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Saturday morning quotes 5.31: Authority and Autonomy

The question of autonomy versus authority has different connotations and sometimes very specific meanings in philosophy, law, the political realm, medicine, and religion.  Broadly speaking, authority is defined as the power to enforce laws and/or to determine a baseline of information or standards.  In a musicological context as relates to the sources of historical music, authoritative status is given to early printed sources of music, or given to very specific literal descriptions of a particular aspect of performance practice.  Autonomy is defined as the ability of an individual to make personal (and hopefully informed) choices.  To be autonomous, one chooses according to considerations, conditions and characteristics that are not imposed by external forces.  In the realm of historical music, autonomy can lead the informed musician toward potentially brilliant and stylish performances or, alternatively, can result in tasteless indulgences with no historical precedent.

Victor Coelho applied the concepts of authority and autonomy to sources and interpretive choices in a very stimulating article, “Authority, Autonomy, and Interpretation in Seventeenth-Century Italian Lute Music,” in Performance on Lute, Guitar, and Vihuela: Historical Practice and Modern Interpretation, ed. Victor Coelho, Cambridge Studies in Performance Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997: 108-41.  We urge you to find and read the entire collection of essays but this particular article is available as a PDF on the author’s website.

“A more promising approach to understanding the diversity of lute performance during the seicento is through consideration of the concepts of authority and autonomy, which, in my opinion, define the fundamental parameters of historical practice and modern interpretation within which all performance is created.”

“Authority refers primarily to the performer’s use of an established text—an Urtext as far as is possible—and secondarily to the choice of an appropriate instrument (as revealed by the music or by contemporary visual sources), and deference to an established tradition in matters regarding style.  The printed source, particularly if published during the composer’s lifetime, is the usual index of authority in performance, and we have generally accepted its role in revealing whether the composer ostensibly intended us to see (though it is not clear whether the composer performed it that way).  Not surprisingly, the Italian repertory played by modern lutenists on recordings and in concert has come from prints and, with few exceptions, their performances have digressed little from these scores; by and large, they have approached printed sources as if they were prescriptive and authoritative.”

“Autonomy, on the other hand, deals with the options that are (and were) available in varying the authoritative score.  It is what the player can do with the music within acceptable stylistic and historical boundaries. Autonomy is the province of manuscript sources, which, when they contain concordances to prints, show how different players imposed their personality, interpretive preferences, and technical abilities upon the music.  They display the artistic license of a performer, his autonomy in modifying and personalizing the authority of the text.”

– p. 110

Coelho’s article offers a great deal of insightful contextual discussion on 17th-century Italian lute music that touches on the different categories of performance choices as applied to repertory that was the domain of the professional virtuosi, for courtly entertainments, and domestic music played by and for amateurs.  At risk of trivializing the depth and breadth of this very useful article, we cut to the chase and highlight what we see as important conclusions.

“The performance practices of seventeenth-century Italian lutenists are founded not on a common aesthetic goal, but on highly individual traditions that reveal the subjective, autonomous, and interpretive abilities of players.  The elements and foundations of these practices are commensurate with the diversity of source-types, which are divided between pedagogical lute books for the student, lute and archlute anthologies containing a ‘classical’ repertory for the amateur, and professional books, usually for theorbo, that transmit the most progressive genres and styles of the early seventeenth century.”

“In all of these books, the invention and autonomy of the player takes precedence over the musical text: performance practice is inextricably linked to interpretation and the choices made by the performer.”

– p. 139


Saturday morning quotes 5.30: Tempo and pitch II

This is the second of two posts examining tempo and pitch in early music.  Naturally, we can only speculate as to the precise nature and relative importance of tempo and pitch in historical times.  But we can certainly point out how specialists and performers of what we call early music today have misconstrued scant available information on tempo and pitch to reinforce a thoroughly modern aesthetic. Also, where tempo and pitch were once based on functionality and a variety of local traditions, today’s practitioners have created a standardization that rivals the foolish consistency of the McDonald’s French Fry.  Having slowed the tempo in our last post, today we touch on pitch.

