One of the most attractive qualities of early music is the calm sense of grace the music is meant to convey. Sure, one can find plenty of sets of florid divisions or bawdy songs one might sing in the month of May. And from the 17th century forward, a great deal of music showcases a frivolous and hollow virtuosity that seems to pander to the lowest common denominator. But the best composers of earlier music conveyed in notes and well-chosen song texts a sound world informed by the depth of what was in their minds, hearts and souls—not simply what was in their fingers. As we repeat often, John Dowland had very sharp words for those who considered themselves musicians but whose skill only resided in their fingers’ ends.
For revivalists to truly understand the aesthetics of early music, more than a passing familiarity with the literary sources and song texts from a given period is essential—Richard Barnfield nailed it when he described music and poetry as the sister and the brother. An open-eyed exploration of the treasure trove of historical music and poetry leads revivalists to the beginning of an understanding of just what music meant to our ancestors and how it served a daily function to foster and sustain a calm sense of grace.
“Just as grace is the expression of a beautiful soul, dignity is the expression of a noble disposition of mind. It is, indeed, the person’s task to establish an intimate accord between his two natures, always to be a harmonizing whole, and act with his full-voiced entire humanity. “
– Friedrich Schiller, “On Grace and Dignity”, New Thalia, 1793
As a duo, we strive to promote the calm sense of grace that we draw from our exploration of the repertory. And as we delve more deeply into historical aesthetics, we are affected by the inherent calm sense of grace in the music, and we find ourselves simply stepping back from our own personal ideas and just allowing the music to speak on its own terms. Without apology, we consider that to be an arrival at a very important station prominently situated well down the track that leads to informed artistic interpretive authority.
We are committed to sharing our very well-informed interpretations of historical music in this forum and on the concert stage because we are firm in the belief that the world needs exposure to more of the calm sense of grace drawn from historical examples. Now more than ever, the world suffers from an epidemic of blustering personalities and rash words—an unfortunate trend seen across the globe but particularly emanating from the US at present. We find this distasteful in the extreme and we are not above contributing calm, respectful commentary as a means in some small way to counter the embarrassing image of the blustering narcissistic American who, with fistfuls of cash, buys his way to prominent notice.
The plays of [Ben] Jonson deal with the impact of self-assertive egoism on an ordered society. But Jonson makes little attempt to understand his monsters; he regards them as instruments of evil, whether horrible or ludicrous, who destroy civilization…
– Wilfrid Mellers, Harmonious Meeting: A Study of the Relationship between English Music, Poetry and Theatre, c. 1600-1900, Dobson Books, London, 1965, p. 18
What can an independent musician do to counter this trend? Speak the truth. As an illustrative example of the morally ambiguous things an independent musician must do sometimes, several years ago I was contacted by a well-known physician with a medical degree from the most highly regarded school in the US. He had ceased his practice and instead created a very lucrative franchise in a specialized field of health care. But like many “successful” personalities he wanted more.
Initially, I was asked to give his wife mandolin lessons and I successfully taught her how to play a few pieces by rote. I was then asked to give him guitar lessons and teach them how to play and sing together. Again, as a competent teacher, I patiently instructed them with a successful result, and they were able to play and sing a few simple pieces together. And as unpleasant as I may have found the task, I bit the bullet and graciously taught them the music they requested despite my aversion to the Grateful Dead.
But when dealing with acutely narcissistic personalities, such encouragement can easily create a monster. It was not long before the couple asked me to produce a studio recording of their playing that they could then distribute to the people involved in their worldwide franchise (meaning forcing them to buy it). Independent musicians require income and, with moral misgivings, I agreed to help them with this project. Needless to say, there was an enormous amount of very expensive post-session editing, time-shifting and auto-tuning in the studio and, perhaps most disturbingly, the very capable engineer was quite accustomed to the phenomenon and produced an acceptable if marginal result.
