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Saturday morning quotes 8.35: Character study

February 12, 2022

“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 may express upon it choler, pity, hatred, scorn, love, grief, joy; we may give hope and despair…[For] those that have the grace to lift up their mind to the contemplation of heavenly things, this celestial harmony contributes much to raise our souls and make them melt in the love of God.  Nothing represents so well the consort of angelical choirs and gives more foretastes of heavenly joys and of everlasting happiness.”

– Mary Burwell’s lute tutor, c. 1660

We can only hope that musicians will lift up their minds to the contemplation of heavenly things, but there are far too many examples of historical musicians engaging in odious behavior; musicians ranging from Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Carlo Gesualdo, to Richard Wagner and James Levine. Then we have a random assortment of other hoodlums, abusers, thieves and mass murderers who in more recent memory gained undeserved notoriety as pianists including Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Condolezza Rice. Let’s face it: competence in playing music does not forthwith establish an individual’s good character.

After many years of involvement with early music generally and the lute in particular, we have met many wonderful professional colleagues and amateur musicians who are kind, considerate and generous individuals who can hear, feel and understand the deeper meaning we strive to illuminate and convey in our music. We have also met our share of inconsiderate, manipulative and unkind people (at best), and outright narcissists, egomaniacs, charlatans, and miscreants (at worst). As much as we would like it to be so, not only angels play the lute.

Take the case of the individual pictured above, one Jacques Gaultier (c. 1600 – c. 1660), French lutenist, murderer and utter rogue. Also known as Gaultier d’Angleterre, there is no evidence to indicate he was related to the more famous lutenists bearing the same surname, Ennemond, Denis, or Pierre Gaultier. Jacques Gaultier fled France in 1617 after the cowardly murder of an unarmed nobleman and took refuge in England, where he was welcomed at the royal court beginning in 1625, remaining there on and off until his presumed demise around 1660. Gaultier was imprisoned and tortured in 1627 for uttering scandalous remarks about King Charles I and his French Queen Henrietta Maria, who was Gaultier’s apparently apt (17 year-old) lute student. On January 15, 1627, Venetian ambassador Alvise Contarini wrote that this Gaultier:

“…boasted that by the dulcet tones of the lute he could make his way even into the royal bed and he had been urged to do so in a manner that became well-nigh nauseous.”
– Ian Spink, “Another Gaultier Affair”, Music & Letters, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 1964), pp. 345-347

There were yet more shenanigans and death threats directed towards Gaultier’s patron, the Duke of Buckingham, but since several highly-placed persons were involved, the whole scandal was hushed up in a manner reminiscent of the recent Jeffrey Epstein affair. Gaultier appears to have resumed musical duties at court by 1629, and he was generally lauded for his lute-playing by the likes of Constantijn Huygens (1622), a frequent correspondent who requested the help of this Gaultier to procure one of the few surviving and highly-prized Laux Maler lutes. But, as we can surmise by the smug facial expression and pointy weaponized appearance of the lute in the above engraving, Gaultier was apparently incapable of minding his manners. From the casebook of a contemporary surgeon, we learn about one of this Gaultier’s social exploits.

“Mr. Ashberrie (a lutanist) at night was bitten by Gottier, the French Luteniste in Covent Garden, had a piece of his cheek bitten out, an inch or more, on left side at corner of the mouth & [nether] lip, down to the lower part of the jaw. I stiched it & dressed it.”
– Dr. Joseph Binnes’ medical casebook, 10 May 1643, British Library, Sloane ms. 153, f. 207.

The surname Gaultier is attached to around 50 surviving lute solos in renaissance tuning, many of them found in the manuscript lute book of Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury. It is unclear exactly which lutenist named Gaultier composed the music, but Paul O’Dette ascribed the pieces to Jacques Gaultier on his 1992 recording, Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s Lute Book. More recent research reveals that Lord Herbert had no apparent personal connection to Jacques, and in his capacity as Ambassador in Paris, Lord Herbert wrote that he was offended that Jacques sought English protection “for haveing killed a brave French Gentleman and of a noble house[,] in a most base fashion fled to England.” Most of Gaultier’s imprecisely ascribed music is of great intricacy and refinement, and it is much more likely that the Gaultier responsible is the more famous Ennemond, also known as Vieux Gaultier. This is also the view of the editors of the excellent Lute Society color facsimile of Herbert of Cherbury’s book, published in 2019 (buy it).

Today, we like to indulge in fantasies where the original musicians who played our chosen instrument approached their music with a sense of awestruck, if one-dimensional, detachment; strumming a lute perched atop a richly-saddled unicorn floating into the keep of a magic castle among dancing damsels. Sadly, this is the sort of PR mythology imprinted upon the historical fantasy-land that describes the modern early music revival.

Much historical repertory has a depth of complex beauty difficult to access today without involvement, commitment and serious study. But when it comes down to it, early musicians were just musicians doing what musicians do, and a percentage of them were rogues and charlatans advancing careers and just looking out for number one. A contextual reality check should in no way undermine the intrinsic value of historical music, but we must understand that there are plenty of reasons why those who are so inclined could probe the historical records and retroactively “cancel” a composer or musician. We advocate developing a contextual understanding that helps uncover the deeper meaning of historical music, and conveying that meaning to our modern audience without the distraction of costumes, bells & whistles—and overproduced videos.

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  1. David Lamb permalink

    Always a pleasure to read your informative historical and aesthetic essays. Yes, it is sad in a way, that there seems to be so little correlation between a musician’s character and the value of his or her music. I try to be a good person (within reason) while knowing full well that it has no relation to the music I make. I try to keep this in mind when, for example, I listen to recordings of well-known Nazis and sex offenders. I do wonder how such bifurcated people can live with themselves. Maybe the best music is usually made by alpha males (and sometimes females), and alpha personality often goes with a drive to beat others in one way or another. Keep the faith! David Lamb

    • Thank you for your comment, David. It’s wonderful to hear from you and always a treat to read your point of view. You’re probably spot-on about the music of alpha types, and we know that Mozart, for instance, was a very competitive individual. As we understand, the beautiful string quartets he dedicated to Haydn may have been no more than a display of one-upmanship, but I’m very glad he wrote them. I hope you are faring well in what appears to be a slowly receding pandemic, and that you continue to write your wonderful and much-appreciated music.

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