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More on singing with the lute

December 2, 2013

Versatile performers who indulge in an abundant variety of repertory can sometimes induce a “whiplash” effect in their concert audiences by presenting a surfeit of diversity.  Concertgoers can experience performances of early music that leap from Gregorian chant to Bach to Monteverdi to Josquin to Dowland, ending with a torch song by Jerome Kern.  Over the course of an evening’s concert of early music, tone colors emanating from a surprising variety of string or wind instruments can create the misapprehension that early music was more like a variety show or even a relay race than a thoughtful and intimate domestic pastime.

On the other hand, performers can effectively integrate music of different styles from different eras through a thematic approach, secure musicianship, and a centered sense of interpretive style.  We always appreciate performers who are mainly focused on musical interplay and communication of texts, inviting the listener into the sound-world and the story rather than dazzling with an off-putting display of virtuosity.  This is our aim as a duo.

We were delighted to hear reinforcing and positive comments after a holiday concert last evening.  Our holiday concert featured 14th-century Cantigas, macaronic German-Latin texts, intabulations of 16th-century motets by Morales and Victoria, traditional Scots and Irish Christmas carols, and even songs by Stephen Foster and the Carter Family.  Afterward, several kind members of our audience remarked on how fluidly we moved from one style to the next.  We had to respond that it was not difficult at all because the music was all domestic music, and the songs were all sung engagingly and invitingly with the express purpose of telling a story.

We have discussed in several posts how singing with a natural voice is an important component of an effective performance of lute songs.  That is not to say one can’t or shouldn’t use the voice they have available.  But unless you are aiming for a different aesthetic and anachronistically attempting to rattle the rafters of a large auditorium, there is no need to sing the subtle and deliberately domestic repertory of lute songs with the volume and power of a produced voice.

Why did the lute and lute songs go out of fashion?  The received story is that the instrument could not live up to the demands of more extrovert baroque continuo songs, and the nuance of polyphonic interplay was no longer necessary.  We like to think that the lute never really went out of fashion, but that the quiet and intimate instrument was dismayed by growing lack of appreciation for the finer things, and the lute went into a cloistered seclusion simply because it didn’t like being shouted at.

As Thomas Mace indicated in a charming dialogue with his beloved instrument, the lute has quietly been waiting for the right time, the right place and the right performers to reawaken the soft strings with a proper sense of serenity.

What is the Cause, my Dear-Renowned-Lute,
Thou art of late so Silent, and so Mute?
Thou seldom dost in Publick now appear;
Thou art too Melancholly grown I fear.

What need you ask These Questions why ’tis so?
Since ’tis too obvious for All men to know.
The World is grown so Slight; full of New Fangles,
And takes their Chief Delight in Jingle-Jangles…

– Thomas Mace, Musick’s Monument (1676), p. 33.

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