We have produced 10 CDs of Mignarda’s music for voice and lute and we say unashamedly that not one of them cost more than $3000 to produce including recording, editing, mastering, design and artwork, manufacture and shipping of the first run of each CD title. Our recordings are minimalist and our audiences respond to this honesty.
The couple then announced that they were going to begin teaching others to play music based on what they had learned from their experience with my teaching. In theory, I thought it not a bad idea to foster an appreciation for playing music no matter at what level. But the couple were patently delusional about their abilities, and were frankly incapable of ever reproducing a live performance of what was on the recording, even at the most rudimentary level.
I felt morally obliged to convey face to face, in kind and respectful terms, the cold, hard truth that, while sharing music for fun is a good thing, they needed quite a bit more personal work before embarking on a career in teaching music. This seemed to displease the couple, who were accustomed to a filtered reality colored by their monetary wealth and, sadly, reinforced by the hordes of fawning hangers-on who lived in hope of some of that wealth trickling down to them.
“The greatest fools are those that do not know their folly; the next are those that cannot hide their folly.”
– Mary Burwell’s lute tutor, c. 1660
Encouraging such personalities at some point boils down to perpetrating falsehood and fraud. Donald Trump achieved a public platform by buying his way to prominence in this manner. We feel a moral obligation to mention the fact that the Emperor is naked, and it’s an embarrassing sight. We’ll say nothing more about the alternative embarrassment who sports the pantsuits, other than she sometimes looks like Captain Kangaroo.
We received a comment on another forum regarding a previous blog post that quoted an article by Maria Schneider on the subject of artists’ rights and the enormous amount of piracy that appears to be encouraged by Youtube. The comment included the following:
“So, you have claimed on your blog to be the ultimate arbiter of HIP performance, what should be played and in what order, who is qualified to play it, how society should reimburse for it, what modern rep is acceptable to play and now good vs evil. Since you like to bring politics into your blog posts, this sounds like one of the current US candidates for president (hint: the one that doesn’t wear pantsuits (in public)).”
Pot, kettle, black. We provide informed, well-researched, carefully documented and respectfully presented commentary on early music and related matters, conveyed with grace and dignity. We offer our insights with frequent regularity to an international audience of appreciative readers, and we can see how our success and productivity may chafe among those associated with the corporate early music establishment in the US. [The unnamed source of the quote is a board member of Early Music America.]
And, yes, we speak the truth.
As for the rest that would faine informe men, they know something by their generall dislike of euerie thing; I will not so much as desire them to be silent [lest] I should thereby teach them at least how they might seeme wise.
– Robert Jones, The Second Booke of Songe and Ayres, 1601, To the Reader.
We have been very busy with recording projects and are taking a short pause to catch our breath. We’re happy to say our new Christmas CD, Magnum Mysterium, will be released and available by November and we are very pleased to be presenting live performances of four different polyphonic settings of the Christmas responsory text, “O magnum mysterium”, as well as other related seasonal music.
Until recent health-related issues intervened, our income was based solely on our music; performances, teaching, and sales of CDs and downloads. When you stop and think about it, this is a fairly significant achievement for a duo specializing in 16th century music for lute and voice—probably unprecedented and quite notable because we receive exactly zero support from the established early music organizations in the US.
We have our standards, but we also have an opportunity to produce a video of some of the music from our new CD, and we are wrestling with the thought of rolling over and allowing ourselves to be consumed by the nefarious beast that is Youtube/Google. While our existing Youtube videos have received an appreciable response, we haven’t posted anything new for a few years, mainly because of Youtube’s blatant unfairness when it comes to compensation. Our video of Donna singing the chant, Tantum ergo, has seen over a half-million views in the past few years, and more than 17,000 views in the past three weeks alone, yet we have received less than a cumulative $20 total from Youtube.
Most users of Youtube have no idea of the absurd level of unfairness that currently exists in the current Youtube format for compensating artists, and it’s about to get worse. For more information, we encourage our readers to peruse this article by Grammy award winning composer and band leader, Maria Schneider, briefly quoted below.
