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Saturday morning quotes 2.10: Who luted?

July 28, 2012

In this, the internet age,  people who still acquire knowledge by reading books are sometimes the object of derision by gadget-freaks with short attention spans and large budgets.  In our household, we read books, and we are not bothered in the least by the fact that we’re a few generations behind in the hardware department.  So, in line with our appreciation of old music and its context, we rest comfortably in the knowledge that, when the internet goes down and when the power goes out, we have all the skills necessary to maintain what we have come to call an Authentic Life.

However, we do heartily appreciate the exceptional number of exceptional people we correspond with, and all of the many new friends we have made via the internet.  And we enjoy sharing these weekly quotes and insights with readers from so many different countries.

This week, we follow up on a question that arose on the lute discussion list: Is it true that, historically, the lute was only available to the wealthy?  Well, yes. It’s still true that the lute and its music are the mostly the province of the wealthy amateur.  But professional musicians were (as they are today) typically drawn from the artisan class and were considered skilled tradesmen or, more often than not, were actually servants.

Our quotes are from Reinhard Strohm from his chapter “The Close of the Middle Ages”, found in the book, Antiquity and the Middle Ages : From ancient Greece to the 15th century, Ed. McKinnon, James: Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice Hall, 1991.

Strohm provides a bit of context for the evidence on which we can base our observations:

Our views of the past ages are inevitably determined by the nature of the available evidence. The late Middle Ages have for us a much more realistic flavour than earlier periods, because the introduction of paper in the later fourteenth century gives us incomparably more detailed insights into the realities of life, whether they be of administration, politics, intellectual life or art.

Musical notation is only a secondary witness.  What is more, much of the music actually heard in the Middle Ages was never written down at all.  The music historian deals not only with loss of evidence, but also with phenomena which were never ‘evident’.

Strohm describes the probable range of what can be considered routine musical experience in the late Middle Ages:

There is relatively less information about all the other music which filled daily life: music heard in the streets and taverns of cities, in princely chambers and ballrooms, in monastic refectories and schools; performances of minstrels on wagons, on horseback, on ships; the ‘music’ and the urban sounds of church-bells, organs, cymbals, signal trumpets; the tunes sung in the countryside by pilgrims, peasants and shepherds.  Most of the music was vocal, since the voice is the most natural instrument and available to anyone at no cost.

On the matter of what sort of person provided musical entertainment:

Without archival, literary and iconographic sources, we would know almost nothing about standard forms of music-making.  The professional musician who made a living from his above-average skills, the minstrel, did not perform from written music.  He had to be an excellent singer (ménéstrel de bouche) or a specialist on a costly instrument to make his way as a solo performer.  Apart from commanding a superb musical memory, he may have deployed related skills such as making poetry (faiseur), acting, telling jokes, dancing, or indeed reading and writing, which qualified him for administrative jobs at court and which he may ultimately have used to write his creations down.

And we close with Strohm’s sensible observation that adds clarity to the murky issue of instrumental performance of secular polyphony:

Courtly solo performers were often harpers, using the instrument so dear to the noble amateurs themselves.  Harp, lute and gittern could be employed to accompany oneself while singing. (This kind of performance is so natural, and has so much historical depth, that it seems absurd to maintain that it only happened exceptionally in the late Middle Ages.)

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