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Saturday morning quotes 5.22: The perfect musician

As anyone engaged in historical research knows, some of the more intriguing discoveries can occur en route to a different destination.  While not exactly the recommended research method for those with little time and narrow focus, wandering through library stacks and pulling books resting in the general vicinity of the desired tome sometimes results in the serendipitous discovery of supporting information; sometimes it can lead us down an entirely new and more interesting path.

One of our greatest delights is discovering yet another historical figure who advised or admonished musicians in the most colorful language. Our blog has offered digested words of wisdom from the ancient quills of such historical figures as Gioseffo Zarlino and John Dowland, who contributed both general commentary and specific guidelines in the form of his translation of Ornithoparcus, with pointed words specifically on singing.  We’ve read astute observations from Mary Burwell’s lute tutor and have even stretched our early music boundaries a bit to include witticisms from Hector Berlioz.

Today’s quotations are drawn from a source that popped into relief while looking for something completely different and they offer more elucidating and amusingly formed insights from another historical figure who was unable to keep his commentary within “the fence of his teeth”; a happy happenstance and a pleasing diversion.

The article is found in Studi Musicali, the musicological journal of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and the subject is “Luigi Zenobi and his Letter on the Perfect Musician” by Bonnie J. Blackburn and Edward E. Lowinsky, Studi musicali, 22 (1993), 61-114.  Zenobi’s 16th-century letter was discovered in 1948 by Lowinsky, who intended to augment his considerable body of work and publish the letter along with introductory and contextual material.  But publication was deferred until the project was capably completed by his spouse and equally eminent musicologist, Bonnie J. Blackburn, and published in 1993.

We provide our own headings to the excerpts from Lowinsky and Blackburn’s translation of Zenobi’s letter and we urge you to read the original article for the proper context and a great deal more of Zenobi’s colorful language.

On instrumentalists

“…The players of the lute, the harpsichord, and the harp are judged by the fine touch, the ease, the polish, and agility of the hand, by the excellence of the imagination in improvising over a chosen piece of music, by the mastery of their counterpoint over (the melody of) a passamezzo, a galliard, a canon, a cantus firmus, and similar things.”

“…And among all the things that demonstrate the competence or ignorance of those who play the harpsichord, the lute, and the harp, there is usually the rendering with mastery and artifice, and particularly at sight, of a work in score by an excellent composer. Here are revealed the fine touch, the ease, the polish, and the agility of the hand, the quality and variety of the diminutions, and the good taste with which the player, without impairing the composition, adds to it thoughts and conceits of his own with style, and with elegance the trilli, the tremoli, the grace of his bearing, and so on. Here, to tell the truth, one sees rather more defects than effects, ugly, faulty, and indeed insufferable ones…”

On singing with the lute

“In solo [vocal] performance one cannot judge the quality of the bass when he is accompanied by a lute, or a harpsichord, and similar instruments, for instruments of that kind have hardly sounded the note before it vanishes; and thus the bass as well as any other part can make an infinite number of mistakes that pass unnoticed because the vanishing harmony of the imperfect instrument does not let them be heard, except that the connoisseur recognizes them as errors and misunderstandings, and consequently causes the singer to be held ignorant.”

On singing with the organ

“But it is [in singing] with the organ where one can judge easily who sings and plays with good taste and with art, if the listener pays careful attention. And that is what manifests the ignorance and presumption of many who, singing in the most deplorable manner to the accompaniment of the organ, thrive on the judgement of the populace and the rabble, who, as soon as they hear a miserable charlatan with a bit of a dog’s voice or an ass’s disposition, immediately begin to exclaim: «How marvellous! How fine! What a divine voice! What do you think, Mister Dimwit? What do you say, Sir Mumble-Tongue? Is it not miraculous, Sir Bibblebabble?» And thus many wretched birds are scorned by the connoisseurs, and praised by the ignoramuses like them.”

On the mannerisms of a singer

“But nowadays, when he turns his shoulders or his waist, as if he had an attack of colic; when he rolls his eyes as lunatics do; when his jaws and chin tremble as those who stutter do; when he sings through the nose, or shouts and roars like a man in a rage, and emits six or eight notes in a pitiful manner, out of place and false and with little taste, not knowing when or how or where they ought to end and begin; when he always repeats the same song, as trained parrots do, and never gets away from two or three numbers begged from and arranged by people who know little or presume too much; and when the audience consists of people who like the kind of songs to be heard in the month of May, and who do not know the difference between singing and croaking, nor that between being in tune and out of tune, or between knowledge and ignorance, for them it suffices to raise the voice like the sound of gurgling liquid and they say: «Oh, how good! how fine! how marvellous! how divine! what a rare singer!», whence it comes that we have on earth a perpetual seed-bed of fools who with wagging ears signify that rain is near.”

