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Saturday morning quotes 5.22: The perfect musician

October 17, 2015

As anyone engaged in historical research knows, some of the more intriguing discoveries can occur en route to a different destination.  While not exactly the recommended research method for those with little time and narrow focus, wandering through library stacks and pulling books resting in the general vicinity of the desired tome sometimes results in the serendipitous discovery of supporting information; sometimes it can lead us down an entirely new and more interesting path.

One of our greatest delights is discovering yet another historical figure who advised or admonished musicians in the most colorful language. Our blog has offered digested words of wisdom from the ancient quills of such historical figures as Gioseffo Zarlino and John Dowland, who contributed both general commentary and specific guidelines in the form of his translation of Ornithoparcus, with pointed words specifically on singing.  We’ve read astute observations from Mary Burwell’s lute tutor and have even stretched our early music boundaries a bit to include witticisms from Hector Berlioz.

Today’s quotations are drawn from a source that popped into relief while looking for something completely different and they offer more elucidating and amusingly formed insights from another historical figure who was unable to keep his commentary within “the fence of his teeth”; a happy happenstance and a pleasing diversion.

The article is found in Studi Musicali, the musicological journal of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and the subject is “Luigi Zenobi and his Letter on the Perfect Musician” by Bonnie J. Blackburn and Edward E. Lowinsky, Studi musicali, 22 (1993), 61-114.  Zenobi’s 16th-century letter was discovered in 1948 by Lowinsky, who intended to augment his considerable body of work and publish the letter along with introductory and contextual material.  But publication was deferred until the project was capably completed by his spouse and equally eminent musicologist, Bonnie J. Blackburn, and published in 1993.

We provide our own headings to the excerpts from Lowinsky and Blackburn’s translation of Zenobi’s letter and we urge you to read the original article for the proper context and a great deal more of Zenobi’s colorful language.

On instrumentalists

“…The players of the lute, the harpsichord, and the harp are judged by the fine touch, the ease, the polish, and agility of the hand, by the excellence of the imagination in improvising over a chosen piece of music, by the mastery of their counterpoint over (the melody of) a passamezzo, a galliard, a canon, a cantus firmus, and similar things.”

“…And among all the things that demonstrate the competence or ignorance of those who play the harpsichord, the lute, and the harp, there is usually the rendering with mastery and artifice, and particularly at sight, of a work in score by an excellent composer. Here are revealed the fine touch, the ease, the polish, and the agility of the hand, the quality and variety of the diminutions, and the good taste with which the player, without impairing the composition, adds to it thoughts and conceits of his own with style, and with elegance the trilli, the tremoli, the grace of his bearing, and so on. Here, to tell the truth, one sees rather more defects than effects, ugly, faulty, and indeed insufferable ones…”

On singing with the lute

“In solo [vocal] performance one cannot judge the quality of the bass when he is accompanied by a lute, or a harpsichord, and similar instruments, for instruments of that kind have hardly sounded the note before it vanishes; and thus the bass as well as any other part can make an infinite number of mistakes that pass unnoticed because the vanishing harmony of the imperfect instrument does not let them be heard, except that the connoisseur recognizes them as errors and misunderstandings, and consequently causes the singer to be held ignorant.”

On singing with the organ

“But it is [in singing] with the organ where one can judge easily who sings and plays with good taste and with art, if the listener pays careful attention. And that is what manifests the ignorance and presumption of many who, singing in the most deplorable manner to the accompaniment of the organ, thrive on the judgement of the populace and the rabble, who, as soon as they hear a miserable charlatan with a bit of a dog’s voice or an ass’s disposition, immediately begin to exclaim: «How marvellous! How fine! What a divine voice! What do you think, Mister Dimwit? What do you say, Sir Mumble-Tongue? Is it not miraculous, Sir Bibblebabble?» And thus many wretched birds are scorned by the connoisseurs, and praised by the ignoramuses like them.”

On the mannerisms of a singer

“But nowadays, when he turns his shoulders or his waist, as if he had an attack of colic; when he rolls his eyes as lunatics do; when his jaws and chin tremble as those who stutter do; when he sings through the nose, or shouts and roars like a man in a rage, and emits six or eight notes in a pitiful manner, out of place and false and with little taste, not knowing when or how or where they ought to end and begin; when he always repeats the same song, as trained parrots do, and never gets away from two or three numbers begged from and arranged by people who know little or presume too much; and when the audience consists of people who like the kind of songs to be heard in the month of May, and who do not know the difference between singing and croaking, nor that between being in tune and out of tune, or between knowledge and ignorance, for them it suffices to raise the voice like the sound of gurgling liquid and they say: «Oh, how good! how fine! how marvellous! how divine! what a rare singer!», whence it comes that we have on earth a perpetual seed-bed of fools who with wagging ears signify that rain is near.”

On accompanying

“…The players of foundation instruments, such as the harpsichord, lute, harp, theorbo, cittern, Spanish guitar, or rather vihuela, have to take as their foundation the sweetness, facility, and virtuosity of the hand, the finesse of the fingers, and of the tremolo, the quality of the imagination, the richness and variety of good passaggi, and fine grace of bearing and of holding the instrument, the choiceness of style, and the ready ease in the use of their instruments. But above all they must show taste and skill in playing ensemble with a solo player or with a singer. For in this case there is no master so great that he does not merit praise for the ability to play as one requires of a schoolboy, unornamented, in right time, and neatly all parts, while the other plays or sings with him, and when the solo part pauses, come to the fore in a gentle manner with something more pleasing than artful to accompany him.”

True musicians

“…The true musicians are those who bring the harmony of their manner into perfect accord with the harmony of their music. They have and they know how to obey and serve those who deserve to be obeyed and served; and they disdain to do the same for him who has little merit; they are men of honour, of value, of conscience, knowing how to maintain their dignity, and how to preserve the reputation and greatness of the patrons whom they serve.”

“They are not envious or malicious, because they are not ignorant, but they cannot bear that anyone in this profession of music should be praised or blamed in singing or playing by one who know less than they do. Even if they are reduced to begging they will not be moved by greed for money or anything else to make themselves or their talents available, and if they do, it will be out of love of God, out of courtesy, as a matter of good manners, and friendship.”

“They are targets of the ignorant, who are always shooting at them and do not occupy themselves with anything but ganging up on them as much as they can and persecuting them and gossiping about them in the worst manner, all of which they do in an underhanded way, for if they do it openly they are soon recognized and put to shame by decent people and lovers of the truth. And so the true musicians stand bewildered and quite startled and struck, wondering how the world has come to such a state of mental blindness that it does not see the forest, the labyrinth, and the phalanxes of those who are bent on suffocating merit, on killing valour, on stealing fame, and on rending truth and their singular talent, while all the time this floats like a cork or an exquisite oil above the water of their persecution.”

Things never change.

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