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Saturday morning quotes 5.15: Givers and takers

August 29, 2015

As we know, the world is comprised of givers and takers and, with our ongoing weekly posts, we steadfastly occupy the former category.  But we tend to keep ears and eyes open and have noticed some of our collected themes and our very words reprinted elsewhere—even printed in magazines.  We are not inclined to quibble about this because it means our insights have gained some traction and that is a good thing.  So today’s post will make it easy for those who occupy the second category.

First, a quiz.  What do the following famous persons have in common?

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)
Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603)
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525 – 1594)
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)
Christiaan Huygens (1629 – 1695)
James Joyce (1882 – 1941)
Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner CBE (1951 – )

If you answered that all the above played the lute, give yourself a pat on the back.  Your reward is a bit of background on each of these luminaries.

Martin Luther was known to have played the lute, but he is better known for his many philosophical insights and the reformed religion. Among his surviving quotes, one of the most enduring is his statement that “music was next to theology.”  Luther discussed music in a great deal more detail but it is too bad some of his comrades in dogma did not share his views on the value of music, as is recounted in even greater detail in Eric Nelson, The Legacy of Iconoclasm: Religious War and the Relic Landscape of Tours, Blois and Vendôme, 1550 – 1750, Centre for French History and Culture, University of St Andrews, Fife, 2013 (link is pdf).

Queen Elizabeth I was known to have played the lute, as is evident in the famous miniature by Nicholas Hilliard. But as reported by foreign diplomats, she was intensely jealous of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, who had the benefit of time spent immersed in the rich cultural milieu of the French court, was a favorite of the poet Ronsard, and was reputedly a much better lutenist.  Could this be the real reason Mary was imprisoned for 19 years and finally executed?   Whatever her motives, Elizabeth was a patron of great music and the object of inspired poetry.

To the Queen

What music shall we make to you?
To whom the strings of all men’s hearts
Make music of ten thousand parts:
In tune and measure true,
With strains and changes new.

How shall we frame a harmony
Worthy of your ears whose princely hands
Keep harmony in sundry lands:
Whose people divers be,
In station and degree?
Heaven’s tunes may only please,
And not such airs as these.

For you which down from heaven are sent
Such peace upon the earth to bring,
Have heard the choir of angels sing:
And all the spheres consent,
Like a sweet instrument.

How then should these harsh tunes you hear
Created of the troubled air
Breed but distaste—when you repair—
To our celestial ear?
So that this centre here
For you no music finds,
But harmony of minds.

Sir John Davies (1569 – 1626)

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina occupies an important place as a favorite composer of sacred music for many Catholics today.  We’re not sure whether this is due to his legendary role in saving sacred polyphony from the sharp knives of less musical administrators after the Councils of Trent, or perhaps because Palestrina’s music is anthologized in many modern musical textbooks.  While much of his music is simply sublime, there are other composers.  But we have to admire Palestrina because he played the lute, as evident in a letter surviving today in the archives of Mantua addressed to Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua and written by Don Annibale Capello:

Rome, 18 October 1578

“Having passed recently through a serious illness and being thus unable to command either his wits or his eyesight in the furtherance of his great desire to serve Your Highness in whatever way he can, M. Giovanni da Palestrina has begun to set the Kyrie and Gloria of the first mass on the lute, and when he let me hear them, I found them in truth full of great sweetness and elegance…And as soon as his infirmity permits he will work out what he has done on the lute with all possible care.”

– From Jessie Ann Owens, Composers at Work: The Craft of Musical Composition 1450-1600 (Oxford University Press, 1997).

Galileo Galilei was the son of the famous Vincenzo (c.1520 – 1591) and the brother of Michelagnolo (1575 – 1631), lute players all. While Galileo is remembered today for his achievements in mathematics and astronomy—and his trial for heresy—he was said to have been more skilled as a lutenist than either his father or his brother. Galileo was father to an illegitimate son, also named Vincenzo (1606 – 1649), who was, like the rest of his family, a skilled lutenist as well as a designer and builder of instruments.  Galileo’s disciple Vincenzo Viviani (1622 – 1703) wrote that the younger Vincenzo designed and built a

“…lute made with such art that, playing it so excellently, he extracted continuous and goliardic voices from the cords as if they were issuing from an organ’s pipes…”.

Christiaan Huygens was likewise fortunate to have been born into a musical family and his father Constantijn Huygens: Lord of Zuilichem (1596 – 1687) was known as a lutenist and a diplomat.  Like Galileo, Christiaan is remembered today for his work in mathematics and astronomy, but also for his treatises on horology (link is pdf), lenses and the diffraction of light, and for proposing the existence of extraterrestrial life.

“That which makes me of this Opinion, that those worlds are not without such a Creature endowed with Reason, is that otherwise our Earth would have too much the advantage of them, in being the only part of the Universe that could boast of such a Creature…”

– Christiaan Huygens, in The Celestial Worlds Discover‘d; Or, Conjectures Concerning the Inhabitants, Plants and Productions of the Worlds in the Planets (1698)

Huygens was a contemporary of the more famous Sir Isaac Newton, whose theories regarding gravity he found “absurd” and about whom he wrote:

“I esteem his understanding and subtlety highly, but I consider that they have been put to ill use in the greater part of this work, where the author studies things of little use or when he builds on the improbable principle of attraction.”

James Joyce is mainly known as a writer, his best-known works being Finnegans Wake and Ulysses.  But Joyce was esteemed as a singer and his poetry and prose reads as very musical indeed.  The linked portrait of Joyce with a guitar confirms his penchant for plucked strings, but the lute connection is from a letter Joyce penned to his friend Oliver Joseph St. John Gogarty (1878 – 1957):

“My idea for August is this – to get Dolmetsch to make me a lute and to coast the South of England from Falmouth to Margate singing old English songs”.

– James Joyce in a letter to Gogarty dated 3rd June 1904, from Thea Abbott, The Literary After-Life of Arnold Dolmetsch.

Joyce seemed to have entertained a fascination with the lute at a time when the early music revival was in its infancy, referring to the instrument metaphorically:

“Brothers-in-law: relations. We never speak as we pass by. Rift in the lute I think. Treats him with scorn. See. He admires him all the more. The night Si sang. The human voice, two tiny silky chords, wonderful, more than all others.”

– James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), Chapter 11 – Sirens

Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner CBE (1951 – )

The pop personality known as Sting has done a great service to the diametrically opposed worlds of pop music and early music by taking up the lute and recording a sampling of songs by John Dowland.  When the recording was released, there was a bit of groaning from the pop world and snuffling on the part of early music specialists.  Why would a successful pop artist want to take up the lute?  We can’t answer that question but we’re glad he did.

“Well I didn’t set out to influence people! Singing Verdi requires a certain technique. But these songs I imagine were created to be sung around a table. Did everyone in the Elizabethan era have a refined and wonderful trained singing voice? I doubt it. Did Dowland himself have a great singing voice? We don’t know. But if you are true to the spirit of the story you are telling, and the marks they made on the paper . . . everything else is moot. These songs belong to everybody.”

Sting in an interview with Chris Goodwin, published in Lute News 80, December 2006

The names on the list at the top of the page are a representative group of highly cultured philosophers, writers and innovators—and one pop star.  But the important point is that they all played the lute.  Can we imagine that great thinkers will emerge from a culture that devotes most of its creative energy to thumbing their phones while walking, driving, eating, or even socializing?  I think not. Just put down your phone and take up the lute.

And for those of you looking for information to cut and paste, remember to acknowledge your source, please, and remember that there is a “Donate” button at the top of this page.

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