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Saturday morning quotes 7.23: Standards

Cheap suit

As we approach one full score years of the new millennium, it’s time to accept that it is no longer “new”, and that the the present time is upon us.  It doesn’t seem to matter that the mantle of the present fits like a cheap suit, the times and the standards have changed and we are compelled to accept the new normal no matter how offensive the style.

Artists and professional musicians have to accept that they are now merely content creators, and that the worth of said content is determined by its usefulness to G**gle or the unfortunately pervasive social media platforms, all of which take overt steps to restrict availability of your content unless 1) you pay them, or 2) they can make sufficient ad revenue from it.  And if this isn’t offensive enough, now it comes to light that G**gle considers all individuals as mere “transient carriers” of data, which they will admittedly shape and mold to best suit their own profit-driven objectives.

But we’re here to discuss other standards that have to do with the status of early music and the lute revival in particular.  In the many and various fields of historical research, it is normal for our understanding of the past to evolve as we gain new insights from the combined efforts of scholars who may approach a subject from different angles.  The trick is to maintain a dignified respect for the scholarly pioneers and their work as we add to our knowledge base and clarify sometimes mistaken assumptions.  To reinforce this point, we take the unusual step of self-quoting from a past post on this blog:

“Suffice it to say that Leech-Wilkinson presents a survey of the rediscovery of old music, beginning in the nineteenth century and highlighting the contributions of eminent historians and musicologists including Hugo Riemann, the Stainers, Johannes Wolf, Guido Adler and Arnold Schering. In addition to remarks on the fact that most of these pioneers were Germans, Leech-Wilkinson aptly points out that their overall approach to interpretation of medieval music reflected the conventions of their own time. However, it is less useful and ungenerous to point out the multitude of faulty premises in this early but important research.”

Like the lute performance revival, we see the field of lute scholarship transitioning from that of discovery, codification and transcription of sources, to a standard of calm, reasoned and mature evaluation of the work that has come down to us by more closely examining the context in which the music was originally created and performed. Just like our late 20th-century musicologists who plunged headlong into refining what was in many cases speculative work of earlier scholars, we are now at the point where we can step back from the analytical framework and evaluate the validity of many earlier assumptions and arrive at reasonable answers to questions of attribution.

The Lute Music of Francesco Canova da Milano, 1497-1543, edited by Arthur Ness and published in 1970 by Harvard University Press, remains the standard modern edition of Francesco’s lute music. The publication’s association with Harvard links this work directly to John Ward, probably the most important musicologist of the 20th century when it comes to music for the lute, and the work by Ness did indeed complete earlier research that was begun by Ward and his other students, drawing upon Ward’s large collection of microfilms of sources.

In his edition, Ness provided transcriptions of Francesco’s music into modern notation displayed in parallel with a modern depiction of the uncorrected original lute tablatures. Following the model of Otto Gombosi, Ness chose to organize the transcriptions according to musical phrasing rather than adhere to the sometimes nonsensical bar lines of the original tablatures. Playing from the transcriptions usually results in intelligent interpretations of Francesco’s delightful music, but there are many cases of added notes or rhythms that represent “completion” of the polyphonic ideal, and other “corrections” that are rather unidiomatic on the lute. Sadly, playing from the parallel uncorrected tablatures is not an option without extensive editing.

Ness provided a resource for a few generations of lutenists wishing to experience the sound world of Francesco da Milano, but the modern edition must not be considered a monument, rather a snapshot that represents our understanding of music by an historical figure, but collected and edited with an approach rooted in mid 20th century aesthetics. Today, we are well past the point of discovering sources of lute music, speculating as to what is what, and defending our assumptions in the court of public opinion—if today’s relatively small number of lutenists can be called public.  We are now at the point where we can and should get to the heart of the music itself and share with any listener possessing an attention span the depth and beauty of Francesco’s music for lute. To do this requires an understanding of the context of the original music with guidance by able editors who actually play the lute, and it’s high time we put aside defensive scholarly bluster supporting Francesco the ideal and learn more about Francesco the human being.

Fortunately, we have available the slightly more recent work of Victor Coelho, who melds an excellent standard of musicological scholarship with a virtuoso lute technique, resulting in truly useful insights into the music. Coelho builds on the work of earlier scholarship and provides a reality check that clarifies some assumptions as to attribution in his article, “The Reputation of Francesco da Milano (1497-1543) and the Ricercars in the Cavalcanti Lute Book”, Revue belge de Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, Vol. 50, 1996, pp. 49-72.  It is interesting to note that this article is 24 years old, yet Coelho’s cogent and altogether reasonable findings are little known and lesser understood by lutenists today.

There are several fantasias attributed to Francesco that appear in the Ness edition that do not bear the stamp of Francesco’s particular style.  Those of us who delve into the sources of lute music and actually touch the notes on the instrument with our fingertips form a relationship with a particular composer’s compositional language, and we begin to understand that, in the 16th century, attribution of a piece of music to a particular composer frequently meant, “in the style of” rather than actually by the particular composer. We distill Coelho’s article with a few brief quotes.

