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Saturday morning quotes 6.31: Performing Dowland

Although ’tis the season for that particularly tactless style of unapologetic American commercialism, we sidestep the sales talk, share a video of a recent performance, and reflect upon one of the primary reasons we began performing as a duo—the ayres for voice and lute by John Dowland (1563 – 1626).  Although we have released only one recording devoted to Dowland, his music is and always has been a staple in our concert repertory.   Readers who have been with us for a while will recall that we have written an ample handful of earlier posts that discussed singing Dowland’s music, as well as our in-depth series that outlined the schooling typical of professional musicians in Elizabethan England in an attempt to understand Dowland’s training.

As one may expect, our approach to performing the music of Dowland follows a path that diverges from the well-traveled tarmac of early music conventions.  The differences the listener may perceive are in every case intentional and informed, and we share below just a few of the insights we have gained over time that have formed our unique approach to performing Dowland’s music, beginning with the very words of the man himself.

“[Instrumental music] easily stirres vp the mindes of the hearers to admiration and delight, yet [far] higher authority and power hath beene euer worthily attributed to that kind of Musicke, which to the sweetness of the Instrument applyes the liuely voyce of man, expressing some worthy sentence or excellent Poeme.”

– John Dowland, To the Right Honovrable Sir George Carey, The First Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1597.

“Musicke: which is the Noblest of all Sciences: for the whole frame of Nature, is nothing but Harmonie, as wel in soules, as bodies…”

– John Dowland, To the Right Honorable the Lady Lucie Comptesse of Bedford, The Second Booke of  Songs or Ayres, 1600.

“As in a hive of bees al labour alike to lay up honny opposing them selves against none but fruitless drones; so in the house of learning and fame, all good indevourers should strive to ad somewhat that is good, not malicing one an other, but altogether bandying against the idle and malicious ignorant.”

– John Dowland, The Epistle to the Reader, The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, 1603.

“I againe found strange entertainment since my return; especially by the opposition of two sorts of people that shroude themselves vnder the title of Musitians.  The first are some simple Cantors, or vocall singers, who though they seeme excellent in their blinde Diuision-making, are meerely ignorant, euen in the first elements of Musicke…but I will speake openly to them, and would haue them know that the proudest Cantor of them, dares not oppose himselfe face to face against me. The second are young-men, professors of the Lute, who vaunt themselues, to the disparagement of such as haue beene before their time, (wherin I my selfe am a party) that there neuer was the like of them…Now if these gallant yong Lutenists be such as they would haue the world beleeue, and of which I make no doubt, let them remember that their skill lyeth not in their fingers endes: Cucullus non facit Monachum.”

– John Dowland, To the Reader, A Pilgrimes Solace, 1612.

“I haue purposely sorted [the music] to the capacitie of young practioners, the rest by degrees are of greater depth and skill, so that like a carefull Confectionary, as neere as might be I haue fitted my Banquet for all tastes.”

– Robert Douland, To the Reader, A Musicall Banquet, 1610.

“Let every Singer conform his voice to the words, that as much as he can he make the Concent sad when the words are sad; and merry, when they are merry…Let a singer take heed, lest he begin too loud, braying like an Ass, or when he hath begun with an uneven height, disgrace the song. For God is not pleased with loud cryes, but with lovely sounds; it is not (saith our Erasmus) the noise of the lips, but the ardent desire of the Heart, which like the loudest voice doth pierce Gods ears.”

– John Dowland, Andreas Ornithoparcus his Micrologus, or Introduction: containing the art of singing, 1609.

In summary, Dowland tells us that instrumental music is diverting, but music for voice and lute is far superior in moving the passions of the listener; that musicians should strive to add something good to the ever flowing stream of music rather than make waves and dash water in the eyes of our colleagues through competitive carping; that skill in singing and playing the lute have nothing to do with rapid divisions and ornaments, but rather lies in the ability to communicate the power and depth of the music; that music need not be complex to be effective and that a performance is best when the substance is matched to the performer’s ability; that particular care should be taken for the voice to match the sense of the words, and that it is always best to favor shape and delicacy over volume.

To remark on a few additional points, Dowland’s First Booke was so popular that it was reprinted five times in Dowland’s lifetime, and he was essentially a pioneer in form, style and substance.  It should also be noted in passing that Dowland’s Latin quotation in A Pilgrimes Solace, “Cucullus non facit Monachum” (The cowl does not make the Monk) also appears in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act I, scene v, as the Fool playfully makes a fool of Olivia.

