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Saturday morning quotes 8.5: Nouvelles oeuvres

“The miserable have no other medicine / But only hope.”

– Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, III:i

“These are times that try men’s souls” wrote Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809) in his pamphlet, The American Crisis (1776), but we resist the urge to mine Paine’s ideas further inasmuch they may or may not pertain to our current crisis. We are now firmly in the grip of a natural phenomenon made much worse by opportunistic political posturing, and our leadership has done virtually nothing to inspire us to come together to overcome the problem. But enough of that.

The challenge is for us all is to find ways to overcome the divisiveness that has been imposed on citizens of the world as a remedy to the pandemic, and find ways to maintain our connections to one another, in spite of the pervasive delusion that human connections can be maintained online. Face it, Zoom and Skype are a little better than tin cans with bits of string, but they are still complete crap. And the quality of any online presentation is determined by factors that are entirely out of our control; factors like variable bandwidth, latency, completely undependable audio transmission, the ineluctable and only choice to appear to other viewers as tinted either red or green no matter how stupendous your lighting.

Musicians are delusional if they think performances can be dependably live-streamed. Replacing an actual concert season with a series of videos and charging normal ticket prices may make us feel a little better about the situation, but it is no replacement for live music and we all know this to be true. We must bide our time and prepare to resume live concerts as soon as practicable.

But rather than succumb to nonspecific despair and the accustomed gnashing of teeth, we have been busy. The one constant that enables us to maintain a connection with our audiences is audio recordings that can be heard on quality audio equipment time and again. We have used our time these past few months to create three new CDs that showcase different facets of our musical activities: 1) Heart-Songs, a new recording of our folk music alter-ego (normally kept well-concealed from Mignarda fans, but you just knew something funny was up with us), 2) Mater Dolorosa, a recording of live ensemble tracks from our annual concert of sacred historical music, and 3) our much-anticipated recording of English lute songs, entitled, Unquiet Thoughts.

Heart-Songs, released November 4, 2020

Here is your chance to hear what we do when we’re off-the-clock.

Pre-Mignarda Donna was mainly a happy chorister, reveling in the lush arrangements and intricate polyphony of the likes of Ralph Vaughn Williams, only now and again stepping out of the chorus for the occasional Scottish or Irish folk song.

Ron is the real deal: a seasoned veteran of several old-time and bluegrass bands, a founding member of the Portland Folklore Society, and a driving force behind Portland, Oregon’s now burgeoning square dance scene as early as 1977. Renowned as an old-time fiddle and banjo player, tapes of his playing with legendary fiddler Jonathan Bekoff have circulated underground for many years, serving as a standard resource of fiddle-banjo repertory for countless folk musicians.

Our middle ground is something special. Over the years, reviewers of Mignarda’s  music have often praised Ron’s gift for merging lute with voice “into a virtuoso rhythmic unity”, saying “when he plays a galliard or an almain you can dance the steps to it.”. Thirty years of playing for actual dancers makes for an almost uncanny sense of pulse and tempo, a vital element of early music. Likewise, reviewers have likened Donna’s heartfelt, “elegiac” interpretations to sean nos singing. The way we see it, people have been telling each other stories through song for as long as there’s been language, and genre is irrelevant to the craft of breathing life into these stories and moving us to tears or laughter.

Music on our new album draws from the well of parlor songs and ballads that were sung at home around the turn of the 20th century. Some of the ballads are much older and at least one song dates from the last time we had a Great Depression. The term Heart-Songs is inspired by a collection of songs by that title published in 1909, representing the most popular songs of the day. The book’s editor described the collection as “Songs that have entertained thousands from childhood to the grave and have voiced the pleasure and pain, the love and longing, the despair and delight, the sorrow and resignation, and the consolation of the plain people…”

“Well, I’m a sucker for this stuff. Put me down in advance for an album…”
– Rob MacKillop, February 18, 2012

(We won’t hold you to it, Rob, since the statute of limitations has run out.)

We first intimated that we might record this album several years ago when we released the song “When you and I were young, Maggie” on this blog. You can find out more about this aspect of our lives on our Eulalie website.

Mater Dolorosa, released November 11, 2020

The 130-year-old sanctuary of Immaculate Conception Church in Cleveland provides a perfect setting for Mignarda’s annual concert commemorating the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The programs vary, as do the wonderful artists who join us each year in mid-September to explore with voices, lutes, harp, or viol the rich repertory of Marian music, including polyphonic masses and motets and an ample offering of Gregorian chant.

Our concert entitled Mater Dolorosa is built upon the little-understood intersection of sacred and secular music of the late 15th century, a theme inspired in part by ideas that are distilled in The Flower of Paradise: Marian Devotion and Secular Song in Medieval and Renaissance Music, by David J. Rothenberg.

Mater Dolorosa is a compilation of live recordings from our program of the same name featuring Mignarda and our guest artists, all recorded live between 2016 – 2019 at Immaculate Conception Church, and includes two settings of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, together with seemingly secular chansons from the late 15th century which reveal themselves to have been dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Ron & Donna first met at “the Mac”, singing together in the schola cantorum for the Latin Mass, and it seems fitting this year, when live concerts are so rare, for us to be able to share a taste of this evocative program in the glorious acoustic that suits our music so well. You can sample music from the recording or order CDs here.

Unquiet Thoughts, release date November 30, 2020

English lute songs are the foundational repertory of music for solo voice and lute, and most lutenists and singers who dabble in this music first wet their whistle on well-known songs by John Dowland. Perpetual iconoclasts, our duo began by surveying the correspondingly ample selection of French airs de cour for solo voice and lute as our initial repertory, but we soon formed a vocal quartet and explored the part-song versions of Dowland’s essential music.

Returning to the iconic collection of historical English lute songs after 17 years of performing as a duo, we are struck by the depth of both poetry and music and the sensitivity of the settings of such stellar texts, and we have worked perseveringly to give the songs the deep interpretations they deserve. While Dowland stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries as a songwriter, we add ayres by Thomas Campion, John Danyel, Robert Jones, and Anonymous, all selected for the high quality of both poetry and music.

As always, we pitch these songs in a range that best communicates the poetry, as we are certain was done when the songs were new. Employing a bass lute in D and a tenor lute in F, we offer interpretations that are the result of many years of singing thoughtfully balanced polyphony with a recorded sound that is intentionally warm and intimate. Added to the program are lute solos, all collected from a single manuscript source, that add context and variety to the songs. We are very pleased with this new recording and look forward to sharing it in a matter of weeks from now. Meanwhile, you can sample the title track, also the name of our blog, here.

Saturday morning quotes 8.4: Guest post

Remarquez le pouce

This is our first guest post on Unquiet Thoughts and, as we continue to press forward with recording projects, probably not the last. Today we feature an article by Martyn Hodgson on a pertinent facet of a subject near and dear to our hearts. The general topic was first mentioned in a paper published by the The Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments (FoMRHI), authored by the late Jeremy Montagu, who passed away September 11, 2020, aged 92. Martyn Hodgson’s article also first appeared in the FoMRHI Quarterly, and we are grateful to the author for sharing his work on our platform.

“…We may not be able to hear the music with earlier ears but we can, and we should, play it in earlier ways, and then perhaps our audiences could hear it as something like it was in the earlier days.”

– Jeremy Montagu (1927 – 2020), “The Fakery of Early Music

by Martyn Hodgson                                  

[This paper first appeared as a Communication (Comm.) 2128 in the FoMRHI Quarterly No 149, April 2020. The Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments was founded in 1975 by Jeremy Montagu and Ephraim Segerman to disseminate information on and debate matters relating to historical musical instruments and has a wide international membership.  However the range of subjects covered is extremely catholic and not just restricted to organological matters but frequently includes other aspects of period/historic performance practices such as the present paper. The article has also appeared in the UK Lute Society magazine.

Subsequent to publication various helpful comments were exchanged and, in view of the subject’s relative importance, it was suggested circulating the paper via other channels to allow an even wider debate on a core matter affecting the future of the lute. A few minor changes have therefore been made, but essentially this version remains much as it originally appeared in FoMRHI Q. and the UK Lute Society magazine.]


