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Saturday morning quote #23: Voice, lute & polyphony

October 28, 2011

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

So there.

  1. Dan permalink

    Serious vocal polyphony reduced for lute & one voice? Carlos Mena, countertenor (my favorite, and I usually don’t like the countertenor voice) and Juan Carlos Rivera on lute & vihuela. Superb versions of Tomas Luis de Victoria’s motets, antiphons & mass sections.

    Interesting, the chameleonish role playing; channeling of multi-zeitgeists to put our time-traveling moving musical feasting across convincingly, with sincerity. Last night I had the pleasure of hearing an old recording of Sinatra’s album, “Only the Lonely”- great singing, fine old classics, he had no problem getting into “historical moment” —-“the mysteries of notation were nil, the conventions of performance were as natural as drawing breath, and the standard of interpretation was high.”

    -And, of course, “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 …” but of course he sungeth to the orchestra of Nelson Riddle. Not even an inaudible theorbo in the mix.


    • Thanks, Dan.

      Yes, Victoria is a favorite composer around our house, and we include a few of his motets on our recording Harmonia Caelestis, which mainly features motets by Guerrero.

      As for period singing style, Sinatra was an enduring great, and ‘alto’ Chet Baker is a real prize as well. The point is that singing with a natural voice always, always, always sells the song. Whenever I hear an over-produced sound in any genre of music (from anyone other than Cecilia Bartoli), I just have to reach over and turn the switch and it goes away and then I’m happy again. Eventually, people who listen to early music will get the point.


  2. Dan permalink

    There have always been a few, great special altos- Chet Baker of course; and the unique Jimmy Scott:

    My very first singing partner- an aeon ago, when I was an undergrad at Temple University, (I was their very first classical guitar major- but already shape shifting over to the Dark side of Renaissance lute) – was a former soprano from a North Philly Doo-Wop group- he got into college on scholarship as an English Lit major, and he absolutely flipped when he discovered the Elizabethan lute song repertoire. He was a natural- high, beautiful and smooth- and he brought a confident sensibility and naturalness to the English lute song repertoire I haven’t heard since. Lost touch years ago, wonder what ever happened to him.

    Over produced sound, over-wrought delivery, especially from a singer, always gets cut off at the knees in our house, too. My wife, the Soprano to whom I am karmically bonded for all eternity, has antennae for Wrong Singing that could function as a musical polygraph machine.

    I really recommend that Victoria recording by Mena and Rivera.


  3. Thanks, Dan. We have heard that recording in recent memory, thank goodness for the public library and their collection of CDs. I’m curious to know what it is about that particular recording that inspires you. I was frankly surprised by the production values on Harmonia Mundi. The addition of artificial reverb really tends to obscure tuning, but I understand how difficult it is to maintain pitch in falsetto.


  4. Dan permalink

    This particular recording had such an impact on me for two reasons- the combination of a really clean, beautifully smooth sounding singing instrument in a register by a type of voice I rarely like; (as solo- great for blending; like certain coffee beans and wines) and the striking effect of music that I am used to hearing only as a cappella polyphony. I had never heard this material presented in this format before; only either as originally set for choral performance, or as strictly instrumental- consort and/or solo intabulation.

    Sacred 14th & 15th century polyphony knocks me right up into the clouds. The single voice & lute/vihuela presentation does the same thing, but simultaneously dumps it right into my lap- the intimacy gained seems to heighten the impact exponentially- to me. So I was very pleased to read your Saturday quote addressing this very practice. I think the reverb went right by me- I haven’t heard the cd in a while. Also we have a pretty obsolete, low tech crappy old sound system at home- it may be minimizing some things like the reverb. I have to listen again.

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