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Saturday morning quotes 7.23: Standards

March 25, 2019

Cheap suit

As we approach one full score years of the new millennium, it’s time to accept that it is no longer “new”, and that the the present time is upon us.  It doesn’t seem to matter that the mantle of the present fits like a cheap suit, the times and the standards have changed and we are compelled to accept the new normal no matter how offensive the style.

Artists and professional musicians have to accept that they are now merely content creators, and that the worth of said content is determined by its usefulness to G**gle or the unfortunately pervasive social media platforms, all of which take overt steps to restrict availability of your content unless 1) you pay them, or 2) they can make sufficient ad revenue from it.  And if this isn’t offensive enough, now it comes to light that G**gle considers all individuals as mere “transient carriers” of data, which they will admittedly shape and mold to best suit their own profit-driven objectives.

But we’re here to discuss other standards that have to do with the status of early music and the lute revival in particular.  In the many and various fields of historical research, it is normal for our understanding of the past to evolve as we gain new insights from the combined efforts of scholars who may approach a subject from different angles.  The trick is to maintain a dignified respect for the scholarly pioneers and their work as we add to our knowledge base and clarify sometimes mistaken assumptions.  To reinforce this point, we take the unusual step of self-quoting from a past post on this blog:

“Suffice it to say that Leech-Wilkinson presents a survey of the rediscovery of old music, beginning in the nineteenth century and highlighting the contributions of eminent historians and musicologists including Hugo Riemann, the Stainers, Johannes Wolf, Guido Adler and Arnold Schering. In addition to remarks on the fact that most of these pioneers were Germans, Leech-Wilkinson aptly points out that their overall approach to interpretation of medieval music reflected the conventions of their own time. However, it is less useful and ungenerous to point out the multitude of faulty premises in this early but important research.”

Like the lute performance revival, we see the field of lute scholarship transitioning from that of discovery, codification and transcription of sources, to a standard of calm, reasoned and mature evaluation of the work that has come down to us by more closely examining the context in which the music was originally created and performed. Just like our late 20th-century musicologists who plunged headlong into refining what was in many cases speculative work of earlier scholars, we are now at the point where we can step back from the analytical framework and evaluate the validity of many earlier assumptions and arrive at reasonable answers to questions of attribution.

The Lute Music of Francesco Canova da Milano, 1497-1543, edited by Arthur Ness and published in 1970 by Harvard University Press, remains the standard modern edition of Francesco’s lute music. The publication’s association with Harvard links this work directly to John Ward, probably the most important musicologist of the 20th century when it comes to music for the lute, and the work by Ness did indeed complete earlier research that was begun by Ward and his other students, drawing upon Ward’s large collection of microfilms of sources.

In his edition, Ness provided transcriptions of Francesco’s music into modern notation displayed in parallel with a modern depiction of the uncorrected original lute tablatures. Following the model of Otto Gombosi, Ness chose to organize the transcriptions according to musical phrasing rather than adhere to the sometimes nonsensical bar lines of the original tablatures. Playing from the transcriptions usually results in intelligent interpretations of Francesco’s delightful music, but there are many cases of added notes or rhythms that represent “completion” of the polyphonic ideal, and other “corrections” that are rather unidiomatic on the lute. Sadly, playing from the parallel uncorrected tablatures is not an option without extensive editing.

Ness provided a resource for a few generations of lutenists wishing to experience the sound world of Francesco da Milano, but the modern edition must not be considered a monument, rather a snapshot that represents our understanding of music by an historical figure, but collected and edited with an approach rooted in mid 20th century aesthetics. Today, we are well past the point of discovering sources of lute music, speculating as to what is what, and defending our assumptions in the court of public opinion—if today’s relatively small number of lutenists can be called public.  We are now at the point where we can and should get to the heart of the music itself and share with any listener possessing an attention span the depth and beauty of Francesco’s music for lute. To do this requires an understanding of the context of the original music with guidance by able editors who actually play the lute, and it’s high time we put aside defensive scholarly bluster supporting Francesco the ideal and learn more about Francesco the human being.

Fortunately, we have available the slightly more recent work of Victor Coelho, who melds an excellent standard of musicological scholarship with a virtuoso lute technique, resulting in truly useful insights into the music. Coelho builds on the work of earlier scholarship and provides a reality check that clarifies some assumptions as to attribution in his article, “The Reputation of Francesco da Milano (1497-1543) and the Ricercars in the Cavalcanti Lute Book”, Revue belge de Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, Vol. 50, 1996, pp. 49-72.  It is interesting to note that this article is 24 years old, yet Coelho’s cogent and altogether reasonable findings are little known and lesser understood by lutenists today.

