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Saturday morning quotes 5.48: Accompaniment

April 16, 2016

TheConcertWe frequently receive positive feedback from colleagues and listeners who have stumbled across our recorded music, for which we are always very grateful.  The most commonly mentioned theme has to do with our sense of rhythmic unity and the closeness of connection between singer and accompanist.  While we would like to graciously accept these kind comments from friends and supporters who may think our ensemble sound is merely the happy result of a serendipitous meeting of the minds, it is actually the product of 1) extensive research into historical composition and performance practice, and 2) many years of ensemble work that requires careful listening and empathetic response.  Plus, we have never for a moment considered our duo as “singer and accompanist”, but rather two musicians collaborating in a rendering of polyphony.

Collaborative accompaniment describes a partnership that places equal weight upon the roles and responsibilities of vocalist and accompanist, and is is a term often used to describe newly-plowed acreage in the field of the piano profession, where a keyboardist consciously learns skills that facilitate active collaboration with a singer or with other instrumentalists. It turns out that specializing in historical polyphonic music is a very good way to circumvent a few centuries’ worth of performance practice that has been more focused on the discreet roles of “singer and accompanist”, moving directly into a genre that has always required a collaborative equal partnership.

For those who specialize in accompanying on the lute, most will ignore the enormous amount of music specifically written for the combination of voice and lute, and ply their trade in baroque bands or accompanying soloists in 17th-century monody.

“Given the primacy of text declamation and rhythm in the Florentine monody repertory, it seems strange that the one aspect of these manuscript sources that has attracted the most scholarly attention has not been the text setting but the tablature accompaniments themselves. In no other song repertory from any period have we devoted so much attention to accompaniments. They have been examined in an evolutionary sense as containing the seeds of the development of basso continuo and functional harmony; as frozen versions of the venerable improvised tradition and sixteenth-century practices of arranging vocal polyphony; and as sources that argue for and against their use as representing accurate notions of performance practice, instrumentation, and pitch. Taken together, our investigations of these often elementary accompaniments have led us down the paths of history, historiography, humanism, theory, performance, and context.”

-Victor Anand Coelho, “The Players of Florentine Monody in Context and in History, and a Newly Recognized Source for Le nuove musiche”, Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music, Volume 9, no. 1 (2003). par. 2.3.

Lutesong tablatures can seem rudimentary or too prescriptive if not viewed in the proper context.  Upon closer examination, one discovers that lutesong tablatures more often than not actually contain a condensed score of vocal polyphony—music that requires deep understanding in order to reconstitute the condensed linear movement of separate lines into music that has texture and dimension.  After the lutenist performs this miraculous feat of knowledge, comprehension and physical dexterity, then he or she must set about the task of accompanying: Mind-melding with the vocalist in order to make the most of the interweaving lines, bringing to the surface the points of melodic imitation, shaping the phrasing with sensitivity and, most importantly, rendering the meaning of the text. This is all basically fundamentally essential to effective performance of music with voice and lute. But you don’t have to take our word for it:

“Whoever wants to play well needs three things: first he must know counterpoint or at least know how to sing confidently and hear intervals and the beat and read all the clefs; know how to resolve the dissonant with the consonant, know the major and minor thirds and sixths and other similar things. Secondly he must play his instrument well, knowing tablature or notation and have a lot of experience of the keyboard or fretboard so as not to have to seek the consonances or the beat while one is singing; given that the eye is busy watching the parts placed before him. Thirdly he must have a good ear so as to hear the movement that the parts make between themselves; of this I will not speak since I cannot correct, through my discourse, what is naturally bad.”

“It’s true that simply, certain rules of progression can be given in general, but where there are words, they must be dressed with a suitable harmony that makes or demonstrates the affect.  Not being able to give fixed rules, it is necessary that the player relies on his ear and on the work and its movements…”

“It is useful finally, to know how to transpose the melody from one note to another, provided there are all the natural consonances of the tone…[to avoid unintended dissonances] transposing to the fourth or fifth is more natural and suitable to all…”

– Agostino Agazzari, Del Sonare Sopra’l Basso Con Tutti Li Stromenti E Dell’ Uso Loro Nel Conserto [On Playing above the Bass with all instruments and on their use in an Ensemble], Siena, 1607.

A singer is a storyteller, and effective accompaniment requires a highly refined degree of collaboration in order to maximize expressive potential. Lute accompaniment must be in absolute synchronization with a vocalist and how she tells the story right down to pronunciation of vowels and consonants. In a truly successful collaboration of voice and lute, the lutenist must have an equal sense of commitment to the musical piece, its meaning, and the nuances of the text, as that of the vocalist.

For this sunny Saturday morning, we offer a small example via our recording of “Donna leggiadr’ et bella”, a sunny setting of the poetry of Giovanni Brevio (1480 – 1539) with music by Philippe Verdelot (c.1480 – 1530).


  1. In one of your radio interviews you talked about inviting listeners to your “bubble”. I think this is a beautiful metaphor to illustrate well-balanced polyphony as a result of synchronized collaboration between singer and lutenist. A bubble is an ideal, perfectly shaped, but fragile as well. It can easily be blown away or burst, if you don’t take care of it. And it will never even be without equally weighted forces creating it and keeping it up. Successful cooperation enables the bubble to rise to unimagined heights shining in any shade of color… However, you manage exceptionally well.

  2. Thank you, J. This is a beautifully worded and wonderfully lyrical development of our humble metaphor.

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