“… [A] close study of these fantasias reveals such stylistic incongruities with Francesco’s authenticated output that their attribution to the lutenist cannot be accepted without a legitimate challenge. Most of them are far too long and their dense textures are totally unlike Francesco’s printed work. The fantasias develop sequences to the point of tedium and cadential points are too infrequent; the idiomatic play, which is one of the most consistent and characteristic qualities of Francesco, is contorted, static, and awkward, and the development of subjects in most of the fantasias is perfunctory. Many fingerings (tablature, of course, shows hand position) have no precedent in Francesco’s authenticated work, and the large-scale repetition found in Fantasia 77 is a formal anomaly in Francesco’s fantasias.”

– Coelho, p. 51-52

“Several of the fantasias contain quotes of earlier pieces by Francesco, which suggests the presence of parody or pastiche technique. Finally, the strongly Florentine repertory contained in Cavalcanti betrays the influence of Vincenzo Galilei whose first printed lutebook of 1563 also contained six previously unknown fantasias attributed to Francesco da Milano, all of them unica.  It is surprising that no one has ever questioned why (or how) some twenty years after Francesco’s death, six new and unique fantasias appeared at the end of a book by Galilei, and almost thirty years later another eight fantasias, most of them also unique, appear in a Florentine manuscript, one with possible ties to Galilei.”

– Coelho, p. 52

In the 16th century, there was a lively tradition of quoting bits of familiar tunes by weaving a recognizable phrase into the polyphonic texture of a fantasia.  This tradition survives today in jazz improvisation, where players will toss a sometimes surprising quote into a solo, mainly for the amusement of fellow musicians.  But we know of this tradition through deliberate quotes of passages by a famous musician scribbled into manuscripts by anonymous composers, sometimes resulting in misattribution by later editors.  This is surely the case in the fantasia designated P74 in Diana Poulton’s edition of The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland, Faber Music, 1974 (British Library manuscript Add. 31392, f. 24), which quotes phrases by Dowland both familiar and less so.

“Lute music, more than any other musical repertory of the Renaissance, was subject to quite substantial textual variation, and there are many pieces even by composers like Francesco or Dowland for which there is no fixed version or Urtext at all. This is particularly true during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the printed tradition of lute music began to experience its decline, and the transmission of Francesco’s music was dependent on the often-unscrupulous manuscript tradition, the skill of copyists, who were often students, and their personal choices.”

– Coelho, p. 52

“The layers of interpolations that can be added to a single lute piece as it is disseminated by the manuscript tradition reveal a process that can be compared to the troping of chant: the spine of the original conception remains, along with its distant, perhaps even apocryphal authorship, but the interpolations reveal efforts of modernization, pedagogy, enshrinement, revival, imitation, a striving for generational relevance, and, consequently, the making of reputations.”

– Coelho, p. 53

The best way to become acquainted with a composer’s work is to play the music in an informed manner on the instrument for which it was intended.  Only then can we understand whether a particular piece bears traces of the composer’s musical personality.

“In overall form, Francesco’s ricercars usually can be divided into distinct sections, each characterized by a new rhythmic treatment of a subject, or by a new subject. The 1563 ricercars, on the other hand, are more continuous and ceaseless, the motion unmarked by regular cadential points of rest and sectional division, and without the internal coherence one finds with Francesco. Like Josquin, Francesco approaches cadences with a ‘drive’ of increased rhythmic activity or stretto, culminating in a cadence incorporating an ornamental turn, but neither the cadential drive nor the turn is present in the Galilei ricercars, with the exception of Fantasia 73.”

“The most compelling evidence that these works are, at best, misattributed by Galilei or pastiches, lies in the presence of different chunks taken from Francesco’s fantasias that are embedded in these works.”

– Coelho, p. 62

In a similar vein, we can examine an interesting case of conjectural conclusions in the article by André Nieuwlaat, “Da Milano or Dowland?”, Geluit Luthinerie no. 76 12/2018, p. 21. Nieuwlaat makes a giant leap from fantasias attributed to Francesco da Milano in an English source, to assigning authorship directly to Dowland. There is a great deal of intriguing speculation presented, but in the end there is no positive proof that leads us to conclude that Dowland decided to try his hand at emulating Francesco’s work. While Nieuwlaat recognizes the confusing practice of an attribution sometimes meaning “in the style of” rather than actually by the particular composer, in order for rather dramatic claims to be accepted we need to adhere to a higher standard of proof.



Saturday morning quotes 7.22: On behalf of the Muses

MusesCoverClick to hear or download an mp3 of this blog post read by Donna Stewart.

We are very pleased to announce the release of our 12th album, On behalf of the Muses, which is now available to stream and download from  your favorite music sites including Amazon, Bandcamp, CDBaby, iTunes, Spotify and Pandora.  For those stalwarts who prefer actual discs that one can hear, see and touch, we will be shipping CDs the first week of May 2019.

