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Saturday morning quotes 5.4: Music matters

Being front-line witnesses to the epic tragedy of the crumbling of civilization as we knew it, we examine the problem from our unique perspective as specialists in the repertory and context of music for voice and lute from the 16th century.  Of course, thinking persons of every historical era expressed the same sentiment – that the world was going to hell in a handbasket.  But in many cases the observation was accurate and, for so many reasons, it would be difficult to dispute the premise today.

Our series of essays will outline but not dwell upon the unfortunate ongoing marginalization of music, and will offer observations and solutions based on ideas gleaned from historical sources.  We delve into our series by employing a time-honored method.

Music has been an important component of education in our culture for centuries and, optimally presented, may result in more balanced, engaged, intelligent, empathetic and civilized individuals. Increasingly disenfranchised youth have been abandoned by narcissistic parents and are subject to brutal cuts in spending for education by an ignorant and self-serving Congress.  A greater concentration on education in music, with a restored level of respect for its importance and adequate funding for its implementation, will mitigate the disenfranchisement of youth and produce more balanced, creative and empathetic persons. 

First, what defines a civilized society?

Civilized people must, I believe, satisfy the following criteria:

1) They respect human beings as individuals and are therefore always tolerant, gentle, courteous and amenable…They do not create scenes over a hammer or a mislaid eraser; they do not make you feel they are conferring a great benefit on you when they live with you, and they don’t make a scandal when they leave…

2) They have compassion for other people besides beggars and cats. Their hearts suffer the pain of what is hidden to the naked eye…

3) They respect other people’s property, and therefore pay their debts.

4) They are not devious, and they fear lies as they fear fire. They don’t tell lies even in the most trivial matters. To lie to someone is to insult them, and the liar is diminished in the eyes of the person he lies to. Civilized people don’t put on airs; they behave in the street as they would at home, they don’t show off to impress their juniors…

5) They don’t run themselves down in order to provoke the sympathy of others. They don’t play on other people’s heartstrings to be sighed over and cosseted…that sort of thing is just cheap striving for effects, it’s vulgar, old hat and false…

6) They are not vain. They don’t waste time with the fake jewellery of hobnobbing with celebrities, being permitted to shake the hand of a drunken [judicial orator], the exaggerated bonhomie of the first person they meet at the Salon, being the life and soul of the bar…True talent always sits in the shade, mingles with the crowd, avoids the limelight…

7) If they do possess talent, they value it…They take pride in it…they know they have a responsibility to exert a civilizing influence on [others] rather than aimlessly hanging out with them. And they are fastidious in their habits…

8) They work at developing their aesthetic sensibility…Civilized people don’t simply obey their baser instincts…they require mens sana in corpore sano [a sound mind in a sound body].

– Anton Chekhov, A Life in Letters, Translated by Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, Penguin Books, London, 2004.

How does music fit into the schema of a civilized culture?

“The very world and the sky above us, according to the doctrine of philosophers, are said to bear in themselves the sound of music.  Music moves the affections of men, stimulates the emotions into a different mood…”

– Aurelian of Reome, Musica disciplina (c. 850)

Why should we bother to teach music universally to all students?

…[The teacher] shall commend the perfect understanding of music, declaring how necessary it is for the better attaining the knowledge of a public weal, which…is made of an order of estates and degrees, and by reason thereof containeth in it a perfect harmony…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)

In our next post we begin with the clear and concise ideas of Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, (c.35 – 95 AD) from his Institutio oratoria, adapting his discussion of the education of the young to the purpose of an effective musical education.

Saturday morning quotes 5.3: Eloquence

“I may say so, that some being of opinion that it troubles and disturbs the brains of children suddenly to wake them in the morning, and to snatch them violently and over-hastily from sleep (wherein they are much more profoundly involved than we), [my father] caused me to be wakened by the sound of some musical instrument, and was never unprovided of a musician for that purpose.”