Jeremy Montagu’s recent and challenging FoMRHI paper  ‘The Fakery of Early Music’ (Comm 2121)  reminds us that it is not really possible to recreate musical performances and hear music exactly as early composers expected, the performers produced it and audiences heard. In short, since any performance is subject to modern tastes and the interpretation of historical evidence it is, inevitably, a sort of fakery.  He also explains how difficult it is to reproduce the music and sounds heard by the ‘Old Ones’ – not just in ensuring that the original (‘authentic’) playing techniques are correctly employed, but also because passing modern fads may impose a musical interpretation at odds with what the original composer expected and auditors experienced.

I certainly agree that one fundamental problem is a fairly recent tendency amongst some ‘period’ musicians to wilfully ignore hard evidence which doesn’t chime with their own preconceptions – thus producing a performance which satisfies them personally (and perhaps some modern auditors) but is not what the ‘Old Ones’ would have expected and heard. However, I’m not entirely pessimistic and believe that performances may still be achieved which, if not precisely identical to those heard by early audiences, are not too far removed. In particular, whilst some extant instruments may have significantly changed and deteriorated over a long period of time (such as many of the wind family Jeremy highlights),  I believe it quite practicable to produce some stringed instruments which the early makers would have recognised as being not too dissimilar to their own productions. Similarly, should players choose to do so, there is much historical evidence to allow the re-creation of early playing techniques to something close to that of earlier times.

Nevertheless, as well as the areas of fakery Jeremy outlines, there are many others and, in particular, a significant and growing problem amongst the instruments I make, play and love – those of the lute family. Quite a number of the culpable players are professionals, who should know better, and so this particular modern trend for lute fakery continues to be perpetuated and even to become the established practice. The implications of this on the lute and its playing are briefly explored here.

Modern lutes and makers

However, all is not doom – the ‘authenticity’ (that now abhorred word!) of many lute (and guitar) type instruments made nowadays is pretty good: – that is, they are often closely modelled on extant period instruments and based on sound research including iconographic and documentary evidence. Thus many professional modern makers generally produce lutes which reasonably reflect what the early makers themselves made.

To set this in context, it is useful to very briefly consider the modern history of lute making. The pioneers making new lutes in the early twentieth century (such as Arnold Dolmetsch in England and various, mostly German, makers on the European continent) generally made quite sturdy and often heavy instruments (‘fakes’ in fact) and therefore without much of the delicate and rather subtle resonant responses of early lutes. It was in the 1960’s that makers (many English) started more seriously to come to grips with the true features of historical lute construction. For example, Ian Harwood making instruments with some features of the early lute: – lightweight, properly barred, reasonably delicate bridges and so on.  (As an aside, I still treasure a printed leaflet by Ian from the late 60s offering new 8 course lutes for £40!  In my impecunious state, even this relatively small sum was beyond my truly modest student means and so I didn’t buy, but decided to make an instrument myself – though that’s another story….).

Suffice it to say that by the mid/late 1970s there were quite a few makers, both in the US as well as Europe, producing instruments incorporating important aspects of historical lutes. This was further developed by some fine makers, such as Michael Lowe, starting to look in even more detail at extant examples of particular instruments and making close copies directly modelled on them.

Stephen Murphy was also important by making available, at very reasonable prices, drawings of instruments from many important collections. Thus from the 1980s there were many makers offering a good range of historically based lutes and guitars.  In short, whilst there may still be a few present day lute makers who seem unaware of, or ignore, some of the historical evidence (such as the various sizes and stringing of theorbos and archlutes), many now produce recognisable historically based instruments.

So, I hear you cry, where’s the fakery if most makers these days closely model their instruments on extant lutes and other relevant information? The answer is that it’s in the manner of playing them that the fakery can now appear:  it is not the instruments themselves, but the increasingly widespread employment of an inappropriate playing technique for much of the lute repertoire, which perpetuates a deception. This is the target of my polemic.

Lute playing and performance

Thus, whilst lute making now mostly follows historical principles, many players (both amateur and professional) increasingly adopt an anachronistic (unhistorical) plucking technique. This is to employ what’s nowadays known as the ‘thumb-under’ technique for virtually all the lute repertoire, and not just for the earlier period up to the late 1500s for which it can be appropriate. This might seem an esoteric matter only relevant to lutenists but, in fact, the right hand technique makes a significant difference to how the music sounds and is therefore, of course, important for wider audiences too.

For non-lute players, such as most members of FoMRHI, perhaps a few words of explanation about this particular early technique is called for. From the late fifteenth century, when finger plucking generally took over from plectrum playing, the right hand plucking fingers were held almost parallel to the strings and so the thumb lay behind (or ‘under’) the foremost fingers. This seems to have developed naturally from the earlier use of the plectrum held between the fingers and thumb in a similar roughly horizontal position. To allow this hand position it is generally best to have the right forearm come over the belly of the instrument close to the base or bottom edge of the instrument. For almost a century, to around the 1570s, this technique was that most employed (although by no means universal as clearly shown by many early depictions) and generally requires the strings to be plucked quite high up on the belly and, indeed even over the rose – this position naturally produces a gentle, soft and homogenous timbre.

However, by the later decades of the sixteenth century, changing musical demands gave rise to a radical change in the general plucking technique and arm position – partly to do with changes in musical texture and of the kind of sound now being preferred. This was the more widespread adoption of the ‘thumb-over’ plucking technique. With this technique the forearm rests on the side of the lute (roughly just behind the bridge position) and the fingers now attack the strings at a much less shallow angle than that best for the old ‘thumb under’ approach. This change was also generally accompanied by resting the lute on the right thigh rather than having it held high on the chest (as is, indeed, more comfortable for the old ‘thumb under’ approach). The relatively new hand position allows more vigorous plucking and frees the thumb for a more independent role and, incidentally, in a position more suited to addressing numerous additional bass courses which soon became increasingly common. The early instructions are also very clear: the little finger still rests on the belly but now much closer to the bridge, perhaps even touching it, and indeed could occasionally even be found behind. All this produces a much more focussed, brilliant sound and allows considerably more light and shade, dynamics, and the like.

This new hand position can be seen in numerous pictorial representations and is clearly described in texts from the late sixteenth century onwards. For example, the historic change is recommended and reported in the Varietie of Lute-lessons (London 1610) and directly reflects the developed practice of Dowland at this time:

     ‘First, set your little finger on the belly of the Lute, not towards the rose, but a little lower, stretch out your Thombe with all the force you can, especially if thy Thombe be short, so that the other fingers may be carried in a manner of a fist, and let the Thombe be held higher then them, this in the beginning will be hard. Yet they which have a short Thombe may imitate those which strike the strings with the Thombe under the other fingers, which though it be nothing so elegant, yet to them it will be more easie. ‘

But perhaps the best wider contemporary description is that given in Stobäus MS 23. This important source clearly records the momentous change in plucking technique (translated):

    ‘The right hand is to be held close to the bridge, and the little finger firmly placed there and held down. The thumb is to be stretched out strongly, so that it stands out almost as a limb, by one knuckle, to the other fingers. The fingers are to pluck cleanly inwards under the thumb, so that the sound resonates cleanly and strongly. The thumb is to be struck outwards, not inwards like the people in the past used to do……. For it has been shown that it is far better to strike the thumb outwards: it sounds purer, clearer, and brighter, the other way sounds very faulty and dull’.

This ‘thumb-out’ plucking position remained the general style for the remainder of the historical lute’s existence (as an organological aside, the ‘lute’ or ‘theorbo’ stop on the harpsichord mimics this more brilliant sound by placing its row of jacks closest to the bridge). However, it is precisely this clearly documented and historically preferred playing style which is effectively denied by many modern lutenists who now employ the anachronistic early ‘thumb-under’ technique for the entire lute repertoire and not just the earlier part for which it is, of course, often generally entirely appropriate.

Why does such anachronistic lute playing fakery persist?