Moving on to secondary sources that give us a bit of context for the 20th-century revival of performing Dowland’s music:

“He chose for musical setting some of the most perfect lyrics that have ever been written in the English language, yet never did he fail to re-create the full beauty of the poet’s thought in music; and though Byrd and others of his contemporaries excelled in larger forms of composition, no one has left us a musical legacy of more intrinsic loveliness than John Dowland.”

– Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), The English Ayre, London, Oxford University Press, 1926.

Next, we dip into the antique article by Edmund H. Fellowes, “The Songs of Dowland”, Proceedings of the Musical Association, 56th Sess. (1929 – 1930), pp. 1-26.

“…Ernest Newman some years ago made the statement that Dowland not only out-shone all his contemporaries as a song-writer, but is fairly to be placed among half a dozen of the world’s greatest song-writers.   The exact grading of any class of composers on the lines of American lawn-tennis champions is ticklish work, but there are several prominent musicians who cordially endorse the opinion of Mr. Newman in so far as it indicates that Dowland’s songs are of the very highest quality; and this is all the more noteworthy when we realize that, historically speaking, he was by far the earliest composer in the world to reach first-class rank in the realm of Art-song.”

– Fellowes, p. 3

“The subtlety and poetical imagination with which these song-writers varied their rhythms are among the most characteristic features of their work. It is indeed strange that in what may be termed the “all-square” developments of musical composition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this feature should have become almost wholly neglected; for irregularity and variety of rhythm, as introduced by the English lutenists, are the means of securing an amazing degree of flexibility to the musical settings of the poems.  And none of the other lutenists approached Dowland’s exceptional skill and taste in this matter. Although fresh time-signatures were seldom inserted to indicate such changes, rhythms of four pulses were often interspersed with triple measures, either in accordance with the varieties of natural speech-rhythm or under the influence of the thought or feeling suggested by the words.”

– Fellowes, p. 5

Fast-forwarding some 50 years in time, we quote from a very interesting article that shares the sometimes divergent insights of Robert Spencer and Anthony Rooley as interviewed by Peter Phillips, “Approaches to Performance: The Lutenists’ View”, Early Music, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Apr., 1979), pp. 225-235.

“If you play solely to recreate the sound of Dowland’s lute, for instance, then it’s wholly admirable so far as that particular composer is concerned. But I wish to create programmes of interest to listeners today and would therefore suggest criteria. For instance, in the 16th century music would have been played in rooms the size of an ordinary drawing-room where you don’t project the sound very far. You may remember Burwell’s mid-17th-century audience of four’! If one made the amount of sound which Dowland expected, in today’s average concert-hall, the result would be inappropriate.”

– Robert Spencer, p. 225

“There are two ways of looking at authenticity. The first is pragmatic—where you try to recreate the sound the composer actually heard, using original instruments in the original setting. This is only the first step. The second way is to examine exactly what authenticity meant to the composers themselves. In asking this we may hope to capture the spirit of the music. This is anathema to the modern scholar and to the majority of performers because the terms are so ill-defined—it frightens people. You talk about the spirit, the power, the energy of something and you’re into a language which becomes poetic, almost divine. It’s a threat to the pragmatic mind; but renaissance man was infinitely more interested in the quasi-divine than in pragmatic data.”

– Anthony Rooley, p. 225

“In the modern concert world it’s essential to focus on a particular period. If I’ve anything to offer the world at large it is that I’m intent on doing this—concentrating on small-scale music, tiny works, tiny forces. The smaller the ensemble the better for me—even a lute alone. I never want to get bigger than four voices, five viols and a lute. I’m interested in performing some of the finest chamber music to survive in western culture. I’ve used this analogy before, but the music and its execution are like a Hilliard miniature. The depth of insight and the intricacy of the technical skill are on the same scale, and the result is dazzling.”

– Anthony Rooley, p. 233

The information outlined above is but a drop in the bucket of the ocean of available sources that describe various and sundry thoughtful approaches to performing the music of Dowland.  For our part, we are firm in the belief that in order to perform music from Dowland’s time, it is essential to do the same sort of character research an actor would do when performing an important role in a play by Shakespeare.  First, one must attempt to gain an understanding of what the music meant to poets, composers, and audiences at the time the music was current—to understand their motivation.  Then the real work begins, for to make intimate music from 400 years ago accessible to modern audiences, it is essential to bridge the gap of time by employing one of two methods: 1) projection of external devices, or 2) compelling internal strength.  We choose the latter method.