The album is a compilation of most-requested songs that range from DuFay’s mid-fifteenth century “Vergine bella, che di sol vestita” (canzone per Francesco Petrarca) to compositions dating from the past decade. The diverse collection includes a few very recent live recordings, debuts two of our original compositions for voice and lute, and includes our previously-unreleased very first recorded track.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may notice that we have featured some of the individual tracks on this album in past blog posts, but each track has been selected and remixed for inclusion on this new album in response to requests, and they do not otherwise appear on our eleven previous CDs.

Our album title, On behalf of the Muses, is drawn from an obscure reference in the typically obsequious dedication penned by John Bartlet in his A Booke of Ayres, 1606.  The Muses have been a part of our collective consciousness since before the time of Homer, in whose work the Muse is aptly invoked at the very opening of The Odyssey:

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns … driven time and again off course … Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, start from where you will—sing for our time too.”

– Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles

The Muses traditionally numbered three from their earliest recorded mention, but their number was cubed at some later point and a reference to the nine Muses appears in the 24th book of Homer’s Odyssey, although the prevailing opinion is that the last book was not Homer’s original and was added as an essential summation by a later poet.

Nevertheless, we as Mignarda identify strongly with the aforementioned twists and turns of life and with being driven off course time and again, and we offer this collection of songs On behalf of the Muses from our ample archive of rare recordings in the hopes it will assuage our listeners until we can embrace our next focused recorded program.  And we offer a synopsis of a few pieces on the album.

“Come away, come away death”, a song text from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, unfortunately did not manage to exit backstage draped in an historical musical setting, and a few modern composers have leapt at the opportunity to update Shakespeare’s antique text with a modern treatment.  Occurring in Act II, scene iv of the play, the song is sung by Feste the Clown at the request of the Duke, who asks for

“That old and antique song we heard last night;
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times.”

The Duke causes the music to be played by the ubiquitous but invisible musicians while Feste is located and dragged into the presence to sing “Come away, come away death”, the textless interlude an indication that the “antique” tune stands on its own merit without the Clown’s vocalization.  Recognizing the immense popularity of triple-time galliard tunes in Elizabethan times, we chose to set the text to the historical “Oxford’s Galliard” from the Folger lute manuscript, adding a singable melody line to carry the text but otherwise sticking to the original.  Based upon what we know of  the common historical performance of Tudor ballad tunes, our solution is at once entirely historically appropriate as well as pleasing to the ear.

“Love is not all” is a 21st-century composition for voice and lute by Ron Andrico, setting the (public domain) poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the first in a more expansive song cycle.  The setting is arranged in two compact sections; a wistfully reflective exposition followed by a triple-time shift near the middle that adds tension and a dose of uncertainty before the close. Vincent’s poetry adheres to traditional forms but sensitively reflects modern themes: The song and its style owes much to a similar mashup, primarily the music of John Dowland colliding with the mood of 1960s lounge music.

“No more shall meads be deck’d with flow’rs”, by Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666) is a setting of poetry by Thomas Carew. Lanier’s evocative ayre employs our favorite ground, the chaconne.  Our performance is consciously direct and engaged as befits the genre and the historical style, eschewing the typical modern detached “art song” approach, and with its wide range of high and low notes, we used Lanier’s ayre as a test for microphone placement on our very first recording session, and thus this performance marks Mignarda’s very first recording.

“Bist du bei mir” is a deservedly well-known aria found in the 1725 Anna Magdalena Bach notebook.   Formerly attributed to J. S. Bach, the popular air is now firmly assigned to Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, and is from his opera Diomedes, oder die triumphierende Unschuld, known to have been performed in Bayreuth on November 16, 1718.  While the music of the Bach household is several generations outside the bounds of our usual repertory, we have been asked to perform the aria on several occasions and we keep it handy as an encore piece when appropriate, as in the featured live performance.

As in Homer’s Odyssey, our collection of songs is offered on behalf of the Muses that the music may, in every good sense, go straight to the heart.

” the Old Man of the Sea’s daughters gathered round you—wailing, heartsick—dressed you in ambrosial, deathless robes and the Muses, nine in all, voice-to-voice in choirs, their vibrant music rising, raised your dirge. Not one soldier would you have seen dry-eyed, the Muses’ song so pierced us to the heart. “

– Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles



Saturday morning quotes 7.21: Musical Icons

josquin-des-pres-circa-1440-1521-engraved-from-a-work-in-st-gudule-cathedral-brusselsMusical icons, whether particular composers or their specific masterworks, enter into the public consciousness and gain iconic status for a variety of reasons.

In the realm of classical music, Beethoven’s enduring symphonies are considered iconic in view of the composer’s bold harmonic language and his strident use of dynamics. But iconic musical pieces eventually become the norm and even grow tiresome over time—like the effect of having a collection of “greatest hits” stored as data on a person’s device.  But with a better understanding of the context of the composer’s creation and the significance of his or her innovation, today’s listeners who devote a little time and attention may begin to see what was so novel and what made the work so enduring.

