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Saturday morning quotes 8.15: New or old?

May 1, 2021

Our new CD, Unquiet Thoughts, has been making the rounds over the past few weeks and we have been receiving a very positive response to our unique take on English music for voice and lute from circa 1600. This is quite satisfying because we put a great deal of effort into this recording, intentionally aiming for a warm and intimate sound to convey the spirit of an excellent collection of profound poetry and moving music from the age of Shakespeare. Our recorded program opens with four songs from John Dowland’s groundbreaking First Booke (1597), contrasts Dowland’s innovative work with that of his contemporaries Thomas Campion, Robert Jones and John Danyel, and closes with some of Dowland’s most iconic songs from later prints. This is music we love, and we hope it shows.

“In my opinion, the most beautiful music is in singing well and in reading at sight and in fine style, but even more in singing to the accompaniment of the lute, because nearly all the sweetness is in the solo and we note and follow the fine style and the melody with greater attention in that our ears are not occupied with more than a single voice, and every little fault is the more clearly noticed—which does not happen when a group is singing, because then one sustains the other. But especially it is singing poetry with the lute that seems to me the most delightful, as this gives to the words a wonderful charm and effectiveness.”

– Baldassare Castiglione, Il Cortegiano (1528).

We were particularly taken by a comment from a listener who appreciated our “modern” approach to this music, a comment that led us to scroll through and review our writing on this blog in order to clarify our position on just what is a modern approach to early music. If you are a regular reader of our blog, you might very well guess that we have made a broad and deep investigation into historical performance practices, and we feel strongly that our approach is securely rooted in the performing tradition of Dowland’s time. But the comment made us pause to consider just what inspired the person to think that our sound is “modern.” Again, if you have read our posts on the natural voice, or on the importance of strong rhythmical phrasing, or even on recording the lute, you know exactly where we stand.

The first consideration is that the original music was almost always sung in small rooms for the performers themselves or just a few listeners.

“The lute is a closet instrument that will suffer the company of but few hearers, and such as have a delicate ear; for the pearls are not to be cast before the swine.”

“…If we must incline to one side, the gentle and soft playing is to be preferred before others, so that you play neatly and in a little room or to please a small company (the lute not being fit to play in a hall before a multitude of people; there the violin is most fit).”

– Mary Burwell’s lute teacher, circa 1670

The aptness of smaller rooms being the case, a projected voice was never used and specifically discouraged by the likes of Nicholas Lanier, known to be the singer who first introduced the Italian stile recititavo to England.

“It shall therefore be a profitable advertisement, that the Professor of this Art, being to sing to a Theorbo or other stringed instrument, and not being compelled to fit himself to others, that he so pitch his Tune, as to sing in his full and natural Voice, avoiding feigned Tunes of Notes. In which, to feign them, or at the least to inforce Notes, if his Wind serve him well, so as he do not discover them much; (because for the most part they offend the Ear;) yet a man must have a command of Breath to give the greater Spirit to the Increasing and Diminishing of the Voice, to Exclamations and other Passions by us related; and therefore let him take heed, that spending much Breath upon such Notes, it do not afterward fail him in such places as it is most needful: For from a feigned Voice can come no noble manner of singing; which only proceeds from a natural Voice, serving aptly for all the Notes which a man can manage according to his ability employing his wind in such a fashion as he command all the best passionate Graces used in this most worthy manner of Singing.”

– Nicholas Lanier, An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, John Playford, London, 1674, ppg. 54-55.

Dance rhythms with strongly articulated phrasing were the norm, and those rhythms are particularly evident in the music throughout Dowland’s First Booke. To fail to articulate those rhythms is a grievous oversight, surely akin to reading poetry in a monotone drone, which robs the words of proper articulation, meaning, spirit and life. But the thing must be done with sensitivity and with the understanding of a nimble-footed musician who can indeed dance.

“Dauncing (bright Lady) then began to be,
When the first seedes whereof the world did spring,
The Fire, Ayre, Earth and Water, did agree
By Love’s perswasion, Nature’s mighty King,
To learne their first disordred combating:
And, in a daunce such measure to observe,
As all the world their motion should preserve.

Since when they still are carried in a round,
And changing come one in another’s place,
Yet doe they neyther mingle nor confound,
But every one doth keepe the bounded space
Wherein the daunce doth bid it turne or trace:
This wondrous myracle did Love devise
For Dauncing is Love’s proper exercise.

– Sir John Davies, Orchestra, a Poem of Dancing, 1594

As for recording techniques, yes, recording is a modern technology that facilitates the act of performing our music in living rooms across the globe. We have produced 14 (soon to be 15) CDs in an epic struggle with this technology, persistently attempting to capture a natural sound in a manner that conveys the spirit of the music. Our last four CDs were all recorded live, which is a significant act of derring-do if you know anything about recording the lute. For Unquiet Thoughts, we entered the recording studio with very specific ideas as to the sound we were seeking. Among the problems associated with recording in live spaces, balance of voice and instrument is of paramount concern. In the studio, we are able to record both voice and lute with a close microphone placement that conveys the warmth of texts and music but, again, close placement is an act of bravery that exposes each breath and every movement of the fingers. There is a very good reason most recordings involving voice and lute have a “cathedral” sound despite the character of the music; it is mostly to insulate the performers from the inevitable exposure of their human imperfections when examined under a microscope. But we feel the close mic placement conveys the warmth of sound heard in a small chamber, bringing the listener closer to the original historical experience of the music. How often does a listener get to feel the resonance of a lute as though it were in his or her lap?

While we respect as an approach interpretations by our peers following the modern conventions of today’s early music aesthetic, after studying the sources and absorbing the context of the original music, we are secure in the understanding that our interpretations are historically appropriate. It is a well-established fact that the vocal quality of singers circa 1600 was nothing like that of our modern conservatory-trained singers indulging in modern bel canto style, affecting what is really a post-Victorian approach to vocal projection and diction. And we are just a bit dismayed when this patently unhistorical approach is reinforced by teachers as the standard 21st-century voice type, regrettably applied to early music. We have heard many promising singers possessing beautiful natural voices emerge from their degree program saddled with a voice that is sadly unsuitable for early repertory. The sources are very clear on this matter: A natural voice was preferred by and expected from singers in Dowland’s time. Full stop.

Perhaps the one aspect of our approach that might misguidedly be construed as modern is that we do not venture near the slippery slope of attempting to recreate an Elizabethan accent. But one must consider that singers in Dowland’s time would certainly not have indulged in employing an outdated Old English pronunciation dating from before Chaucer’s time, primarily because no one would have understood the words. Our phrasing and engagement in rhythmic devices simply represents an attentive involvement in the poetry and the music in a manner that we are certain was expected by the original composers. Our approach effectively leapfrogs over the Victorian influences of today’s early music norms to restore an intimate aesthetic that communicates historical poetry and music. If our directness and intimacy reaches beyond the bounds and has some appeal to listeners dwelling outside the moated castle of modern early music norms, we’re OK with that.

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