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Saturday morning quotes 6.14: Mythologies

August 20, 2016

big-fish-small-pond-shutterstock-8451121-big-fish-small-pond-20151229064458-56822bea09d05“And so it came to pass that he heard an LP of Julian Bream, an excellent master upon the lute, and he quick got him an instrument that pleased not his hand nor his ear but used his study of modern classical guitar to great advantage until he charmed the unschooled ears of others by such rare and uncommon sounds, be they ever so inaudible, and no other had nor played such an instrument; and thus he was a very great fish in a very small pond until others studied to usurp his station, whereupon he inveigled to hold close to himself his lessons and cloak his hand and change his tune, and told all others that their method of play was in error be it true or no, and thus kept all and sundry usurpers in the dark and long on the placement of fingers rather than on the discovery of the rare celestial quality of the music, a path which he had himself eschewed and discovered not.”

This playfully fictitious—if fractious—fable might well describe a cynical mythology of the modern rediscovery of the lute for many players.  The lute is such a magnificent emblem of the aesthetics of historical music that it is no wonder so many modern players immerse themselves in the physical and mechanical properties of the instrument, as well as indulge in the ardent pursuit of historical music.  But perhaps many have overlooked what the contemporary master Julian Bream had to say about his own journey of discovery of the vast repertory of lute music, and the great deeps one may find if one probes the emotional qualities of historical music for the instrument.

The most effective way (yes, that’s right) to approach and understand historical music is to take the time to read what the old ones had to say and to make every attempt to learn the way they learned.  This truth may chafe among those who would create their own world and discard facts that don’t fit into their way of thinking.  Nevertheless, the information is there for all to discover and only takes a quiet and receptive mind and an open heart.

“The lute is a modest interpreter of our thoughts and passions to those that understand the language. One may tell another by the help of it what he hath in his heart.”

We revisit the writing found in Mary Burwell’s lute book, circa 1660, which is essentially a treatise copied by students of an unidentified teacher, the premise being that through the physical act of copying the text, the student would digest and thus know the information.  This tried and true method of old is quite different from using Google as a ready reference for an immediate need and then moving on to the next bright shiny object, because the information is absorbed and retained.  Our quotes are drawn from the essential article by Thurston Dart, “Miss Mary Burwell’s Instruction Book for the Lute”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 11 (May, 1958), pp. 3-62

“If wee consider the excellency of the Lute wherof we shall make a whole discourse heerafter or if wee trust piously the Devines wee shall easily beleeve that the Lute hath his derivacon from heaven in effect that had the happines to be present at the birth of the Incarnate word and that heard the admirable Consort of Musicke which the Angells made for to manifest there joy and the Interest that heaven tooke in the happines of Mankind or those who by spetiall favours since haue heard Celestiall melodie…”

It may be a difficult concept in our secular age, but the lute was indeed considered a celestial instrument, and study of the lute was considered a pathway to the Divine.  This passage also reveals where the ensemble, Consort of Musicke, may have derived their name.

“Therefore do we feel in churches that music raises up our souls, softens our hearts, and draws from us tears of joy which are very proper to dissolve those of our contrition. And why should it not be possible that, as Amphion made the stones to move by his harmony, gathered them in order the top of one another round about the city and so builded the walls of Thebes, is it unlikely said of that music may contribute much to move our stony hearts, to place them in good order, and build in the end the walls of the temporal Jerusalem against whom all the forces of Hell shall not prevail?”

The power of music to move our hearts, minds and souls was well understood, and the metaphor of music’s power to move inanimate objects was appropriately used as an example of how the senses of susceptible listeners may be moved.

“…There is a great dispute amongst the moderns concerning the shape of the lute. Some will have it somewhat roundish, the rising in the middle of the back and sloping of each side…The reason is that the lute so framed is capable of more sound because of his concavity, and that the sound not keeping in the deep and hollow bottom but, contrariwise, being put forth by the straitness of the sides towards the middle and so to the rose, from whence it issues greater and with more impetuosity.”