– Essais de Michel Seigneur de Montaigne (1533 – 1592), Of the education of children, English translation by Charles Cotton (1630 – 1687)

As we examine the forgotten fragments that contributed to the education of musicians from the distant past, we encounter several words that have different connotations today.  Artificial was once a term of praise that described a thing that was full of artifice, but now describes something that has been synthesized in a laboratory.  Liberal once described generosity and was also applied to describe the studies comprising the trivium and quadrivium; areas of study intended to develop general intellectual capacities such as reason and judgment. Liberal is now used a a term of derision delivered by sneering pundits to describe one who supposedly supports increased government spending. Rhetoric is now used to describe pedantic chin music, but was once the study of the art of eloquent discourse, developed over the millennia as a means to educate the orator, and an important component of a musician’s education.

Eloquence is term that has retained its original meaning, and one we bandy about quite liberally in describing effective musical performance. Eloquence is derived from the Latin, e, a form of ex, meaning “out of,” and loqui, meaning “to speak.”  One who is eloquent possesses an understanding and command of language and has the ability to speak fluidly, gracefully and persuasively. In music, an eloquent performer embodies the meaning of the text and the character of the music, presenting the result in such a way as to move the emotions of the listener.  As in oratory, an eloquent musical style is simple, graceful, clear, concise and convincing.

An eloquent style requires an understanding and use of rhetorical devices, and for rhetorical devices to be effective, they must be understood by the audience.  This necessarily presumes that there exists an audience today who is comprised of connoisseurs who are themselves trained in rhetoric and therefore receptive to the modes of performance we so carefully prepare.  Of course, today’s audiences have been trained to react to loud flashbang performances delivered by performers who either do not understand nor possess an eloquent style, or who have resignedly molded their delivery to suit the lowest common denominator.

The solution lies in education.  We watch with dismay the erosion of standards in public behavior and it can be directly linked to a lower standard of education, which is more and more directed toward technical knowledge and professionalism.  We see this as a missed opportunity to develop the individual potential of our children – and our future.

“…Among children there is shining promise of many accomplishments; and when that dies out out as they grow older it is plain that it was not talent that failed but training.”

– Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, Early Education.

In this, our fifth year of quotations, we will be tapping into several historical sources to present ideas to help form a curriculum for musical children, modern musicians, and for audiences in an attempt to restore an appreciation for musical eloquence.  A tough job but someone has to do it.

Saturday morning quotes 5.2: Bach on lute or guitar

Today’s post summarizes a few thoughts and reactions after spending two days auditing Nigel North’s masterclasses for guitarists interested in Bach’s music for lute.  Nigel has for many years expressed strong reservations as to whether Bach’s music works at all for the 18th-century baroque lute, given the constraints of its odd tuning of d-minor.  But as pure music, Bach’s so-called lute works are worth the effort to study and play, whether on the unruly lute or the more convenient modern guitar.

Bach’s writing for unaccompanied instruments possesses a unique strength of character, and is of uniform compositional integrity as pure music independent of the medium of performance.  Known to have deliberately composed in isolation and apart from the mechanical confines of an instrument, Bach transmitted his music directly from his imagination to the written notes scribbled on the page without consideration of the constraints of instrumental technique. But C. P. E. Bach wrote that his father fully understood the resources of  any particular instrument – and a lute was listed among his household possessions in a inventory upon the great composer’s death. Bach simply had the very highest standards, and expected no less than the very best of anyone who would perform his music.

“…Bach, you see, was music’s greatest non-conformist, and one of the supreme examples of that independence of the artistic conscience that stands quite outside the collective historical process.”

– Glenn Gould

“I was obliged to work hard. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well.”

– Johann Sebastian Bach, from The New Bach Reader: A Life of J. S. Bach in Documents and Letters, Ed. by Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolff, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.

The Bach-Gesellschaft published the known collected works of Bach beginning in 1851, with a goal of presenting authoritative editions produced by the best scholars of the time.  A volume of miscellaneous pieces for keyboard, edited by Alfred Dörffel and published in 1897, included the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat major, BWV 998, Suite in E minor, BWV 996, and the Suite in C minor, BWV 997 (Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, Band 45.1, Leipzig, Breitkopf und Härtel, 1897).  As scholarship evolved, the so-called lute works were assembled into a separate category and published as the Werke für Lauteninstrumente in the updated in The Neue Bach-Ausgabe, Series V, Volume 10 edited by Thomas Kohlhase, 1982.

