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Saturday Morning Quote #6: Very serious advice

June 25, 2011

Today’s short quotes are excerpted from the final pages of an instruction book for playing the lute, hand-copied by a young English lady circa 1660s.  The book has very little in the way of musical examples but is overflowing with the anonymous instructor’s anecdotal advice.

“Miss Mary Burwell’s Instruction Book for the Lute:” Thurston Dart, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 11 (May, 1958), pp. 3-62.

It is a disgrace for the lute to play country dances, songs or corants
of violins, as likewise to play tricks with one’s lute-to play behind
the back, etc.

The lute is a noble instrument, not made for debaucheries, ranting
or playing in the streets to give serenadas to Signora Isabella. ‘Tis a
grave and serious music for modest and sober persons, and for the
cabinet rather than for a public place.

…To make people dance with the lute it is improper; it is true that a
young lady may dance the saraband with her lute, and that is all.

This sober guidance is likely to be a sign of the attitude toward sensory entertainment during the interregnum, which were puritanical times indeed.  We are further set straight on the appropriateness of singing with the lute and the proper time of day it should be heard:

It is neither proper to sing with the lute, it being a perfect consort of itself;
for the voice is but a repetition of the treble, and if you sing the treble or
any other part (for you can sing but one) that part will drown the others.

This instrument requireth silence and a serious attention.It is used commonly
at the going to bed of the Kings of France, and that time is the time of most
rest and silence.

And we have historical justification for the many players of today with too much money and an inclination to own every type and model of lute ever made:

If you will play well of the lute you must not play too many lessons nor use
many several tunings at once. If you will play upon several tunings, you must
have several lutes.

Finally, stern words (rightly so) about keeping time, and also regarding the application of digits:

In conclusion, the greatest error that is in playing upon the lute is to play too
fast, and not to keep the time, and not to use the right fingers. Without that,
play never so well, you are but a bungler and fit only to amaze the ignorant
sort of people and make a fool of yourself.

  1. Playing behind one’s back? Doesn’t everyone?

    • I seem to have to play behind my back just to find the time to practice. The guy I work for is a slave-driver.


  2. wolfgang w. permalink

    “In conclusion, the greatest error that is in playing upon the lute is to play too
    wonderful note for one, who started lute-playing with 45.

  3. Thanks, Wolfgang. I agree completely that many modern players miss the point and play too fast, presumably because, as Dowland said, their ability lies in their finger’s ends. If we stop and think about it, what possible reason would a lutenist have to play a piece at such a fast pace circa 1500s? A pressing business engagement, or perhaps a haywain to catch? With the exception of very specific dances, an excessively fast tempo in lute playing is most certainly a modern anachronism, apparently foisted upon us by players with a very short attention span.


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