Saturday morning quotes 6.14: Mythologies
“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.