“If we’re talking about how music was never the same again after Beethoven, there’s a problem. Harmony has a dynamic function in Beethoven. But, in life, Beethoven’s harmonies have become habitual, accepted, robbed of their capacity to crash the threshold. Music we love listening to. Music we don’t necessarily hear. Classics for pleasure.”

– Philip Clark, “How Beethoven’s symphonies changed the world“, Gramophone, July 2014.

Today, the music of Josquin Des Prez (c.1450 – 1521) is considered representative of the late 15th- and early 16th centuries, and his particular skill and compositional innovations are taken somewhat for granted. But Josquin was the “Beethoven” of his time—not because his music grabbed the listener by the lapels and bludgeoned the ears with extrovert devices.  Josquin’s music stretched musical forms and devices in common use to their limits through his skillful use of canon, his sublime melodies, and his expressive harmonic language. Remarkably, Josquin accomplished all this with the greatest subtlety; an outward sense of dignified elegance that caresses the ear based upon an inward sense of expressive text-setting that moves the soul.

Narrowing our iconic musical landmarks to the Renaissance,  Josquin’s iconic setting of the Stabat Mater soars to the surface.  The Stabat Mater text depicts the sorrow of Mary at the foot of the cross, lamenting the death of her son, a gripping emotional scene that only a grieving mother could fully understand.  The Stabat Mater text is conventionally ascribed to Jacopone da Todi, (c. 1230 – 1306), but there is an earlier copy of the text preserved in a 13th-century gradual now in the Bologna Museo Civico Medievale. The text paraphrases passages in John 19:25, Luke 2:35, Zacharias 13:6, Second Corinthians 4:10, and Galatians 6:17.  Eliminated as a liturgical sequence after the Council(s) of Trent, the Stabat Mater was restored in 1727 by Pope Benedict XIII, and is proper for Feasts of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, which occur during Holy Week and also in September.

Josquin’s Stabat Mater dolorosa setting dates from circa 1480, and might possibly be the first polyphonic setting of the text.  But the pulse is gentle, the polyphony is subtle and the melodic contours are smooth, and effective interpretation demands that we discard the spiky, angular approach that is so prevalent in modern performances of 15th-century music.

The motet for five-voices employs as a cantus firmus the tenor of the chanson, Comme femme desconfortée, attributed to Gilles Binchois (c.1400 – 1460).

Comme femme desconfortée
sur toutes aultres esgarée,
qui n’ay jour de ma vie espoir
d’en estre en mon temps consolée,
maiz en nul mal plus agravée
desire la mort main et soir.

As a disconsolate woman,
Distraught more than all others,
I have no hope of consolation
for the rest of my life,
but evermore oppressed by misfortune
I long for death morning and night.

The quotation of a popular song as a cantus firmus was an innovation in 15th-century  polyphonic motets and Mass settings, including Josquin’s own Mass on the popular chanson D’ung aultre amer by Ockeghem.  But probing into the 15th-century context, David J. Rothenberg and others have identified a host of what were previously considered  popular secular chansons on themes of love and loss as having Marian connotations. This implicit integration of the sacred and secular is no surprise to scholars who embrace the larger context of 15th-century music with an open mind, and who do not blindly cleave to the modern secularization of historical music.

Josquin’s sublime setting of the Stabat Mater was quite popular well into the 16th century, with printed versions arranged for solo lute by the likes of Valentin Bakfark, Simon Gintzler and Francesco da Milano.  Our performance for solo voice and lute is edited from an historical version published by Pierre Phalese in 1552, with the addition of a bowed viol on the important tenor line.

An iconic piece, Josquin’s Stabat Mater is subjected to a variety of approaches, many of which appear to entirely disregard the deeply emotional text.  For instance, when Josquin’s music eases into triple time he was invoking the Trinity, not adding a bit of jollification.  Without apology, we feel strongly that our historical performance medium of solo voice, lute and viol conveys the text and the emotion of Josquin’s masterpiece to its best advantage.


Saturday morning quotes 7.20: What we know

William Morris AngelWe return after yet another brief hiatus to cap off the calendar year with a bit of commentary on the state of early music and what sort of changes we anticipate in the coming year.

In many ways 2018 was a year that deserves to be viewed retrospectively with a reproving look, and we draw ourselves up with frown and with furrowed brow to say that things of a public nature are simply not measuring up to the standard we should expect after centuries of an evolving civilization (allegedly).  One indicates disappointment.  One registers scorn.

How did we arrive at this distasteful point?  Was the train of progress deliberately derailed or surreptitiously switched to the wrong track?  Who is to blame for this mess?  The easy answer is to say we are all culpable for participating in an economic system that places profit over the public weal and makes no apology for employing blatant deception as standard operating procedure.  Or we are all to blame for allowing ourselves to be manipulated by social media monopolies that deliberately exploit the dopamine highs humans crave when someone encourages displays of inanity by clicking “like”.