”He that toucheth pitch shall be defiled therewith…”

– Ecclesiasticus 13:1, King James Bible

Historical pitch is an admittedly sticky topic that demands a great deal of elbow grease in order to remove the congealed outer layers and get to the substratum. When we get to the heart of the matter, there are more questions than answers.  Why A?  Why 440 Hertz? Or why did 440 sag to 415 as the modern standard for performing baroque music?

Anyone who has attended an orchestral concert can recall that seemingly endless period of cacophony at the start as each player runs through their music to prepare for the tricky bits, ignoring the presence of other musicians and the audience.  Then, like a flock of errant yet baffled geese, they all suddenly get in line when the oboe decides its time to declare the meaning of A.  Why does the oboe get to be chief goose?  Simply because of its loud and piercing honk.

It turns out that much of what we know about historical pitch standards is based on surviving historical wind instruments (including organs) which, allowing for minor adjustments of length for fine-tuning, preserve the quality of noise the instrument was intended to make.  But the intent is not clear-cut since many high wind instruments were meant to transpose their notated parts as they appear in original scores.

“In the early 17th century instruments were classified into three categories: high, natural, and low (strumenti acuti, coristi, and gravi). Like the violin, the curved cornett was in the highest of the three. While the highest normal clef for singers was C1 (“soprano clef”), cornett parts were usually notated in “violin” or G2 clef. G2 was a chiavetta, or high clef. For singers, the use of chiavette normally implied downward transposition. But by the beginning of the 17th century the upper instrumental part in violin clef is sometimes marked come sta or ally aka to prevent transposition downward. Banchieri (1601) wrote that the violin clef was more common for instruments than voices because “che suonando cosi all’alta fanno più viva l’harmonia.” (when they are played thus at high pitch they make a more lively sound.)”

– Bruce Haynes, “Cornetts and Historical Pitch Standards” Historic Brass Society Journal
Volume 6 (1994), p. 89.

With the information above, we can judge that transposition from notated pitch was common, particularly downward transposition for singers.  This leads us to a discussion of the affliction known today as “perfect pitch”, also known as absolute pitch but more aptly called “inflexible pitch reference”.  Anyone who works with singers has encountered this unfortunate phenomenon, which is nothing less than an enormous obstruction when singing early music.

Those who possess an inflexible reference pitch are able to identify exact tones, but only to a pitch standard of our modern A=440.  For performing early music, a sense of relative pitch is necessary to understand how tones relate to one other.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that the inflexible reference pitch is adjustable through training.  A 2013 study at the University of Chicago reports that a group of listeners who claimed to have perfect pitch were subjected to a slowly modulated pitch during the course of listening to a longer piece of music.  By the end of the piece, most listeners agreed that the music was in tune even though it was not.

The late Bruce Haynes, quoted above, wrote the definitive reference on historical pitch standards in A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of “A”, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland and Oxford, 2002.  We learn that, in 1776, Sir John Hawkins first described that the tuning fork as a reference pitch was invented in 1711 by the trumpeter, John Shore.  We also learn that until recent times the reference pitch was C rather than A.

For modern reference pitch, the note A above middle C sung or played on an instrument is matched to a pure tone that vibrates at a frequency of 440 Hertz, or one cycle per second.  This standard was first proposed in 1838 but not established until the passage of 100 years in 1939 by the International Organization for Standardization.  Haynes points out that over the past 400 years, what we call “A” has ranged anywhere from 380 Hz to 500 Hz.  In Syntagma Musicum (1615 – 1619), Michael Praetorius described two dispositions for “A” with chorton at around 460 Hz and kammerton, or chamber pitch, at around 416 Hz.  Organs in Leipzig, Hamburg, and Weimar that were known to have been played by Bach varied in pitch up to A=480 Hz. Mozart’s “A” seems to have been 421 Hz.

While 440 as the modern reference pitch seems to be here to stay, there is a move afoot to switch to C=256 or A=432 Hz, which Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) identified as in synchronization with planetary motion and the movement of the sun (Ioannis Keppleri Harmonices mvndi libri v., 1619).  A=432 differs from A=440 by eight vibrations per second, which acts to remove a bit of tension from modern music.

Whatever pitch standard we choose, it is important to understand that history tells us it was flexible.  But one thing we know for certain is that a pitch standard of A=415 for baroque music is nothing more than a convenient compromise for keyboardists and is otherwise just plain silly.