As Eph Segerman perceptively and presciently remarked many years ago when modern ‘thumb-under’ started to be employed:  the general use of this technique, even by those who should have known better, was often a conscious attempt to distance themselves from the despised (and now embarrassing for them) modern ‘classical’ guitar which, ironically, many had started out playing. So then, even as now, many players, perhaps unwittingly, adopt this ‘inauthentic’ manner for the entirety of the lute repertoire – possibly also hoping that modern audiences will see that not only does the lute not look like a guitar, but that its right hand playing style is quite different too – and even, by some supposed implication, superior and more refined to that nowadays employed on its abhorred and less elevated relative.

The widespread adoption of this unhistoric technique misleadingly purports to suggest that the performer is playing their instrument with the same historical technique used by all early lutenists and so they are therefore reproducing the correct (‘authentic’) sound.  Alas – they are often not.  It is, in practice, a deception on the audience who attend such concerts (or listen to recordings) fully expecting to hear works performed in the same manner as of ‘olden times’.

This modern fakery may also be perpetuated by some players with a vested interest (they don’t have to become skilled in two very different techniques) and, of course, by the recording industry which allows modern sophisticated ‘sound engineering’ to turn anything into something considered more desirable – ‘don’t worry the bass is a bit weak, we can always boost it later’.  And not just by some professional players, but also by amateurs misleadingly instructed by some teachers that this fake practice is right (ie historically accurate) for the whole of the lute repertoire. And so we end up in the present bizarre situation where, for much of the repertoire, the correct historical playing technique is frequently ignored, and indeed even criticised, and an incorrect anachronistic uniform performance style is promoted.

What can be done? 

The first days of the modern post-war early music revival (say, from the 1960s) were frequently experimental, but also therefore exciting, and lively debates – sometimes heated (but in retrospect generally enjoyable) – could properly arise. However, there was also great effort to try and understand alternatives and properly explore them – much of this outlook has now, to a regrettable degree, disappeared from parts of the early music world, including from within the lute community. This modern reactionary conservatism, linked to a reluctance to properly consider the historic evidence but to rely instead on the current fashionable ‘group-thought’, is I suggest the core problem – especially for the lute.

So, how can we recapture the earlier exciting and highly desirable situation and also thereby attract young people to early music in large numbers as, for example, the lute once did? Perhaps a second early music revolution is now required, not only to address those many issues Jeremy identified but also those in the smaller, but still much loved, world of the lute.

In the UK the full restoration of music and instrumental tuition in schools would be a first good step and the government’s recent consultation on shaping a National Plan for Music Education might be an important avenue to influence this. Sadly, there seems to be little input expected, or indeed being offered, from the early/period music movement and no significant debate about it in any relevant journals. Surely we cannot, and should not afford to, miss this opportunity to shape the future of music education and so ensure that period performance, including that on the lute, is not relegated to some minority eccentric interest group as it once was? 

But, fundamentally, I suggest that a much more diverse and properly critical exploration of early music performance practices, based on the historical evidence, might engender some of the  excitement of earlier times – as well as having a real benefit for the lute of encouraging the appropriate playing techniques in performance.

Postscript – some other fakery in early music performance….

In addition to fakery in playing the lute and the examples Jeremy mentions, there are, of course, many more and in the FoMRHI paper I generally left it to others to comment on these. Nevertheless, I could not resist mentioning a couple of other modern early music practices which, in my view, are also highly debatable:

– the use of the falsetto male voice (ie using just the vocal chord edges) as an acceptable substitute for the early male soprano (ie mostly castrato) roles  (what’s wrong with a suitable stentorian woman with her full vocal chords?);

–  the ubiquitous involvement of modern sound recording engineers who often seem ignorant of how early voices and instruments actually sound in the flesh or, if they do know, prefer to suppress the knowledge and substitute their own preferred ‘balance’.

Martyn Hodgson, September 2020

Saturday morning quotes 8.3: Empathy

This brief post has a dual purpose: 1) to discuss the quality of empathy and why it is a trait that is essential for musicians, particularly in ensemble, and 2) to address the current state of the English language as a measure of the true decline of civilization.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empathy is defined as:

“The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

Or in the context of psychology:

“The quality or power of projecting one’s personality into or mentally identifying oneself with an object of contemplation, and so fully understanding or appreciating it. Now rare.”

Although “now rare” refers to the usage, we agree that the ability to fully understand and appreciate the object of contemplation is indeed now rare. In more practical terms, according to Psychology Today:

“Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character. Developing empathy is crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately. It involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial, or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced.”

For musicians, particularly musicians who concentrate on effective interpretation of historical music, empathy is an essential quality. First, one must develop empathy with the historical meaning and purpose of the music in order to comprehend, in a basic sense, just how the music works. Next, one must delve into the cultural context of the music in order to identify, absorb and translate the rhythmic shape of the music and, in the realm of vocal music, the meaning of the words. Thirdly, the interpreter must live with the music over a span of time long enough to actually perform the result of his or her understanding.

The next step applies to ensemble musicians. After having thoroughly embraced the music one is to perform, ensemble musicians must possess the quality of empathy in common with one another to project interpretive ideas that have been agreed upon and rehearsed to the point at which the performance presents to the receptive audience organically as easy and agreeable conversation.

According to Neuroscience News,

“Highly empathic people process familiar music with greater involvement of the brain’s social circuitry, such as the areas activated when feeling empathy for others. They also seem to experience a greater degree of pleasure in listening, as indicated by increased activation of the reward system.”

But here we must mention the difference in usage between “empathic” and “empathetic”. The journalist who penned the above quotation effectively “jargonized” a term in a manner that, while perhaps not exactly wrong, is not nice. The author meant to say “Highly empathetic people…”, which refers to the class of people possessing empathic traits. Or, if you will, a class of people displaying the hallmarks of an empathic condition. The condition is empathic, the people are empathetic.

If we give in to dehumanizing usage and the callous incorporation of jargon into the English language, we have entirely lost our footing and we are careening uncontrollably down the slippery slope upon which our civilization has been teetering for decades, and landing full stop mired in the muck of incomprehension. Now we have come to understand that “irregardless” has entered the lexicon, and we simply cannot stomach non-words shooting from the lips of political commentators who should know better, such as uttering “architected” to describe the act of design in the past tense. This is just too much.

Saturday morning quotes 8.2: Corrections

Since we have been preoccupied with rather time-consuming matters, we are taking the unusual step of re-posting an essay from 2012. This one was not part of our regular Saturday morning quote series and therefore quite likely missed by many of our regular readers.

The post is among several we have offered collating known facts and speculative details concerning the life and music of John Dowland. Since we have in recent memory published a new edition of Dowland’s Complete Ayres for Voice and Lute, and since we are just now engaged in recording more songs by Dowland and his contemporaries, we like to check in now and then to revisit questions of historical context, the answers to which help keep us on the straight and narrow. We will return soon with more music to share; meanwhile we direct our readers to an understated and direct performance of Dowland’s most emblematic song for voice and lute.

Original title – Dowland and Correctness

The recorded music industry has for years targeted as a market group those of us who are more than mildly interested in history, and who long to have a connection with a more ‘reality-based community’ than is possible in our current culture; a culture that is wholly based upon illusions conceived and communicated through technology.  They have appealed to our need for a sense of tradition.  They have encouraged us to think that there was an ‘authentic’ interpretation that rendered all others invalid, available only on a particular label and recorded by approved musical stars.  They have actively encouraged our tendency to collect objects that evoke a mythologized, sanitized and newly-fabricated tradition that really never existed as it is described in the adverts.

They have played us for saps.

One could argue that the invention of the printing press did the same thing.  Technology made possible the refinement, codification and dissemination of information and ideas.  The difference is that the creation of printed matter was something to which one committed his thought, time and attention.  A printed book was the result of intensive effort in writing, editing, and laying out for coherence of theme and enduring visual appeal.  The production, manufacture and distribution of a book required expert human activity.   Discovering a book required physical activity in visiting a bookshop or a library, taking the book from the shelf where it was displayed, hefting its weight, opening the cover and cracking open the newly-cut pages.  It required active participation to digest the information and even to store or display the book once it was read, hopefully to be re-read or referenced.

