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Saturday morning quotes 6.34: New Ears

eartrumpetHappy New Ears. Today’s post touches on a theme that is of crucial importance to those who are involved in early music, and discusses how aural skills are essential to intelligent musicianship.

From the beginning of my involvement with early music, I (RA) have been baffled by the the universal dependence upon reading scores in performance for even the simplest piece of music.  Having years of experience as a professional musician, I can say most emphatically that there is an entire world of truly amazing—and sometimes very complex—music happening that is created without the visual distraction of players chained to their music stands reading sheet music.  Reading notated music is an important skill that is sometimes necessary to access the information, but it is only the first step towards making real music.

In historical performance practice the score contains important interpretive information, but this information does not only reside in the score and must be internalized if a musician is serious about quality rather than quantity.  Reliance on sight-reading skills to access a large quantity of music ultimately detracts from the quality of the result.  In my experience, even the best sight-readers simply do not produce excellent results without diligent study and repeated rehearsals.  This unfortunate tendency to favor quantity over quality gives the overall impression of skimming over the top of the score instead of plumbing the depth of emotion inherent in the music.  And from an historical performance perspective, forsaking the depth of the music seriously undermines the composers intent.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.

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

“…It will not little help you to get it without booke : for whilst the minde is busie searching here and there for that which is written, the hand is more vnapt to performe the Note, and all the difficultie the Lvte hath, which for the most part is imputed to the fingers, should rather be attributed to the varietie of the Rules, which are in this respect to be obserued, all which doe rather depend vpon the minde, then on the hand.”

– (John) Dowland, “Necessarie Observations Belonging to the Lute, and Lvte-playing, by John Baptisto Besardo of Visonti”, Varietie of Lute-Lessons, 1610

Sight-reading engages a complex system of neural networks that involve all four cortical lobes of the brain to decipher written notation and process the dots into musical sounds. Sure, if you are only playing or singing a single line of music a prima vista there should be no real impediment to instant music-making.  But serious musicians—and musicologists—involve their concentration in the recognition of notes, vertical harmonies, horizontal contrapuntal devices, rhythms, phrases, and patterns, and then move on to technical realization and interpretive choices.  On a plucked-string instrument, there is also the distracting matter of playing the same note on different strings.  In a nutshell, serious musicians engage their ears.

Sight-reading is an important technical skill but serious concert soloists always memorize their repertory so they can engage their ears and concentrate on excellent performances.  Perhaps this is the line that separates the artist from the musical technician.  Julian Bream seems to have played his solo lute repertory from memory, which surely is a factor that contributes to the depth of his interpretations, which remain unmatched to this day.

Saturday morning quotes 6.33: 2016 Retrospective

new-year2Coinciding with the close of another calendar year, our Saturday post offers the opportunity to indulge in a bit of retrospection.

“…And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.”

– Shakespeare, The Tempest, II:i

2016 was an inauspicious year in many aspects, to say the least.  In addition to unfortunate global political upheaval and a challenging economic environment, we have all seen the passing of far too many family members, close friends, and cultural icons, leaving a hollow place in our personal lives and missing mileposts in our collective public consciousness.  But we fear that lest we manage the memory of departed friends and our inherited cultural heritage with care, it will simply go missing.

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

– Shakespeare, The Tempest, I:ii

The aforementioned political upheaval has perfumed the entire globe with a particularly unpleasant odor, spreading and leaving its stench on everything it touches. Once-trusted news sources now specialize in deliberately contrived “news” stories that blatantly advance an agenda to the detriment of truth and fact.  Unpleasantness in public discourse seems to have unfortunately become a new standard, at least among those who have always inclined toward displays of dyspepsia while safely perched behind their computer keyboards. As active professional performers of early music, we are guided by the cultural context and aesthetics of our chosen music, and we shall continue to uphold standards of public discourse as we share our unique perspective.

“I say there is no darkness but ignorance.”

– Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, IV:ii

Of course there are positives that emerged over the past year, and we are pleased to point out a few. Items of interest include new (to us) discoveries of stellar performers who put an unconventional spin on early music while managing to deliver committed and convincing performances.  These include Purcell’s “Music for a while” sung by Claron McFadden, a mesmerizing performance of “Dido’s Lament” by Jenny Evans, and of course the definitive performance of Handel’s “Zadok the Priest”, which never fails to satisfy and has the great distinction of having been viewed repeatedly in our household.  We look forward to exploring more exemplary work from these artists in the coming year.