“…YouTube’s ad revenue has proven paltry when compared to the real cost of producing music. Like an Atlantic City casino, YouTube wants us to believe that we just might hit the jackpot. Stories of viral videos make the news and seem like the new brass ring for rights-holders, but…of the very, very few who achieve viral, who can sustain it and make a career of it?”
“While we’re haggling over paltry ad revenue, we’re diverted from the far greater value that is being generated from our music. Every month, our music drives billions of users to YouTube’s platform, and the data that Google then gathers from following our fans around the web is where YouTube’s true value lies.”
“Google and Facebook didn’t get their billion dollar valuations from ad revenue. YouTube’s valuation largely comes from the mountains of hoarded data collected on the backs of all musicians and creators. Therefore, part of the value of the YouTube empire should fairly belong to musicians. Not only should musicians and creators share in the value of data gathered, but they should also have access to the data their creations generate. Why in the world is it fair for YouTube to keep all of this data as a “trade secret” when it’s generated from our own fans, often through piracy YouTube expressly facilitates?”
– Maria Schneider
We invite your input.
As much as one would like to remain immersed in music and literature of the past and ignore the news of the moment, the world is literally being bombarded with hyperbole about the historic occasion of a rather mature woman dressed in white being nominated for president of the US. Yes, we all know that the US is behind the rest of the developed world in many respects that have to do with equality, justice, stewardship and humanitarian issues. But there are today and historically have been many exemplary women in leadership roles—and some of them even possessed the character, wisdom and judgement that can only be developed through a deliberate and balanced education in the skill of music.
Queen Elizabeth I for example. As we mentioned in one of our earliest posts, Elizabeth received a balanced education in the liberal arts taught by a tutor possessing enlightened views on the education of women.
…[H]e shall commend the perfect understanding of music, declaring how necessary it is for the better attaining the knowledge of a public weal, which as I before said, is made of an order of estates and degrees, and by reason thereof containeth in it a perfect harmony: which he shall afterward more perfectly understand, when he shall happen to read the books of Plato and Aristotle of public weals: wherein be written diverse examples of music and geometry. In this form may a wise and circumspect tutor adapt the pleasant science of music to a necessary and laudable purpose.
– Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490 – 1546) The Boke named the Governour (1531)
Our quotations are drawn from the article by Katherine Butler, “By Instruments her Powers Appeare: Music and Authority in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I”, Renaissance Quarterly 65 (2012): 353-84.
“Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) had a reputation as a musical monarch. She played the virginals, the lute, and similar plucked string instruments; she sang, danced, and on one occasion claimed to have composed dance music. Yet while a musical education was typical for women of royal and noble birth, Elizabeth’s unusual position as a ruling queen allowed her music-making to develop a political role as part of her royal image.”
– Butler, p. 353
That’s right. A woman who managed to reign for 45 years played the lute and used her skill in music as a subtle political tool. We can only surmise what sort of high-level discourse goes on behind closed doors today. But as we know from the famous Holbein painting, The Ambassadors, in Elizabeth’s time, it sometimes involved the heightened symbolism of music and of the lute.
“Performing on the lute was itself a means to fashion private space. Lute performances were not public spectacles, but took place in private contexts, while the lyrics of lute songs were introspective and often enacted seemingly personal confessions, especially of melancholy or love.”
– Butler, p. 364
The implication is that the medium of intimate music fostered honesty and the better sort of human qualities in the context of important political negotiations. But Elizabeth was operating in a man’s world, and found it necessary to employ her deep understanding of music as symbolic of intelligence, refinement and judgement.
“Portraits of mature men communicated experience, wisdom, and power, while those of aging women were positive only when showing a mother with her children. Otherwise, old women were associated with sin, vice, decay, and even witchcraft, as opposed to the virtuous Virgin Mary, who was always depicted as young. The atmosphere of love and attraction that Bacon suggested was an important aspect of Elizabeth’s style of government, relied on her remaining desirable. The reality of aging had to be disguised by pretence, and Elizabeth’s music-making played a part in this.”