Music and social commentary

OK.  The entire world has gone mad within recent memory but now  things have really gone a bit too far.

 A recent article that actually seems to be an advert in disguise describes a “performance artist” (who will remain unnamed here) with a new and improved approach to experiencing music.  The audience is ushered into a locker room where they unburden themselves of all tech gadgets.  They are then given noise-cancelling headphones that must be worn for 30 minutes to prepare the ears for a “mindful” listening experience while lounging in a semi-recumbent pose in a specially assigned seat.  Members of the audience are then subjected to the full cycle of Bach’s Goldberg Variations played on piano.  There is no mention of the ticket price.

We are certain many will travel to New York City and pay a hefty sum for this listening experience because it’s NEW and it’s ART.  Alternatively, we can guide you to certain neighborhoods where you need only stand around on a corner for a few minutes and you will be relieved of all your tech toys and wallet as well.  Or you can just read what we write here about “mindful” listening (for free) and come to one of our concerts (for a paltry sum) and experience quiet introspective music without the silly games.  And you can keep your tech toys as long as you turn them off for the duration.  Or you can stay at home and listen to Glenn Gould.


Saturday morning quotes 5.29: Tempo and pitch I

This post is the first of two articles dealing with the interdependent relationship between historical tempo and reference pitch.

Once upon a time, early music was distinguished by two factors: 1) instruments are tuned to A=415, and 2) it must be played as fast as possible. In fact the two phenomena are somewhat related. When strings are slackened a bit they do not project quite as well to the ears of those who were first trained on modern instruments, nor do they produce ringing, sustaining tones that we like to hear bouncing about a large and live acoustic. The apparent solution is to play faster in order to cover the endless lull between notes, and also to add excitement to a performance by pushing the tempo beyond the limits of historical accuracy, musical sense and good taste.

Reviewers and publicists advance the silliness by calling such performances “dazzling” and “stylish”, and performers were called geniuses for giving old music a “breath of fresh air”. It turns out that genius was sadly mistaken for mere speed, and the fresh air was nothing more than the backdraft caused by the rush of cascading notes as they fled in panicked terror from the twiddling fingers of our performers.

Listening to recordings dating as far back as the 1980s and up to today, we hear a disturbingly consistent pattern of entirely ahistorical interpretations of tempo, particularly among solo lutenists and also among baroque violin bands.  It’s well past time to insert a fermata and examine this nonsense.

There has been discussion of performance practice and historical tempos in the usual books and journals, and all roads invariably lead to measurement of tempo as it relates to the beat of the human heart and the physical dimension of dance music.  Interpretation of dance tempo seems to be the crutch upon which our speed demons lean.  But the depth of research is lame and it is painfully obvious that armchair theorists have no actual experience in playing for actual dances.

Having the distinction of initiating the first folk-revival dances to live music in the now burgeoning Portland, Oregon dance scene, I (RA) know whereof I speak.  There are physical aspects of dancing that determine logical dance tempos such as momentum and physical endurance.  And smell.  You just try to play fast for a large room of out-of-shape people and what you get is the awful stench of sweat that is the aroma of the gymnasium.  This is not necessarily what people want when they come to a dance hoping to go home with a dancer.  And we can be absolutely certain that this was the case in earlier times when costumes were heavy and ornate, and bathing was rare.

One of the most frequently referenced examples for establishing dance tempos is the Galliard, always considered a vigorous triple-time dance.  Using one or two historical descriptions, our speedy instrumentalists like to play them as fast as humanly possible.  But if we dig a little deeper we find that there was always a flexible approach to tempo.

“The galliard is so called because one must be gay and nimble to dance it, as, even when performed reasonably slowly, the movements are light-hearted.  And it needs must be slower for a man of large stature than for a small man, inasmuch as the tall one takes longer to execute his steps and in moving his feet forwards and backwards than the shorter one.”

“There are some persons so nimble in the air that they have invented numerous leaps, sometimes doubling or tripling them as a substitute for the five or eleven steps [of the galliard], and upon completing these leaps they have finished so neatly on the cadence as to gain the reputation of being very fine dancers.  But it has often come to pass that when performing these feats of agility they have fallen down, when laughter and jeers have ensued.”