There are several projects we would like to tackle in 2017 and beyond, including recording a new selection of French chansons and airs de cour; an oft-requested recording of more music by John Dowland; recording more late 15th-century rondeaux, more music by Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Francesco Spinacino; and (finally) a recording devoted to lute solos.  This being the last week of the calendar year, we want to remind our many friends and listeners that we accept contributions, both direct and tax-deductible. If you like our work, please visit the “Donate” button on the top of this page and consider making a contribution, no matter how small, and help us continue.

“And take thou this!’ O thoughts of men accursed!
Past and to come seems best; things present worst.
Shall we go draw our numbers and set on?
We are time’s subjects, and time bids be gone.”

– Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part II, I:iii

Saturday morning quotes 6.32: Puer natus est

piero-nativityThis Christmas Eve we offer a dual discussion: first a brief mention of a 15th-century painting of the Nativity, and secondly a synopsis of a miniature musical masterpiece by Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 – 1553).

The painting is a depiction of the Nativity by Piero della Francesca, painted circa 1475 and now in The National Gallery, London. Piero della Francesca (c. 1415 – 1492) was a true renaissance man – an artist, mathematician and prolific writer on the subjects of perspective and geometry in painting.  In De Prospectiva Pingendi, Piero outlines a number of perspective reduction problems, offering clear examples and solutions.

While most 21st-century types are capable of recognizing the obvious skill that went into a painting in the age of Leonardo da Vinci, it’s difficult to grasp the meticulously planned proportion and the layers of symbolism in a painting such as Piero’s Nativity.  An extremely enlightening discussion on mathematical principles and geometric proportion in Piero’s art by Paul Calter of Dartmouth College is quoted below:

Proportion and the Rule of Three:

One important subject was how to solve proportions, crucial to a merchant who had to deal with problems of pasturage, brokerage, discount, tare allowance, adulteration of commodities, barter, and currency exchange. Not only did every city have its own currency, but its own weights and measures!

The universal mathematical tool of literate commercial people in the Renaissance was the Rule of Three, also called the Golden Rule and the Merchant’s Key. In his Del abaco, Piero explains how to use the rule of three to solve a proportion:

“multiply the thing one wants to know about
by the thing that is dissimilar to it,
and divide by the remaining thing.
The result is dissimilar to the thing we want to know about.”

Example:  If seven bracci (1/3 person’s height or about 23″) of cloth are worth nine lire; how much will five bracci of cloth be worth?


The thing we want to know about is:        5 bracci of cloth.
The thing dissimilar to it is:                9 lire
The remaining thing is:                    7 bracci of cloth.
So: (5 bracci) x (9 lire) / (7 bracci) = 6 3/7 lire

The units are lire, because lire are dissimilar to bracci, the units in the thing we wanted to know about.

If the reader follows the link to Piero’s circa 1475 Nativity, close examination of the angelic lutes reveals a few interesting details.  First, the perspective is beautifully accurate right down to the angles of the interesting lute roses.  Next, a look at the angel’s right hand disposition reveals that the one on the left may or may not have been holding a plectrum, while the angel on the right is clearly playing polyphony with the fingertips of the right hand.  Unfortunately, much of the finer details – like the strings – are absent, likely due to an overzealous cleaning or “restoration”.

The Nativity motet Puer natus est nobis by Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 – 1553), found on our new recording Magnum Mysterium, represents a miniature masterpiece of textual and musical proportion and symbolism, with perhaps as much complexity and layers of meaning as a painting by Piero.  Morales highlights the number “3”, with the motet composed for three voices setting a text derived from three sources.  The text of the Gregorian chant is:puernatusestchant3

Puer natus est nobis
et filius datus est nobis:
cujus imperium super humerum ejus:
et vocabitur nomen ejus,
magni consilii Angelus.

A boy is born to us,
and a son is given:
whose government is upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called:
the Angel of great council.

The text is from Isaiah 9:6, and the chant is the Introit 7 Ad Tertiam Missam In Navitate Domini (the Introit for the 3rd Mass of Christmas Day), which may seem slightly familiar as the text to the well-known chorus “For unto us a child is born” to those stalwart fans of Handel’s Messiah.  But Morales adapted the text as follows:

Puer natus est nobis
et filius datus est nobis:
Gloria in excelsis Deo,
et in terra pax hominibus
bonæ voluntatis,
Verbum caro factum est,
et habitavit in nobis.

A boy is born to us,
and a son is given:
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace
to men of good will,
The Word was made flesh
and dwelt among us.