Saturday morning quotes 6.30: Intabulation

lochamerSince most of Mignarda’s repertory consists of the historically-appropriate arrangement of polyphonic music for solo voice and lute, today’s post revisits the art of intabulation with a few historical examples that reinforce this essential practice.

Intabulation is the age-old art of making arrangements for a single instrument of music originally written in separate parts in separate books, and meant to be performed by different individual voices or instruments.  The format is attributed to Conrad Paumann (c. 1410 – 1473), a blind organist and lutenist who apparently devised the system and dictated the essentials to a scribe.

The system of intabulation is in no way meant to be a reduction of the music it displays.  Quite the contrary, to realize an intabulation effectively, a thorough understanding of the conventions of performing polyphonic music is essential.  Time and again, we are called upon to explain this fact to lutenists, keyboardists, and even to uninformed musicologists who accept the received but faulty idea that intabulation represents a simplification of polyphonic music.  It most certainly does not.  Effective realization of an intabulation demands an understanding of how to differentiate separate parts and how to sustain these parts to the best of our ability on the instrument of our choice, whether lute or keyboard.

A primary source representing lute intabulations of mid- to late 16th-century polyhony, and a source which we mentioned in recent memory, is the set of manuscripts of music copied by (or for) Edward Paston (1550 -1630), a gentleman and amateur musician who adhered to the Catholic faith during the late Tudor-Stuart period, a time when personal religious practice could be life-threatening.  The Paston manuscripts have been amply studied and have received some attention as the source of a number of unica by William Byrd:

“Appleton Hall in Norfolk was one, the home of Edward Paston, member of a distinguished family best known for the 15th-century “Paston Letters”. At court in the 1570s Paston had been known as something of a poet, but he had soon retired to the quiet life of a country squire, a life that allowed him to practise the old religion with less interference and to indulge his hobbies, poetry and especially music. He had a mania for copying music; perhaps a third of all the surviving manuscripts of the time were written by his personal scribes, and we know from his will that cupboardsful of others existed which are now lost.”

– Joseph Kerman, “William Byrd,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980), 5:543.

Some of the surviving manuscripts from the Paston collection are held by the British Library, and in them we find a rich selection of polyphonic music by Tallis, Taverner and Byrd, as well as the best continental composers. Among the secular songs, Mass movements and motets, we find “Ne timeas Maria”.


British Library Add. Ms. 29246, f. 32

“Ne timeas Maria” is set by our old friend Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548 – 1611), whose setting of “O magnum mysterium” was featured here recently.


The four-voice motet bears the inscription, In Annuntiatione Beatæ Mariæ, or for the Annunciation.  The text is from The Gospel according to S. Luke, Chapter 1, verse 30, as the Angel Gabriel addresses the Virgin Mary:

30 And the Angel said vnto her, Feare not, Marie, for thou hast found fauour with God.

31 And behold, thou shalt conceiue in thy wombe, and bring forth a sonne, and shalt call his name Iesus.

King James Bible, 1611

The same story is told in other seasonal settings, including the carol, “The Angel Gabriel“, from our 2008 recording, Duo Seraphim.  The Latin text used by Tomás Luis de Victoria for his setting of “Ne timeas Maria” is from the Vulgate and is as follows:

Ne timeas, Maria;
invenisti enim gratiam
apud Dominum:
ecce concipies in utero,
et paries filium,
et vocabitur Altissimi Filius.

Fear not, Mary,
for thou hast found favour
with the Lord;
and behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb
and bring forth a son;
and he shall be called the Son of the Most High.

Luke is also the source for the Magnificat (Maries song) and Zacharias’ song, both texts set by a great many composers and also published with variations for solo lute as in the linked examples by Nicolas Vallet.

The Paston intabulation of “Ne timeas Maria” is written in Italian tablature, or more rightly, Spanish tablature, since Edward Paston was known to have spent time in Spain and was likely influenced by the medium used by Spanish musicians.  While setting only the lower voices of the four-part motet, interestingly,  Paston’s intabulation begins by including the cantus in the lute part, which is abandoned after the first few measures.  The intabulation follows the part music very closely with minor differences in choice of accidentals and in passing notes, which could mean the Paston scribe had access to a different source of the motet.

Tomás Luis de Victoria set the motet in high clefs but, when transposed down a fourth according the principles of chiavette, the motet agrees with the intabulation with a lute tuned in G. Adjusting the measures and reducing time values to a modern convention, you can compare the Paston intabulation with a direct intabulation from the part-music here.  And you can compare the result with our performance of “Ne timeas Maria” – with added vocal decoration – on our recording Duo Seraphim.




