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Saturday morning quotes 5.8: A nut to crack

July 10, 2015

“But Gentlemen, once more I will make you promise, that if these Masterlike rules, and Scholerlike lessons, doe but any whit content you, I will come forth, With Cracke mee this Nut…wherein I will striue either (for euer) to winne your fauours, or starue in the dole of your disgrace.”

– Thomas Robinson, The Schoole of Mvsicke: Wherein is Tavght, the perfect Method, of Trve Fingering of the Lute, Pandora, Orpharion, and Viol de Gamba; with most infallible generall rules, both easie and Delightfull, London, 1603.

We return in a roundabout way to our ongoing theme of Rhetoric and education, touching the topic lightly with a rhetorical question: How great a role does Rhetoric play in 21st-century interpretation of music for voice and lute? To arrive at a qualified answer, today we tap into the writing of Robert Toft and his book Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: The Art of Eloquent Singing in England 1597-1622. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Toft has led a busy academic career, but has churned out some eminently useful writing just the same.  His important book, Aural Images of Lost Traditions: Sharps and Flats in the Sixteenth Century, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, is required reading for anyone and everyone who edits 16th-century vocal polyphony.  What is frequently and erroneously called musica ficta as applied to historical music is a simple matter for those of us with an understanding of 16th-century compositional practice tempered by an intimate working knowledge of the historical instrumental scoring notation known as tablature.  Questions of accidentals are resolved when one sees unmistakeable answers revealed in lute tablatures, which depict a clear locational map of the instrument’s fingerboard.  Tablatures also allow us to see interpretive differences that relate to general historical periods and regional tastes.

As for the less clear-cut questions of the interpretation of lute songs in performance, Toft engages in a speculative romp through a host of historical sources, presenting very enticing examples, generic though they may be.  All quotations are given in their original language with English translations.  Toft approaches the rediscovery of modes of interpretation using an analogy of concentric circles (p. 10).  His innermost circle contains the song, positioned as the kernel of the nut to crack.  Lacking specific information elucidating questions of phrasing, articulation, tempo, dynamics, tonal quality of the voice, Toft scribes a second concentric circle wherein dwells information gleaned from more general historical writings about music.  His third concentric circle encompasses historical writings about Rhetoric and spoken discourse. Toft then channels this aggregation of non-specific information from the outermost circles towards the kernel of song, innocently at rest in the center circle.

The fault in Toft’s mode of analysis lies in his premise that an extrovert, performance-centered oratorical approach is the interpretive goal.  Imagine Dowland’s reaction if we were to equate the pompous bluster of a lawyer, or the rantings of a purblind Puritan, with the singing of a quiet, delicate and intimate lute song.  Perhaps the tools of Rhetoric were seen as a foundation for understanding and not meant to be systematically applied externally, nor noticeably, to the interpretation of a lute song.  The approach Toft presents is akin to swinging a sledgehammer in order to crack the nut that contains the song.  A lute song is not a nut to crack, but rather more like a fresh fig with a yielding husk that responds to gentle coaxing.  Of course the sweet fig could instantly turn to a dripping mush in the untrained hands of a novice, or the insensitive hands of the tasteless.

We think the tools of Rhetoric are meant to provide a framework for our understanding of the world we inhabit, that we may approach the task at hand knowingly with care and grace.  We need no distracting external antics to guide us toward an effective performance because the interpretive information is there, inherent in the very nature of the music.  After gaining a foundational understanding and internalizing rhetorical devices, one need only respond to the cues from within the text and the tune.

The primary interpretive clue lies in the characteristics of the lute itself, which is and always has been celebrated for its subtlety.  If a voice is well-balanced to the volume and timbre of the lute, and one hears the interaction of polyphonic interplay, then the singer has achieved the first interpretive step.  Until the advent of the modern early music revival, it was well understood that the lute cannot abide the shouting we endure from the brash pipes of the loud singer.

The lute is a closet instrument that will suffer the company of but few hearers, and such as have a delicate ear; for the pearls are not to be cast before the swine.

…If we must incline to one side, the gentle and soft playing is to be preferred before others, so that you play neatly and in a little room or to please a small company (the lute not being fit to play in a hall before a multitude of people; there the violin is most fit).

– Mary Burwell’s lute teacher, circa 1670

The generous amount of historical information Toft quotes and translates in digested and summary form is very useful to the performer.  But a premise from which Toft proceeds, and one which we question, is that one need not alter a modern vocal technique to sing music for solo voice and lute.  This rather flies in the face of manifold examples of vocal characteristics found in the historical sources with which he is obviously familiar, and one suspects he is simply leaving the door open for potential modern converts to lute songs.  In his defense of the bel canto style, of which he a proponent, Toft writes, “the bel canto manner of delivery originates in and best suits smaller rooms (perhaps up to 600 – 800 seats).”  To be fair, Toft considers bel canto technique as an alternative to what he calls a “loud voice” that can be heard over a modern orchestra.  But one likes to point out that a lute performing in a 600-800 seat hall is participating in a most inauthentic mode of performance.

Further, the very idea that lute songs were mainly intended for public performance is simply inaccurate.  Sure, we have a few examples of masques and royal entertainments that included lute songs.  But the English song books printed between 1597 and 1622 were primarily meant for domestic use, a fact reinforced by the many surviving paintings from the era that depict intimate domestic music-making.

This raises the question of the need for the ill-fitting gesticulations that Toft champions.  Rather than presume that appropriate interpretive techniques point toward an extrovert oratorical delivery, it is much more likely that the educated, informed and sensitive singer-lutenist would have known and understood elecutio and pronunciatio, and would have proceeded from an internalized understanding.  For—we would like to point out—the lutenist was more often than not the singer, and therefore would not have been inclined to make fists and flail about in the manner of Il Duce while performing on an an instrument that rather demands one’s attention.

While these performances that incorporate gestures are a novelty, we find that anything that distracts from the combined and well-tuned dynamic of a song, in which singer and lutenist are playing as one, is simply that—a distraction.  Mainly, it seems the intense and overworked performances that incorporate gesture are an end unto themselves, and are simply an academic exercise.

I (RA) am reminded of a singer I was coaching who wanted to understand the appropriate choices for historical ornamentation as applied to “No more shall meads be decked with flowers”, a song setting by Nicholas Lanier.  I steered her toward the essay on singing in the Italian style, attributed to Lanier himself found in Playford’s An Introduction to the Skill of Musick (Seventh Edition: London, 1674).  The singer dutifully learned every example in the essay and incorporated all of them into her interpretation.  As one might imagine, the excessive ornaments obscured the pastoral character of the song and turned it into a circus act.  True in ornamentation and true in gesture, a tasteful restraint matters.

Since we mention “No more shall meads be decked with flowers”, we recently came across a previously unreleased recording of the song from our first recording session in 2005.  In fact, it was the very first song we recorded as a test for microphone balance, and you can now hear the result.

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