“The other have for their defence and reason the handsomeness of the figure of the pear, [and] the comeliness of it—because, being more flat in the back, they lie better upon the stomach and do not endanger people to grow crooked. Besides, all Bologna lutes are in the shape of a pear, and those are the best lutes; but their goodness is not attributed to their figure but to their antiquity, to the skill of those lutemakers, to the quality of the wood and [the] seasoning of it, and to the varnishing of it.”

Mary Burwell’s lute tutor had a great deal to say about the physical properties of the instrument.  The descriptions above reveal the reasons why the lutes made by Frei and Maler of Bologna were preferred over the rounder, deeper-bodied Venice lutes.

“Of all the instruments of music the lute pleaseth most the French, though it was not framed nor touched as [it] is at present, every eye having contributed to the perfection of  that famous  instrument, as we see by the shape of the ancient lutes and by the  composition of our lessons. The lute hath had a long time but thirteen strings, then fifteen, then seventeen, then nineteen, where he hath remained a long time that is, nine double strings and the treble (for ’tis but of late that we use but one second). All that while the lute had but one head.”

Mary Burwell’s tutor tells us that seven, eight, nine and ten-course lutes were long in common use without extended necks, and that the second course was always doubled until circa 1660.  The latter detail is important information for those who like to obsess over historical accuracy in performance.  That means music by Vieux Gaultier should always be played with a double second course.

“Lorenzini [Vomigny], Perrichon and the Polack [i.e.Jacob Reys] are furthest lutenists in the memory of man that deserved to be mentioned and to have a statue upon the mount of Parnassus, for having given us the rudiments of the lute and cleared the first difficulties that hindered production of this masterpiece. Afterwards Monsieur Mezangeau [Mezangeot] appeared upon the stage of music and, using the lute with nineteen strings, hath so polished the composition and the playing of it that, without contradiction, we must give him the praise to have given to the lute his first perfection”

Thurston Dart inserted many helpful corrections in his transcription of the contents of Burwell’s book, but one wonders how “Vomigny” morphed into “Lorenzini”.  Lorenzini, Laurencini, or Lorenzo Tracetti was a famed Italian lutenist and noted teacher of the prolific but error-prone anthologist, Besard.  There is a Lake Vaumigny located between Le Mans and Orléans, noted for its many big fish stories, and the “Vomigny” mentioned in the book may very well refer to another unknown historical lute master.  Mesangeau’s music is notable for its subtlety and the use of higher positions, and requires calm study and a receptive mind to uncover the attributes described by Mary Burwell’s tutor.  We offer our edition of three courantes for those who would like to try.

“By this it is easy to see what vast capacities the lute hath, what abundance of music, what variety both of things and manners, of fashions of playing and composing, the lute being like an ocean that cannot be emptied but is full of so much riches that the more we take from it the more remains to take, and in such sort that all his beauties are different according to the genius of the lute master that composes our plays, and dives in that spring of science and charms.”

We can choose to dip a toe into that spring of science and charms, or we can choose to dive in after those who have immersed themselves in the music.  But it most certainly requires that we approach the water’s edge with a calm mind and without the hum and distraction of electronic gadgets.  Give it a try.

Special Note: Protocols

Over the past few months, we have received angry, bilious commentary from sitting board members of both the American lute organization and the American early music organization.  While we are pleased to have actually reached these people, and we invite their respectful comments, we will say outright that when we name names on our blog it is with full awareness that said names will receive searchable hits on what is an internationally known and popular source of information.  We do not choose to offer that advantage to all and sundry.

We always welcome comments on our blog, but we reserve the right to exclude commentary that is offensive, immature or that displays the ranting quality one associates with the currently popular Fox-news style of communication.  We don’t mind helpful corrections or thoughtful criticism respectfully presented, but if you want to rant, get your own blog.