Today, real and substantial things to which we have assigned significance and value are crumbling and vanishing before our very eyes.  Electronic transmission and storage of music has served to undermine the attractive packaging and presentation of a recording project that may represent a lifetime of scholarship, artistic insight and the pursuit of technical skill.  Now music is sampled online by listeners who are overwhelmed by diversity and choice, and who are easily distracted by bright, bold colors and movement. The advertising industry tells us this.  They also tell us that music now must be given away if an artist hopes to attract attention to his or her catalog of expensively-produced recordings.  Glamorous videos must be made available, filmed according to the latest visual style and standard with top-quality resolution for sound and picture.

Those of us who actually care about history and tradition are well and truly assaulted with an  overload of sensory information, a multitude of choices, and packaging that adds a phony glamorous sheen to products that never seem to satisfy.  The instant we purchase the item, we are told that there is something more needed to make it better, more complete — or even barely functional.  In the end, electronic music files and pdf copies of important written matter simply get filed away on some storage device, out of sight and out of mind.

The point?  Those of us who care about ideas and artifacts of the past are constantly bombarded with commercialized reconstitutions of old things, packaged and promoted to convince us that we really need to see, hear and buy this fresh and novel approach.  In the end, it’s all just sales talk.

Take the music of John Dowland (1563 -1626).  Based on surviving written descriptions, Dowland was surely a fantastic performer on the lute and a highly-skilled composer for the instrument, both solo and in ensemble with voices and viols.  His reputation is backed up by the existence of a great deal of surviving music, both published and hand-written in manuscript sources.

But some 400 years after his time, how do we judge Dowland’s music today?  The four centuries that separate us from the currency of his music have placed between us the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, John Cage, Charles Ives and Harry Partch.  As a culture, we have ‘progressed’ in technology from travel by horse and cart to supersonic aircraft.  Music that was quiet, intimate, and only available live and in person can now be electronically amplified past the threshold of pain.  The magic achieved in live performance can now be electronically captured and played repeatedly to the point where it can become wretched and repulsive.  How can we possibly judge the quality of Dowland’s music with the enormous gap in time, space and culture that separates us?

We can’t. The best we can do is make an attempt to understand how the music was created and received in its original context, and appreciate the elements of the music that affect us today.

What does not seem appropriate is judging Dowland’s music for ‘correctness’ in retrospect and applying a misdirected standard based on music that came later, and the work of musicologists and historians who cannot help but insert examples and references to other ‘great’ composers by way of comparison.  This phenomenon, beginning as early as the 18th century bile of Charles Burney, taints our perception of the intrinsic value of old music by judging it against an inappropriate standard.

“After being at the pains of scoring several of Dowland’s compositions, I have been equally disappointed and astonished at his scanty abilities in counterpoint, and the great reputation he acquired with his contemporaries…”

“Besides want of melody and design, with the confusion and embarrassment of a Principiante in the disposition of the parts, there are frequently unwarrantable, and, to my ear, very offensive combinations in the harmony; such as a sharp third and flat sixth; and extreme flat fourth and sixth, etc…”

“As a composer, the public seem to have been right in withdrawing that favour from Dowland which had been granted on a bad basis; but with regard to his performance we have nothing to say: as at this distance of time there is no judgement what proportion it bore to others who were better treated.”

– Charles Burney, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, 1776

Then there is the question of whether surviving sources not written in Dowland’s hand or printed under his supervision actually represent what the composer had in mind.  This is a waste of time that is premised on the misdirected anachronistic idea that an URTEXT of the Master’s work survives bearing the stamp of his approval.  Most of Dowland’s music was in dance forms that were quite likely repeated and embellished ad lib in live performance, and all of his music was meant to be re-created in intimate spaces in performances that depended absolutely on the sound and resources of the lute.  That some of his lute music works on other instruments, or that his music composed for voices or instrumental ensemble works so well on its own merits, attests to the depth of of the composer’s artistic skill.  But there is no reason to wrench that music out of its time and context and compare it to what came later by composers who learned from Dowland’s example.

Of course mistakes in printing and hand-copying happened and lutenists have always made corrections on the fly, adding a bass note here or resolving a suspension there.  But the plain fact is that many musicians and listeners in Dowland’s time just did not care so much about what we have come to think of as ‘correct’ voice-leading and parallels that resulted from stringing.  Presumably, they did not have the benefit of attending lectures by our modern day continuo specialists who have since put things right.  Dowland stated plainly that lutenists should understand “Pricke-song”, and saw fit to mention that he preferred not to employ the more commonly used octave strings on his bass courses as “irregular to the rules of Musicke”.  But his very mention of this indicates the norm was acceptable to most ears.  Octave stringing on citterns, renaissance guitars and re-entrant tunings on theorbos and  baroque guitars create inversions that are quite irregular to the rules of music, but are an artifact of the stringing, the tuning and the times.

As for the question of correcting Dowland’s music and restoring it to what the composer himself would have expected, this really should go without saying.  Anyone with a good musical ear and training in historical music will spot and fix errors and omissions in the score, hopefully remaining true to the conventions of the period.  But musical notation in any form is merely a guide to performance, and if we all described in minute detail our process of interpretive performance, we would never hear the ample selection of his music now available in recorded form, which, we are told, is better than it sounds.

Saturday morning quotes 8.1: The future is now

No, it is not the end for us, but after twenty-five years or so, the lute discussion list that has been generously maintained by lutenist Wayne Cripps is shutting down. Wayne is retiring and will no longer have access to the servers that host the discussion list, housed at Dartmouth College. One cannot help but observe how this seemingly routine event really marks the end of an era, both for the lute revival and in respect to modern modes of communication. It also draws attention to how the Age of the Internet has transitioned from a period of mutual discovery, alternative community-building, and the sharing of resources, to the present model where a variety of “social media” platforms employ deceptive data-scraping methods against a coöperative and naïve public.

There is a great deal of reflection on the topic of the future of the lute. This sort of discussion is particularly characteristic of the self-referential Boomer generation, which tends to believe that every event that occurred over the past sixty years has to do with their cohort group. On the topic of the lute revival that gathered steam during the 1970s, while it was certainly a large component of the the early music revival generally, it was a phenomenon that was driven mainly by classical guitarists who had an affinity for the segment of repertory for their instrument that was drawn from historical lute music and adapted for guitar.

Classical guitarists are mainly interested in solo music that can be studied in isolation, and are known for their tendency to obsess on details of mechanical instrumental technique. This tendency was a hallmark of the lute revival because the better lutenists were all former classical guitarists. According to articles and correspondence one can peruse in the American lute society’s newsletter archive, at some point in the late 1960s a division occurred between guitarists who were happy to apply their hard-won technique to the lute, and lutenists who insisted that the lute could only be played properly by discovering and emulating historical right-hand techniques for the instrument. There was as a result an acrimonious division between those who insisted upon “thumb-under” technique and those who were fine with a more generic approach.

The problem was that “thumb-under” technique was only appropriate for a segment of early 16th-century repertory, a time during which iconography shows that many players were also depicted as using a “thumb-out” technique that was very similar to the right-hand technique of the modern guitarist. Driving the argument further into the realm of absurdity, lutenists began inappropriately applying “thumb-under” technique to later music for baroque lute and theorbo, the repertory of which clearly demanded “thumb-out” technique, a truism reinforced by iconography, historical narrative, and plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face good sense.

To a professional musician outsider who already played several different stringed instruments, this division and dissension was all just plain silliness. If one cares about the result, one adapts technique for the instrument and the context of the music. End of story.

