Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 4.39: Innovation

We frequently despair why it should be so that we live in an age when the major focus of artistic energy is devoted to re-creation of ideals of beauty in music and art from the past rather than creating new forms of representational beauty. This leads us to wonder what has become of 1) the concept of inspired innovation, and 2) thoughtful emulation of standards of beauty. It turns out that we are not alone. As early as 1932, clear minded individuals were expressing informed opinions:

Now I believe that the manifestations of modern music are not the normal signs of health but the pathological stigmata of disease. Its pains are not the pains of growth but the pangs of dissolution. It is for the most part, restless, fretful, where it is not grim and unfriendly. It makes but scant concession to those canons of beauty to which the ear has been accustomed by the older masters. Its purgation of the emotions is cruelly drastic and leaves us not so much cleansed as exhausted. Its tragedy is a mere expression of despair or degenerates into an obscene goat song. Its comedy is cynical, heartless and unforgiving. Its thought is in a prison from which it can in no wise come out because its wealth is insufficient for the provision of the uttermost farthing. Thin worm-like phrases, neither alive nor dead, wriggle their way through its symphonies and sonatas. For inspiration, we have exhalation, for invention innovation, for originality a routine unexpectedness so expected that it fails either to surprise or charm.

– E. W. Adams,”Modern Music: An Indictment,” Music & Letters, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1932), pp. 59-63.

So what defines worthwhile innovation in music and art, and exactly what presents itself as worthy of emulation?

“Innovation,” from the Latin innovare, innovatio, should signify renewal, rejuvenation from inside, rather than novelty, which is its modern meaning in both English and French…the word came into widespread use only in the 16th century and, until the 18th century, its connotations are almost uniformly unfavorable. In the vulgar tongues, as well as in medieval Latin, the word is used primarily in theology, and it means a departure from what by definition should not change-religious dogma. In many instances, innovation is practically synonymous with heresy.”

“During the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, as the passion for innovation intensified, the definition of it became more and more radical, less and less tolerant of tradition, i. e. of imitation. As it spread from painting to music and to literature the radical view of innovation triggered the successive upheavals that we call “modem art.” A complete break with the past is viewed as the sole achievement worthy of a “creator.”

“As early as the beginning of the 19th century, innovation became the god that we are still worshiping today…The new cult meant that a new scourge had descended upon the world-“stagnation.” Before the 18th century, “stagnation” was unknown; suddenly it spread its gloom far and wide. The more innovative the capitals of the modern spirit became, the more “stagnant” and “boring” the surrounding countryside appeared.”

“Real change can only take root when it springs from the type of coherence that tradition alone provides. Tradition can only be successfully challenged from the inside. The main prerequisite for real innovation is a minimal respect for the past, and a mastery of its achievements, i. e. mimesis. To expect novelty to cleanse itself of imitation is to expect a plant to grow with its roots up in the air. In the long run, the obligation always to rebel may be more destructive of novelty than the obligation never to rebel.”

– René Girard, “Innovation and Repetition,” SubStance, Vol. 19, No. 2/3, Issue 62/63: Special Issue: Thought and Novation (1990), University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 7-20.

And finally, we direct your attention to a worthwhile effort to draw attention to historical standards of beauty and describe why they should be studied and emulated. The first is a website hosted by an author whose life’s work is to “advocate a Renaissance humanist approach to art and architecture for the modern world. I believe this is not only possible, but essential to building a better, more beautiful world.”

The second is a weekly blog dedicated to the work of a sole artist of the 20th century who sensitively painted in a modern representational style and described in eloquent terms why he was moved to express his work as “the permanent symbols of eternity.”

Read, share and enjoy.

Saturday morning quotes 4.38: Truth or adverts?

MariaZartAfter last week’s frank revelations, which were either inspired by maximum physical discomfort or by a justifiable utter disgust over our culture’s epidemic of narcissism, we offer an antidote in the form of true and honest music to hear and appreciate.

Of course, the primary solution is to pack up all narcissists, politicos, franchise-oriented hype-merchants and PR types, and make them a generous offer to colonize the moon.  We are simply sick and tired of being deceived at every step by people we should be able to trust selling things that are not as described,

We are tired of concerts being characterized with a professionally compiled litany of buzz words that cannot possibly in all honesty deliver the goods.

