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Saturday morning quotes 3.48: Who lutes now?

April 12, 2014

Music resembles poetry, in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master hand alone can reach.

– Alexander Pope (1688 –1744), An Essay on Criticism

We have asked the question, who luted? in previous posts, but this time we ask from the angle of personality types and in the context of today.

Anyone who has attempted to play the lute understands that not only is it quite challenging from a technical standpoint, but the sound it produces simply does not fit with mainstream modern sensibilities. What are the personality traits of a person who is drawn to the lute today?  To be sure, there are tortured souls like Ignatius J. Reilly, protagonist of the novel, A Confederacy of Dunces (by John Kennedy Toole, Louisiana State University Press, 1980), who embarks on a leg of his quixotic quest in search of a lute string. The lute is a perfect emblem of the philosophical loner who fatally chooses an insurmountable challenge. Or a technically gifted individual who is driven to master the instrument through the application of hard science.

But players who decide to invest the time to master the instrument and perform to a professional standard are a different breed.  Mostly drawn from the ranks of classical guitarists, today’s lutenists tend to focus on things associated with the rigorous training the instrument demands, like finger technique, or playing posture. Who made your instrument and what sort of strings you use are the major topics of conversation when lutenists gather together in one place. Public disputes over the proper angle of right-hand position dominated the lute world in the US for more than 25 years, and the topic is still frequently under discussion.

But the point of playing quiet, subtle, emotionally-charged historical music is not to demonstrate one’s knowledge of string materials, playing posture, nor even the necessary elements that lead to technical brilliance. What about questions that probe the emotional context of the music with the aim of powerful interpretations?  We live in an age that creates determining structures and we dwell upon categorizing technical information so that it conforms to such structures. In the obsessive quest to gather and arrange technical information, there is less focus on fostering the human element and guiding the gifts of musical intuition.

On the related topic of cultivating skill through inspiration and intuition, Robert Lundberg wrote:

“Craftskill exhibited on the order of the old instrument makers is very rare these days. We seldom see it because we deny and show aversion to skill. Our Western scientific/industrial age has attempted to bypass it through a substitution of knowledge in conjunction with determining systems. Craftskill is neither knowledge nor simply experience. Rather, it indicates the application of a manual exercise that is guided not by a conscious image or calculated solution but by the spirit of acting through intuition.”
– p. 236

“Perhaps it is time now to reconsider our aversion to skill. How much different our world might be if modern man had pursued science and engineering with skill, as music and art should be, rather than with determining systems.”
p. 237

– Robert Lundberg, “In Tune With the Universe: The Physics and Metaphysics of Galileo’s Lute,” in Music and Science in the Age of Galileo, edited by Victor A. Coelho, 211-239, Dordrecht, 1992.

Musicians of the past seem to have downplayed the mechanics of technique in order to focus on the more moving and spiritual aspects of music.  Robert Johnson (c. 1583 – 1633), a musician who wrote a great deal of utilitarian music for theater and dance, was lauded by a friend for possessing the qualities of what we might call an integrated life:

“Mr. Iohnson dyed the 18th daye of Nouember 1633 and was buried the one and twentith of the same month, the text that Mr. Roger Cocks Ministe[r] of Acton tooke vpon the funerall was out of the words. theise; Now is the ax put to the roote of the tree, therfore euery tree which bringeth not forth good fruite is hewen downe and cast into the fyere; his Comendations vpon the deceassed partie were foure, firste his humilitye for though by the exelencye of his qualitye which was Musick in which hee excelled most men his Compeny was desired both of princes and great personage[s] yet he did ascociate the poorest of the parish both with his compenye, his coumforte, and his Councell; his second Comendacone was his Charritye, for he was (as well) willinge and earnest to sett peace amongst all men, and readye to forgiue an Iniurye offored to himselff, and to assist (anye man in) aduersitie, his third was his patience which was expresst both in his life and death, And the fourth was his penitencye; And thus much off my owne knowledge, I haue knowne many men liue like Philosophers and dye like ffooles, but he liued like a lamme and dyed like a Champion, fullye conqueringe his owne affections and passions, and at his last gaspe tooke his leaue of his ffrends, as if he had bine to goe a Iorney Intreated them to sett him vpright in his bed and to leaue him that they might not hinder him of his passage.”

– from Jean Carmel, “New Light on Robert Johnson, the King’s Musician,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1965), pp. 233-235

Humility, charity, patience, and penitence are not qualities typically associated with successful musicians who achieve a certain level of status, not even in the world of early music.  For effective interpretation of early music, it must be imbued with these qualities.  How does that work today?

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  1. Chlovena Byrd (Metzger) permalink

    Thank you for this thoughtful, scholarly, and beautifully-crafted post. Getting beyond the technical to the living heart of the music surely is the goal of all fully-human musicians of all genres in all ages. The moving tribute to the humanity of Robert Johnson is one any musician must admire and wish to earn!!


  2. Mark Seifert permalink

    Wonderful post, thank you. To be worth much, music needs to convey beautiful sentiments as well as a pleasing sound. Some take mainly intellectual pleasure from it. In our modern age, it seems catharsis of rage is a major musical priority, and I’m glad the lute is not well suited for that purpose.

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