But we as individuals are really not to blame, because we’re merely participating in the modern lifestyle and communicating using tools currently available.  And we are likewise only responding to the uniquely targeted information with which we are constantly bombarded; information meant to cause us to desire and consume material goods and distract us from important matters.  Like the lessons of history.  If we are culpable at all, our guilt lies in believing the message and allowing ourselves to be deceived.

There is hope, and we only need look back to a time when a cultural movement was spawned in reaction to an increasingly industrialized and impersonal world. The 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement began with the dramatic change when the rural market economy morphed to a heavily industrialized and urbanized environment in the span of a few decades.  William Morris (1834 – 1896), whose fanciful stained glass angel is depicted at the top of this page, was the most recognizable exponent and he devoted his life to cultivating an appreciation of handmade items in the rapidly industrialized 19th century.

The early music revival arose from the same sentiment as the Arts and Crafts movement, and there are definite links in crossover figures like folklorist Cecil Sharp (1859 – 1924), who became both a Socialist and a vegetarian after attending lectures by William Morris.  More to the point, Arnold Dolmetsch (1858 – 1940) produced in 1896 the first harpsichord made in England since the turn of the previous century, and the Green Harpsichord, with its design and ornamentation reflecting the Morris interpretation of the aesthetics of the past, was displayed at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society that same year.

“At a time when many in the musical establishment saw early music as little more than a curiosity, the enthusiastic support from Herbert Horne, William Morris, and others within the Arts and Crafts community did much to validate Dolmetsch’s efforts, not only by providing him with spaces to perform and exhibit, but also by promoting an aesthetic ideal that was particularly well-matched to his work.”

– Edmond Johnson, “Arnold Dolmetsch’s “Green Harpsichord” and the Musical Arts and Crafts”, Keyboard Perspectives: Yearbook of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, Vol X/2017, p. 145.

Dolmetsch found his way across the pond and worked for Boston keyboard manufacturer Chickering & Sons between 1905 and 1910, supervising construction of harpischords and clavichords to meet a growing American market for instruments of early music, a demand encouraged by US adherents to the Arts and Crafts movement.  In many ways, Arnold Dolmetsch left as much a direct and distinct mark on early music in the US as elsewhere, and it’s at this point we step back and view how the early music revival took on a unique character in America.

Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016) devoted a segment of his enormous output of essays to making particular study of historical aesthetics and their curious clash with modern culture.  Informed by his specialist knowledge of art and beauty in the Middle Ages and a keen eye for the absurdities of modern life, Eco offered a wry assessment of the American desire to recreate a past it never had through examples such as the (now defunct) Palace of Living Arts in Buena Park, Los Angeles, which produced wax replicas of iconic bits of historical European art, including fanciful extrapolations of paintings like Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa rendered in three dimensions.

“[The wax rendering of Michelangelo’s] David is a rough type with black curls, slingshot, and a green leaf against his pink belly.  The printed text informs us that the wax-work portrays the model as he must have been when Michelangelo copied him.  Not far off is the Venus de Milo, leaning on an Ionic column against the background of a wall with figures painted in red.  I say “leaning,” and in fact this polychrome unfortunate has arms.  The legend explains: “Venus de Milo brought to life as she was in the days when she posed for the unknown Greek sculptor, in approximately 200 B.C.”

Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, English translation by William Weaver, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1986, p. 20.

Eco encountered a particularly desperate sort of American excess born of a desire to create a past it never had displayed at San Simeon, the California castle of William Randolph Hearst (1863 – 1951), the newspaper magnate memorialized in Orson Welles’ film, Citizen Kane.

“…Hearst bought, in bits or whole, palaces, abbeys, and convents in Europe, had them dismantled brick by numbered brick, packaged and shipped across the ocean, to be reconstructed on the enchanted hill, in the midst of free-ranging wild animals.  Since he wanted not a museum but a Renaissance house, he complemented the original pieces with bold imitations, not bothering to distinguish the genuine from the copy.  An incontinent collectionism, the bad taste of the nouveau riche, and a thirst for prestige led him to bring the past down to the level of today’s life; but he conceived of today as worth living only if guaranteed to be “just like the past”.”

Umberto Eco, p. 22.

Although specifically referencing objects of visual art, Eco eloquently described precisely the sort of dynamic that drew American audiences to indulge in the revival of historical European music.  While the revival was certainly not exclusively an American phenomenon, it was subjected to a particularly American market analysis and given a particularly American treatment.  From the sparse ranks of early music performers a few stars were designated and promoted through the consensus of self-appointed academics, record labels, and reviewers, and a well-oiled Public Relations machine shifted into overdrive in the 1980s and remained in place until the overtaxed machinery began to fatigue and audiences grew weary of the hype.