  1. Thank you for your thought-provoking posts and also for referring to related articles and earlier posts one might have missed. I usually read everything, provided that I find the time.

    The article about the internet and Google shaping our process of thinking is overall interesting, but especially, as I observe the opposite development of what the author himself describes as a reduction of mental capacity. The more I have to use the web, the more I appreciate occasions that demand concentration and contemplation and the more successful I am in immersing myself into these subjects and staying focused – if I’m really interested. This antipole of delving into something is essential to me, and I would like to count your blog among this category, although it is situated in the realm of the internet.

    In my view, the actual problem isn’t the way of information processing or the instant availability of information. What makes people fidgety is the adopted and internalized expectation to always be up-to-date and informed about everything and at any time, reinforced by specific sounds of incoming messages – a modern mix of operant and classical conditioning with best wishes from Pavlov and his bell. And that’s why it’s important not to forget our roots. For lutenists, as you point out, this implies cherishing the expertise and accomplishments of old and contemporary masters. For all of us this means not to give in to the ubiquitous pressure of information overload, to use the net for our own purposes and on our own terms instead of allowing it to absorb us, and to regularly take a rest to recover by enjoying our cultural inheritance “without the hum and distraction of electronic gadgets”, as you put it.

    Perhaps the author of the article should try to listen to your music before reading? This would be an exciting field experiment, and I would be very interested to learn about the results.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful commentary, as always. The irony of our blog thriving and being transmitted on the internet does not escape us. Donna is much more tech-savvy than I am and there are many cases where we have to come to terms with the issues of “keeping it real” versus working intelligently with the tools available to us. But that’s the overarching point – for both of us, technology is a tool rather than a way of life.

      I think Anthony Carr surveyed several points of interest in his (now ancient 2008) Atlantic article, but, for me, the two disquieting points that rise to the surface are that 1) easy access and availability to a rather intimidating quantity of information somehow cheapens the experience of discovery, and 2) retention of information appears to be less important to the average reader when he or she believes easy access is forever and always a given.

      Because of these factors, it seems to me that the internet, perhaps inadvertently, thwarts the tried and true process of absorbing and digesting information in order to gain knowledge that is eventually tested over time and converted to wisdom. The internet doesn’t know whether it’s good or evil, and the average person doesn’t know that too much information results in a confused mind. But those who coordinate access to the information do know good from evil, and it appears that there is a push to mine and monetize every innocent interaction with a pervasive ethic of marketing psychology. For instance, Google knows that the inquiring mind is apt to be careless when searching for specific info. A trusting personality will likely click on the first few choices on offer, not suspecting that these choices have been placed at the top of the displayed results because money has been exchanged for the privilege, and that every click on a sponsored link incrementally converts the unsuspecting person from innocent scholar to complete consumer whose privacy has been pillaged.

      It takes a certain dimension of intelligence and self-restraint to resist falling into the abyss of information overload and, sadly, marketing psychologists are very well aware of this fact. Not many normal average people are capable of controlling that twitchy mouse finger when they are presented with a multitude of links – it can almost be likened to addiction to gambling, which marketing psychologists also know very well.

      One of our favorite poets is Sir Philip Sidney and I frequently have a “mind worm” of the third verse of a setting by Byrd of Sidney’s text “O Lord, how vain are all our frail delights”:

      What prince so great as doth not seem to want,
      What man so rich but still doth covet more,
      To whom so large was ever Fortune’s grant,
      As for to have a quiet mind in store.

      As a tool for communication, while the internet makes it possible to connect with thoughtful, intelligent and fascinating people from faraway places, it also tends to thwart the warmth and immediacy of human interaction. There is a vast store of contextual information transmitted through body language when speaking face to face – the look in one’s eyes, a wry smile, an arched brow. I guess Skype is the new mode of indulging in “face time”, but it just isn’t the same as real time.

      Thanks again for sharing your wise words. Now, back to work…


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