“Each has his appointed day; short and irretrievable is the span of life for all; but to prolong fame by deeds—that is the task of virtue.”

Virgil, The Aeneid, Book X (Translation by Rob C. Wegman)

As our deed, we choose to offer an honest alternative in the form of a live recording for solo voice and lute of a simple devotional song published by Arnolt Schlick (c.1455–1521) in Tabulatur etlicher Lobgesang und lidlein (Mainz, 1512).  This book is mainly known as an early published source of organ music, with ten instrumental pieces devoted to keyboard with pedal.  But our interest lies in the devotional songs in vernacular German, specifically “Maria zart von edler art”. A keyboard variant of the piece also appears in the 1512 book, with elaborate right-hand melodic lines supported by organ tablature for one left hand and two left feet.  Though published later, this keyboard version and material from the Tyrolian devotional song were apparently concordant with the source for Jacob Obrecht’s (1458 – 1505) lavishly long setting, Missa Maria Zart.

Just to add a little spice to the discussion, controversy over competence mattered 500 years ago as well.  When Schlick published his book in 1512, it was in response to a hackneyed version of tablatures published in 1511 by Sebastian Virdung (c. 1435  1530), Virdung’s Musica getutscht und ausgezogen (Basel, 1511). While Virdung’s book was meant to have a slightly more comprehensive focus, Schlick did not hesitate to level bitter criticisms at the number of misprints and outright errors in the earlier book. Virdung, apparently less a musician than a wordy anthologist, advised how to intabulate music for lute while completely missing the concept that certain simultaneous combinations of notes on the same string were simply unplayable.  We’ll skip the 500-year old spilling of bile but add this quote on the subject from Hans H. Lenneberg, “The Critic Criticized: Sebastian Virdung and His Controversy with Arnold Schlick,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1957), pp. 1-6.

We have seen that Virdung was undoubtedly not a lutenist and probably not much of a keyboard performer. He may not even have had too much theoretical knowledge. It is an obvious conclusion that one should not read Musica getutscht without having a saltcellar handy.

Nevertheless, please enjoy our performance of “Maria zart”, and remember to support real early music as performed by dedicated artists who do not have a public relations consultant tossing about the latest buzz words. Just honest scholarship and dedicated artistry.


Saturday morning quotes 4.37: Narcissicm

“An all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy, usually beginning by early adulthood and present in various contexts.”

– Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-TR, describing the malignant narcissist

Writhing in pain and doggedly adhering to my regime of one-twelfth the prescribed dose of pain killers, our readers are treated to the unvarnished sentiments of the musician who just doesn’t get this “revenge of the nerds” scene that describes the (American) world of the lute.

Ever since I became involved in the (American) world of the the lute, I have been asking myself, “What’s with these people?”  Don’t get me wrong.  I have met a number of truly wonderful lutenists who show every sign of being actual normal professional musicians, willing to share instruments, tips and even gigs, and more than happy to actually play ensemble music.

But I soon discovered a number of Americans lutenists seemed to view other lutenists as a primary threat, and I have even been told in no uncertain terms, that “lutenists don’t share information about gigs with other lutenists.”  I discovered that, with a few notable exceptions, the organization of American lutenists was dominated by an aggregation of costumed role-playing narcissists whose behavior was astoundingly juvenile when they were gathered together in one place.  Seminars were little more than a fan club experience, rather than an educational opportunity, and ensemble playing was simply not in the picture.  I began to compare my previous musical experience in other musical styles with people who actually loved music and enjoyed playing together, with this new class of individual, leading me to a cursory understanding of the modern phenomenon of narcissism.

“Narcissism is compulsive self-infatuation, so a narcissist is someone who is, metaphorically, always looking at their own image in the mirror of their own mind.  And narcissism is a psychological disease which has become a cultural epidemic, especially with the emergence of postmodernism.”

“…I was never told that you’re part of a bigger context, a bigger process, that might need something from you…I was never told that maybe you have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate than you.”

“So narcissism is a culturally conditioned epidemic of literally pathological self-
concern…And so our own egos and the fears and desires of our own egos become the narrative of our relationship to life.  It makes us unknowingly inherently selfish because we’re always thinking about me and we’re always thinking about what’s going to be good for me and what am I going to get out of any particular situation…

“It’s important to understand this is not a personal problem of any particular individual.  It’s a cultural epidemic…So unless we’re very committed to transcending a compulsively narcissistic and self-centered relationship to experience itself, we probably won’t do it.”