The fact is, the very idea that the lute revival is over is a trait attributed to what is called the Baby Boomer generation, also known as just plain Boomers. To me, a boomer is an archaic term that describes a drifter who went from one railroad job to another, a term dating to frontier days when the itinerant or the desperate followed boom camps. This type of boomer is memorialized in an old song that formed the basis of my musical education:

Riley Puckett (1894 – 1946)

And while we have your attention on this matter, we can announce that our alter-ego, Eulalie, will be releasing (hopefully October 2020) our CD of what we call “Heart-Songs & Country Blues”, music from the turn of the last century. Here are two pre-release recordings to whet your appetite.

Old & in the way (1880), and Baptist Shout (banjo solo, 1927)

OK, back to Boomers. The reason Boomers are so self-referential is because they have been the target of mass-marketing their entire lives, and have been taught that fulfilling personal desires, mainly through products, is the one true goal in life. This is no accident.

In 1928, President Herbert Hoover reinforced this notion when he told a group of advertisers and public relations specialists:

“You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines. Machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

As far back as 100 years ago, the advertising industry industry kicked into overdrive planting the seeds of envy, evident in this quotation by Paul Mazur, a banker with the now defunct Lehman Brothers, who authored the standard textbook on retail business, Principles of Organization Applied to Modern Retailing, Harper, New York, 1927. In an earlier article, Mazur laid out the strategy:

“We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

– Paul M. Mazur, “The logic of department-store organization”, Harvard Business Review, April, 1925, pp. 287-296.

The end of the lute list does not have to mean the end of the lute revival. But it is very important to take stock of who lutenists are as a community and strive to keep alive the spirit of discovery so that it may be passed on to the next few generations. This will not happen through social media platforms, which are only data-scraping tools that are deliberately contrived to deceive participants into revealing more personal information than they should for the sole purpose of monetizing every scrap of data.

Our contribution to keeping the spirit of discovery alive is to share a track from an upcoming album (December 2020) of English lute songs, strangely enough titled Unquiet Thoughts. The track we are previewing today is “The Sypres curten of the night” by Thomas Campion.

Campion is best remembered for his Observations in the Art of English Poesie (1602), but he also published masque music, a treatise on counterpoint, and four books of ayres for voice and lute. “The Sypres curten of the night” is from A Booke of Ayres (1601), a collaborative publication that also includes twenty-one songs by the more facile composer for the lute, Philip Rosseter.

Cypress is an ancient Hebrew word that describes the evergreen conifer belonging to the genus Cupressus. Cypress trees are evergreen conifers that achieve a height of around 80 feet tall, and present in an upright conical shape. The cypress tree is an ancient symbol of mourning, with references dating to ancient Greek and Roman times, and in Christian symbolism, the cypress is thought to be the tree used for the crucifixion.

In Campion’s poetry, the cypress acts as a curtain that separates the worlds of the quick and the dead. Drapery is also found in Classical Greek art as a symbol for mourning. In a typical display of Elizabethan wit, Campion (or Rosseter) weaves a direct musical quotation of the cantus of Dowland’s song, “My thoughts are winged with hopes” (First Booke of Songs, 1597) into the treble of the lute accompaniment. The irony would not have passed unnoticed by Dowland himself.

Our version in this recording is transposed from a rather shrill f-minor down a third to facilitate communication of the poetry, a practice which more likely approximates the original sound when we consider that the pitch standard was generally lower in 1601, and that voices always transposed to fit the tuning of the particular lute at its relative pitch.

The Sypres curten may be previewed here.

There is a great deal of reflection on the topic of the future of the lute. We would like to promote a sense of community around the instrument that has more to do with inviting newcomers and less to do with judging how well everyone measures up to some modern invented standard. That requires a sense of loyalty to the community.

Today, like nearly every aspect of life, loyalty is largely defined in a corporate sense rather than the loyalty of one human being to another (think non-disclosure agreements). Since the erosion of the cohesive family unit, a process that has taken its toll over the past century, loyalty in close relationships has also suffered. Since the dawn of the corporate culture, we have been encouraged (deliberately) to pursue our own interests above all other things, and we have been collectively programmed to believe that objects for sale in the marketplace will fill the void created by disintegrating relationships (retail therapy).

We urge all those interested in the lute revival to resist participating in the data-scraping platforms, and find ways to carry forward the spirit of collegiality established and maintained so many years by Wayne Cripps. Thank you Wayne.

To this already over-long and rambling post, actually beginning our eighth full year of Saturday quotes, we will add one more item. This past week saw the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In memoriam, we share a recent piece by our friend composer David Lamb, performed even more recently by our friend cellist Malina Rauschenfels, who is also a budding lutenist.

Saturday morning quotes 7.52: Artist at work


Several years ago we spotted an advert in an old issue of Early Music that illustrated a young man making lutes in a workshop course that purported to teach the luthier’s craft.  Since we knew that luthier Stephen Barber had studied at the same workshop, we wrote to ask if perhaps it was he in the photo.  It turned out that it was someone else, and to prove the point, Stephen and Sandi sent the photo on this page, illustrating a very focused Stephen at work, skillfully coercing a collection of thin strips of exotic wood to conform to the shape of a lute, circa 1980.

Stephen and his equally skilled partner Sandi Harris have been constructing a variety of plucked-string instruments based on historical models for well over forty years.  The team gained a breadth of knowledge of lute-making by visiting museums throughout the UK and Europe and taking painstaking measurements of surviving historical lutes. Together they have crafted instruments for nearly all of the top professionals in the field, but they are also responsive to less exalted aficionados who appreciate the team’s characteristic combination of artistic quality, practical utility, and attention to detail.  Sandi and Stephen are responsible for crafting the beautiful bass lute that features prominently in many of our performances.

Bass lute modeled after Hans Frei, c. 1520, by Sandi Harris & Stephen Barber

Bass lute modeled after Hans Frei, c. 1520, by Sandi Harris & Stephen Barber

Separated by an ocean, we have kept in occasional touch over the past fifteen years, sometimes sharing lute stories, such as the time we were interviewed live on air by a classical radio announcer who was so taken by the beauty of the lute depicted above that he was rendered speechless in the middle of the interview.  We actually had to head off the dreaded radio studio dead-air time to remind him that we were there to play live for his audience. 

One of the stories Stephen shared was about the legendary folk guitarist John Renbourn (1944 – 2015), honoring his memory just after his untimely passing.  Stephen related an endearing post-concert story that offered a glimpse of Renbourn’s personal habits and musical proclivities.

“John drove us all home from the gig in his battered white Mercedes 190SL, a comedy drive across London, oblivious of speed limits and quite a few traffic lights . . . we weren’t sure if the groaning, rattling chassis was going to make it – the car, that is –  but John swore it would (and swore at it a few times too). The conversation during the drive centred on John’s desire to acquire an orpharion at some stage, he’d always wanted to get his hands on one, and having heard a recording of Paul O’Dette playing on a 7c orpharion we’d made him, said he really wanted to try one of these instruments, feeling he may well find affinity with its metal stringing and touch. Back at Dave’s flat, the Glenmorangie came out, and we staggered home at around 4am. John came to the workshop a few weeks later, and we talked long about orpharions and bandoras, we showed him various moulds and the research material we had, along with photos of examples we’d made over the years. Sadly, we never got to!”

– Stephen Barber, correspondence from 2015

For decades, Stephen and Sandi have dedicated their lives to building fine instruments that make it possible for many early music practitioners to share the ethereal sounds of ancient music with their audiences; sounds we think offer an essential respite from the mad technocratic bubble that is the world today.  Like us, Stephen and Sandi are artists who survive on their work, as opposed to many who practice their art only because they have other means.  Over the past several years Stephen and Sandi have encountered very difficult health circumstances that have resulted in serious impediments to their ability to carry on with work, a situation we can readily understand. 

Professional lutenist and generous soul Lynda Sayce has very kindly set up a campaign to assist Sandi and Stephen with the overwhelming task of finding an alternative wheelchair-accessible workshop and moving their many years’ accumulation of specialty tools and timbers to a new location, enabling Sandi to continue their work.