There is a distinct difference between the revival of European historical music in Europe, where concert attendance by the public at large was cultivated long ago and maintains an unbroken link, and the American approach to historical music, which is in essence a revival of a past it never had.  In the attempt to add zest and “fire” to historical music, American ensembles are prone to forsake the grace and elegance of early music in favor of gimmicks like fast tempi and exaggerated dynamics.

But all is not sourness and ruin.  Many of us embrace the aesthetics of early music and integrate that historical grace and elegance into our personal approach.  The bad news is that the early music revival is over.  The good news is that some of us perform early music in an informed manner and as though it were as natural as any other music one would hear today.  We have from the beginning.  The good news is that the early music revival is over.

“The Early Music Revival is completed. Early Music is now an independent and major current with its own institutions, alongside Symphony, Chamber Music, Opera, and all we consider as part of Classical Music. The Revival is over.”

– Robert Commanday, “A Millennium in 50 Years: The Discovery of Early Music – A lecture by Robert Commanday.



Saturday morning quotes 7.19:What we want


Those of us who value and study history know that among the many appealing tidbits of our cultural past, there lay disturbing events and elements that describe the true but sometimes unpleasant nature of our species. Although we are told that history outlines a progressive evolution of homo sapiens, unfortunately, the same stories of amassing wealth and power and manipulation of the narrative seem to crop up again and again.  In fact, it has been clearly demonstrated that a greater portion of the brand of history taught in the US public school system consists of warm and fuzzy details cherry-picked and polished to conform to a particular point of view.

“Few people know that mammals evolved at the same time as dinosaurs, more than two hundred million years ago.  They did not arise later and drive dinosaurs to extinction by their superiority.  They lived, rather, for one hundred million years as small, rat-sized creatures in the interstices of an ecological world ruled by dinosaurs.  In no way did they challenge or displace dinosaurs.  Then, some sixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs were wiped out (along with many other forms of life) in one of the great episodes of mass extinction that have punctuated the history of life.  The small mammals survived and took over a world emptied of its former rulers.”

– Stephen Jay Gould (1941 – 2002), Professor of Geology and Biology, Harvard University

Some of those small mammals evolved over time and eventually a select dexterous few became players of plucked strings, as depicted in the 1517 illustration at the top of the page.  Interestingly, the noble simian lutenist appears to be playing complex overtones at the top of the instrument’s range, while the tangle-fingered button pusher seated at the keyboard drools and stares blankly at the putti occupying the space where a score ought to be.  Meanwhile, the glamorous spokesmodel lovingly indicates her preference for the diminutive lutenist with outstretched digit.

Actually, this interpretation is exactly the opposite of what publisher Andrea Antico (c. 1480 – 1538) was attempting to portray in Frottole intabulate da sonare organi Libro primo, Rome, 1517, a collection of popular vocal music arranged for keyboard with ornamented variations.  Antico wished to elevate the status of the keyboard to that of the much more popular position occupied by the lute and, in a pre-Darwinian age, he drives his point home by depicting the lutenist as a monkey.  Our point is that the message morphs somewhat depending upon who delivers it and how the information is contextualized, or spun.  This is the very foundation of what we call “sales talk”.

Despite plenty of examples from Plato, Buddhism, Islam and the New Testament, on the whole, humans haven’t really evolved to the point where an egalitarian concept of equality, peace, fairness and justice is the default position of human interaction.  Instead, nearly all systems of governance allow aggressive elements with bad intent to rise to positions of authority.

“Criminal cabals arise to prey upon the public goods produced by larger scale institutions. Elites take advantage of key locations in the fabric of society to extract disproportionate private rewards for their work.”

– Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson, “Culture and the evolution of human cooperation“, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, published 5 October 2009.

If we pause for a moment and reflect, love of money is in fact the root of all evil.  It is difficult to balance concepts of equality, peace, fairness and justice when the primary goal of economics is amassing wealth, and when economics rule the system of government.  It has been thus for the whole of the 20th century to the present time; at least since 1925 when Calvin Coolidge stated that “the chief business of the American people is business.” As usual, the story behind that quote is a bit more nuanced.

“There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences.”

“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.”

– President Calvin Coolidge, “The Press Under a Free Government”, an address to the Society of American Newspaper Editors, January 17, 1925, Washington, D.C.

In his address, Coolidge demonstrated a bit of moral grounding when he went on to state:

“Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence…But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, probably always will be, some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others.”

– President Calvin Coolidge

But that very same year, business was actively engaged in using propaganda to revise the notion of “quality of life” by planting the seeds of envy, evident in this quote by Paul Mazur, a banker with the now defunct Lehman Brothers, who authored the standard textbook on retail business, Principles of Organization Applied to Modern Retailing, Harper, New York, 1927.

