Saturday morning quote #23: Voice, lute & polyphony
As our music gains greater circulation, we often receive comments concerning what appears to many a unique format of performing polyphonic music from the 16th century, solo voice and lute – music that sometimes goes deeper into the renaissance repertory than the more typical Elizabethan lute songs.
Much of our repertory is familiar in its more widely known and typical disposition for voices, and some of the chestnuts we perform are subjected to what seems a rather odd comparison with choral performances. Sometimes the comments are a little acerbic, and from time to time we feel the need to clarify our choices and the historical appropriateness of our approach.
The category of ‘Early Music’ has effectively attracted an interesting audience of listeners, many of whom pride themselves on more than a passing knowledge of historical music. Prominent artists attract and hook listeners with performances of what seems like the ‘most authentic’ interpretation of the music, and, for many, these favorite artists define the parameters of early music by their choice of repertory and their unique stylistic interpretive peculiarities.
In the larger scheme of things, it is important to recognize that Early Music is, like so many popular trends today, really nothing more than a marketing category that has been dressed up for the the purpose of selling a product and making money. The genre seems to have attracted a broad audience of ‘truth-seekers’ searching for something that adds meaning to our technology-based existence. For those with the time and patience to attend, Early Music can offer an oasis of calm, quiet, subtlety and nuance.
For us, the music has many facets. Having spent a good deal of time singing chant and sacred renaissance polyphony in the liturgical context, we embrace both the spiritual and the functional aspects of the music. Unlike professional choirs today, musicians of the 16th century did not attend weekly choir rehearsals / social gatherings and prepare for months in advance to perform a mass or motet. Much of what they sang was just handed to them and they were expected to respond with intelligence and understanding. But they were prepared in other ways.
For instance, they understood the context and recognized the chant quotations and clever bits from popular secular music that were woven into a given motet. Tempo was flexible dependent on how long the clergy would allow the piece to last within the ritual. Pitch was determined by the disposition of voices available. But most importantly, they were deeply rooted in the music of the present. Musicians of the 16th century did not flit about from one historical era to the next, performing a 15th century rondeau today, a Bach cantata tomorrow, then a recital of Schubert lieder next week. For that reason, the mysteries of notation were nil, the conventions of performance were as natural as drawing breath, and the standard of interpretation was high.
Getting to the point, the lute is capable of articulating polyphony in several parts. That is, if the lutenist is willing to commit time to attain the necessary level of skill. Since making one’s own domestic music was really the only option for entertainment, the practice of singing the top part of a piece of vocal polyphony, and assigning the lower parts to the lute was standard practice in the 16th century, as is evident from the vast amount of surviving music in that format.
Our quote below reinforces this fact:
[Polyphony is good but] to sing to the lute is much better, because all the sweetness consisteth in one alone and a man … understands the better the feat manner and the air or vein of it when the ears are not busied in hearing any more than one voice …
Thomas Hoby, The Book of the Courtier, 1561