“However, images of Elizabeth in her role as musical patroness moved away from the purely sensual, with its implications of frivolity and wantoness, and developed music’s potential connotations of intelligence, refinement, rationality, and harmony of mind. When court musicians William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623) and Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-85) dedicated their 1575 Cantiones Sacrae to Elizabeth, they praised “the refinement of [her] voice or the nimbleness of [her] fingers,” but they also claimed that her practical skill made her able to judge their work.”
– Butler, p. 366
Of course Byrd and Tallis were engaged in fawning sales talk, and we must avoid using such words to define historical fact. But the idea of music as symbolic of intelligence and refinement is well-taken.
“Furthermore, musical judgment was more highly esteemed than practical skill in music because it involved reason and intellect. In his De Institutione Musica, Boethius distinguished performers (with physical skill but little understanding of music) and composers (who compose song by natural instinct) from those with the ability to judge music, of whom he wrote: “This class is rightly reckoned as musical because it relies entirely upon reason and speculation. And that person is a musician who possesses the faculty of judging.” Tallis and Byrd therefore associated Elizabeth with the highest form of musicianship, where music is no longer merely sensual but responded to rationally and intellectually.”
– Butler, p. 366
To contextualize the translated words of Boethius, he assumed that judgement was the result of deep understanding gained through diligent study. There is a vast difference between refined judgement graciously expressed and based upon personal skill and deep understanding, and today’s unfortunate culture of unformed opinion based only upon overblown ego and easy access to media in which to express the same. And by “class”, Boethius was not referring to a caste system, but rather to the equivalent of “sort” or “category”.
In a nutshell, a balanced education in the traditional liberal arts prepares the intellect for critical thinking and the moral temperament essential to developing the judgment necessary to make decisions for the greater good. Music was defined as a science among the Seven Liberal Arts. Training in music helps develop judgement by blending science with art, enabling the person to understand just how beauty and proportion can be tempered by reason and hard facts in order to arrive at thoughtful decisions. This is opposed to the current system that for baffling reasons seems to honor an apparent success based upon deception, dishonesty, deflection and dirty tricks. Could it be that the missing ingredient is an education in music?
Despite our dwelling in the age of the painfully obvious, from time to time we feel compelled to offer a few remarks on the subject of voice, our thoughts on vocal qualities and our conscious interpretive choices. As with the shining example of one of our very favorite singers, Marco Beasley, interpreting early music with a natural vocal production points the way toward more sensitive and much more communicative historically-appropriate performances.
But pursuing such a path has not made for a particularly easy journey in a field of musical performance that, oddly, remains influenced more by Victorian rules and aesthetics than by 16th-century ideals. Recordings of early music continue to feature vocalists employing conventional conservatory training that, while practical for a very wide range of music from the 17th century onward, employs techniques having very little to with the aesthetics of earlier music.
“For he, Sire, that hearing the sweet accord of instruments or the sweetness of the natural voice feels no joy and no agitation and is not thrilled from head to foot, as being delightfully rapt and somehow carried out of himself – ’tis the sign of one whose soul is tortuous, vicious, and depraved, and of whom one should beware as not fortunately born.”
– Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), from the dedication of Livre des mélanges, 1560.
Since singing with the lute requires an acute sense of balance and sensitivity to polyphonic interplay, Ronsard’s “natural voice” is the most justifiable solution for such intimate music. But we also perform sacred and secular ensemble music for a cappella voices, and are aware of the need for adapting projection to meet the demands of singing polyphony with larger forces in larger spaces.
“A particularly striking crudity is that of singing the high notes with a loud tone, indeed with full lung power…The lower notes are to be sung entirely from the chest, the middle ones with moderate strength, the high ones with a soft voice.”
– Conrad von Zabern, Modo bene cantandi, 1474
Currently focusing on the music of Josquin, we are fortunate to have come across the work of Rebecca Stewart and her timeless article, “In principio erat verbum. A Physiological and Linguistic Study of Male Vocal Types, Timbres and Techniques in the Music of Josquin des Prez”.
