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Transposed tongues

February 6, 2014

Recently, mention was made of a lute sighting in the 1987 episode of Inspector Morse “The Wolvercote Tongue,” and the lutenist sighted was correctly identified as Christopher Wilson.  Beruffed in fancy dress, Wilson plays through the beginning of Dowland’s famous “Lachrimae pavan,” with what amounts to its characteristic g-minor fingering.  A few moments later, Wilson is joined by a countertenor, likewise sporting a choking sort of neckwear, singing from memory Dowland’s “Flow my teares, fall from your springs,” while Wilson accompanies off-book – again employing g-minor fingering. You can see the scene beginning at 13:41 toward the end of this clip.

Hmm,  Transposed accompaniment.  Just like you can find in one of the last youtube videos you’ll ever see from Mignarda.

In a ideal world, no one would give a hoot about the great Morse transposition – aside from the anonymous hooting from the uncredited countertenor.  One would offer congratulations to the musicians (and the countertenor) for securing what must have been a well-paid gig with good exposure for the music and for our instrument.  Perhaps one might point out that “Flow my teares” was probably a poor choice to sing while the otherwise unencumbered guests were strapping on the feedbag, and a song in a slightly lighter humor may have more successfully aided their digestion.

But we dwell in the world of the lute revival, populated by very serious types who feel compelled to tell others, and the world at large, that they are doing it wrong, wrong, wrong.  We are told that Dowland’s setting of “Flow my teares,” published in The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres (London, 1600), is written to be played with lute fingering in a-minor, not g-minor.  We are told this unhistorical simplification of Dowland’s work is a sacrilege and an abomination, and should be roundly criticized.  In recent reviews of (other performers’) lute recordings, we have actually read that the music under review may be played well in every respect, but the key seems off a step from that found in the written score, hinting at something sinister beneath the surface.  Or we read that the interpretation and musicianship is commendable, but the reviewer cannot in good faith recommend the recording because the harp in the ensemble was strung with gut instead of wire.

One grows impatient with such nitpicking that forsakes a sensitive and intelligent musicality for details like string materials, or truly meaningless references as to whether said strings were screwed up or down in pitch, or whether the fingering of a piece was transposed up or down for better musical effect.  Do we think that Dowland could not or did not transpose his fingering if and when he wished?  In fact, there is firm evidence that he did just exactly that, found in the form of variant surviving lute tablatures of the same tune.

If you watch the entire “Wolvercote Tongue” episode of Inspector Morse, you get to experience the caricaturized ugliness of the American tourist in all its glory.  A certain snarky shrew from Cleveland carps about the phoniness of many Oxford landmarks, while her guides and minders practice rolling their eyes and quietly trousering their fee.  Apart from John Thaw’s utterly charming and completely convincing performance as a misunderstood dyspeptic possessing hidden depths, a major component contributing to the universal success of the Inspector Morse series is the music.  Composer Barrington Pheloung is an absolute master in the use of subtle texture applied to every minute transition, quietly suggesting what sort of underlying emotion will color each and every scene.  For those in the know, just listen to the way he distills the existential pain of unresolved emotions at the end of every episode of Inspector Lewis, the more current series that is a sequel to Morse, and then without the least effort modulates into his closing theme which, for all the world, has the light melancholy character of Mozart’s finest chamber music for clarinet and strings.

Returning to the point, the sort of useless carping about pitch and strings and fingering noted above is what happens when academics and historical hobbyists take control of  the megaphone and describe to us their skewed version of aesthetic beauty, and of historical music in particular. The body of work is wrestled to the ground, the jugular is rudely sliced open and all music is bled from the score, enabling the collector to then reform and pin the tidy lifeless carcass into his album to be kept on his shelf and viewed from time to time.  Weary of diplomacy, for these types I defer to the wisdom of Uncle Junior.

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  1. Interesting point. There is a school of thought in the ascendency in the Uk at the moment that thinks that countertenors shouldn’t sing Dowland at all. The countertenor voice – far from being the quintessential “Elizabethan” voice – was confined to the back row of the choir stalls in Anglican cathedral choirs. One of the arguments supporting this view is – that as written the music doesn’t lie comfortably in the countertenor range and the accompaniment therefore has to be transposed down….I wonder…

  2. Donna is much more tolerant of the male falsetto sound (she made me write that). But I have to say that I notice and am put off by the physical strain involved when I hear a baritone put the squeeze on his larynx in the (frequently vain) attempt to produce and maintain a pitch – by which he is defiled. Seriously, I am less convinced by any performance whenever I am distracted by elements of technique that fail to disappear when I close my eyes. While I appreciate that Alfred Deller did a great deal to bring Dowland and other early music to public notice, I would always rather hear Dowland’s music sung in a natural voice that allows the texts to be conveyed, heard and understood. As I understand it, Deller’s justification for using falsetto was rooted the fact that the printed notes of the cantus appeared in the alto or treble clef, so therefore we must aim in that general direction. Hopefully, we’ve cleared up that misconception.


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  1. Saturday morning quotes 7.11: Lachrimæ II | Unquiet Thoughts

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