 1960s while the Rooftop Singers made millions off his song, “Walk right in, sit right down”. Or Roscoe Holcomb who taught his version of “I am a man of constant sorrow” to Ralph Stanley on that tour bus; a song that was later purloined and t-boned into a popular movie. The upshot is that this collection of paper-trained types really has no business playing real music in front of people until they learn how it goes.
The tune in question is “Glory in the meetinghouse” and the original recording was by one Luther Strong (1892 – 1962). If you follow the links you’ll learn that the tune falls more neatly into the “Kentucky blues” category than the Sligo-ornamented “Irish reel” category, not to diss our friends who play Irish music. And further reading will tell you that Luther recorded this tune in 1937 on a borrowed fiddle after spending the night in jail for public drunkedness, having been bailed out by Alan Lomax for the occasion. No tuxedos were involved.
The Chieftains-type treatment of “Glory in the meetinghouse” is really not in the best of taste for a powerful Kentucky fiddle tune, which is meant to be a fiddle solo. I was first introduced to Irish fiddle music via the first Chieftains record, and they are truly classics, but everyone knows the Chieftains did for Irish music what Lawrence Welk did for popular dance music of the 1940s. Yes, it’s true that Luther’s version of “Bonaparte’s retreat” had already been purloined by Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) for the “Hoedown” bit of his Rodeo suite. But if you’re going to do that to his music, perhaps you were thinking you might look up Luther’s family in Hazard, Kentucky and pay them some royalties. Just click here, scroll to the bottom and read the comments from three of Luther’s relatives.
That’s the facts. And anything else y’all want to know about real fiddle music before you go messing with it, you just ask.
As a duo specializing in polyphonic music of the 16th century our primary focus has been performance of surviving repertory for solo voice and lute. While there is an ample supply of historical music that survives in this format, there also exists a vast amount of 16th-century vocal polyphony that not only adapts well to arrangement for a solo voice and lute but is improved upon when performed with this appealing combination. In many cases the meaning of the text is brought to the fore and made clear without the competing distraction of vocalization of the lower parts which can, insensitively rendered, devolve into a shouting match. The lute solves the problem by proffering a sensitive and transparent filigree of wordless dialogue.
We have added many new arrangements to the canon by following instructions of historical figures including Adrian Le Roy (A Briefe and Easye Instrution…, 1568, 1574), and Vincenzo Galilei (Fronimo Dialogo di Vincentio Galilei, 1568, 1584). The historically-appropriate process of arrangement, or intabulation, has been a truly enlightening experience and has given us as performers important insights and a way to become intimate with the compositional style, devices and musical personalities of several sixteenth-century composers of vocal polyphony.
Today we share a snapshot of our process with a short description of two pieces by one of the best known proponents of what we have come to call the sixteenth-century Parisian chanson, Claudin de Sermisy (c. 1490 – 1562).
“During the first half of the sixteenth century the music publishing industry created a market among ever-widening circles of amateur performers. Not every circle could muster the forces or the sophistication to cope with the courtly chanson in its original part-song guise. Arrangements for keyboard and intabulations for lute and other fretted instruments helped many amateurs—the professional musician could improvise or arrange his own versions, of course, without such aids.”
– Daniel Heartz, “Au pres de vous”, Claudin’s Chanson and the Commerce of Publishers’ Arrangements”, Journal of the American Musicological Society , Vol. 24, No. 2 (Summer, 1971), p 209.
Au pres de Vous
Au pres de vous secretement demeure
Mon povre cueur sans que nul le conforte
Et si languist pour la douleur qu’il porte
Puis que voulez qu’en ce tourment il meure.
Beside you secretly dwells
My poor heart with none to comfort it,
Thus languishing for the pain it bears
Since you will that in this torment it die.
Our inspiration for arranging this chanson for solo voice and lute was the illustration above and a descriptive article by Daniel Heartz, who examined the painting known as “Prodigal Son among the courtesans,” (Franco-Flemish School, 16th century: Paris, Musee Carnavalet, P619). Upon close inspection Heartz discovered on the table a visible musical fragment of Sermisy’s chanson, notation and a scroll of lute tablature from which a singer, lutenist and flautist are playing.