Andrew Cohen

Since my initial experiences with American lutenists, I have over time seen a sincere and genuine growth in a sense of purpose, and an authentic maturity in leadership emerge, characteristics I applaud heartily. I would like to publicly thank this new order of leadership and wish them all the best in advancing the mission of the organization and the quality of its output.

But still, I wonder, how does one begin to steer these self-referential lute-playing fuddy-duddies toward actually making music together and dipping into the joy and musical freedom of mutual music-making?

This question brings to mind another major public figure who shares the name of the author, Andrew Cohen, quoted above.  This other Andrew Cohen (YJ), is a real musician who is not only the absolute opposite of the classic narcissist, but rather a heart-on-the-sleeve performer who has made it his life’s work to give his audience everything he has, and then some.  This other Andy Cohen, is a fabulous folk musician with whom I’ve had the great pleasure to play with on a number of occasions, most of them involving my coming away with brand new imprints of the grill of a SM58 decorating the top of my guitar.

An anecdote worth repeating involved a very near-death experience when Andy was driving on a winding lakeside road, enjoying a smoldering cigarette-like thing, when an rudely aggressive yellow-jacket decided to fly in the driver’s window and perch on the tip of his nose.  This was not the ideal time to be informed of Andy’s allergies and absolute horror of being stung.  His hands flew off the wheel, the smoldering ash fell into his lap, as did his hands, and my calmly grabbing the steering wheel and punting was the only reason we are all alive today to tell the story.

Please check out this video of Andy Cohen and mark in your mind how very different are the two worlds – that oh so precious and self-referential world of the lute, and the emotionally unambiguous world of real music that inspires one to shout “Amen, Brother.”  Let’s have a little more of this going on.


Saturday morning quotes 4.36: A rift in the lute

“It is the little rift within the lute,
That by and by will make the music mute,
And ever widening slowly silence all.

The little rift within the lover’s lute
Or little pitted speck in garnered fruit,
That rotting inward slowly moulders all.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892): Merlin and Vivien

We write today in unaccustomed silence–or at least lack of music–as one of us attempts to heal from ‘a little rift’ in his person, in the way of a surgical incision inflicted on his spine a few days ago.  Neurosurgery – and its recovery – is a delicate and painful business, not entirely unlike the business of peeling away the layers of nuance and meaning in some of our favorite music.  We ignore or gloss over the ‘pitted speck’ at our peril:  it will continue to fester or at least annoy, drawing our attention away from the business at hand, and eventually becoming impossible to conceal and even destroying our pleasure in the music.

We believe that part of the reason our music affects listeners as it does – aside from the undeniable fact that it is wonderful music, of course – is that our approach to interpretation involves a slow, patient, investigation into the unique characteristics of each piece, each composer, each era.  When asked, as we often are after a concert or lecture-recital, how we know how to apply appropriate ornamentation or ficta or pronunciation, we reply that our musical instincts are informed by our research.  We are, first and foremost, musicians who, like most music-lovers, respond to the music and the poetry on an emotional level.  The years of research into the theory, or the rhetorical style, or the poetical form; or the immersion into 16th century social and political contexts enhance our own appreciation and delight in the layers of meaning behind the beautiful sounds.

We are continually rewarded with little “aha!” moments:  recognizing an obscure allusion to some historical event or bit of poetry that would have been instantly felt by listeners when the music was new.   Likewise cutting out the ‘little pitted speck’ is always worth the trouble:  investigating an awkward line of poetry that just doesn’t seem to make sense can pay off when we are rewarded for taking the time to look something up in Cotgrave’s 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues rather than in Larousse’s latest and we uncover an unsuspected bit of wordplay lost on the most fluent 21st century linguists.

…And we are itching to get back to it!

Donna Stewart

Saturday morning quotes 4.35: Antiquarianism


Antiquary, A curious Critick in old Coins, Stones and Inscriptions, in Worm-eaten Records and ancient Manuscripts; also one that affects and blindly doats, on Relicks, Ruins, old Customs, Phrases and Fashions.