There are several fantasias attributed to Francesco that appear in the Ness edition that do not bear the stamp of Francesco’s particular style.  Those of us who delve into the sources of lute music and actually touch the notes on the instrument with our fingertips form a relationship with a particular composer’s compositional language, and we begin to understand that, in the 16th century, attribution of a piece of music to a particular composer frequently meant, “in the style of” rather than actually by the particular composer. We distill Coelho’s article with a few brief quotes.

“… [A] close study of these fantasias reveals such stylistic incongruities with Francesco’s authenticated output that their attribution to the lutenist cannot be accepted without a legitimate challenge. Most of them are far too long and their dense textures are totally unlike Francesco’s printed work. The fantasias develop sequences to the point of tedium and cadential points are too infrequent; the idiomatic play, which is one of the most consistent and characteristic qualities of Francesco, is contorted, static, and awkward, and the development of subjects in most of the fantasias is perfunctory. Many fingerings (tablature, of course, shows hand position) have no precedent in Francesco’s authenticated work, and the large-scale repetition found in Fantasia 77 is a formal anomaly in Francesco’s fantasias.”

– Coelho, p. 51-52

“Several of the fantasias contain quotes of earlier pieces by Francesco, which suggests the presence of parody or pastiche technique. Finally, the strongly Florentine repertory contained in Cavalcanti betrays the influence of Vincenzo Galilei whose first printed lutebook of 1563 also contained six previously unknown fantasias attributed to Francesco da Milano, all of them unica.  It is surprising that no one has ever questioned why (or how) some twenty years after Francesco’s death, six new and unique fantasias appeared at the end of a book by Galilei, and almost thirty years later another eight fantasias, most of them also unique, appear in a Florentine manuscript, one with possible ties to Galilei.”

– Coelho, p. 52

In the 16th century, there was a lively tradition of quoting bits of familiar tunes by weaving a recognizable phrase into the polyphonic texture of a fantasia.  This tradition survives today in jazz improvisation, where players will toss a sometimes surprising quote into a solo, mainly for the amusement of fellow musicians.  But we know of this tradition through deliberate quotes of passages by a famous musician scribbled into manuscripts by anonymous composers, sometimes resulting in misattribution by later editors.  This is surely the case in the fantasia designated P74 in Diana Poulton’s edition of The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland, Faber Music, 1974 (British Library manuscript Add. 31392, f. 24), which quotes phrases by Dowland both familiar and less so.

“Lute music, more than any other musical repertory of the Renaissance, was subject to quite substantial textual variation, and there are many pieces even by composers like Francesco or Dowland for which there is no fixed version or Urtext at all. This is particularly true during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the printed tradition of lute music began to experience its decline, and the transmission of Francesco’s music was dependent on the often-unscrupulous manuscript tradition, the skill of copyists, who were often students, and their personal choices.”

– Coelho, p. 52

“The layers of interpolations that can be added to a single lute piece as it is disseminated by the manuscript tradition reveal a process that can be compared to the troping of chant: the spine of the original conception remains, along with its distant, perhaps even apocryphal authorship, but the interpolations reveal efforts of modernization, pedagogy, enshrinement, revival, imitation, a striving for generational relevance, and, consequently, the making of reputations.”

– Coelho, p. 53

The best way to become acquainted with a composer’s work is to play the music in an informed manner on the instrument for which it was intended.  Only then can we understand whether a particular piece bears traces of the composer’s musical personality.

“In overall form, Francesco’s ricercars usually can be divided into distinct sections, each characterized by a new rhythmic treatment of a subject, or by a new subject. The 1563 ricercars, on the other hand, are more continuous and ceaseless, the motion unmarked by regular cadential points of rest and sectional division, and without the internal coherence one finds with Francesco. Like Josquin, Francesco approaches cadences with a ‘drive’ of increased rhythmic activity or stretto, culminating in a cadence incorporating an ornamental turn, but neither the cadential drive nor the turn is present in the Galilei ricercars, with the exception of Fantasia 73.”

“The most compelling evidence that these works are, at best, misattributed by Galilei or pastiches, lies in the presence of different chunks taken from Francesco’s fantasias that are embedded in these works.”

– Coelho, p. 62

In a similar vein, we can examine an interesting case of conjectural conclusions in the article by André Nieuwlaat, “Da Milano or Dowland?”, Geluit Luthinerie no. 76 12/2018, p. 21. Nieuwlaat makes a giant leap from fantasias attributed to Francesco da Milano in an English source, to assigning authorship directly to Dowland. There is a great deal of intriguing speculation presented, but in the end there is no positive proof that leads us to conclude that Dowland decided to try his hand at emulating Francesco’s work. While Nieuwlaat recognizes the confusing practice of an attribution sometimes meaning “in the style of” rather than actually by the particular composer, in order for rather dramatic claims to be accepted we need to adhere to a higher standard of proof.



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