Saturday morning quotes 6.29: Willaert

This week we feature a new video and offer more insights on the music that may be heard on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, and seen in its companion book of scores.  Highlighting the fourth of four settings of the Christmas responsory text, “O magnum mysterium”, we turn to the lute-friendly composer Adrian Willaert (c.1490 – 1562).

In addition to his estimable output of sacred music as maestro di cappella at San Marco’s in Venice (1527 – 1562), Willaert composed an ample amount of secular music including French chansons, Italian madrigals and  Villanesca alla napolitana.  Some of Willaert’s most beguiling madrigals are the settings of texts from the Canzoniere of Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374), published in Musica Nova, 1559.


Among modern lutenists, Willaert is known for his Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto da cantare et sonare nel lauto, intavolati per Messer Adriano, published by Scotto in 1536.  As the lengthy title indicates, this work consists of  madrigals from Verdelot‘s Il primo libro de madrigali, 1533, arranged for solo voice and lute.  It is from such historical intabulations that we take inspiration for our own work as we continue to create arrangements of particularly good historical polyphony.

Returning to the subject of Willaert’s motets:

“Willaert’s greatest and most enduring compositions are his motets. Out of a provisional total of 175, 79 are for four voices, 51 for five, 38 for six and five for seven or eight voices. The motets enjoyed wide circulation during his lifetime in manuscripts, printed anthologies and a series of influential publications issued by Scotto and Gardano from 1539 on. These publications, which include two books of motets for four voices (1539, repr. 1545), one book for five voices (1539, repr. 1550) and one for six voices (1542), were among the first printed books to focus on the music of a single composer, attesting to the high regard in which Willaert was held at the time.”

Michele Fromson, “Adrian Willaert”, Grove Music Online

Although Willaert was very highly regarded in his day, his music is rarely performed today.  We aim to rectify this situation in future performances of our vocal ensemble.


“O magnum mysterium” and its secunda pars, “Ave Maria” (which we have featured in a past post) are from Willaert’s Motecta … liber primus, 4vv, Venice, 1539 (reprinted 1545).  Setting the entire Christmas Responsory text, Willaert’s music is sublimely calm and understated, the cantus part almost narrative and descant-like as the lower parts weave and intertwine in leisurely imitation.  The work is obviously the result of a thoughtful and deliberate composer aiming to create the perfect music to express the text—no matter how long it may take.

“Willaert is known to have been a slow worker.  His pupil Gioseffo Zarlino writes that he composed in great concentration and without haste.  In a letter of 15 March 1534 Ruberto Strozzi, a nobleman resident in Venice, writes to his mentor, the humanist and historian Benedetto Varchi, that he will do all he can to get Willaert to set an epigram to music, but that he can promise nothing, for much patience is required to persuade Willaert to compose.”

Ignace Bossuyt, “O socii durate: A Musical Correspondence from the Time of Philip II”, Early Music, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), p. 441.

Much patience indeed.  We all know the type who is compelled to try every possible approach to a thing, and its inverse, until the correct solution emerges.  But Art cannot by rushed.

The quiet beauty of Willaert’s setting is established at the outset with his delicate treatment of the lower voices that tread lightly on tiptoes, following one another in not-quite perfect imitation while whispering among themselves; in awe of the great mystery unfolding before their eyes.  The cantus enters midway through the ninth measure with an arcing line that is gently declamatory, the notes expressing the text perfectly right down to the “blue” note that colors the word “mysterium”.

10Willaert O magnum mysterium_Notes

Our performance of Willaert’s “O magnum mysterium” may be heard on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, available with a companion edition of scores arranged for voice and lute, with transcriptions of all lute parts in standard notation for harp or keyboard.

Saturday morning quotes 6.28: Turtles and Swans

third-bookeThe holiday season is upon us and unfettered commercialism descends like the pall of particulate-laden air that is unfortunately commonplace in so many cities.  As an antidote to the unseemliness of the season, we pause to feature a poignant song by Dowland and offer a tribute to a good friend to the lute.

John Dowland (1563 – 1626) is well known as the foremost lutenist of the Elizabethan period and a composer of some of the most melancholy songs ever written.  “Flow my tears” and “In darkness let me dwell” are a few of Dowland’s dark and brooding songs that find their way into recitals by singers and accompanists of all sorts.  But, thankfully, exposure to Dowland’s more popular songs perhaps acts as an introduction to the lute and the enormous surviving historical repertory for the instrument.