– B.E. Gent [gentleman], A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699)

In a sense, those of us who are seriously involved in performing early music are antiquarians, poring over worm-eaten scores—or modern facsimiles—and blindly doting on relics and fragments from which spring speculative theories pointing toward old ways of stringing, holding, and playing the lute.  Or inventing modern means to describe the old ways of singing domestic music; originally music meant to be heard in small rooms by persons with nice ears who dwelt in a sound world that existed prior to the age of the ubiquitous produced vocal sounds.  Or in the face of scant information, inventing what we think were the old ways.

[Antiquary:] a man strangely thrifty of Time past, and an enemy indeed to this maw, whence he fetches out many things when they are now all rotten and stinking. Hee is one that hath that unnaturall disease to bee enamour’d of old age and wrinckles, and loves all things (as Dutchmen doe Cheese) the better for being mouldy and worme-eaten.

– John Earle, Micro-Cosmographie: or A Peece of the World Discovered (1660)

William Mahrt, in his book, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy (Church Music Association of America, Richmond, 2012), uses the term antiquarianism to describe an approach to studying the evolution of the liturgy that presumes to have isolated the earliest and therefore purest form, and strives to embrace that form of the liturgy in a way that bypasses all that may have intervened along the way from then until now.

[Antiquarianism] sees the larger part of tradition as an undesirable development, and romantically points to sometime in the distant past when an ideal state had been reached; it proposes to junk late accretions, and restore primitive practices. Characteristically, its ideal time is a time very early in history for which there is little concrete information; what data there are allow for great freedom in restoring the ancient practice. When the origin of a rite is known, the rite is to be reduced to its original form, or excised.

– William Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, p. 6

For those of us immersed in discovering and reviving honest and convincing ways to interpret early music, Mahrt’s descriptive words hit rather close to home.  In fact, the antiquarian argument seems like a direct parallel to the musicological justifications used to advance what became known as the “a cappella heresy,” an approach to early music sparked mainly by modern commercial interests (CD sales, research grants, publications, concert series).  The approach presumed that most music prior to 1500 was performed with voices alone, despite the lack of explicit evidence.  With a modern vocal disposition.  And despite ample evidence to the contrary indicating that lutes and harps were frequent participants in music-making of all sorts.

The “a cappella heresy” has been effectively put to rest, and even Christopher Page now writes that it was impossible to attain the sounds of the past his modern mind was imagining.

“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).

The “a cappella heresy” now represents its own quaint bit of the history of how commercial interests defined performance of early music in the late 20th century.  Except here in the colonies among those who succumbed to the marketing blitz that characterized the new order of early music, from which we still occasionally hear anti-instrumental rumblings and grumblings.

Grumbletonians, Malecontents, out of Humour with the Government, for want of a Place, or having lost one.

– B.E. Gent, 1699

Historical music necessarily must  be viewed through a lens that cannot be wiped clean, and that acknowledges the the tint and taint of all that has occurred between then and now.  What truly matters today is having a convincing grasp of the emotional content and a willingness to embrace that content and make it live and breathe.

We leave you with another quotation appropriated from Mahrt’s discussion of historical precedents in the liturgy and applied to early music scholarship in general.

Certain elements of the present reform have been influenced by such antiquarianism. The result of this misuse of history has been to remove history from consideration, since those who were only a while ago calling for changes on the basis of “historical precedents” have succeeded in seriously breaking the tradition, and now feel free to discard the whole notion of historical precedent to create something relevant only to the present.  The “antiquarianism” of such a position is clearly a ruse.

– William Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, p. 6-7

Saturday morning quotes 4.34: A New Year’s Gift

Well, if I be served such another trick,
I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give
them to a dog for a new-year’s gift…

– Falstaff, Merry Wives of Windsor, III:v

We would like to propose a hearty toast to celebrate the backside of Anno Domini 2014, a year in which we seem to have been subjected to every trick in the book, and then some. One doesn’t like to complain, so instead we’ll write a bit about the tradition of the New Year’s Gift.