As it turns out, the guitar, with its single strings and more convenient tuning, may be a better instrument for Bach’s “lute” music than the lute. Bach’s so-called lute works have been fodder for transcription and interpretation on a variety of instruments, the most common example being the modern guitar. It just may be possible that the 19th-century editors of Bach’s music were thinking of the lute-guitar when they described the pieces as meant for the lute. Hermann Hauser’s (1882 – 1952), early work produced examples of the lute-shaped Wandervögellaute, instruments that were tuned like a modern guitar.  Hauser went on to build fine examples of Spanish guitars and became well-known as a luthier commissioned to build instruments for famous guitarist, Andres Segovia (1893 – 1987), who was instrumental in transcribing Bach’s music for the guitar.

“Instead of labouring over perpetuating the idea that the so-called lute pieces of Bach are proper lute pieces I prefer to take the works for unaccompanied Violin or Cello and make them into new works for lute, keeping (as much as possible) to the original text, musical intention, phrasing and articulation, yet transforming them in a way particular to the lute so that they are satisfying to play and to hear.”

– Nigel North, from notes to Bach on the Lute, Linn Records

Nigel North makes his point with much eloquence in his series of recordings, Bach on the Lute Volumes 1 & 2 Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin BWV 1001-1006 (Linn Records CKD 013 and 029, 1994) and Volumes 3 & 4 Suites for solo cello BWV 1007-1012 (Linn Records CKD 049 and CKD 055, 1996). North gives us very beautiful renditions of the music and one is filled with admiration for every glorious detail.

There is ongoing speculation as to whether Bach played the lute at all.  Unfortunately, it must remain speculative.  But given Bach’s reputation for his skill on other stringed instruments, one can assume that if wished to play the lute, he did so.  Whether you choose to play the music on lute or guitar, you can find various editions of Bach’s so-called music for lute, including prints from the old Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe and facsimiles of some of the originals, online.

Saturday morning quotes 5.1: Too much information

After a slight pause to reboot, we begin our fifth year of quotations with a loosely-themed sampling.

“Our hunger for knowledge…can distract us or keep us engaged in a lifelong quest for deep learning and understanding.  Some learning enhances our lives, some is irrelevant and simply distracts us.”

– Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind, The Penguin Group, New York, 2014, p. 33.

Distraction indeed.  With a tremendous glut of information available on the internet it is now more challenging than ever to sort out the meaningful from the meaningless, making a focused pursuit of specific knowledge an exercise in organization, and requiring more time wasted in learning and troubleshooting search terms, software, keystrokes and menus.

In the not so distant past, knowledge was gained from visits to the library and reading books.  And wisdom was the result of testing knowledge through practical real-world experience. The epidemic of information overload began when television came on the scene:

“…I  believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky.  We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.”

– E. B. White, “Removal,” July, 1938, One Man’s Meat, Harper & Row, New York, 1983.

Television offered every household a portal through which to view the world at large, replacing domestic interactions – like making music – with a constant barrage of information and influence disguised as entertainment.  And entertainment disguised as news.  Television refined the act of targeted persuasion and set the tone for our currently over-commercialized view of the world.

“…The Founding Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the corporate state, which through television now controls the flow of public discourse in America…Those who run television do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian.  It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously.  But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment.”

– Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin Books, New York, 1985, pp. 139-141.

Of course, such ideas are not new.

“All liberties are interrelated and are equally dangerous. Freedom in music entails freedom to feel, freedom to feel means freedom to act, and freedom to act means the ruin of states.”

–  Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert (1717 – 1783), La Liberté de la musique (1759), in Oeuvres de d’Alembert, v. 1, Slatkine, Geneva, 1967, p. 520.