– Thoinot Arbeau, Orchésographie [1589], English translation by Mary Stewart Evans, with Introduction and Notes by Julia Sutton, Dover Publications, New York, 1967, pg. 78, 119.

We have heard far too many renditions of galliards played at such ridiculously rapid tempos that the the elegance of the musical phrasing is completely forsaken, the net result being that the performer trips and falls over himself.  It’s nice to know that playing that fast is possible but some of us are really are more interested in music rather than in a freak show.

The meaning of historical tempos and their measurement is an inexact science from our modern point of view.  As early as the late 16th century, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) conducted experiments with a pendulum, demonstrating its dependability as a tool of measuring time.  Marin Mersenne also discussed the pendulum as a means of keeping time in the first book of his Harmonie Universelle (1636), and Thomas Mace offered detailed instructions on its use in Musick’s Monument (1676).  Much later, William Crotch established a table of time markings that converted readings taken from a pendulum to the more up-to-date metronome.  But despite the noble effort of standardizing tempo markings, Crotch had to admit that many of the dance-related tempo indications were no longer related to dance.

“I am perfectly aware, however, that this order may be disputed.  By some, adagio, lento, andante,  alia breve, and vivace are regarded rather as terms of expression and taste, than of time.”

– Dr. William Crotch, “Remarks on the Terms at Present Used in Music, for Regulating the Time”, Monthly Magazine, London, January, 1800.

The pulse of the human heart was always the reference point for establishing tempo and even today typical listeners prefer music that synchronizes with a regular heartbeat.  But like so many other aspects of modern scholarship, this fact must be discovered through modern scientific analysis that turns a blind eye to the historical accounts verifying the thesis.

We live in an age where even the most mundane and accepted truths are typically given a show-biz treatment and transmitted through glitzy news releases and slick promotional materials.  Add to the left side of the equation the perceived need for performers to gain attention for their expertise in a little-understood aspect of early music—such as tempo—and the result is a disturbing anachronism.  This approach taken in the world of early music robs the listener of the dignified, intellectual, reverential dimension one associates with the better sort of historical music, further cheapening the experience by treating informed listeners as though they were yet another class of naive consumers and the subjects of targeted marketing.  A word to the wise: People are catching on and they are not buying it.

Saturday morning quotes 5.28: Julian Bream

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.



Saturday morning quotes 5.27: Worlds apart

“…A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world.  His faculties refer to natures out of him and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg presuppose air.  He cannot live without a world.  Put Napoleon in an island prison, let his faculties find no men to act on, no Alps to climb, no stake to play for, and he would beat the air, and appear stupid.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works, volume II, p. 36.

We frequently refer to the “world” of early music to establish a frame of reference and  contextualize the words and music that comprise our life’s work. The world of early music can be imagined as a structure—a medieval castle oozing with historical meaning; thick stone walls hung with rich tapestries, upright suits of armor standing sentinel in passageways, high-ceilinged rooms leading to a maze of yet more rooms, furnishings that signify refinement, learning and noble status, all enclosed by a watery moat.

But the integrity of the castle is very likely suffering the ravages of time, the stone walls moist and furry with damp, the tapestries faded and mildewed, the suits of armor rusted, dented and pierced from battle, the passageways close, dim and uninviting, the cultural accoutrements—likely stolen in the first place—emblematic of life, rank and position wrested from the hands and houses of defeated unknown men and women, and the moat can easily serve its original function to keep out uninvited guests.

Depending upon one’s perspective, the world of early music can be a multidimensional place of study and reflection where we discover how sounds of the past can soothe the soul, inspire a higher level of creative artistry using historical instruments and techniques; a place where an inclusive and meaningful exchange of ideas concerning the past can tell us how to solve problems of the present.  Or the world of early music can be maddeningly insular, inbred, self-referential and populated by cloistered academics, amateur status seekers, musical technicians and trust-fund types, all marching to the shrill whistles of the workshop faculties astride their unicorns while traversing a yellow-brick road invented by public relations specialists.