Our tradition of celebrating the new year as a logical change of calendar date is rather a newish trend.  Formerly, the new year followed the church calendar and was celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25th or Lady Day).  In Elizabethan times, the new year was an opportunity for the lesser sort of individual to offer gifts to the upper crust, in hopes of a kinder and more lenient overlord.  It was also an opportunity for courtiers to outdo one another in presenting lavish gifts to Bess Herself.  Instead of celebrating the new year as we do today, the calendar date of January 1st was just another of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

For our part, we are sick and tired of the old year and, to celebrate the hope of better times ahead, we offer our lute-playing friends two versions of a New Year’s Gift by Anthony Holborne.

Saturday morning quotes 4.33: Retrospective

As another year grinds to a halt, we stop to reflect on some of the more prominent themes that have emerged in our lives and throughout another year of (at least) weekly publication of this column.  Of course, the business of performing the more refined sort of early music for a 21st-century audience is the major topic, but we always probe beneath the surface for a better understanding of what we are up against—and why.

“We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards…”

– President Barack Obama

We were recently reminded of the above quotation from President Obama in the context of a vitally important op-ed piece by the New York Times editorial board, published Monday December 22, 2014.

As for the need to look backwards, we respectfully disagree with the President.

As participants in a deliberately simpler lifestyle and as polite and cultured individuals, looking backwards is our life’s work.  And looking backwards is an absolute necessity as we research, assimilate, and share with our friends and colleagues magnificent but forgotten gems of historical music.

Looking backwards offers many points of reference for the music itself, and also for its meaning, use and its context.  In our work, we encounter contextual evidence that reveals the significance of historical music as meaningful in many ways, and points to a slower-paced and more thoughtful existence—an existence that allowed time for individuals to stop, observe and contemplate their lives and their roles as members of a larger interdependent community.

Why is our culture so obsessed with looking forward?  We ask ourselves this question as we see important reminders of a cultured civilization fading from our collective memory.   Universal preoccupation with unreal images on tiny plastic screens is not necessarily an explanation, but is a telling symptom.  Attention spans are at an all-time low as people wander into traffic with eyes and thumbs on their phones, forsaking the real for the imaginary.   E.B. White warned us back in 1938, when television began redefining our lives—with the main focus on the commercial break:

“[Television]…will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote.  More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images—distant and concocted.”

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

We believe in living a life focused on the primary, and we believe that performing music that matters helps others by providing an enriching rather than a distracting experience.

“Musica est mentis medicina moestae [Music is medicine for a sad mind], a roaring-meg against melancholy, to rear and revive the languishing soul…”

– Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, p. 334)

We take great care to concentrate on the effect of our music, and Mignarda’s performances, live and on our recordings, never simply feature off-the-shelf repertory, but are the result of thorough research and careful preparation, paying particular attention to placing vocals in a range that communicates the text.  Sometimes this involves downward transposition, a refinement which, as revealed through reading the sources, is an absolutely accurate element of historical performance practice.

Regarding the appearance of high clefs in Monteverdi’s Magnificat a7 and the utterly normal convention of downward transposition, Andrew Parrott offered these summary remarks:

“The key to understanding all this is the recognition that the vocal ensemble implied by a work such as the 1610 Magnificat a7 has very little in common with the solo-and-choral set-up we may have come to expect.  Seven expert singers are called for, and no more. And of their four basic categories—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—none can safely be assumed to correlate directly with  those we currently cultivate.  In particular, the lower bass register was exploited more freely than is now common, and the soprano parts conventionally occupied a more middling range, with only rare excursions to the higher registers routinely demanded of today’s female sopranos and boy trebles.”

– Andrew Parrott, “High clefs and down-to-earth transpostion: a brief defence of Monteverdi,” Early Music, Oxford University Press, volume XL, number 1 (February 2012), p. 84.

Old music was always notated where it was most conveniently printed and was never intended to be performed in a range so high as to obscure the meaning of the words. It’s a plain fact that music communicates a text more effectively when voices are pitched where the ear is pleased to receive the sounds.  We take this historical convention of downward transposition seriously, and many of our performing scores are available though our series of Mignarda Editions.

And we acknowledge the close of 2014 and leave our readers with a snippet of poetry.

The New-year’s Gift

Let others look for pearl and gold,
Tissues, or tabbies manifold:
One only lock of that sweet hay
Whereon the blessed Baby lay,
Or one poor swaddling-clout, shall be
The richest New-year’s gift to me.

– Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 55 other followers