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Saturday morning quotes 8.4: Guest post

October 31, 2020
Remarquez le pouce

This is our first guest post on Unquiet Thoughts and, as we continue to press forward with recording projects, probably not the last. Today we feature an article by Martyn Hodgson on a pertinent facet of a subject near and dear to our hearts. The general topic was first mentioned in a paper published by the The Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments (FoMRHI), authored by the late Jeremy Montagu, who passed away September 11, 2020, aged 92. Martyn Hodgson’s article also first appeared in the FoMRHI Quarterly, and we are grateful to the author for sharing his work on our platform.

“…We may not be able to hear the music with earlier ears but we can, and we should, play it in earlier ways, and then perhaps our audiences could hear it as something like it was in the earlier days.”

– Jeremy Montagu (1927 – 2020), “The Fakery of Early Music

by Martyn Hodgson                                  

[This paper first appeared as a Communication (Comm.) 2128 in the FoMRHI Quarterly No 149, April 2020. The Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments was founded in 1975 by Jeremy Montagu and Ephraim Segerman to disseminate information on and debate matters relating to historical musical instruments and has a wide international membership.  However the range of subjects covered is extremely catholic and not just restricted to organological matters but frequently includes other aspects of period/historic performance practices such as the present paper. The article has also appeared in the UK Lute Society magazine.

Subsequent to publication various helpful comments were exchanged and, in view of the subject’s relative importance, it was suggested circulating the paper via other channels to allow an even wider debate on a core matter affecting the future of the lute. A few minor changes have therefore been made, but essentially this version remains much as it originally appeared in FoMRHI Q. and the UK Lute Society magazine.]


Jeremy Montagu’s recent and challenging FoMRHI paper  ‘The Fakery of Early Music’ (Comm 2121)  reminds us that it is not really possible to recreate musical performances and hear music exactly as early composers expected, the performers produced it and audiences heard. In short, since any performance is subject to modern tastes and the interpretation of historical evidence it is, inevitably, a sort of fakery.  He also explains how difficult it is to reproduce the music and sounds heard by the ‘Old Ones’ – not just in ensuring that the original (‘authentic’) playing techniques are correctly employed, but also because passing modern fads may impose a musical interpretation at odds with what the original composer expected and auditors experienced.

I certainly agree that one fundamental problem is a fairly recent tendency amongst some ‘period’ musicians to wilfully ignore hard evidence which doesn’t chime with their own preconceptions – thus producing a performance which satisfies them personally (and perhaps some modern auditors) but is not what the ‘Old Ones’ would have expected and heard. However, I’m not entirely pessimistic and believe that performances may still be achieved which, if not precisely identical to those heard by early audiences, are not too far removed. In particular, whilst some extant instruments may have significantly changed and deteriorated over a long period of time (such as many of the wind family Jeremy highlights),  I believe it quite practicable to produce some stringed instruments which the early makers would have recognised as being not too dissimilar to their own productions. Similarly, should players choose to do so, there is much historical evidence to allow the re-creation of early playing techniques to something close to that of earlier times.

Nevertheless, as well as the areas of fakery Jeremy outlines, there are many others and, in particular, a significant and growing problem amongst the instruments I make, play and love – those of the lute family. Quite a number of the culpable players are professionals, who should know better, and so this particular modern trend for lute fakery continues to be perpetuated and even to become the established practice. The implications of this on the lute and its playing are briefly explored here.

Modern lutes and makers

However, all is not doom – the ‘authenticity’ (that now abhorred word!) of many lute (and guitar) type instruments made nowadays is pretty good: – that is, they are often closely modelled on extant period instruments and based on sound research including iconographic and documentary evidence. Thus many professional modern makers generally produce lutes which reasonably reflect what the early makers themselves made.

To set this in context, it is useful to very briefly consider the modern history of lute making. The pioneers making new lutes in the early twentieth century (such as Arnold Dolmetsch in England and various, mostly German, makers on the European continent) generally made quite sturdy and often heavy instruments (‘fakes’ in fact) and therefore without much of the delicate and rather subtle resonant responses of early lutes. It was in the 1960’s that makers (many English) started more seriously to come to grips with the true features of historical lute construction. For example, Ian Harwood making instruments with some features of the early lute: – lightweight, properly barred, reasonably delicate bridges and so on.  (As an aside, I still treasure a printed leaflet by Ian from the late 60s offering new 8 course lutes for £40!  In my impecunious state, even this relatively small sum was beyond my truly modest student means and so I didn’t buy, but decided to make an instrument myself – though that’s another story….).

