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Saturday morning quotes 3.12: Julia Sutton

August 3, 2013

Our category of posts designated In Memoriam is in woeful need of updating – not that we’re recommending any additional names be added to the roster.  We take seriously our duty to duly acknowledge the many musicologists and mentors whose good work has at least directed us down a dusty corridor, or even helped pry open one or two doors in the  labyrinthine library of historical music.  But it must be said that it’s a sad enterprise to mark the passing of friends, colleagues, and the many pioneers of lute scholarship.  Among the latter is Julia Sutton (July 20, 1928 – July 1, 2012).

Although we did not know Julia Sutton personally, her exemplary work on the music of  Jean-Baptiste Besard and her translation of Fabritio Caroso’s, Nobiltà di dame (1600) offered lutenists of today a wealth of important details and contextual information about the historical use of our favorite instrument. Her focus was early dance and dance music, and her work pointed out the importance of maintaining dance rhythms if one wishes to grasp the true essence of old music.

Our quotes today are drawn from Julia Sutton’s article, “The Lute Instructions of Jean-Baptiste Besard.” Musical Quarterly vol. 51, no. 2 (1965), pp. 345–362.  Besard published detailed instructions on playing the lute in his Thesaurus harmonicus (1603), which were the basis for Dowland’s “Necessarie Observations Belonging to the Lute, and Luteplaying,” (Varietie of Lute-Lessons, 1610), and were revised and published again in Besard’s Novus partus (1617).  Of these instructions, Sutton writes, “As we read them today, we discover that their applicability to modern lute and guitar playing is still fresh, and their comments on the foibles of teachers and students are universal.”  Indeed, these insights are usefully applicable to the study of practically any instrument today.

Besard on cleanliness:

…I should rather urge you to wash your hands often and keep them as clean as possible; besides the good looks which please everybody, the repeated moistening is a great help to the strength of the muscles and, as a result, to the agility of the hand. Take care, however, never to become involved in violent exercises requiring the use of the hand.

On choosing repertory

Though there are many who practice the more difficult passages first in order to have an easier time with the rest, I do not recommend this to beginners for fear that such difficulty may cause them to feel disgusted and in consequence to give up the study; I should prefer, instead, to prescribe an easy piece of music at first in which there are not so many grifs [i.e. chords] . . . , so that the finger does not have to be stretched frequently across the neck.

On playing polyphony

…There is nothing more pleasant and tasteful than for the parts which create the harmony to be maintained, keeping a balanced proportion. This cannot be done if the fingers are removed from the strings, since the voice is lost as soon as it ceases to be fingered…In short, consider it as a basic rule that the fingers ought not to be released from the strings unless necessary.

On patience

If you are a beginner,.., do not be in a hurry to play more quickly than is right and proper. I promise you sincerely and without pretense that nothing is more profitable in this activity than to be patient and unhurried from the beginning, for it is impossible for you to play your compositions correctly on first reading.

And for a final very important guideline that really ought to be heeded today, Julia Sutton summarized Besard’s concluding remarks to his 1617 instructions thus:

Besard first asks the student to treat this “divine art . . . cultivated by men of the highest position” with proper respect. One should try to learn to play well enough to please others; if, however, one develops professional skill, be sure to charge adequately for one’s performance in order not to cheapen the art!

  1. Dan Winheld permalink

    Yep, Been Xeroxing Besard’s instructions from my antient facsimile copy of the “Varietie” for last 40 (!) years or so. The whole thing- including his very fine & useful exercises, and chord voicings/fingerings. My facsimile has gotten so old & yellowed it probably looks worse than any surviving originals.

    I am very glad that you have brought attention to the late Julia Sutton and her article, “The Lute Instructions of Jean-Baptiste Besard.” Musical Quarterly vol. 51, no. 2 (1965), pp. 345–362. I like her very well written modern English version, and will try to upgrade to that one. It is a fine thing you are doing, reminding us of our recent & neglected academic scholar/heros who have been- in the background- doing the heavy lifting & “woodshedding” necessary for us performers who then can painlessly (comparatively!) enjoy the fruits of their labor, and bring them to our listeners & students.

    I do have one minor disagreement with Besard- this passage: “Take care, however, never to become involved in violent exercises requiring the use of the hand.” Of course, I agree with that in regard to say baseball, even softball, American football & hockey- but to treat severe tendonitis in my right forearm I did have to undergo difficult and sometimes painful PT to straighten out. Some of this therapy included “violent exercises”!

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Dan. A detail I should have pointed out, and is really a main feature of Julia Sutton’s article, is that there are a few points at which the instructions that appear in Besard’s 1617 print differ from his earlier (1603) version, and Dowland’s Englished version. She thought the 1617 version represented Besard’s more refined views.

    The ‘violent exercises’ Besard mentions seem to refer to fencing and whatnot. I have to try limit the shock to my system through use of the chainsaw and splitting maul – and lugging around what used to be some pretty nice 100 foot red oaks.

  3. Dan Winheld permalink

    That whatnot will really mess you up. Maybe fencing too. At one time I studied a rather violent style of hard Karate because the Sensei happened to be a very accomplished classical violinist. (A typical demonstration routine of his consisted of striding out onstage- Vuillaume original in hand- launch into the prelude to the Bach g-minor partita, then follow that up with breaking unsupported boards in midair with his fists, including all the Historically Correct screaming.) But, he and I watched another Sensei & his students spar with swords and wooden staves- my Sensei cringed at the sight, declaring a person could really hurt his hands doing that nonsense! One of my “violent” corrective therapies for elbow tendonitis is pushups on the knuckles of the clenched fist. I was reminded of this exercise by my archlute student (also an accomplished violinist, keyboardist, & harpist) who holds a black belt in Kempo karate. It really works.

    -But chainsaws, splitting mauls, & 100 foot logs? Now THAT is crazy! Was lumberjacking your day job?

    One of the points in Besard’s instructions that changed over time was his gradual de-emphasis of the thumb-under technique; by the time of the “Varietie” he offered it as an alternative to the preferred thumb-out technique- “Yet they which have a short Thombe may imitate those which strike the strings with the Thombe under the other fingers, which though it be nothing so elegant, yet to them it will be more easie.”

    I look forward to reading Julia Sutton’s translation of Besard’s most refined version of 1617, as I am teaching (and practicing) more thumb-out orientation these days- some of my students are physically more comfortable and effective with it, and others are just not playing the instruments or repertoire more appropriate to thumb under.

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