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

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

A few years later, President Herbert Hoover reinforced this notion when he told a group of advertisers and public relations specialists:

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

– President Herbert Hoover, 1928

We don’t want our readers to be “constantly moving happiness machines”, just human beings exercising intelligent choices and spreading goodwill through music.  In that spirit, we are asking our readers to not participate in the spending frenzy happening this weekend, and we have chosen what we consider to be one of our best recorded efforts and made downloads available for whatever price you choose for Saturday and Sunday.



Saturday morning quotes 7.18: Last tear


We return with just a few final words supplementary to our seven-part series on John Dowland’s Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares, and we add a bit more commentary on the most substantial piece of evidence revealing a glimpse of the character of the man himself,  Dowland’s 1595 letter to Robert Cecil.

In a previous post, we mentioned Fretworks Editions’ 400th anniversary publication of Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares, edited by Lynda Sayce and David Pinto (2004).  A copy of this excellent edition was bequeathed to us by our much lamented correspondent, the late Edward Doughtie (1935 – 2014), author of the important critical compilation of texts from the golden age of English lute songs, Lyrics from English Airs, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1970.  Tucked in amongst the other arcana Ed kindly shared with us is an unassuming envelope containing a crystal clear photograph of Dowland’s 1595 letter, taken some 50 years ago.

As briefly as possible on this very busy Saturday, we share a few of David Pinto’s prefatory remarks from his modern edition of Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares, as well as images from the letter, posted below.

Flogging away at the theme of a distinctly modern reformist tendency toward the secularization of the past, we refer again to remarks made by the ensemble Phantasm’s director Lawrence Dreyfus in the notes to his recording:

“Dowland dedicated Lachrimae to Anne of Denmark – Queen of England and Scotland – whom he praises as an ideal amalgam of three pagan goddesses: Juno, Pallas Athena and Venus. Having invoked a female trinity, Dowland can scarcely have intended a reference to Christianity.”

The dedicatory remarks to which Dreyfus refers are from Dowland’s original 1604 publication, reproduced by David Pinto in his own introduction:

“Triply blest, with you as queen, the Scots-English-Irish: You [who are] sister and wife, also mother, of a king.  Jointly you hold three realms, three godheads in one: Juno in might, in thought Pallas, in form Venus.”

As Pinto elucidates, Dowland, in his 1604 dedication to Queen Anne, was addressing a fellow Catholic recusant:

“In 1598 [Dowland] accepted possibly easier-going medium-term service to a Lutheran, the Danish King Christian IV; but Lachrimæ, appearing soon after the death of Elizabeth I, betrays his longer-term ambition.  By no coincidence, its dedication was to a fellow-convert: Christian’s sister Anna, otherwise Anne of Denmark, the new queen consort in England.”

– Pinto, p. iv

The use of imagery from classical mythology was actually more than a mere fancy—Dowland had insider knowledge of courtly entertainments, and the Queen had quite recently played the part of Pallas Athena in a masque:

“The same ‘conceit’ was served to Anne by Emilia Lanier in Salve Deus Rex Iudæorum (dated 1611; issued late 1610), stanzas 2-3.  Hyperbole of this sort was her lot, so long as artists’ hopes lived that as  ‘Ori-Anna’ she would prove more bountiful than her predecessor ‘Oriana’.  Dowland’s compliment was still timely: a few months before publication, Anne enacted the part of Pallas in Samuel Daniel’s masque The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses, presented in the Great Hall at Hampton Court, 8th January 1604.  Lucy Harrington, Countess of Bedford, the dedicatee of Dowland’s Second Booke (1600), the queen’s great favourite on her first coming into England, was its rectrix chori.”

– Pinto, p. ix

As for the religious nature of Dowland’s sequence of seven pavans from Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares, Pinto observes:

“The traditional fourfold ‘passions’ were grief, fear, hope and joy.  Any irregular, baroque sevenfold extrapolation on that basis must be Dowland’s own.  The only concerns that can have shaped it were personal: his, or those of his dedicatee, Queen Anne.  The only valid means to convey either of those publicly (if by preference we restrict evidence to the verifiable) was in religion.  Queen and subject alike encountered opposition to their faith in England.  Anne’s recusancy, public[ly] report[ed] in London after her coronation, possibly emboldened Dowland to seek access to her in 1603.  In his resulting musical offering, the dedicatory preface and musical layout show that the cycle of Tears was that part addressed to her personally: his audience with her confirms its aptness.”

– Pinto, p. ix

On to Dowland’s letter to Cecil, Pinto astutely observes that, while Dowland showed every outward sign of remorse for having fallen in with enemies of Queen Elizabeth, he did not in fact deny his religion.