“Information provided by physiological, linguistic, musical and historical data shows the following: Firstly, the music of Josquin (and consequently the manner of its performance) was initially molded by his French linguistic background. Secondly, partially as a result of living in Italy for most of the years between 1459 and 1504 and of learning the language, this music and its performance underwent a major transformation. During this period the Italian language was beginning to compete with French as a language of the cultured and artistic classes. Thirdly, an understanding of the at last partially linguistic change in Josquin’s style of composition, makes it possible to discuss the various vocal types, timbres and techniques appropriate for the singing of this music, without having to rely completely on one’s own instinctive preferences.”
“Leaving aside the musical and historical evidence, the two primary arguments in support of these contentions are the following: (1) Physiologically, the human larynx has remained basically unchanged since man became a speaking and singing creature. Taking into consideration the influence upon it of racial types, this mechanism can be used as a reliable measuring device in the determination of basic vocal types and ranges. (2) The singing voice is largely determined and limited by the language spoken since early childhood. Thus, questions concerning vocal timbres and techniques may in part be answered when viewed as an aspect of linguistic bias. Although genetic characteristics do influence the size of the vocal folds and other physiological aspects, such as the construction of the mouth, it is the language which influences the habitual use of the lips, tongue, soft palate, nose and larynx. These organs, working together in very specific ways, create the timbres and techniques which we associate with equally specific vocal styles.”
– Howard M. Brown and Rebecca Stewart, “Workshop IV. Voice Types in Josquin’s Music”, Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, Deel 35, No.1/2, Proceedings of the Josquin Symposium. Cologne, 11-15 July 1984 (1985), pp. 97-193.
While we are not capable of retooling our genetic material in order to reproduce historical geographic and linguistic mannerisms with complete accuracy, we can at least be guided by this information when pursuing historically sensitive performances. But what is more important is the idea of incorporating such historical information as refinements of our personal style, and voicing our interpretive choices in ways that move the listener. Successfully giving voice to any sort of music requires understanding.
“The expressions ‘voicing an idea’, ‘giving voice’, the ‘voice of the nation’,and the like are derived from this power of the voice. Voting, casting a vote, in our political system also means to give or actually temporarily ‘lend’ our voice to someone else. In German and Dutch this is even more evident; the German word Stimme means both voice and vote, exactly like the Dutch word stem. Stimme in German and stem in Dutch also connect to a completely different dimension of voice. In both languages the derived noun Stimmung/stemming and the verb stimmen/stemmen mean ‘(the) tuning (of) an instrument’ and at the same time a ‘mood’. This is particularly interesting, as it creates an intricate web of interconnected applications of the voice-complex.”
“Voice is a way to express emotions and ideas, but voice also is emotion and idea. The connection between tuning and mood is well known in musicological literature, and the fact that this is also related to voice – as the primary carrier of emotion – only underlines its relevance. Additionally, there are ‘voices’ in a musical piece; especially in polyphony it is common to consider each melodic line to represent or actually to be a voice. Again, in English this meaning is less evident, as the ‘voices’ are often called ‘parts’.”
Interpretive success in music, as in speech, can only be measured by whether the listener is convinced by the performance. “Voicing”, in an intentionally backwards hierarchy of importance, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Speech, talk, vocal utterance”, or “A manner of performing music for the voice; the composition or arrangement of vocal parts in a piece of music”, or finally as “The action, fact, or process of voting by voice; election, nomination, or decision by vote.”
“Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been ignored, neglected and abandoned…These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice”… I am your voice.”
– Donald Trump
The more thoughtful and critical thinkers among us would take issue with the very idea of ceding our voice to a person incapable of speaking in a gracious and dignified manner using complete intelligible sentences. There is something sinister yet vaguely familiar about the idea of a person—whose only apparent qualification for office is having been born to wealth—acting in the interest of the disenfranchised. We sincerely hope the disenfranchised are capable of learning from history.