Suffice it to say that by the mid/late 1970s there were quite a few makers, both in the US as well as Europe, producing instruments incorporating important aspects of historical lutes. This was further developed by some fine makers, such as Michael Lowe, starting to look in even more detail at extant examples of particular instruments and making close copies directly modelled on them.

Stephen Murphy was also important by making available, at very reasonable prices, drawings of instruments from many important collections. Thus from the 1980s there were many makers offering a good range of historically based lutes and guitars.  In short, whilst there may still be a few present day lute makers who seem unaware of, or ignore, some of the historical evidence (such as the various sizes and stringing of theorbos and archlutes), many now produce recognisable historically based instruments.

So, I hear you cry, where’s the fakery if most makers these days closely model their instruments on extant lutes and other relevant information? The answer is that it’s in the manner of playing them that the fakery can now appear:  it is not the instruments themselves, but the increasingly widespread employment of an inappropriate playing technique for much of the lute repertoire, which perpetuates a deception. This is the target of my polemic.

Lute playing and performance

Thus, whilst lute making now mostly follows historical principles, many players (both amateur and professional) increasingly adopt an anachronistic (unhistorical) plucking technique. This is to employ what’s nowadays known as the ‘thumb-under’ technique for virtually all the lute repertoire, and not just for the earlier period up to the late 1500s for which it can be appropriate. This might seem an esoteric matter only relevant to lutenists but, in fact, the right hand technique makes a significant difference to how the music sounds and is therefore, of course, important for wider audiences too.

For non-lute players, such as most members of FoMRHI, perhaps a few words of explanation about this particular early technique is called for. From the late fifteenth century, when finger plucking generally took over from plectrum playing, the right hand plucking fingers were held almost parallel to the strings and so the thumb lay behind (or ‘under’) the foremost fingers. This seems to have developed naturally from the earlier use of the plectrum held between the fingers and thumb in a similar roughly horizontal position. To allow this hand position it is generally best to have the right forearm come over the belly of the instrument close to the base or bottom edge of the instrument. For almost a century, to around the 1570s, this technique was that most employed (although by no means universal as clearly shown by many early depictions) and generally requires the strings to be plucked quite high up on the belly and, indeed even over the rose – this position naturally produces a gentle, soft and homogenous timbre.

However, by the later decades of the sixteenth century, changing musical demands gave rise to a radical change in the general plucking technique and arm position – partly to do with changes in musical texture and of the kind of sound now being preferred. This was the more widespread adoption of the ‘thumb-over’ plucking technique. With this technique the forearm rests on the side of the lute (roughly just behind the bridge position) and the fingers now attack the strings at a much less shallow angle than that best for the old ‘thumb under’ approach. This change was also generally accompanied by resting the lute on the right thigh rather than having it held high on the chest (as is, indeed, more comfortable for the old ‘thumb under’ approach). The relatively new hand position allows more vigorous plucking and frees the thumb for a more independent role and, incidentally, in a position more suited to addressing numerous additional bass courses which soon became increasingly common. The early instructions are also very clear: the little finger still rests on the belly but now much closer to the bridge, perhaps even touching it, and indeed could occasionally even be found behind. All this produces a much more focussed, brilliant sound and allows considerably more light and shade, dynamics, and the like.

This new hand position can be seen in numerous pictorial representations and is clearly described in texts from the late sixteenth century onwards. For example, the historic change is recommended and reported in the Varietie of Lute-lessons (London 1610) and directly reflects the developed practice of Dowland at this time:

     ‘First, set your little finger on the belly of the Lute, not towards the rose, but a little lower, stretch out your Thombe with all the force you can, especially if thy Thombe be short, so that the other fingers may be carried in a manner of a fist, and let the Thombe be held higher then them, this in the beginning will be hard. Yet they which have a short Thombe may imitate those which strike the strings with the Thombe under the other fingers, which though it be nothing so elegant, yet to them it will be more easie. ‘

But perhaps the best wider contemporary description is that given in Stobäus MS 23. This important source clearly records the momentous change in plucking technique (translated):

    ‘The right hand is to be held close to the bridge, and the little finger firmly placed there and held down. The thumb is to be stretched out strongly, so that it stands out almost as a limb, by one knuckle, to the other fingers. The fingers are to pluck cleanly inwards under the thumb, so that the sound resonates cleanly and strongly. The thumb is to be struck outwards, not inwards like the people in the past used to do……. For it has been shown that it is far better to strike the thumb outwards: it sounds purer, clearer, and brighter, the other way sounds very faulty and dull’.