Of Dowland’s four books of songs, his Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, published in 1603, contained several lighter songs, some texts of which appear to be directed toward Queen Elizabeth, who died that same year after a long and eventful 45-year reign.  While songs from the 1603 book like “Say love if ever thou didst find” and “Time stands still” indeed were likely dedicated to the ageing Queen, “Me me and none but me” seems much more heartfelt, intimate and personal in nature.

Me me and none but me,
dart home O gentle death
and quicklie, for
I draw too long this idle breath:
O howe I long till I
may fly to heaven above,
unto my faithfull and
beloved turtle dove.

Like to the silver Swanne,
before my death I sing:
And yet alive
my fatall knell I helpe to ring.
Still I desire from earth
and earthly joyes to flie,
He never happie liv’d,
that cannot love to die.

Dowland (or the unnamed poet) used the imagery of the turtledove in the close of the first verse, referring to the legendary faithfulness of the Streptopelia turtur that was mentioned in ancient mythology and in biblical times.

“The flowers appeare on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

Solomon’s Song II:12 (King James Bible)

The “turtle” in the bird’s name has nothing to do with the amphibian reptile but rather refers to the particular sound the dove makes in Spring, the time of forging certain alliances.

The faithfulness of the turtledove was often employed as image woven into the poetry of Dowland’s age, and was the subject of Shakespeare’s enigmatic poem, “The Phoenix and the turtle” (from Chester, 1601).  Another poetical image frequently used was that of the swan, as found in the same poem by Shakespeare as well as referenced in the plays, such as the quotation from Othello:

“…I will play the swan, And die in music.”

– Shakespeare, The tragedy of Othello, the Moore of Venice, V:ii

The “swan song” refers to the ancient understanding that the swan remains silent most of its life but sings a beautiful lament in its final moments of life.  One of the earliest references to the phenomenon is in the play, Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, dating  from 458 BC.

Our performance of “Me me and none but me” was recorded just this week after having played for a somewhat belated memorial service for lutenist and friend, Stephen Toombs (1951 – 2016).  Stephen was a fine lutenist who studied at Washington University and later with Toyohiko Satoh at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, The Netherlands.  But he was probably better known as the expert, gracious and helpful music librarian at Case Western Reserve University.  To those who knew him only in passing, Stephen could appear serious and rather solemn.  But to those of us fortunate enough to catch a glimpse behind the mask, he was an amusing, animated and enthusiastic lover of the lute and its music.

Stephen was quite active as the director of his Ensemble Lautenkonzert, and also performed with Cleveland area singers.  I (RA) was asked to accompany two of his colleagues for the recent memorial service, and when one was unable to sing due to illness, Donna graciously filled in at the last moment with a song that happened to be in the lute case.  We had not performed or rehearsed the song for at least two years, but the spontaneous performance of “Me me and none but me” was effective and well received.

In response to requests, and having a spare moment to do so, we recorded the song just a few days ago.  Our performance may be heard here.

Saturday morning quotes 6.27: Magnum Mysterium 3

magnummysteriumcover1400x1400This is our third post highlighting another polyphonic setting of the Christmas responsory text, “O magnum mysterium” from our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, and we also announce the availability of our new companion book of scores from the recording.

In previous posts, we have offered background and details on versions by William Byrd and Tomás Luis de Victoria.  This week’s post is devoted to the beautiful setting of “O magnum mysterium” by Spanish composer, Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 – 1553), offering background and essential insights that lead to an historically-sensitive performance.

Morales was a gifted and prolific composer who took pride in his Spanish heritage to the extent that his publications described him as “Christophorus Morales Hyspalensis”.  His extensive output consisted primarily of sacred music, leaving behind only a handful of secular pieces including the anonymous romance, “De Antequera sale el Moro”, a piece that survives in an intabulated setting found in Miguel de Fuenllana’s Libro de música para vihuela, intitulado Orphénica Lyra, Sevilla, 1554.   If Morales was proud of his Spanish identity, Spain was likewise proud of him:  Music theorist and author of Declaración de instrumentos musicales, Fray Juan Bermudo (c.1510 – 1565), described Morales as “the light of Spain in music.”

Morales’ setting of “O magnum mysterium” is not found among his ample corpus of published works, but appears in at least three separate manuscript sources; Biblioteca Casa Ducal de Medinaceli, Madrid, Parroquia de Santiago, Valladolid, and also in the more recently studied manuscript at the Catedral, Archivo y Biblioteca Capítulares, Toledo.  Michael Noone, in  Códice 25 de la Catedral de Toledo, (Madrid, Alpuerto, 2003), speculates that Morales’ setting of “O magnum mysterium” may have been copied into the Toledo manuscript while the composer was there, circa 1545-1547, a case for assigning the motet to the latter part of Morales’ career.