Occasionally even the most confirmed advocate of early music tires of a serious life in the slow lane and longs for a bit of fun. And what could be more fun than a dose of accordion music?
The much-maligned accordion, often called the Stomach Steinway or the Belly Baldwin, is a staple for many kinds of music from every corner of the globe, but is probably the opposite of the lute in every respect. Listeners seldom complain that the instrument is too quiet. While tuning and temperament are matters pertinent to different styles of music, string material and the particular plane of the finger are simply not issues discussed ad nauseam by players when two or more accordionists congregate. And employed as an accompanying instrument, singers who wish to add a little wobble to their pitch are seldom subject to displays of the curled lip and the arched brow from their accompanist.
Probably the primary difference between a lutenist and a musician who plays the accordion is that one of the two actually works for serious money.
“I knew nothing of the real life of a musician, but I seemed to see myself standing in front of great crowds of people, playing my accordion.”
– Lawrence Welk
Able to negotiate a vast repertory, the instrument also occupies the concert stage with the same noble air and gravitas as the quiet lute, as can be heard in this piece by the famous composer, Frankie Milano. And one can hear a pleasing rendition of Hausmusik performed by a possible descendant of the aforementioned composer, played entirely without pickups and eschewing the usual plunk, plunk, sprong to which we have become inured by our legion of lutenists. Or we can hear more serious works borrowed from the repertory of an instrument that is probably its closest relative.
And the true character of Monteverdi’s music finally comes to life when played on the accordion. Had Monteverdi known about the existence of the accordion, there would never had been this impractical nonsense of over-stuffing the orchestra pit with giraffe-necked theorboes in multiples of five. And of course Vivaldi has never sounded better than on the instrument that most accurately realizes the composer’s ideas.
Accordions are much less difficult to locate, and instrument builders typically deliver them to clients without a song and dance and a ten-year delay. Sadly, there exists no bricks and mortar Lute-O-Rama where the prospective lutenist might visit, spend the day and compare a wide variety of instruments in various shapes and sizes. In fact, luthiers could do worse than learn from this example of a questionnaire designed to elicit important information from their clients, particularly on the essential matter of rhinestones.
We are quite fond of the triplet-rich French cafe accordion sound, and indulge without irony whenever we become entirely sick of lutes and their utter un-dependability. The accordion is the anti-lute.
Addendum: Roman Turovsky kindly shared a link to a video that features lute and accordion together.
As our regular readers will note, we frequently flog the theme of how our lives have been affected by the creeping ooze of technology, and just how important it is to cling to human values in the face of a world that is increasingly defined by apps, algorithms and the insistent demands of various database criteria. The unique needs and contributions of human beings as they make their way through the world are rapidly giving way to the sometimes ridiculously inconvenient requirements of the electronic devices they use, making us all a little less unique and a little less human day by day.
The “analog” life has become a thing of the past, and it is nearly impossible for many people to find their way without GPS, or to accomplish simple tasks without a laptop, Google, and unlimited bandwith, or to communicate on a basic level without a “smart” phone cradled in their palms; greasy plastic screens reflecting the octopus-like twirl of continually twitching thumbs. Formerly, we thumbed through books, magazines or newspapers to absorb the lessons of history, or to indulge in an entertaining short story, or just to get the news. But the black-smudged thumb that identified an intelligent and informed reader of the news is now nowhere to be seen; instead we are seeing long lines of phone addicts queuing up at the clinic seeking treatment for De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.
We have been thumbing through the Guardian, in print and on line, for the past fifteen years, and have greatly appreciated what may have been an objective and alternative view of world events and life in these United States. We discovered clear-thinking columnists including Gary Younge and Glen Greenwald, whose important work came to the fore during the publication of the Edward Snowden articles. We grew to appreciate the courageous and principled leadership of Alan Rusbridger, who boldly defied the directives of the US and UK government intelligence machine.
