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Saturday morning quotes 8.29: Mignarda reading list II

December 11, 2021

While trying to make sense of the ever-shifting state of the world this week, we take a few moments to share more quotations drawn from the Mignarda reading list. As usual, we present bits of flotsam from the constant research that informs our approach to historical music and poetry, concluding with a modicum of social commentary from a well-known source.

“Every one knows not that there is a Semitone Major and Minor, because the Difference cannot be known by an Organ or Harpsichord, if the Keys of the Instrument are not split…this Knowledge…[in] Songs accompanied with Bow Instruments…becomes so necessary, that if a Soprano was to sing D sharp, like E flat, a nice Ear will find he is out of Tune, because this last rises.”

– Pier Francesco Tosi, Opinioni de’cantori antichi e moderni, o sieno Osservazioni sopra il canto figurato, Bologna, 1723.

When musicians who specialize in intimate music of the sixteenth century are confronted with more modern fare (18th century for instance), the first thing that assaults the ear is imprecise tuning and indifferent intonation. It is our observation that the keyboard as an accompanying instrument has established a blurry sense of intonation that inevitably encourages pitch wobble (vibrato), not to mention unnecessary (and seemingly competitive) production that seems to be required just to be heard over the blasted machines. To put it simply, the keyboard has a lot to answer for.

“As far as music specifically for lute or viol is concerned, the use of an instrument fretted for equal temperament is never historically ‘wrong’. Remarks by Spataro, Agricola, Cardano, and Vicentino show that some players used equal semitones even before 1550. After that date equal temperament became, in most theorists’ opinion, normal for fretted instruments…”

“Remarks by Bermudo, Ganassi, Dowland and Jean Rousseau suggest that many good players adjusted the frets by ear (as they often do today) rather than conform to an exactly regular spacing.”


– Mark Lindley, Lutes, Viols & Temperaments, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984, ppg. 93-94.

As long as there has been an early music revival, historical temperament has been a hotly debated topic. Again, this confusion is mainly confined to keyboard players and windy instrumentalists who have very little control over the tuning of their instruments. String players and singers don’t have to worry about temperament because they can and do use their ears to adjust. It is highly amusing to see and hear all the modern convoluted discussion about temperaments among academics and keyboard players who just can’t come to terms with the inevitable imperfection of their instruments. There is a solution: play the lute and scoot your moveable frets.

“In the sonnet of the late sixteenth century, English poets like Sidney, but especially Shakespeare, were developing a lyric verse not for social performance but for brooding over in private. The fruits of printing, literacy, Protestant private scripture-reading, Counter-Reformation meditation, and other silent, solitary literary pursuits, as well as more traditional rhetoric and possibly Ramist logic, were poems like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 124 and Donne’s “The Canonization“. Multiple or shifting meanings, subtle arguments, logical development through stanzas instead of parallel reiteration—these qualities of the new poetry are not compatible with the aurally comprehensible verse that is most natural for song.”

– Edward Doughtie, English Renaissance Song, Twayne, Boston, 1986, p. 159.

Spending some concentrated time recently with a handful of engaging songs set to delightful grounds by Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695), we can’t help but notice a distinct drop in the overall quality of poetry as compared to stellar examples found in earlier airs by Dowland & co. A logical explanation may be found in the writing of the late Edward Doughtie (1935 – 2014). While epic poetry expressly meant for reading evolved over time to a very high standard, the quality of theatrical song texts was seemingly of little importance to singers interested in floridly ornamented showpieces. We very much appreciate the music of Purcell, but even his contemporaries had sharp things to say about the overall quality of verse.

Thomas Shadwell (c. 1642 – 1692) wrote the fawning birthday ode, Now does the glorious Day appear, for Queen Mary, set to music by Purcell and first performed on April 30, 1689. Shadwell’s original words were tweaked and somewhat improved by Purcell, but really… John Dryden, Shadwell’s predecessor as poet laureate, offered a bit of offhand commentary in his satirical poem, “Mac Flecknoe”:

Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.

We close with a timely quote from one of many long laments by the original king of kvetch, Job, including his observations on the disappointing status of social justice. Things have not really improved to this day.

Why does the Almighty not reserve times for judgment?
Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?
Men move boundary stones;
they pasture flocks they have stolen.
They drive away the orphan’s donkey
and take the widow’s ox in pledge.
They thrust the needy from the path
and force all the poor of the land into hiding.
Indeed, like wild donkeys in the desert,
the poor go about their labor foraging food;
the wasteland provides food for their children.
They gather fodder in the fields
and glean the vineyards of the wicked.
Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked;
they have no covering against the cold.
They are drenched by mountain rains,
they huddle against the rocks for want of shelter.
The fatherless child is snatched from the breast;
the nursing infant of the poor is seized for a debt.
Without clothing, they wander about naked.
They carry the sheaves, but still go hungry.
They crush olives among the terraces;
they tread the winepresses, yet suffer thirst.
The groans of the dying rise from the city,
and the souls of the wounded cry out,
yet God charges no one with wrongdoing.

Then there are those who rebel against the light,
not knowing its ways or staying on its paths.
When daylight is gone, the murderer rises
to kill the poor and needy;
in the night he is like a thief.
The eye of the adulterer watches for twilight.
Thinking, ‘No eye will see me,’ he keeps his face concealed.
In the dark they break into houses;
but by day they shut themselves in,
never to experience the light.
For to them, deep darkness is their morning;
they make friends with the terrors of darkness.


Book of Job, 24: 1-17.

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One Comment
  1. Marianne van der Es permalink

    Thank you 😊
    As a cellist I couldn’t agree more.

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