It was ever thus.  Fortunately for us, the world of early music intersects neatly with the other musical worlds we visit from time to time.  But all things are connected, and the cross-fertilization that ensues when the world of early music collides with the world of church music, for example, produces a happy result in both realms.  Early music concerts frequently include a Mass setting or motets sung completely out of context, allowing the performers to indulge in cute programming tricks.  Singing for a Mass, however, requires listening, responding, and a real-world level of responsibility and pragmatism not found in the concert hall.  Likewise, folk performers are expected to interact directly with their audiences, not stare fixedly at a music stand save for the occasional sharp look when someone’s phone chirrups.

The point is music, and music is not just a metaphor but a connective tissue that binds together the various worlds. Whether it’s renaissance lute duets or 19th-century Italian mandolin duets, it’s music played by people for people and musical involvement is what makes the difference.

“Thus architecture is called “frozen music” by De Staël and GoetheVitruvius thought an architect should be a musician.  “A Gothic church,” said Coleridge, “is a petrified religion.”  Michael Angelo maintained, that , to an architect, a knowledge of anatomy is essential.  In Haydn’s oratorios, the notes present to the imagination not only motions but colors also; as the green grass.  The law of harmonic sounds reappears in the harmonic colors.  The granite is differenced in its laws only by the more or less heat from the river that wears it away.  The river, as it flows, resembles the air that flows over it; the air resembles the light which traverses it with more subtile currents; the light resembles the heat which rides with it through Space.  Each creature is only a modification of the other; the likeness in them is more than the difference, and their radical law is one and the same.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works, volume I, p. 45.


Saturday morning quotes 5.26: Folk music – Art music

As a duo, we benefit from a uniquely single-minded approach to early music that favors clear communication of text sung in a natural voice and a supple yet elegant command of rhythmic gesture.  While to some it may seem a happy coincidence or a serendipitous meeting of the minds, our approach is really the result of much discussion and endless hours of committed rehearsal time.  But our individual perspectives on early music were formed by treading very different musical paths, meeting at the intersection of folk music and art music.

When discussing the intersection of folk music and art music, composers Béla Bartók and Ralph Vaughan Williams merit mention.  Both were adept at arranging folk tunes they collected in the field into monumental forms or, in the case of Bartók, instruments of torture.  For our purposes, folk music is defined as traditional music that was mostly transmitted orally (or aurally), a means of assimilation that conveys a level of information that simply cannot be notated.

My (RA) serious (aural) connection with folk music really began when I bought the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music some twenty years after its 1952 release.  Harry Smith, compiler of the anthology, recognized the value of preserving a sampling of the vast number of records made from the 1920s onward, records that were routinely trashed when musical tastes changed.  The variety and intensity of the music Smith chose to anthologize was a revelation that consumed a good bit of my attention for the next several years.  But the way the music was organized and presented left an impression of its own with the three volumes of Smith’s Anthology divided into Ballads, Social Music, and Songs.  When we dip into our folk music persona, as we occasionally do, Harry Smith’s Anthology remains a useful source of repertory.

Through the work of Claude M.Simpson (The British Broadside Ballad and its Music. Rutgers University Press, 1966) and John M. Ward (“Apropos The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1967), we know that there was a significant cross-fertilization of ballads and early English lute songs.  Surviving 16th century printed and manuscript sources of poetry from the British Isles indicate a rather free approach to accompaniments, identifying optional tunes that were commonly known at the time; a process that goes hand in glove with the oral transmission of ballads with their freely adapted tunes.

Ballad tunes appear scattered throughout the Elizabethan/Jacobean lute manuscripts, many with pages filled with virtuoso variations, their presence only confirming the universal appeal of singable tunes as grist for the mill.  Lutenists like John Dowland and Daniel Bachelar bothered to write down variations on ballad tunes with the same care as their more serious fantasias and pavans.  I say if folk tunes were good enough for them, they are good enough for me.

We humbly quote ourselves from a post featuring singer/guitarist Martin Carthy:

“While we adhere to historical modes of performance that are more in line with today’s approach to early music, we also embrace the directness of performers of folk music.  Lute songs are much more relevant to audiences of the 21st century if they are given a more direct transmission rather than treating them like museum pieces on display and not to be touched.”

And for those of you who have made it this far, your reward is a lute-sighting from an article featuring an early 16th-century book on fashion accessories.


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