A unique aspect of Morales’ setting of “O magnum mysterium” is that the manuscript sources agree on notation in high clefs, a much misunderstood feature that has had a lasting influence on performance and reception of the motet. Bernadette Nelson mentions the stratospheric disposition of parts in her article, “A Little Known Part-Book From Toledo. Music by Morales, Guerrero, Jorge de Santa Maria, Alonso Lobo and Others in Barcelona, Instituto Espanol de Musicologia, Fondo  Reserva”, MS 1 Anuario Musical, N.º 65, enero-diciembre 2010, 25-56.

“O magnum mysterium and Monstra te may be distinguished for having been written for a quartet involving at least three high voices, which is indicative of intended performance by the choirboys, or seises.”

While stratospheric performance by choirboys may very well have been intended by the scribes who copied Morales’ “O magnum mysterium” into the surviving manuscripts, it may just as likely have not been the composer’s intention.  Polyphonic music notated in high clefs was typically intended to be transposed down according to what is known today as the chiavette.

“Chiavette (It.: ‘little clefs’): Term for certain combinations of clefs used in 16th- and 17th-century polyphonic music, distinct from the chiavi naturali (the combination of soprano, alto, tenor and bass clefs); it is especially used for the combination of ‘high clefs’ (treble, mezzo-soprano, alto and baritone clefs). Some theorists stated that the chiavette implied transposition by a 4th or 5th into the register of the ‘normal’ clefs, whence the alternative term chiavi trasportate (transposing clefs). These terms arose in the 18th century, when the practice was no longer current outside the papal chapel in Rome. Some modern scholars see clef combinations as an important clue to the mode of particular compositions, especially ones from late 16th-century Italy.”

“Pieces notated in high clefs were intended to be transposed downwards, according to Ganassi, by a 5th, and according to Banchieri (Cartella, overo Regole, 1601) and Picerli (Specchio secondo di musica, 1631) by a 4th when the Bb is present in the signature and by a 5th with no key signature.”

“High clef notation was used for much longer: in the age of Palestrina and Victoria the vast majority of a cappella polyphony was notated in this clef grouping. It remained in use in the stile diatonico osservato alla Palestrina of the Roman school throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, when it was last used by Giuseppe Baini (Apparuit Dominus Salomoni, 1837). This conservative practice was, however, restricted to composers writing for the papal chapel.”

Patrizio Barbieri, Grove Music Online

While the sources mentioned by Barbieri date from a bit later in the 16th century—just like the application of accidentals and many other commonly employed aspects of the performance of polyphonic music at the time—the practice was observed and in use much earlier, and there was no need to state the obvious to skilled musicians who would have recognized that the high clefs with a flat in the key signature in Morales’ “O magnum mysterium” should naturally be transposed downward by a fourth.

Again, according to the principles of chiavette that were in common use during the 16th century, a piece that appeared in high clefs was intended to be transposed downward by a fourth.  While most modern performances take the high-clef distribution literally, employing high women’s voices rather than choirboys, in our performance, we observe the essential downward transposition, carrying the result a step lower sung at our typical pitch standard of A=392.  The lower tessitura results in a much more relaxed performance allowing for a calm interpretation and communication of the text and also allowing Morales’ characteristic overlapping syncopations and delicate parallel duets to emerge convincingly and with greater ease.  Our recording may be heard here.

Now for the bad news: Like the setting of “O magnum mysterium” by fellow Spaniard, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Morales’ adaptation of the text indicates that his setting of the motet was actually proper to be sung In Circumcisione Domini, for the Feast of the Circumcision.  But even with Morales’ adaptation of the text, the motet can be considered proper to the Nativity and, happily, the (no longer observed) Feast of the Circumcision falls within the Octave of Christmas.  As music historians, church musicians, and performers of historical music, we feel it is important to be informed of these details that guide performance practice.  But we also feel that Morales’ setting is wonderfully evocative of the mystery of the Nativity, and have thus placed the motet as the opening track of our new recording.

Now for the good news:  This week, we begin shipping Mignarda Editions’ new book of scores as a companion to our new recording.  The book includes all of the music on the recording with lute parts notated both in French lute tablature and, in a separate section, with all the lute parts transcribed in keyboard notation.  As a Christmas season offering to our readers, our new edition is available for a limited time for a special low price, and can be purchased with a CD or by itself.  Visit our Mignarda Editions page for more information.