But we have watched with growing dismay the way the Guardian has chosen to adapt to the immediate present. After the buzz of the Snowden articles subsided, something vaguely sinister happened to the character of the Guardian. The brilliant columnists we liked so well were marginalized and Rusbridger was simply put out to pasture, replaced by a new managing editor with firm US connections. Balanced and factual news reporting took a backseat to fluff pieces detailing the lives of insipid pop personalities and advertisements for book or product releases disguised as news items. What happened to our favorite source of news?
The Guardian capitalized on its US connections to present itself as an alternative source of US news, appearing to cram a weasel’s share of purloined eggs into their smallish basket. With its questionable approach to reporting on the last presidential primary race, the Guardian cemented its fate. Choosing to pursue an ill-conceived approach based upon an unworkable model, old (and at times elitist) attitudes toward the presentation of the news emerged, combined with a very awkward attempt to maintain an up-to-date online presence.
A pervasive and sustained editorial bias stretched the bounds of belief as the Guardian did everything in their power to cast Hillary Clinton as the anointed favorite and depict all others either as clowns or ranting extremists. To be fair, in many cases they were right, and the Republican candidates were a very easy mark. But the way the Guardian’s editorial bias marginalized reporting on the campaign of Bernie Sanders is simply indefensible and inexcusable. In lockstep with many prominent US media outlets, the Guardian’s reporting on the primary alienated an unprecedented number of readers and untold numbers of commenters pointed out their observations regarding the skewed reporting, only to have their comments removed. The Guardian finally gave in and allowed perhaps four objective opinion pieces by Trevor Timm to filter into the lower quadrant of their web site, but too little too late.
Having alienated so very many readers by presuming she could shape the news in the manner of William Randolph Hearst, the current editor of the Guardian is now complaining that their readership is dwindling, and that paid subscriptions have fallen off. Might we suggest a glance in the mirror will reveal the source of the problem. We are not exactly sure what has become of the Guardian of old, but it is simply no longer a trusted source of news. We bid farewell to a once-respected institution.
“…The Art of Fugue is invariably presented in ‘complete’ performances which strike one rather as exercises in musical sado-masochism.”
– Howard Schott, in a review of Bach, edited by Charles Rosen, Early Music, Vol. V, No. 3, 1977, p. 415.
What is with our obsession to buy box-set recordings of “the complete works” of a composer? Or to attend or produce concert programs that focus on music from a single source? Or, as alluded to above, promoting the artistic indulgence of sitting through all 30 of the so-called Goldberg Variations?
This entirely anachronistic practice is among the worst of the many, many modernisms we foist upon early music when producing concerts or recordings. And, like so many, many modernisms, it is done for purely commercial reasons—to more conveniently package a product for the marketplace. Or it is done for arcane academic reasons—to satisfy the requirements of one of our artificially-contrived categories imposed upon an historical era, developed primarily for the ease of teaching a seminar course.
What today’s audiences want is what audiences have always wanted: Variety. And as it turns out, a pleasing variety in a concert program is actually an historically accurate representation of entertainment of days gone by, domestic or public. If we examine some of the circa 1600 commonplace manuscript books containing English lute music, there is a great deal of variety in the forms and styles of music for domestic use, ranging from psalm settings, to lively dances, to heady arrangements of vocal polyphony, and to downright bawdy songs.
Variety was the theme and, of the surviving published works of music from the same time and place, Robert Dowland’s two 1610 publications are the best known among today’s lute oriented populaton. The title to the collection of songs says it all: A MVSICALL BANQVET – Furnished with a varietie of delicious Ayres, Collected out of the best Authors in English, French, Spanish and Italian. And variety was so important that Dowland’s collection of lute solos was titled thus: Varietie of Lute-lessons viz. Fantasies, Pauins, Galliards, Almaines, Corantoes, and Volts: Selected out of the best approued AVTHORS, as well beyond the Seas as of our owne Country. The program notes to Nigel North’s excellent recording of music from this collection reinforce the importance of our theme:
“One of the many aspects of this collection which I love is the true ‘varietie’ of the music; the astonishing way that each lutenist-composer uses the instrument in such unique personal ways. Compare, for example,the exuberant broken-chord division style in Batchelar’s ‘Monsiuers Almaine’; the wonderfully melodic style of John Dowland; the chromatic writing with wild changes of mood and pace which we find in the fantasie of Diomedes Cato; the perfect counterpoint of Morley and the wonderful sonorities of the Prince of Hessen’s Pavan.”
