Saturday morning quote 2.40: A plea for slowness
Rapid change is a defining characteristic of the age in which we live. Each day seemingly heralds some new innovation specifically designed to do more in less time. At some point long ago, we were told that such technological innovations would enable us to have more leisure time to spend engaged in more meaningful pursuits.
We were deceived: If there is one precious commodity that should and must be defended, it is our time.
In the context of music, commercial interests always shine a spotlight on those who can play the greatest number of notes in the shortest span of time. But are we getting our money’s worth? Somehow Aesop’s fable of the Hare and the Tortoise has been forgotten as we’re treated to numerous displays of vapid virtuosity. Quantity rather than quality is a particularly inappropriate approach to the interpretation of early music when there are so many surviving descriptions emphasizing the importance of sensitivity and understanding of rhetorical devices inherent in the music, necessary for effective communication of the heart and soul of the matter.
In his remarks “Other Necessary Observations belonging to the lute, by John Dowland, Batcheler of Musicke”, included in the Varietie of Lute-Lessons (1610), Dowland took the trouble to insert several contextual aesthetic asides that reinforce his reputation for having a depth of understanding and judgement in music. He describes the process by which Boethius measured the intervals and proportions of music,
Whereby the ignorant may perceiue by this vndiuided Trinitie, that the finger of God framed Musicke, when his Word made the World.
He goes on to tell us that all practitioners of the lute should understand the elements and principles of composition, and it was the duty of every teacher to impart this knowledge to his student. Historically, emphasis was always placed on a deeper understanding of music than mere technical facility.
Dowland’s introductory remarks to his last book of songs, A Pilgrimes Solace (1612), provide a clear indication of his feeling on the matter:
Moreouer that here are and daily come into our most famous kingdome, diuers strangers from beyond the seas, which auerre before our owne faces, that we haue no true methode of application of fingering of the Lute. Now if these gallant yong Lutenists be such as they would haue the worlde beleeue, and of which I make no doubt, let them remember that their skill lyeth not in their fingers endes: Cucullus non facit Monachum. ” [The cowl by no means makes the monk.]
Dowland’s contemporary, Thomas Robinson, in The Schoole of Musicke (1603), reinforces the importance of gaining a depth of understanding of music rather than playing fast notes. In his words ” To the Reader”, he says,
But bee it as it bee may, you shall haue rules of reason, to ouer-rule vnreasonable odd Cratchets, giueing you to vnderstand, that what is beyond the true course of Nature, must needes bee without all compasse of Art; and withall, nothing out-runneth Nature but Follie : so much for that.
Robinson further admonishes empty virtuosity, describing those who
…stroue (onelie) to haue a quick hand vpon the Lute to runne hurrie hurrie, keeping a Catt in the gutter vpon the ground, now true then false, now vp now downe, with such painfull play, mocking, mowing, gripeing, grinning, sighing, supping, heauing, shouldring, labouring, and sweating, like cart Iades, without any skill in the world, or rule, or reason to play a lesson, or finger the Lute, or guide the bodie, or know any thing, that belongeth, either to skill or reason.
If musicians of today take the trouble to resurrect the art of ancient music, they should not defile it by wresting it out of its original setting and forcing it to spin upon the hamster wheel that is modern life. A Fantasia should never be just a vehicle for displaying notes played one after the other as quickly as possible. A Fantasia is an inspired and orderly display of compositional devices that unfold with intelligence and understanding. Slow down, people.