Saturday morning quotes 6.26: Down in the dumps II

melancholiaAutumn has always evoked a sense of melancholy; the fateful end of the growing season colorfully illustrated with fallen leaves and portentously scented with the aroma of overripe fruit.  Perhaps that is why major elections in the US are scheduled for November, a time when the public is inured to the profusion of rot and the stench of decay.

While all of us have very good reason to be down in the dumps just now, today’s post has to do with the archaic term, “dump”,  and we feature our recording of the lute solo, “Dump philli”, which coincidentally appears on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, to which we’ll return after a bit of historical background and context.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

Shakespeare’s autumnal theme reflects the melancholy mood so prevalent in art, literature, and music in England at the time of the Tudor/Stuart dynasties.  Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) offers a medical description of the symptoms of melancholy, and also describes the role of music as a treatment for the affliction:

But to leave all declamatory speeches in praise of divine music, I will confine myself to my proper subject: besides that excellent power it hath to expel many other diseases, [music] is a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself.

A term that describes an aspect of the aesthetics of melancholy is “dump“.  Citing sixteenth-century examples, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as  “1. (a) To fall into, or be in, an abstracted or absent state of mind; to muse.  (b) To be in the dumps; to be sad or downcast in spirit. 2. To cast into melancholy, sadden, grieve, cast down.”

In musical terms, Grove Music Online defines a Dump as:

“A type of instrumental piece occurring in English sources between  about 1540 and 1640. Some 20 examples are known, more than half of them for lute and most of the remainder for keyboard. The word is of uncertain derivation. In the 16th century it denoted mental perplexity or a state of melancholy. The musical dump was variously described as ‘solemn and still’, ‘deploring’ and ‘doleful’; there is some evidence to suggest that it was the English equivalent of the French déploration or tombeau, a piece composed in memory of a recently deceased person.”

– Alan Brown, Grove Music Online

In listing a few prime examples, Brown describes “a relatively ambitious work in the Marsh Lutebook (IRL-Dm Z.3.2.13) labelled ‘Dump philli’ (ed. in Ward, 1992, ii, no.4; the piece is unlikely to be by either Philip van Wilder or Peter Philips as was formerly thought).”  We have written about this piece in a few prior posts.  At risk of repetition, the piece really has nothing to do with the sophisticated polyphonic music of Henry VIII’s lutenist, Philip van Wilder.  The “philli” in the title refers to an incomplete fragment of a word that was clipped by the binder’s shears when the manuscript was bound, and could just as easily refer to the mythical “Phillis”, or even a French lutenist named “Phillibert”.

“Dump philli” is a rather long set of variations constructed on a tonic-dominant ground, a characteristic of most other pieces bearing the label.  The original lute tablature is missing a bit music that interrupts the regular pattern, and while some performers like to think of the gap as a “moment”, I (RA) think of the obvious break in the pattern as nothing other than yet another mistake in copying, which one finds so frequently in historical manuscript sources.  I think playing the piece with the mistake is just like learning a tune from a 78 RPM record that skips.  Rather than playing the mistake, I fixed it.

The piece has been recorded several times, and is frequently performed as a virtuoso showpiece played at breakneck speed, sounding more suited to a banjo than the noble lute.  Since I already play the banjo, I feel no need to use the lute in such a manner. As for the interpretation on our live recording, I prefer to consider the historical aesthetic of the term, “dump”, and perform the piece as an unfolding discourse of complimentary ideas as evidenced by the implied polyphony that is revealed through thoughtful study of the piece.

Our performance is on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, which is available for streaming and download at the usual sites.  The CD is available directly from the artists, and can be ordered with an edition of scores of all the music on the recording set for voice and lute, with keyboard transcriptions included.

Saturday morning quotes 6.25: Magnum mysterium 2

magnummysteriumcover1400x1400Despite the profusion of disquieting world events and the looming unpleasantness of the U.S. presidential election, we return to the subject of our new recording of music for the Christmas season, Magnum Mysterium, which tends to serve as a calming antidote for world-weary angst and frazzled nerves—even for us.  We began with last week’s post that included background and details of music by William Byrd.  This week, we offer background and context for  another of our four polyphonic settings of the Christmas responsory text, “O magnum mysterium”, the well-known and beloved favorite by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548 – 1611).