This ‘thumb-out’ plucking position remained the general style for the remainder of the historical lute’s existence (as an organological aside, the ‘lute’ or ‘theorbo’ stop on the harpsichord mimics this more brilliant sound by placing its row of jacks closest to the bridge). However, it is precisely this clearly documented and historically preferred playing style which is effectively denied by many modern lutenists who now employ the anachronistic early ‘thumb-under’ technique for the entire lute repertoire and not just the earlier part for which it is, of course, often generally entirely appropriate.

Why does such anachronistic lute playing fakery persist?

As Eph Segerman perceptively and presciently remarked many years ago when modern ‘thumb-under’ started to be employed:  the general use of this technique, even by those who should have known better, was often a conscious attempt to distance themselves from the despised (and now embarrassing for them) modern ‘classical’ guitar which, ironically, many had started out playing. So then, even as now, many players, perhaps unwittingly, adopt this ‘inauthentic’ manner for the entirety of the lute repertoire – possibly also hoping that modern audiences will see that not only does the lute not look like a guitar, but that its right hand playing style is quite different too – and even, by some supposed implication, superior and more refined to that nowadays employed on its abhorred and less elevated relative.

The widespread adoption of this unhistoric technique misleadingly purports to suggest that the performer is playing their instrument with the same historical technique used by all early lutenists and so they are therefore reproducing the correct (‘authentic’) sound.  Alas – they are often not.  It is, in practice, a deception on the audience who attend such concerts (or listen to recordings) fully expecting to hear works performed in the same manner as of ‘olden times’.

This modern fakery may also be perpetuated by some players with a vested interest (they don’t have to become skilled in two very different techniques) and, of course, by the recording industry which allows modern sophisticated ‘sound engineering’ to turn anything into something considered more desirable – ‘don’t worry the bass is a bit weak, we can always boost it later’.  And not just by some professional players, but also by amateurs misleadingly instructed by some teachers that this fake practice is right (ie historically accurate) for the whole of the lute repertoire. And so we end up in the present bizarre situation where, for much of the repertoire, the correct historical playing technique is frequently ignored, and indeed even criticised, and an incorrect anachronistic uniform performance style is promoted.

What can be done? 

The first days of the modern post-war early music revival (say, from the 1960s) were frequently experimental, but also therefore exciting, and lively debates – sometimes heated (but in retrospect generally enjoyable) – could properly arise. However, there was also great effort to try and understand alternatives and properly explore them – much of this outlook has now, to a regrettable degree, disappeared from parts of the early music world, including from within the lute community. This modern reactionary conservatism, linked to a reluctance to properly consider the historic evidence but to rely instead on the current fashionable ‘group-thought’, is I suggest the core problem – especially for the lute.

So, how can we recapture the earlier exciting and highly desirable situation and also thereby attract young people to early music in large numbers as, for example, the lute once did? Perhaps a second early music revolution is now required, not only to address those many issues Jeremy identified but also those in the smaller, but still much loved, world of the lute.

In the UK the full restoration of music and instrumental tuition in schools would be a first good step and the government’s recent consultation on shaping a National Plan for Music Education might be an important avenue to influence this. Sadly, there seems to be little input expected, or indeed being offered, from the early/period music movement and no significant debate about it in any relevant journals. Surely we cannot, and should not afford to, miss this opportunity to shape the future of music education and so ensure that period performance, including that on the lute, is not relegated to some minority eccentric interest group as it once was? 

But, fundamentally, I suggest that a much more diverse and properly critical exploration of early music performance practices, based on the historical evidence, might engender some of the  excitement of earlier times – as well as having a real benefit for the lute of encouraging the appropriate playing techniques in performance.

Postscript – some other fakery in early music performance….

In addition to fakery in playing the lute and the examples Jeremy mentions, there are, of course, many more and in the FoMRHI paper I generally left it to others to comment on these. Nevertheless, I could not resist mentioning a couple of other modern early music practices which, in my view, are also highly debatable:

– the use of the falsetto male voice (ie using just the vocal chord edges) as an acceptable substitute for the early male soprano (ie mostly castrato) roles  (what’s wrong with a suitable stentorian woman with her full vocal chords?);

–  the ubiquitous involvement of modern sound recording engineers who often seem ignorant of how early voices and instruments actually sound in the flesh or, if they do know, prefer to suppress the knowledge and substitute their own preferred ‘balance’.

Martyn Hodgson, September 2020

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