Looking backwards just a few years, things were a little less complicated and music was not such a highly politicized medium. In describing the elements of good taste in harpsichord playing, François Couperin justly makes mention of les choses luthees (the things of the lute) as worthy of imitation.  But he goes further in requiring more than playing what is on the page.

“Just as there is a great distance between grammar and Eloquence, there is the same infinity between notated music and music played well…”

– François Couperin, L‘Art de toucher le clavecin, 1717

Freedom of expression in music was not bold and daring, it was expected.  As we look ahead to our fifth year of weekly quotations, the themes will touch on how musicians of the past were taught to use music as a natural means of expressive communication.


Saturday morning quotes 4.52: Variety

Every Saturday for the past four years, we have posted quotations that help us make sense of this modern world – words that advise, amuse, interest, inspire, define, dismay, pique, perturb, and otherwise help us grieve and come to terms with the death of friends and the downfall of quiet subtle music.

When we began this series in 2010, a prime motivation was to share our avid interest in the deeper meaning one might discover by emulating musicians of the past.  Throughout our period of interest, roughly 1450 – 1620, music was functional and necessary, and instruments and music books were an expensive and rare commodity. In the realm of domestic music, you can bet that the part books or lute manuscripts in a small household’s library were used on a regular basis and the same music was played or sung again and again.  In fact, examining lute tablatures in manuscript books, one encounters hash marks or rubrics next to the beginnings of pieces, probably indicating that the piece was finally committed to memory.

In 2015, the message is that variety is good and change is essential.  Most people who are fortunate enough to experience historical music tend to listen to or play through music spanning a millennium and encompassing a broad range of styles. Our message to amateur and professional musicians alike is that a  passing acquaintance with a particular song is simply not enough.  In fact, living intimately with a particular song over the span of several years is an important aspect of historical context and performance practice.

“Chuse one Lesson thy selfe according to thy capacitie, which giue not ouer by looking ouer others, or straggling from one to another, till thou haue got it reasonably perfect, and doe not onely beginne it by going through it to the end at first sight, but examine each part of it diligently, and stay vpon any one point so long (though thou play it ouer a thousand times) till thou get it in some sort.”

– John or Robert Dowland, Varietie of Lvte-lessons, 1610

The result of this sort of dedicated and focused work is complete familiarity with all the bits that make up the sum of the piece.  The rewards are significant and bring us just a little closer the context of the original aesthetic.  Which brings us full circle to our original message. We would all do well to slow down and observe the aesthetics of the past.  We would all do well to allow mere knowledge to be converted over time to wisdom.  We would all do well to restore quiet, intricate music to our lives, amateurs and professionals.

As an example of our living with a song for several years, we draw your attention to our performance of Dowland’s Sweete stay a while, why will you rise? from his last book of published songs.  And we close the lid on our fourth year with a farewell message to amateurs and professionals from the man himself:

“Take this for a farewell: that this diuine Art, which at this time is by so great men followed, ought to be vsed by thee with that great gracefulnesse which is fit for learned men to vse, and with a kinde of maiestie: yea, so that thou haue any skill in it be not ashamed at the request of honest friends to shew thy cunning: but if thou chancest to get an habit of perfection, prophane not the Goddesse, with making thy selfe cheape for a sleight gaine.”

– John Dowland, Varietie of Lvte-lessons, 1610


Saturday morning quotes 4.50: Who played what?

We all have our own ideas and images that spring to mind when considering the sound picture of early music.  For some, it’s the sound of recorders or other wind instruments played in consort.  For others, it’s the costumes and the “Renaissance Fayre” modern mishmash of old tunes and not so old tunes played on instruments that go bang in the night. For many, it’s the sound of lute songs from the era of Shakespeare sung by a (bargain) countertenor.  In terms of economics, for many, the renaissance was just a blip in time before the higher-profile baroque music revival demonstrated that elegance be damned, and instrumentalists must develop an attention-grabbing stance and singers working with a modern technique pull faces and belt or warble with impunity. These images all confirm Richard Taruskin’s premise that early music today is merely a modern re-creation based upon late 20th-century ideals and economics.

