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Saturday morning quotes 2.20: Harping on the lute

October 6, 2012

This is not a promise of our last and final word on the subject, but we return to scribble just a bit more on the theme of instrumental participation in medieval secular music before shifting our attention back to the music of John Dowland next week.

Why do we continue to flog this theme? The answer is because there is a silly idea currently circulating, particularly among early music aficionados in the US, that any instrumental participation in the chanson repertoire from before circa 1500 smacks of a discredited and ill-informed interpretation, harkening back to the days before record companies successfully advanced the a cappella approach.

In earlier blog posts, we have identified and examined some of motivations for advancing the a cappella approach to this repertory, pointing out that scholarship was smartly used to achieve a certain level of commercial success in sales of recordings by certain vocal ensembles, accomplished in fairly blatant collusion with scholars who deliberately skewed record reviews to advance the party line.

OK.  No one should blame musicians for figuring out handy ways to stimulate interest in their music, hopefully leading to a certain level of livelihood in what is by every indication an extremely unstable career choice.  The a cappella craze certainly created employment for a great many singers.  And the desire to experiment with voices rather than giving the medieval musical era over completely to pipes, whistles, and things that go buzz in the night, is not entirely without merit. But please, please, please don’t tar all instrumentalists with the same brush, and please, please, please take the time to remind audiences that


Lord knows, it’s hard enough for lutenists without having to convince American audiences — and even American academics who should know better — that there is more evidence to support the participation of plucked strings in the medieval chanson repertoire than there is evidence of vocalizing untexted parts.

Let’s review a little background information demonstrating a surprisingly thin basis for the experimental vocalization of untexted parts:

“Unless fresh evidence comes to light (a description of vocalization in a medieval text, for example) it will never be possible to establish how singers vocalized in late medieval France…”

“This evidence [of vocalization] is ‘literary’ rather than ‘documentary’ (a much abused word), in the sense that it is principally drawn from romances and chronicles, texts which are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another in terms of their diction and tone, even though the romances are nominally fiction, while the chronicles are supposedly constrained by fact.”

“Going beyond the Limits: Experiments with Vocalization in the French Chanson”, 1340–1440, Christopher Page, Early Music, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Aug., 1992), pp. 446-459

We turn to a description of the ample evidence of instrumental performance of medieval chanson repertoire:

The single most helpful source of information on lute playing in fifteenth-century Britain occurs in a booklet of expenditure accounts written by George Cely.  Cely was an educated young middle-class wool merchant and a member of the Staple Company at Calais, a town then in British hands.  The booklet includes accounts for a course of lessons with a professional musician, Thomas Rede, in the years 1474-5.  Rede taught Cely not only the lute, but dancing and the harp.

Of special interest are the names of seven pieces that Cely was taught to play: ‘O Freshest Flower’, ‘O Rosa Bella’, Mine Heart’s Lust’, ‘Of Such Complain’, ‘Go Heart Hurt with Adversity’, ‘My Daily (or Doly) Woe’, and ‘Toujours’.  It is very significant that of the titles which refer to known pieces, all are polyphonic songs, rather than pieces from a purely instrumental tradition.

The Lute in Britain: A History of the Instrument and Its Music, by Matthew Spring, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, ppg. 27-28

And for the sake of fairness, more recent retrospective comments from Christopher Page:

“For myself, I can say it was so difficult to obtain good clean performances of Du Fay songs with voices only, to say nothing of tuning problems, that I turned with relief to harps, lutes and voices during some later recording sessions.  I can well understand why many have done so since, and I am sure they will continue to perform them that way.”

Essays on Renaissance Music in Honour of David Fallows: Bon jour, bon mois et bonne estrenne, Edited by Fabrice Fitch and Jacobijn Kiel, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music. (The Boydell Press, with the Royal Northern College of Music, Woodbridge, 2011, ppg. 7-8


Next week, we return to the music of John Dowland, speculations on his early education, an odd poem, and A Pilgrimes Solace.

One Comment
  1. Timo Peedu permalink

    Hear, hear!

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