The four-voice chanson, Au pres de vous, appeared in Attaignant’s first publication, Chansons nouvelles en musique a quatre parties, 1527-8, with a few subsequent reprints. We consulted copies of the original and carefully matched the music to surviving intabulations for solo lute, including a Bavarian lute manuscript where it is attributed to Marco Dall’ Aquila (c.1480 – 1538) and in the print, Des chansons reduictz en tablature de luc à trois et quatre parties, published in 1545 Louvain by Pierre Phalèse.
Our performance of Au pres de vous may be heard here.
Las je m’y plains
Las! Je m’y plains, mauldicte soit fortune,
quant pour aimer je n’ai que desplaisir.
Venez, regretz, venez mon coeur saisir,
et le monstrez a ma dame importune.
Alas! I bewail my evil fortune
As for love, I credit that displeasure
Come regrets, come seize my heart
And remonstrate my importunate lady.
Las je me plains is Sermisy’s setting of the poetry of Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585), a simple, wistful and melancholy text with a transparent musical character that seems to look ahead to a more flowing and sensuous melodic style. The four-part setting appears in Attaignant’s Trente et sept chansons musicales a quatre parties, Paris,1531.
An intabulation for solo lute appears in the very earliest prints of lute tablatures by Francesco da Milano, including the undated Intabolatura da leuto del divino Francisco da Milano novamente stanpata, printed from engraved copper plates, an unusual practice in 16th-century music printing and rarely seen again until the early 17th-century prints of Nicolas Vallet. A single copy of this unique print survives in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.
Our performance of Las je m’y plains may be heard here.
The 16th century intabulations for solo lute served as a useful guide for pitch and decoration but they also revealed other important interpretive clues. Like most music that is or was popular, the poetry communicates to much better effect when the part music is transposed downward and pitched in the same range as the versions for solo lute, imparting a greater warmth and offering further evidence of an entirely flexible and adjustable historical pitch standard.
As we know, the world is comprised of givers and takers and, with our ongoing weekly posts, we steadfastly occupy the former category. But we tend to keep ears and eyes open and have noticed some of our collected themes and our very words reprinted elsewhere—even printed in magazines. We are not inclined to quibble about this because it means our insights have gained some traction and that is a good thing. So today’s post will make it easy for those who occupy the second category.
First, a quiz. What do the following famous persons have in common?
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)
Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603)
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525 – 1594)
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)
Christiaan Huygens (1629 – 1695)
James Joyce (1882 – 1941)
Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner CBE (1951 – )
If you answered that all the above played the lute, give yourself a pat on the back. Your reward is a bit of background on each of these luminaries.
Martin Luther was known to have played the lute, but he is better known for his many philosophical insights and the reformed religion. Among his surviving quotes, one of the most enduring is his statement that “music was next to theology.” Luther discussed music in a great deal more detail but it is too bad some of his comrades in dogma did not share his views on the value of music, as is recounted in even greater detail in Eric Nelson, The Legacy of Iconoclasm: Religious War and the Relic Landscape of Tours, Blois and Vendôme, 1550 – 1750, Centre for French History and Culture, University of St Andrews, Fife, 2013 (link is pdf).
Queen Elizabeth I was known to have played the lute, as is evident in the famous miniature by Nicholas Hilliard. But as reported by foreign diplomats, she was intensely jealous of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, who had the benefit of time spent immersed in the rich cultural milieu of the French court, was a favorite of the poet Ronsard, and was reputedly a much better lutenist. Could this be the real reason Mary was imprisoned for 19 years and finally executed? Whatever her motives, Elizabeth was a patron of great music and the object of inspired poetry.
To the Queen
What music shall we make to you?
To whom the strings of all men’s hearts
Make music of ten thousand parts:
In tune and measure true,
With strains and changes new.
How shall we frame a harmony
Worthy of your ears whose princely hands
Keep harmony in sundry lands:
Whose people divers be,
In station and degree?
Heaven’s tunes may only please,
And not such airs as these.
For you which down from heaven are sent
Such peace upon the earth to bring,
Have heard the choir of angels sing:
And all the spheres consent,
Like a sweet instrument.
How then should these harsh tunes you hear
Created of the troubled air
Breed but distaste—when you repair—
To our celestial ear?
So that this centre here
For you no music finds,
But harmony of minds.