Please visit the campaign and also the video channel where you can see a descriptive video produced by Lynda that lays out the situation in detail.  Lynda has also begun posting a curated collection of videos offered by those of us who wish to honor Stephen and Sandi’s artistic contribution to our widely scattered international community of lute-fanciers and early music enthusiasts. The collection currently features a characteristically sublime performance by Nigel North and, as of now, duo Mignarda.  Our performances feature the beautiful bass lute crafted for us by Sandi and Stephen, depicted above. 



Saturday morning quotes 7.51: Julian Bream (1933 – 2020)


We see daily many lamentable indications that ours is a civilization in decline, with scant evidence of a basic standard of human decency in public and at large.  Standards of communication have disintegrated to the point that trivial tweets by twats are now the norm, and artistic standards are now measured by number of hits (frequently obtained through deceptive means) rather than quality of content.  If we care about standards at all, we must look to the past for benchmarks.  We must rediscover a time when there was a basic standard of decorum, when people (especially public figures) could speak in complete sentences (and were expected to speak the truth), and a time when artistic standards were measured by something more concrete and demonstrative than “likes” on social media.

The world lost a person who represented artistic integrity and a high artistic standard in music for plucked strings when the legendary Julian Bream passed away Friday August 14, 2020.  Mainly a concert guitarist with a background in jazz, Bream was an evangelist for the lute and its music, and he used the concert stage as a means of spreading the word to an audience who expected a high artistic standard and in return were treated to the rare sounds of ancient music performed with eloquence and virtuosity.

Like many other lutenists, my first experience with the sound of the lute was a recording by Julian Bream from the album depicted above, heard in the 1970s at the home of enlightened friends who were a few generations older.  My initial impression was that the music had dimension and vitality, and I began to probe into then scarce writings about the instrument and its music.  Having already written an homage to the man and his approach, we can do no better to pay our respects than re-post the text below, featuring excerpts from Bream’s 1960 interview with Ivor Mairants (1908 – 1998).

Julian Bream, posted November 28, 2015

Many of today’s lutenists first became aware of the instrument and its music via the playing of Julian Bream through his many recordings and concerts.  As the first 20th-century lutenist to perform to large audiences giving lute and guitar equal billing on the concert stage, he not only introduced many modern listeners to the instrument and its music but also set a very high standard for technique, style and interpretation.

A rather tasteless hallmark of the early music revival is the sometimes gratuitous and unspoken, sometimes outright obstreperous need to reject the pioneering work of those scholars and performers who early on took the trouble to research, interpret and share their discoveries.  This sad syndrome has its roots in the typical youthful rebellion against whatever came before, but is carried forward by the tide of academics or hotshot performers attempting to make a name for themselves by curling a lip at those who sport the old hat.

Those of us with a sense of perspective admire and revere the work of scholars and artists who managed to pry open the door and remove the first layers of dust obscuring our understanding of music from the distant past.  Throughout his illustrious career as a performer and recording artist, Julian Bream has never claimed that his technique of playing the lute was anything other than his personal approach and a way to draw the most music from a quiet and intimate instrument.  What could possibly be more authentic?

We offer insightful quotes drawn from Ivor Mairants‘ 1960 interview with Julian Bream, both legendary performers and exemplary musicians.

“I began with the guitar and after 8 years picked up the lute.  The reason is that first and foremost I was interested in the music of the lute and while you can play the music on guitar, you can’t play it exactly the same way.  The sound of the lute is more abstract for contrapuntal composition…It is lighter in texture.  It has less possibility of colour than the guitar but the lute has a more touching quality of sounds; a little more ethereal.  Whereas the guitar has more of the quality of sound of this world – you know what I mean?  Also, the abstract polyphony of the sixteenth century masters was built up by linear composition in which each part is as important as the other.”

When asked if the lute will become popular again:

“Well, given time there will be a renaissance in lute music, chiefly because more and more music is being delved into in museums and more is being published…There is a terrific revival in early music and I think in many ways the lute is the queen of instruments of old music and providing enough good musicians (I mean, not frustrated guitar players) get on the lute and really make beautiful sounds and play the music beautifully, otherwise there can’t be the same renaissance as there is on the guitar.”

When asked whether he thought of himself as a guitarist or a lutenist:

“What I am really interested in is not so much the instruments as what can be got out of them. And not only that, I think the power of plucked instruments in these days of noise and bustle very important and I think they have very unusual powers, providing that the right people are behind the ‘machine’ (i.e. behind the instrument), and I think they are very arresting instruments and very personal. They affect people when they listen to it – you know, very spontaneous. And that is what interests me with these instruments, too. The contact – the power of contacting people.”

When asked whether he thought a lute solo could create the same enthusiasm in an audience as a virtuoso violin concerto:

“Yes, I found that you can. I think it’s another approach. You bring the audience to you. The instrument is intimate. You don’t go out to them, you only give the feeling that you go out to them, but in actual fact through some cunning devices and some artifice and also by the very nature of the instrument it brings the back rows of the hall to the front.”

– Julian Bream from a 1960 interview with Ivor Mairants, My Fifty Fretting Years: A Personal History of The Twentieth Century Guitar Explosion, Ashley Mark Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1980. p. 279.

Julian Bream’s music can be found and enjoyed through his many recordings and videos but we offer links to a few of our favorites including an informal music session circa 1960, a performance with great violinist Stephane Grapelli, and performing on the lute for Igor Stravinsky.

We urge you to visit the original post and read the insightful comments from friends and colleagues, found at the bottom of the page.  We honor the memory of Julian Bream, a pioneering performer of the music we love.  Requiescat in pace.

Saturday morning quotes 7.50: 15th-century chansons

Medieval lute and singers2Today’s post revisits the performance of fifteenth-century chansons, a form particularly suited to Mignarda’s format of solo voice and lute.  As depicted above, chansons from the period were mainly composed in three parts; usually a shapely and melodic cantus line supported by a tuneful tenor line (often a cantus firmus), with the addition of a contratenor that interweaves among the two primary parts.  Most surviving examples assign text only to the cantus line, but occasionally the other lines bear a text as well.  Logic dictates that the untexted lines were likely rendered instrumentally, and we can be certain from many surviving paintings, tapestries and prose descriptions from the period that the lute frequently lute took one or more of the lines.

We have discussed in great length how the late 20th-century early music revival absconded with this beguiling and intimate music and imprinted a distinctly modern format that assigned all parts to voices, whether or not those parts were originally given a text in the manuscript sources.  This new format, labelled the “a cappella heresy” by Howard Mayer Brown, was advanced aggressively in the pages of the journal, Early Music, with the help of a very large marketing budget and with certain attitudinal reviewers who were on a mission to advance a potentially lucrative concept, not to mention academic research grants, recording contracts and steady work for a cadre of non-specialist singers.

“We wanted to influence the performers, the record-buying public and through them the record companies, and…we spared none of the instrument-based groups whose records came our way.  The tone may be scornful or patronisingly sorrowful, lofty or irritated, but the message was unmistakable: buy Gothic Voices, the Taverner Consort, the Hilliard Ensemble, and leave the rest.”

– Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, p. 138.

By way of example:

“The Medieval Ensemble of London perform all the pieces with great care and musicianship.  If anything, the singers are perhaps a little too mellifluous, owing more to the English cathedral tradition than seems appropriate for music from medieval Italy; yet when the music is so beautifully sung it is difficult to complain.”

“Another more serious problem concerns their use of instruments.  Like most early music groups the Medieval Ensemble is based on a nucleus of instrumental performers, and consequently it is not surprising that when performing songs they should wish to use instruments for at least the untexted lower parts.  Indeed, without further thought it would seem to be the obvious solution.  But as Christopher Page has pointed out, ‘it has yet to be demonstrated that instruments participated in the performance of any music during the Middle Ages other than dances and intabulations’.”

– Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, review of Matteo da Perugia: Secular works, Medieval Ensemble of London, Florilegium DSLO 577, Early Music, Vol. 9, No. 2, April 1981, pp. 271-272.

