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Saturday morning quotes 3.27: Who luted 2?

November 16, 2013

“We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago. We are in this sense, participators in bringing about something of the universe in the distant past and if we have one explanation for what’s happening in the distant past why should we need more?”

– John Archibald Wheeler (1911 – 2008)

History can be no more than a collectively misremembered fantasy, and we seem to agree on a certain interpretation of past events and proceed accordingly.  But those of us who love historical music to the point of wishing to recreate the soundworld of the past can learn much by probing a bit deeper and examining biographical information about famous musicians.  There may be a few surprises.

Lute players today tend to be an entirely different class of person than musicians of the past, most of whom were clergy or servants.  Of course there were the ubiquitous amateur dabblers of the noble class, but the reputation of these types was most likely exaggerated by the aforementioned servants in pursuit of patronage.  Finding an instrument today is a challenge in and of itself, and the not inconsiderable cost of a lute can be a defining factor that separates the modern “haves” from the “have nots.” There is also the significant element of devoting endless antisocial hours learning the specialized techniques and attempting to understand the long-forgotten repertory, and the modern lutenist tends to be both socially awkward and nervous about dropping his or her expensive instrument.

One of the most elusive challenges for modern musicians attempting to play old music is truly grasping the unfettered passion that is characteristic of a life that always teeters on the edge of suffering and death.  Today, most people who play the lute live fairly comfortable lives.  Historical musicians did not.

Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c. 1470 – 1534)

Although Tromboncino was much favoured by Isabella [d’Este] and her husband [Francesco Gonzaga], his career in Mantua seems to have been a stormy one. He fled to Venice in June 1495, returning in July only at his father’s insistence, and in July 1499 he killed his wife Antonia after finding her with her lover. He was apparently pardoned for these two offences, for he is mentioned in Mantuan documents throughout the remainder of 1499 and in 1500, but he fled Mantua again in 1501. On 28 April of that year Francesco Gonzaga wrote to Verona that Tromboncino ‘has left our service in a deplorable manner and without permission, even though he was the best paid and had more favours and kindnesses and liberty than any of the courtiers in our house’. He added that Tromboncino ‘will be well advised not to leave the territory of St Mark’.

– William F. Prizer, “Bartolomeo Tromboncino,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980), 19:161.

There are other colorful historical personalities including lutenist Henri de L’Enclos (1592 – 1649), who apparently killed a nobleman in a duel and was forced into exile. Lutenist Jacques Gaultier (fl. 1617 – 1660) left his native France in 1617 after being involved in a murder and fled to England, where in 1627 he was imprisoned and tortured for having made scandalous remarks about the Duke of Buckingham (his patron), his lute student Queen Henrietta Maria, and even about the King Charles I.

In the category of famous musicians peripheral to the world of the lute, there is the well-known story about (the raving musical lunatic) Carlo Gesualdo, who married his first cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, whom he later murdered with great cruelty along with her lover Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria.  Even Johann Sebastian Bach was known to have a very testy personality, and was said to have hurled offensive epithets and drawn his sword over perceived slights to his musical credibility.

The point is, it is impossible to grasp the inner passion of old music without having a passing acquaintance with an inconvenienced life.  While it’s true that we all have our own particular cross to bear, the passion of old music cannot be truly felt by someone who has never known discomfort.  As inherent in the old music, today we hear the most convincing music of any genre or style played by those who live the most  passionate lives.

I (RA) once had a mandolin student of the investment banker-type personality who, when asked what he was hoping to gain from a lesson, responded that he wanted to learn to play like me.  After a moment’s consideration, I told him that the first thing he must do is spend the night in a telephone booth during a February blizzard in upstate NY, and then he can perhaps begin to understand what it means to play like me.

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