As we can see, Morales’ text departs from the text of the chant after the first two lines, adding the beginning of the greater doxology, or the beginning of the Gloria section of the Mass ordinary, derived from Luke 2:14.  Next, Morales added the text, “Verbum caro factum est”, from John 1:14.  In our recording, we preface Morales’ three-voice motet with the first two lines of the chant melody.  Since the instrumental part covers only two voices, the transcription is notated on a single treble-octave staff with upward stems indicating the alto and downward stems indicating the bass.  As a Christmas gift to our readers, we offer our transcription of Morales’ “Puer natus est nobis”, or a version with accompaniment in lute notation.

Happy Christmas from Mignarda.

More on Jonathan Bekoff


fiddler500pxHaving stumbled across a few old letters from old friend and amazing fiddler, Jonathan Bekoff (1959 – 2015), amusingly tucked away in old issues of the journal Early Music, I am prompted to add a few more reminiscences – and also make available more tracks from our tune session way back in 1983.

Although he was  a bit on the shy side and typically quiet until you got him started, Jon possessed a rascally sense of humor at times, and we seemed to bring out that playful kid-like sensibility in one another.  For instance, when I played a solo gig for the Corvallis Folklore Society’s “Best Cellar” coffeehouse: After a run through my repertory of esoteric songs and tunes on banjo and guitar, Jon joined me for a rousing rendition of “I’m S-A-V-E-D” from the Georgia Yellow Hammers, Jon fiddling and singing a falsetto harmony part  à La Gid Tanner.

Then there was the time we played for the Corvallis Halloween dance/Talent show.  We started off with a faithful facsimile of Hoyt Ming’s “Indian War Whoop” followed by the “Hawaiian War Chant” from Spike Jones, complete with spoken introduction, Spike’s unique glottal singing, and other miscellaneous pidgin-Hawaiian sounds.  I can’t imagine anyone else having the essential sense of humor, the commitment and the necessary chops to pull off any of that music with a straight face, but we managed it.

In the small world of the west coast fiddle community, Jon met Meghan who joined him down the road in Eugene, Oregon, and they seemed to be haloed by cartoon hearts and chirupping lovebirds.  But it was a sad occasion for me when they decided to move from Oregon to Vermont circa 1985.  Even back in those days, I was aware that such a special musical connection was a rare blessing that is seldom found again, no matter how flexible and pragmatic one may be as a musician.  We had one last music session before they left, madly ripping through his newly-discovered repertory of country ragtime tunes, which he knew I enjoyed tremendously.

Jon was a responsible correspondent and was very good at communicating via that now ancient mode of letter-writing.  We kept in touch through letters and visiting occasionally over the next several years.  I traveled to Vermont and Massachusetts for a few visits, one time meeting up at the Bread and Puppet Circus in Glover, Vermont.  That particular trip, we spent an entire week catching up on tunes but, amusingly, I don’t think we ever got out of the key of A.  On a visit to Greenfield after Jon bought his house there, we played tunes far too late into the night with Dedo Norris, who expertly managed to drop a flatpick mid-tune into the soundhole of her guitar three times in the span of a half-hour, causing minor stoppage while she fished out the offending plectrum.  I guess some people tire of playing one chord for such a long span of time and will do anything to break the monotony.

On yet another visit to Greenfield, Jon was delighted to finally introduce me to Rose.  The first order of business was a mad session of tunes and songs, Rose dutifully being the pro and stopping to take detailed notes and making a set list of all the tunes we played together just in case.  After briefly discussing our various experiences in remodeling houses, Rose revealed an excellent Tom-Sawyer technique and put me to work repairing loose ceiling plaster, fitting sticky doors, installing a screw post in the basement, and helping her haul bricks from a nearby building demolition site to lay a new patio.  I’ve since learned to not mention that I have those skills when in certain company.

But enough stories for now.  We’ve added to our Eulalie site volume two of Tunes from the Heart of the Valley, an intentional recording of a tune session from way back in 1983.  This set includes two fiddle solos by Jon and our unique made-up-on-the-spot medley of “Kitchen Boy” (a re-harmonized and re-imagined version of “Kitchen Girl”), with the finality of “Done Gone”.

Saturday morning quotes 6.31: Performing Dowland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Fellowes, p. 3

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

– Fellowes, p. 5

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

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

– Robert Spencer, p. 225

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

– Anthony Rooley, p. 225

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

– Anthony Rooley, p. 233

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

Saturday morning quotes 6.30: Intabulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


British Library Add. Ms. 29246, f. 32

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


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

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

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

King James Bible, 1611

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

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

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

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

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

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




Saturday morning quotes 6.29: Willaert

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

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


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

Returning to the subject of Willaert’s motets:

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

Michele Fromson, “Adrian Willaert”, Grove Music Online

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


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

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

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

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

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

10Willaert O magnum mysterium_Notes

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