– Sir John Davies (1569 – 1626)
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina occupies an important place as a favorite composer of sacred music for many Catholics today. We’re not sure whether this is due to his legendary role in saving sacred polyphony from the sharp knives of less musical administrators after the Councils of Trent, or perhaps because Palestrina’s music is anthologized in many modern musical textbooks. While much of his music is simply sublime, there are other composers. But we have to admire Palestrina because he played the lute, as evident in a letter surviving today in the archives of Mantua addressed to Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua and written by Don Annibale Capello:
Rome, 18 October 1578
“Having passed recently through a serious illness and being thus unable to command either his wits or his eyesight in the furtherance of his great desire to serve Your Highness in whatever way he can, M. Giovanni da Palestrina has begun to set the Kyrie and Gloria of the first mass on the lute, and when he let me hear them, I found them in truth full of great sweetness and elegance…And as soon as his infirmity permits he will work out what he has done on the lute with all possible care.”
Galileo Galilei was the son of the famous Vincenzo (c.1520 – 1591) and the brother of Michelagnolo (1575 – 1631), lute players all. While Galileo is remembered today for his achievements in mathematics and astronomy—and his trial for heresy—he was said to have been more skilled as a lutenist than either his father or his brother. Galileo was father to an illegitimate son, also named Vincenzo (1606 – 1649), who was, like the rest of his family, a skilled lutenist as well as a designer and builder of instruments. Galileo’s disciple Vincenzo Viviani (1622 – 1703) wrote that the younger Vincenzo designed and built a
“…lute made with such art that, playing it so excellently, he extracted continuous and goliardic voices from the cords as if they were issuing from an organ’s pipes…”.
Christiaan Huygens was likewise fortunate to have been born into a musical family and his father Constantijn Huygens: Lord of Zuilichem (1596 – 1687) was known as a lutenist and a diplomat. Like Galileo, Christiaan is remembered today for his work in mathematics and astronomy, but also for his treatises on horology (link is pdf), lenses and the diffraction of light, and for proposing the existence of extraterrestrial life.
“That which makes me of this Opinion, that those worlds are not without such a Creature endowed with Reason, is that otherwise our Earth would have too much the advantage of them, in being the only part of the Universe that could boast of such a Creature…”
– Christiaan Huygens, in The Celestial Worlds Discover‘d; Or, Conjectures Concerning the Inhabitants, Plants and Productions of the Worlds in the Planets (1698)
Huygens was a contemporary of the more famous Sir Isaac Newton, whose theories regarding gravity he found “absurd” and about whom he wrote:
“I esteem his understanding and subtlety highly, but I consider that they have been put to ill use in the greater part of this work, where the author studies things of little use or when he builds on the improbable principle of attraction.”
James Joyce is mainly known as a writer, his best-known works being Finnegans Wake and Ulysses. But Joyce was esteemed as a singer and his poetry and prose reads as very musical indeed. The linked portrait of Joyce with a guitar confirms his penchant for plucked strings, but the lute connection is from a letter Joyce penned to his friend Oliver Joseph St. John Gogarty (1878 – 1957):
“My idea for August is this – to get Dolmetsch to make me a lute and to coast the South of England from Falmouth to Margate singing old English songs”.
– James Joyce in a letter to Gogarty dated 3rd June 1904, from Thea Abbott, The Literary After-Life of Arnold Dolmetsch.
Joyce seemed to have entertained a fascination with the lute at a time when the early music revival was in its infancy, referring to the instrument metaphorically:
“Brothers-in-law: relations. We never speak as we pass by. Rift in the lute I think. Treats him with scorn. See. He admires him all the more. The night Si sang. The human voice, two tiny silky chords, wonderful, more than all others.”
– James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), Chapter 11 – Sirens
Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner CBE (1951 – )
The pop personality known as Sting has done a great service to the diametrically opposed worlds of pop music and early music by taking up the lute and recording a sampling of songs by John Dowland. When the recording was released, there was a bit of groaning from the pop world and snuffling on the part of early music specialists. Why would a successful pop artist want to take up the lute? We can’t answer that question but we’re glad he did.