“Admissions that he made in 1595 from Germany, writing back with reckless frankness to the guarantor of his travel, Robert Cecil (later 1st Earl of Salisbury), also deserve scrutiny.  To Cecil, the greatest enemy of a new catholic missionary zeal that England held, he was prepared or even obliged to concede himself a thing illegal there: a youthful convert to Rome of fifteen years standing, held unemployable by his own queen by being — in his own words — ‘a catholic at home’ whom she had tartly declared ‘a man to serve any prince in the world, but I was an obstinate papist’. He promised Cecil conformity to English law and severance from the sect of the Jesuits (or any exiled faction that plotted regime-change in England), but significantly did not otherwise renounce his recusant status.  There is every sign that he still looked for sympathetic or co-religionist English patrons.  Certainly, he panicked while in Italy (on the unlicensed excursion that was bound to alienate Cecil), and forewent chances of a position in Rome as the implications of exile sunk in.”

– Pinto, p. iv

For much more contextual detail and astute critical commentary on Dowland’s letter, we refer our readers to  John Dowland, Letter to Robert Cecil (1595), A critical hypertext edition by David Pinto, The Philological Museum.  We leave you today with a reproduction of Edward Doughtie’s photo of the letter, written in Dowland’s own hand.




Saturday morning quotes 7.17: XV

OvidQuindecim annos on October 25th 2003, Duo Mignarda performed their first concert at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Cleveland, Ohio.  The program was based around music from the court of the last of the Valois monarchs, Henri III, featuring the music of Polish lutenist Jakob Reys (Jacques Polonois), and French airs from the same period by Pierre Guédron, Antoine Boësset, and Jean Baptiste Besard—the anthologizing physician best known today for his enormous output of error-ridden music for lute solo, ensemble, and lute and voice.

The concert was originally meant to feature a program of lute duets with a concentration on music from Poland, but half of the duet got cold feet at the last minute and I was forced to punt, thus began Donna’s career as a vocal soloist. From that first concert, we realized that our symbiotic approach to music was something rare—the chance of two performers specializing in a niche repertory to find such an empathetic connection is one in a million. From that moment, we decided the responsible thing to do was to continue our exploration of early music and to dedicate our lives to sharing the magic of this vast treasure trove of forgotten historical songs with listeners sorely in need of a dose of quiet elegance.

Since that time, we have produced eleven CDs and have published a dozen music editions and countless articles and reviews. We have traveled tens of thousands of miles to share this music with audiences across the U.S. through concerts, lecture/recitals, workshops and master classes. We have performed in radio and television studios, on YouTube, and in recital halls, art galleries, libraries, mansions, museums, school rooms, conference rooms, and living rooms. We have taught and coached young musicians at all levels, ranging from rural elementary schools in upstate NY to graduate seminars at Cornell University, and have offered our sacred music programs in tiny country churches and in majestic Basilicas. We have shared our discoveries with attendees at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the National Music Museum in South Dakota, and the International Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Binghamton, NY.

Through it all, we have made it a particular point to perform for diverse audiences with no previous exposure to early music, performing in places like the Center for the Arts at Homer, NY, which usually features acts like Janis Ian or more current pop music. 21st century technology has made it possible for us to reach listeners across the globe: every week, we hear from listeners from the UK, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Japan, South American countries and even the U.S. Donna’s video recording of Tantum Ergo Sacramentum topped a million views this year, and continues to accrue thousands of hits every week.

We have truly built our audiences one person at a time, and we are humbled by the number of comments we receive from listeners that describe how our music touches their hearts and souls.  We quote just a few of our favorites:

“Wow. Many thanks for the lovely performance and the video–very appropriate and atmospheric. And thank David Hill for flattering an old amateur. A music video! We’re Rock Gods! I’ll have to spread this around.”
Edward Doughtie

“Une superbe interprétation et quelle voix !!!!! Vous jouez superbement bien du luth et cette musique nous emporte dans un voyage extroardinaire ! Vraiment je vous dis bravo!”
– Enola Babin

“I really have to say [Sfumato] is stunning . The Interplay of the lute and voice was wonderful and the singing was timeless in its beauty. Why aren’t you famous yet?”
Mel Wong

“Your concert was revelatory in several ways, especially as it challenged our ears and hearts to enter a realm difficult to access these days, where subtlety and elegance trump flash and flamboyance, and content, rather than effect, is primary.”
– Rev. Cullie Mowers

“Congratulations on a really exquisite rendering of your selection from ‘Pilgrimes Solace‘! The lovely open quality of Donna’s voice I find really endearing, and so suitable for giving us the ‘inner passion’ of these marvellous texts. I would love a copy of the CD, if you can manage that..”
Anthony Rooley

“Thanks for your way to make music: it’s full of good taste, that is something rare in this strange world of the “early music”.  And thanks to the singer, for her beautiful voice and elegance.”
Marco Beasley

“I always enjoy reading your Saturday Quotes and I believe that you and Donna form the pre-eminent lute song duo of our time. Please keep up the good work!”
– William Samson

With fifteen years’ worth of music, memories and friendships cultivated one at a time, we could spend hours and yards of column space reminiscing about the good times and the bumps in the road. But we prefer to look ahead, and we are full of ideas for new projects.  And you’ll likely be the first to hear of them here on Unquiet Thoughts.