This questionable premise and contrived argument was disingenuous in the extreme.  For instance, we could say that, because there is no DNA evidence, nor indeed secure documentation confirming and verifying that J.S. Bach utilized footwear covering his pedal extremities, we are forced to assume that he played the organ barefoot, and was forced to retire when he developed heel spurs.  While the abstract argument may be defensible, it is obvious to the practitioner that this is an absurd premise. After a few decades of ripening and desiccation, the dust has finally settled on the “a cappella heresy”, and former exponents of all-vocal performances of medieval music, including Christopher Page, have come to terms with the historical and artistic problems inherent in their distinctly 20th-century approach.

“For myself, I can say it was so difficult to obtain good clean performances of Du Fay songs with voices only, to say nothing of tuning problems, that I turned with relief to harps, lutes and voices during some later recording sessions.  I can well understand why many have done so since, and I am sure they will continue to perform them that way.”

– Christopher Page, introductory remarks to Essays on Renaissance Music in Honour of David Fallows: Bon jour, bon mois et bonne estrenne, Edited by Fabrice Fitch and Jacobijn Kiel, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2011 (ppg. 7-8).

Finally, we can calmly review the objective historical evidence and, with no objective other than getting to the heart of the music, we can re-create convincing performances of the repertory.  The aforementioned Howard Mayer Brown, a specialist in 15th-century chansons and the role of the lute in this music, provided cogent and helpful guidance.

“Fifteenth-century composers apparently conceived their music without regard for certain important elements that have since become an integral part of the compositional process.  Thus, they left to the imagination of performers the tasks of fitting each syllable of poetry to the music, of adding accidentals, and of creating a specific sonority by selecting appropriate combinations of voice and instruments.”

“How the composer’s intentions were realized in actual sound would have depended on the intelligence and musicality of the performerson how well they understood the “meaning” of the musicto a much greater extent than today, and any one version of a piece would have varied according to the forces available and the acoustical environment in which the performance took place.”

“Our task, then, is not to discover how any one individual chanson was performed on a specific occasion.  Rather, we must attempt to uncover the basic principles and conventions that guided fifteenth-century performers themselves in making their choices.  We must, in other words, investigate the limits of freedom within which the earlier musicians operated.”

– Howard Mayer Brown, “Instruments and Voices in the Fifteenth-Century Chanson,” Current Thought in Musicology, Edited by John W. Grubbs, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1976, p. 90.

Mignarda has a particular affinity for music of the late 15th century, with its distillation of sensitive poetry, clever use of canon and imitation among the individual musical lines, and transparency of texture.  We have selected a compact Concert Set of favorites for our first official monthly program, which we intend to make available by subscription.  We previewed the concept a few weeks ago, and we are still working out the many kinks that are impediments to offering access by subscription.

We have discovered that each hosting platform has a way of insinuating itself between us and you, our readers, friends and colleagues, and we find the intrusion unacceptable.  We are fully aware of the value we offer through this blog, but we are accustomed to maintaining a direct link to our audience, particularly now when something that approximates human contact is so important.    For  now, we are making our Concert Sets available to all, but we ask that you please scroll to the top of the page and consider making a donation to help working musicians continue to offer solace in these difficult times.  Click here for this month’s Concert Set.

Mignarda Concert Sets: “Fortuna desperata”

Medieval lute and singers2

“Chansons, polyphonic settings of elegant but highly formalized and stereotyped French poems, constituted the principal sort of secular music in western Europe during the fifteenth century…Some of the later fifteenth-century composers began to control and manipulate their free-flowing melodic lines by means of a network of motives and by imitation among all the voices, but the basic stylistic conventions were not overthrown until the advent of the equal-voiced imitative chanson a 4 by Josquin Des Pres and his near contemporaries… ”

– Howard Mayer Brown, “Instruments and Voices in the Fifteenth-Century Chanson,” Current Thought in Musicology, Edited by John W. Grubbs, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1976, p. 89.

Music on our Concert Set is drawn from the later 15th century, a time when the conventions of formalized poetry were giving way to more accessible and expressive forms.  We include a few chansons that were very popular for their time, and we perform them with the directness we believe was intended.  The more interesting chansons of the 15th century are quiet and transparent, and richly complex in terms of the counterpoint, phrase structure and rhythmical organization, with strict canon among the parts the norm rather than an exception.  Except for the later chansons of Josquin, music is fitted to complex poetical forms of the time; the formes fixes such as the ballade, virelai, and the rondeau, all of which follow a highly formalized repeat structure.

Popular imagery typically associates medieval music with unicorns and dragons, knights and castles, ladies with scoliosis wearing pointy hats. Performances frequently include costumes, ethereal atmospheric effects, unusual-sounding wind instruments, drones, miniature lutes, and all this performed in highly-reverberant recording space. These received modes of performance are really a modern invention that has more to do with Hollywood than with hard fact. Fanciful imagery and detatched performances more appropriate to sacred music create a false impression of secular chansons, since surviving historical remarks describing performances always comment on the intensity of passionate delivery. The purpose of all the intricate compositional detail is to convey the highly-charged emotional content of the poetry, which is not possible with the dispassionate, detached, and affected performances.

Our interpretations are probably quite unusual in that we tend to involve ourselves in the music and poetry as though it were current; treating it as we think real performers would have done rather than as fragile objets d’art on display in a museum. Listening to a recording in the intimate comfort of home is probably appropriate for the music, and so you get to enjoy what is probably a more authentic experience of music from more than 500 years ago.  A unique feature of our program is that, with the exception of the lute solo from a German source, all of the chansons on the program were intabulated for lute by Francesco Spinacino and published in the very first book of printed instrumental music, Spinacino’s Intabolatura de lauto libro primo and Intabolatura de lauto libro secondo, 1507.

We are presenting this program free to all for the time being.  Please scroll to the top of this page and donate if you can.

Our program opens with “Fortuna desperata”, a musical setting of an Italian poem that was enormously popular during the last quarter of the 15th century, with no fewer than five cantus firmus Masses based upon the melody by the likes of Obrecht, Josquin, and possibly La Rue.  For our purposes, the text of “Fortuna desperata” is drawn from the manuscript London 16439 (circa 1470s), where it is labeled a canzonetta intonata antica, indicating the poem was intended for a musical setting. Our version is based on the earliest form, ms Paris 4379.

Fortuna desperata, by Antoine Busnoys? (c. 1430 – 1492)

Fortuna desperata
Iniquita et maledecta
Che di tal donna electa
La fama hai denigrata,
Fortuna desperata.

Sempre sia bestemmiata
La tua perfida fede,
Che in te non ha merzede

O morte dispietata
Inimica et crudele,
Che d’alto piu che stelle
L’hai cusi abasata,
Fortuna desperata.

Desperate fortune,
Unjust and cruel,
Who has blackened the good name
Of a woman beyond compare,
Desperate Fortune.

May your treacherous faith
Always be cursed,
For there is no mercy in you.

O pitiless death,
Hostile and cruel
That abased her
Who stood higher than the stars,
Desperate Fortune.

“Je ne fay plus, je ne dis ne escrips” is a starkly emotional chanson that is attributed to Antoine Busnoys in two of its eighteen sources, but Danish musicologist Peter Woetmann Christoffersen has more securely ascribed it to the little-known Gilles Mureau (c. 1450 – 1512).  The poem has a complex and appealing rhyme scheme and is in the form of a rondeau tercet layé with only five lines in its refrain.  According to Christophersen, “Mureau shows an ability to make the upper voice seemingly ‘float’ upon the web of the lower voices. ‘Je ne fais plus’ is a particularly successful example of this, and it may be one of the reasons for the song’s lasting popularity.” Mignarda’s performance is based upon an intabulation of the tenor and contratenor lines found in the late 15th-century Thibault manuscript in the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Res. Vmd MS 27, f. 54.

Je ne fay plus, by Gilles Mureau (c. 1450 – 1512)

Je ne fay plus,
Je ne dis, n’escrips,
En mains escrips
L’on trouvera me regrets et mes plains.

De larmes plains,
Le moins mal que je puis les des crips

Toute ma joye est de soupirs escrips,
En dueil et cris
Il est a naistre
A qui je m’en plains.