As usual, things are not always what they seem on the surface, and received ideas and generalizations tend to unravel when subjected to a closer examination.  For instance, while we typically refer to the composer as “Victoria”, his surname was actually “Luis”,  and we should really refer to the composer as Tomás Luis from Victoria.  The same goes for the famous lute composer, Francesco Canova da Milano.  When we simply refer to him as “Milano”, we tend to negate the value of all the other notable musicians who happened to be associated with capital of the Lombardy region.

Tomás Luis de Victoria’s setting of “O magnum mysterium” was published in Thomæ Ludovici de Victoria abulensis. Motecta que partim. Quaternis. Partim, quinis, alia, senis, alia Octonis Vocibus Concinuntur. Venetijs Apud Filios Antonij Gardani. 1572.  The collection included 33 motets and antiphons in four, five, and six voices, with a setting of Ave Maria in eight voices.  The composer liked his setting of “O magnum mysterium” so well he used it as the model for a Mass setting, published in Liber secundus, 1592.  The motet is justifiably well-known and is a staple in the Christmas holiday repertory of many choirs, professional and amateur.  The organization of the piece is clear and succinct, with three discreet sections delineated by strong cadences.

For more detail, we quote from a description found in An Analysis of Performance Practice Trends in Recent Recordings of Tomás Luis De Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium…as Related to Historical and Contemporary Scholarly Literature, a dissertation by Adam Gerhard Walter Luebke.

“The first section of the motet, as outlined by the text, describes the first mystery of the text through the words “jacentem in praesepio.” This A section is set in imitative polyphony and delineated by a strong perfect authentic cadence on G, the fourth scale degree. Marked by contrary motion expanding from a sixth on the penultimate chord to an octave on the final chord, the cantus approaches the final tone from a raised preparatory leading tone while the tenor steps down to the G. The bass drops a fifth to the G and the altus sings a raised third on the final chord.”

“The second section of the work celebrates the second mystery of the text: the Virgin
birth. The delineation between the A and B sections stems from the strong closing cadence of the A section and the contrast of all voice parts singing simultaneously in the B section. The parts continue in homorhythm until a brief moment of polyphony sets up this section‟s closing cadence, again on G. The mensuration remains the same as at the beginning.”

“The third section, C, is an extended expression of the word Alleluia. The delineation between the B section and the C section also results from a strong authentic cadence that closes the B section. Additionally, Victoria changes the mensural sign to contrast the joyfulness of the word Alleluia with the solemnity of the motet’s preceding text. Here the breve is divided into three semibreves with the sign 3/2. Because scholars believe that Victoria oversaw the publication of this motet, they believe it is clear that he intends sesquialtera proportion, or three semibreves of the proportion in the space of two semibreves of the preceding section.”

“The ternary proportion, 3/2, reverts to the original mensuration, for the final flourish of the motet. Building up to the closing cadence Victoria returns the four voices to imitative polyphony elongating the word Alleluia through descending scales. The final cadence is a perfect authentic cadence on G approached by the raised leading tone in the cantus and against contrary motion down to the raised third and fifth in the altus and tenor. The bassus drops a fifth to G.”

– Luebke, pp. 64-65

While the rather technical language may pass over the heads of those who simply appreciate the music, a deeper understanding of the composer’s conceptual layout, artistic vision, and musical devices only adds to that appreciation.   A detail that seems to be missing in descriptions of the piece is the significance of the repeated falling fifth, a device that appears throughout.  The falling fifth in sacred music of the sixteenth century is typically symbolic of a genuflection, a fact that demonstrates the priest-composer’s intimate grasp of symbolism within the liturgy.


Tomás Luis de Victoria’s understanding of the liturgy is further elucidated by the inscription at the opening of “O magnum misterium”—while the text is proper to the Nativity, this setting of the motet was actually intended for the Feast of the Circumcision, a fact that is strengthened by the composer’s close supervision of the 1572 publication.   Currently, the Feast of the Circumcision is renamed and observed on the 1st of January, the Octave Day of the Nativity of the Lord, the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, and also the commemoration of the conferral of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.

Even though the music is meant for a different feast day, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s setting of “O magnum mysterium” will remain an evocative reminder of the great mystery of Christmas.  As with all the music on our recording, our performance is arranged for voice and lute, effectively highlighting the text with subtle interweaving of the three lower voices on the lute.  Our recording, released November 1st, 2016, is available for streaming on Spotify, as mp3 downloads on Amazon, Bandcamp, and iTunes, and the CD is available directly from the artists, on its own or packaged with an edition of all the scores, notated for voice and lute with transcriptions of lute parts in keyboard notation.