As usual, we find that the surviving sources paint a very different picture of both sound and presentation.  This week’s post examines just what sort of instrumental music was performed in polite company in late 16th-century Italy, drawing upon a very interesting article by Timothy A. Collins, “Musica Secreta Strumentali: The Aesthetics and Practice of Private Solo Instrumental Performance in the Age of Monody (Ca. 1580 – Ca. 1610),” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jun., 2004), pp. 47-62 (Published by the Croatian Musicological Society).

Collins first describes several accounts of virtuoso instrumentalists and singers who were highly regarded at the time in the realm of public music, but there is little evidence that they played loud instruments in small chambers among the noble amateurs, professional musicians, composers and theorists who were the Florentine Camerata.  He quotes that Castiglione (1528)

…gave high regard to singing to the accompaniment of the lute because it is “most delightful and gives the words a wonderful charm and effectiveness.” But [Castiglione] cautions that it should only be done as a pastime…”[and] not in the presence of persons of low birth or where there is a crowd.”

Of course, this is not new information, but it helps to remind ourselves that the lute was never intended to be played before large audiences in capacious concert halls, which sadly encourages inauthentic instruments and playing techniques just so the thing can be heard.  The public lute concert performed in large halls is a modernism that we must either accept or reject: Concertizing is the only way for a professional lutenist to sustain him or herself, but it is most inauthentic.  The option of repeated performances for fewer people in smaller venues is a solution that strikes a balance between modern economics and original performance practice.

As for the dulcet sound of the recorder consort, Collins reports:

Wind instruments, on the other hand were wholly unsuitable for gentlemanly gatherings, presumably because of the impolite and unnatural contortions that were necessary to produce sounds on them, as well as their perceived offensive”nature” or “proportion.” Recorders, which were primarily consort instruments, are virtually never encountered in accounts of solo chamber music, though there is a modest number of iconographic examples that show its use in such settings and didactic material intended to develop virtuoso solo technique.

Again, we are focused on a particular era in late 16th-century Italy, the gentlemen being those of the Florentine Camerata.  But evidence is evidence and we must acquaint ourselves with the facts before we choose what to ignore.

As for loud wind instruments, we turn to Vincenzo Galilei, quoted from Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna (Venice, 1581).

Cornetti and trombones were invented and introduced into musical concerts rather through the need for sopranos and basses, or let us say in order to provide more substance and noise in these [concerts], or else for both reasons, than because of some good, necessary effect which they make there.  In order to prove that this is true, observe that these instruments are not ordinarily heard elsewhere except where it is necessary for such voices…They will indeed be heard many times in masquerades, in the theaters, upon the balconies of the public squares for the satisfaction of the plebians and the [common] people, and against every propriety in choruses and in organ lofts of sacred temples for the solemn feasts…Since the trombone possesses a sound quite similar to the bellowing of bulls…and since it is consequently formidable, it would be more appropriate in forests in order to chase the wild beasts from their homes and lairs…

Galilei then clearly explains the need for harmonic instruments – lutes and keyboards:

One could not or should not, for various reasons, compare such professors as these [wind players] to any of the reputed players of the lute and of keyboard instruments, first because of the great facility of the latter and the great difficulty of the former, and also because [wind instruments] play only one part…In addition, only one of these is not worth a thing in the world, since four to six are needed (according to the usage of today) for the perfection of the harmony, and since in tradition their professors are unable to speak, let alone discourse while they are playing them. In addition the one playing them can very easily remain…without knowledge and practice of counterpoint and theory…

While Collins’ article mentions several instrumental virtuosi who played wind and bowed instruments and created a fleeting appreciation among the susceptible, in the end, Galilei makes the point that prevails.  Among the cognoscenti, the lute held and still holds pride of place as the more refined instrument capable of playing many parts as a solo instrument or in consort.  Because its delicacy of sound causes the sensitive singer, the instrumental companion, or the listener with refined ears to focus, judiciously balance volume, and take notice of the detail, the lute’s intimacy is its greatest quality.