Je ne fay plus, etc…

Sil mes sens
Ont aucuns doulx motz rescriptz,
Ils sont parscriptz,
Je passe temps pars desers et mes plainss,

Et la me plains d’aulcunes
Gens plus traistres quant escris.

Je ne fay plus, etc…

I do no more,
I say no more, nor do I write
In many a writing
You will find my regrets and complaints.

Full of tears,
that is the least I can say about it.

All my joy is written in sighs,
in sorrow and weeping,
he has yet to be born,
he to whom I can complain.

I do no more, etc…

If my feelings
gave rise to any sweet words,
they are now no more.
I spend my time in regrets & complaints,

And I lament
For I am betrayed

I do no more, etc…

Our lute solo is an example of a written-down improvisation on the hexachord from the German Buxheimer Orgelbuch, a large collection of music in keyboard tablature that dates from between 1450 and 1470.  Some of the music in the collection is attributed to Conrad Paumann (c. 1410 – 1473), an organist and lutenist who is credited with the invention of tablature as a means of scoring polyphonic part-music that is otherwise only available in separate part-books.  Happily, Paumann’s keyboard music translates well to the lute, which is likely no accident.

Mi ut re ut – Venise (Buxheimer Orgelbuch)

“Mon mari m’a diffamée” is classified as a Pastourelle jolie:

“A pastourelle, in short, is a poem about social encounter and evasion.  It may rely on the coordination of a wide range of themes and devices, from narrative landscapes to amorous dialogues, drawn from courtly and popular lyrics.”

– Richard Freedman, “‘Pastourelle jolie’: The Chanson at the Court of Lorraine, c.1500,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 1991, Vol. 116, No. 2 (1991), pp. 162.


The music, very questionably attributed to Josquin, is rhythmically active and quite intricately contrapuntal, a fact that is disguised by the rustic (if anachronistic) theme of the poetry.  This chanson is an early example of the use of popular forms of poetry and music by the nobility, a fad that endured with the later French kings who enjoyed dressing as peasants and shepherds (without the poverty and privation), in a hidden corner of the palace at Versailles.  Mignarda’s performance accentuates the intended playful character of the piece.  Unique to our performance, additional verses were texted and added as found in the essential resource by Brian Jeffery, Chanson Verse of the Early Renaissance, London, 1971.

Mon mari ma diffamée, Anonymous/Francesco Spinacino (fl. 1507)

Mon mari m’a diffamée
Pour l’amour de mon amy,
Pour la longue demourée
Que j’ay faicte avecque luy.

En dépit de mon mary,
Qui me va toujours batant,
J’en feray pis que devant.

J’ay veu quant j’estoie couchée
Entre les bras de mon amy,
Je n’estoie pas si fachée
Comme je suis au jourd’huy.

En dépit de mon mary,
Qui me va toujours batant,
J’en feray pis que devant.

J’ay esté mainte nuytée
Courir avec mon amy,
Que l’on me cuydoit couchée
En mon lict avec mon mary.

En dépit de mon mary,
Qui me va toujours batant,
J’en feray pis que devant.

My husband has slandered me
Because of my love for another.
Because of the long time
I have spent with him.

To spite my husband,
Who is always beating me,
I shall do worse than before!

When I was sleeping
In the arms of my beloved
I was not as cross
As I am today.

To spite my husband.

Many nights,
I have been with my lover
When everyone thought I was sleeping
In bed with my husband.

To spite my husband.

We complete our Concert Set with a setting of “Adieu mes amours” by Josquin Des Pres.  Unlike his contemporaries, Josquin refrained from setting forms like the rondeau and, while adhering to the mathematical musical intricacy of the time, he indulged in expressive melodic lines and was at the vanguard of what became the Parisian chanson.  “Adieu mes amours” was intabulated for solo lute by Spinacino (1507), Gerle (1533), twice by Hans Newsidler (1536) and by Benedict Drusina (1556).  Mignarda’s performance borrows bits from these intabulations to reconstruct our evocative version for solo voice and lute.

Adieu mes amours, by Josquin? (c.1450-1521) /Francesco Spinacino (fl. 1507)

Adieu, mes amours, m’attend
Ma boursse ne’enffle ne n’entend,
Et brief, je suis en desarroy,
Jusquez a ce qu’il plaise au roy
Me faire avancer de content.

Farewell, my love, they are awaiting me.
My purse is not swelling or expanding
and, in short, I am in disarray,
until it pleases the king
to advance my dispute.

Bass lute modeled after Hans Frei, c. 1520, by Sandi Harris & Stephen Barber

Bass lute modeled after Hans Frei, c. 1520, by Sandi Harris & Stephen Barber

Fortuna desperata…

*We close with a special note.  With the exception of “Fortuna desperata” all of the music on this program was performed on a bass lute from the workshop of Sandi Harris and Stephen Barber, who are currently facing very difficult health issues.  Lynda Sayce is constructing a web campaign to help ease the financial burden borne by another couple who have dedicated their lives to enriching the world with their art.  We will be providing links when the campaign is up and running.

Saturday morning quotes 7.49: Conception

escher-artWhat we perceive through the senses affects how our mind conceives, or forms an understanding of the thing.  Perception involves becoming aware of a thing through the senses, but conception is the ability to organize information in the mind to arrive at a useful understanding.

As performers of early music, we are obliged to seek out, through written example, information that leads us to an understanding of how historical musicians approached their music, what practical purpose it may have served, what resources were available to them in performance.  Otherwise, modern practitioners are not only subject to the influences of the intervening years, but also subject to the sometimes questionable examples of other performers who have adapted and redirected ancient music to serve as nothing more than concert and recording repertory.

The most fundamental way musicians become familiar with early music involves gaining an understanding of ancient notation and learning to draw the music from the score.  But that is only the first step down the path of understanding the meaning of the music, for the score only contains enough information to convert symbols to sounds, and there the interpretive journey begins.

“…One’s perception of the composition is the source of one’s conception of its performance. And while the score remains one authoritative measure of the validity of all such conceptions, it can never have been so completely and perfectly notated as to permit only one re-creation as uniquely correct.”

– Edward T. Cone, “The Authority of Music Criticism” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Spring, 1981, Vol. 34, No. 1, p. 6.

Since so much historical music was functional in nature, we have to accept the premise that the composer lost all control the moment a printed score was available to others.  In essence, the composer sanctioned adaptations and alternatives, and accepted that there was not one true way to perform his or her music. But the further we are in time from the era of the music in question, the more difficult the task for today’s performer to understand the composer’s conception of the piece.

“Today more than ever [musicians] demand “authentic” performances of accurately reconstructed scores on instruments of the period. They pore over contemporaneous theoretical treatises to discover just what certain details of notation meant. They revive obsolete methods of articulation and phrasing. These activities may seem pointless to one who insists that the composer’s perception of his own work is no more valid than any other, that it possesses only historical interest. Pointless, that is, until he realizes that the aim of all this effort lies, or ought to lie, in a different direction: to present the work as nearly as possible, not as the composer perceived it, but as he conceived it. For it is his conception that constitutes his unique knowledge; whatever value his perceptions may have is connected with their usefulness in helping us to define that conception as accurately as possible.”

– Edward T. Cone, p. 12.

The training of today’s conservatory musician concentrates on technical brilliance and reliable sight-reading skills.  But skillful interpretations of early music demand so much more familiarity with particular period instruments and musical conventions.  Deep interpretations require still greater understanding of historical context.

“Here the role of the historical scholar is crucial.  Only through his help can critic and performer gain an understanding of the circumstances surrounding the composition of music of an earlier period, of the constraints accepted by its composers, of the range of possibilities open to them.  Without such understanding the interpreter’s knowledge of the composer’s language is bound to be incomplete, and his attempt to establish a standard consequently suspect.”

– Edward T. Cone, p. 13.

The extensive research and hard work of arriving at deep interpretations of early music still only takes us a few steps down the path of understanding.  Familiarity through repetition is the next step.

“Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing. Capra Press, Santa Barbara, CA, 1990.