“Well I didn’t set out to influence people! Singing Verdi requires a certain technique. But these songs I imagine were created to be sung around a table. Did everyone in the Elizabethan era have a refined and wonderful trained singing voice? I doubt it. Did Dowland himself have a great singing voice? We don’t know. But if you are true to the spirit of the story you are telling, and the marks they made on the paper . . . everything else is moot. These songs belong to everybody.”
– Sting in an interview with Chris Goodwin, published in Lute News 80, December 2006
The names on the list at the top of the page are a representative group of highly cultured philosophers, writers and innovators—and one pop star. But the important point is that they all played the lute. Can we imagine that great thinkers will emerge from a culture that devotes most of its creative energy to thumbing their phones while walking, driving, eating, or even socializing? I think not. Just put down your phone and take up the lute.
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The warm season grinds to an unsatisfying close as, for many, murmurs of matriculation begin to crowd out any thoughts of summer idyls. We honor the current “back to school” theme by sidling back to our series of quotations on musical education.
We have seen that even nasty and brutish (if not short) rulers such as Henry VIII took great pains to educate his children in music, with a surviving manuscript devised for the purpose. His (legitimate) daughter Mary was even supplied with a lute and instructed by the great Philip van Wilder while banished from court. The young Edward and Elizabeth were both instructed by Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490 – 1546), who encouraged skill in music as a necessary precursor to wise governance.
In the later 16th century, we see echoes of Elyot’s message in the writing of Niccolò Vito di Gozze, from his treatise, Dello stato delle Repubbliche secondo la mente di Aristotele con esempi moderni, Venezia, 1591.
“It is from the education of children that it is certain and reliable to predict if a certain state will last long or soon decline…I cannot see greater traitors of state than those who, by governing it, take little care about good education of children in their early age, and later be obliged to govern it.”
“…Children should also be taught the art of music, which was not included in the liberal arts without reason by ancient philosophers, because it helps us to spend leisure time in a correct and non-contaminated way. But, along with being indispensable it is also manifoldly appropriate, because it offers by its nature great embellishment to governing and benefit to the state of mind, as music by its influence incites various emotions in souls…”
– from Monika Jurić, “Paideia and the Neo-Platonic Ideas on Music Education and Culture in Renaissance Dubrovnik in the Works by Niccolò Vito di Gozze (Nikola Vitov Gučetić, 1549 – 1610)”, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 44, No. 1 (June 2013), pp. 3-17: published by Croatian Musicological Society.
We take a giant leap to the first half of the 20th century on the eve of the second great war with the wise words of Leo Kestenberg as translated by Arthur Mendel.
“In every step of the educational process, and in every branch of education, the teacher’s role is to strive to give form to human material, or to help it to find its own form, just as in every branch of art the first task of the artist must be to learn to give form to the materials of his art.”
“It follows that music education must have a particularly important place in art education, and therefore in any education that strives towards the attainment of a natural and systematically developed sense of form.”
“Another feature of music education connected with the pedagogic tendencies of recent decades is its community character. The tension between the “Me” and the “Thee” that underlies all the crises of our time, as perhaps of all times, has led to an emphasis in education of everything that would tend to reinforce the community sense. In a chorus, as on a baseball or a football team, there is more than a hint of how the interests of the individual and of the community may be harmonized. The moulding of every individual voice into an organized and “harmonious” whole solves the problem of finding a balance between the centrifugal and the centripetal forces in society.” p. 446
– Leo Kestenberg and Arthur Mendel, “Music Education Goes Its Own Way”, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct., 1939), pp. 442-454
By now we should all know that a musical education results in a more intelligent and empathetic individual. Prior to the onset of the late 20th-century techno-war on culture, which artists appear to have lost, music was always considered an essential component of education, and skill in music was a hallmark of a cultured person. And skill in music was also taught to the general public because musicians were necessary in church, at court, and for public entertainment.
At some point in the not too distant past the monopolists of Silicon Valley convinced the general public that skill in manipulating an ever-shifting set of devices and their never-quite-functioning software is more important than skill in music, and they appear to have bought themselves a collection of legislators to help make it so. In fact, education in general is cast as the enemy by a large and unintelligent group of sub-presidential personalities.
Let’s return to the good old days and institute a lute-test for anyone with presidential pretensions—because if you’re smart enough to play the lute, you can do just about anything.