Saturday morning quotes 4.51: Class again

For the penultimate post of four full year’s worth of weekly Saturday quotes, we reflect a bit upon why we bother to continue what feels at times a fool’s errand.  We have faithfully posted items of interest—the results of our own reading and research—every week these past four years, not because we have the luxury of leisure and the financial resources to squander time and effort, but because we take seriously our responsibility of reminding readers of the vital importance of our connection with the aesthetics of old music.

“… He who does honor and reverence to music is commonly a man of worth, sound of soul, by nature loving things lofty, philosophy, the conduct of affairs of State, the tasks of war, and in brief, in all honorable offices he ever shows the sparks of his virtue.”

Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585)

While our quotations and contextual essays are always aimed at reinforcing the importance of preserving access to the aesthetics of early music as a source of quiet, calm, engaging and mindful meaning in our out-of-control modern lives, regular readers of our quotes will notice a few recurring themes that, when it comes down to it, pertain to access to real music performed by people who are involved for the right reasons.

Our focus is on small-scale music of the late 15th through the early 17th century, sacred and secular, that features the transparent and intricate combination of solo voice and lute.  Every source from the period tells us that the music should be performed in appropriate spaces with a quiet dignity and with emotional engagement, sung in a natural voice and balanced with the lute paying particular attention to the details of rhythmic phrasing.

With some dismay, we have to agree with Richard Taruskin’s premise that much of what is called “early music” today represents a late 20th century aesthetic.  This premise is increasingly confirmed by performers who now look back on their careers and admit that they chose to ignore performance practice from early sources in favor of their more conventional conservatory training: Many early music vocalists and instrumentalists, performers and teachers, have chosen modern ideas of volume and projection over historical sources that describe sensitivity and subtlety.

“The whole trouble with Early Music as a “movement”… is the way it has uncritically accepted the post-Romantic work concept and imposed it anachronistically on pre-Romantic repertories.  What is troubling, of course, is not the anachronism but the uncritical acceptance – and the imposition.  A movement that might, in the name of history, have shown the way back to a truly creative performance practice has only furthered the stifling of creativity in the name of normative controls.  Here Early Music actively colludes with the so-called “mainstream” it externally impugns.”

Richard Taruskin

We utterly reject the hype one sees when promoters of early music tap into modern sales gimmickry; claiming a close connection with faux high-art status of “classical” music, aiming for the same sort of deep-pocket audience, using fan mag techniques to focus on personalities and distracting modes of presentation, and titling both recordings and concert programs with fanciful strings of keywords with the bald-faced intention of increasing clicks for advertisers. Instead, we aim to introduce the aesthetics of early music, as described by surviving historical source materials, to modern audiences without gimmickry and in appropriate settings.

If one steps back and views the evolution of the revival of early music it has become highly commercialized and, just like any other commercial enterprise in the US, monopolized.  Sponsorship of academic institutions, conformity to feedback based on marketing research, musical choices that are modeled on modern classical music norms, and promotional materials aimed at the monied elite all emerge as characteristics of the more successful performers—in lieu of convincing performances of subtle historical music that challenges the listener to participate in a rare moment of quiet repose.

We see early music as something that transcends barriers and divisions of class. We find that young people with no money are interested in our music for the same reasons as the traditional classical audiences—to experience music that is quiet, textured, transparent and elegant. As a duo specializing in 16th-century music, we both managed to overcome the constraints of a class system that limits access to the arts to those from a financially-challenged background and found our own ways to discover and refine our musical abilities.  Yes, there is a definite class structure in the US, despite the utter absence of what can be considered refinement demonstrated by the elite, who seem hell-bent on promoting consumerism and ignorance.

“If the current level of ignorance and illiteracy persists, in about two or three hundred years a merchandising nostalgia for this era will occur and guess what music they’ll play! (They’ll still play it wrong, of course, and you won’t get any money for having written it, but what the hey?)”

Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993)


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