– Nigel North, from the CD booklet to A Varietie of Lute Lessons, Linn Records BKD 097
Domestic entertainment of some sort was a staple of each and every household, from the wheeze of bagpipes, fiddles and mouth-music, to music sampled from a well-stocked library and employing a full chest of viols. But the notion of public concerts seriously took root in late 17th century London—a bit after the protolithic Ukip Trump troop occupation had finally run its course.
“The theatres, closed during the greater part of the Commonwealth period, flourished once again, and in 1672 John Banister established a series of public concerts at Whitefriars which became the model for many similar ventures, at York Buildings and elsewhere. At Banister’s concerts the performers were ‘mercenary teachers, chiefly forreiners’, and indeed foreign musicians, for whom the King had already shewn an open preference both in his chapel music and in the band of violins, were not slow to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the early development of concert-giving in this country. Writing some time later, Roger North tells us that they soon found out ‘the Grand secret, that the English would follow Musick & drop their pence freely, of which some advantage hath bin since made’.”
And for concert repertory, variety was the watchword.
“Nearly all these early concerts consisted of ‘vocal and instrumental music’—the recital by a single performer was then unknown. As a rule the number of performers was probably quite small, since promoters seemed to regard thirty or more executants as a special attraction to be mentioned in the advertisement. The vocal music, particularly in the case of odes and feast-songs, is often specified exactly, but similar details of the instrumental music, for the most part chamber music, are rarely given. The programmes were often arranged very haphazardly: North, writing of York Buildings, says, ‘Here was consorts, fuges, solos, lutes, Hautbois, trumpets, kettledrums, and what Not but all disjoynted and incoherent for while ye masters were shuffling out & in of places to take their parts there was a totall cessation, and None knew what would come next; all this was utterly against the true Model of an entertainment, which [for] want of unity is allway spoiled’.” Elsewhere he suggests that the ‘thoroughbass should never cease but play continuously’ throughout the concert, which should not last more than an hour,” though even then they frequently lasted three hours or more.”
– Michael Tilmouth, “Some Early London Concerts and Music Clubs, 1670-1720”,
Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 84th Sess. (1957 – 1958), pp. 13-26.
Constituting one of the first large-scale early music revivals, the better-organized Concert of Antient Music was established in 1776 with the guiding rule that they would feature no music that had been composed within the previous twenty years. These public concert programs did not abrade the ears of the audience with, for instance, Monteverdi’s Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, 1638, performed in its entirety, but rather catered to a discerning audience with a pleasing variety.
From the original A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by George Grove, “Ancient Concerts”, by Charles Mackeson:
“The earlier programmes included an overture (usually one of Handel’s), two or three concertos by Handel, Martini, Corelli, Avison, or Geminiani, several choruses and solos from Handel’s oratorios, and an anthem, glee, or madrigal; but occasionally an entire work, such as the Dettingen ‘Te Deum,’ was given as the first part of the concert.”
So much for our obsession with programmatic unity based only upon silly categorical constraints. If we really care about historical performance practice, we’ll stop already with staging an entire concert of lute works by Al the Ripper, or Louie Milan, or Sly “the somnambulist” Weiss. It’s no wonder the poor unsuspecting lute has gained an undeserved reputation today as yawn-inducing; an instrument seldom seen and hardly heard on the concert platform. Our best concert artistes appear to be doing their level best to eradicate the last vestiges of an appreciative audience by boring them to death with academic essays.
It is in fact possible to arrange a satisfying concert program that represents good music in an historically-accurate manner. It does not have to be a choice between the integrity of one’s scholarship and a satisfying listening experience. We’ll save the winning formula for a later post.