On accompanying

“…The players of foundation instruments, such as the harpsichord, lute, harp, theorbo, cittern, Spanish guitar, or rather vihuela, have to take as their foundation the sweetness, facility, and virtuosity of the hand, the finesse of the fingers, and of the tremolo, the quality of the imagination, the richness and variety of good passaggi, and fine grace of bearing and of holding the instrument, the choiceness of style, and the ready ease in the use of their instruments. But above all they must show taste and skill in playing ensemble with a solo player or with a singer. For in this case there is no master so great that he does not merit praise for the ability to play as one requires of a schoolboy, unornamented, in right time, and neatly all parts, while the other plays or sings with him, and when the solo part pauses, come to the fore in a gentle manner with something more pleasing than artful to accompany him.”

True musicians

“…The true musicians are those who bring the harmony of their manner into perfect accord with the harmony of their music. They have and they know how to obey and serve those who deserve to be obeyed and served; and they disdain to do the same for him who has little merit; they are men of honour, of value, of conscience, knowing how to maintain their dignity, and how to preserve the reputation and greatness of the patrons whom they serve.”

“They are not envious or malicious, because they are not ignorant, but they cannot bear that anyone in this profession of music should be praised or blamed in singing or playing by one who know less than they do. Even if they are reduced to begging they will not be moved by greed for money or anything else to make themselves or their talents available, and if they do, it will be out of love of God, out of courtesy, as a matter of good manners, and friendship.”

“They are targets of the ignorant, who are always shooting at them and do not occupy themselves with anything but ganging up on them as much as they can and persecuting them and gossiping about them in the worst manner, all of which they do in an underhanded way, for if they do it openly they are soon recognized and put to shame by decent people and lovers of the truth. And so the true musicians stand bewildered and quite startled and struck, wondering how the world has come to such a state of mental blindness that it does not see the forest, the labyrinth, and the phalanxes of those who are bent on suffocating merit, on killing valour, on stealing fame, and on rending truth and their singular talent, while all the time this floats like a cork or an exquisite oil above the water of their persecution.”

Things never change.

Saturday morning quotes 5.21: Historical continuum

Following up on last week’s quotations we introduce a small reality check to highlight the importance of remembering the sometimes forgotten segments in the continuum of history. For history is indeed a continuum that is interrupted from time to time when those with an axe to grind wield said axe to chop away a segment, rewrite it to suit their purpose, and paste it back in place with skewed alignment.  But the point is that history is broad and interdisciplinary, and specialists whose words we value recognize this fact.

“If there is, indeed, a single historical continuum it ought to follow that there is an underlying unity to all forms of historical research. All the disciplines that make up the continuum describe and explain change in the past even if they work on different parts of the continuum, operate at different scales, use different methods and paradigms, and focus on very different types of objects…This ought to mean that scholars in these disciplines have much to learn from each other, and students have much to learn from understanding what links different parts of the historical continuum. Indeed, the existence of a single historical continuum makes it anachronistic to describe as “History” a scholarly discipline that concerns itself only with part of the past of our own species.”

– David Christian,“A Single Historical Continuum“, Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2011, The Institute for Research on World-Systems, University of California, Riverside, pg. 14.

On the subject of a musical education and its value, we again chide instrumentalists to remember that in order to play music from the 16th century with sensitivity and taste, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of vocal polyphony.

“Training in instrumental performance was, throughout the period of our concern here, mostly an individual practice, often a father-son relationship that resembled guild apprenticeship…Playing “genteel” instruments, especially keyboards and the lute, was an instruction-aided goal for aristocratic amateurs in what was otherwise a professional and definitely n non-aristocratic calling.  Not all or even many children were taught to play an instrument. By comparison, a much larger number learned to sing; it is not too much to say that instruction of the young in music centered on singing.”

– James Haar, “Some Introductory Remarks on Musical Pedagogy”, in Music Education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Edited by Russell E. Murray, Susan Forscher Weiss, and Cynthia J. Cyrus, Publications of the Early Music Institute, University of Indiana Press, Bloomington, IN, 2010. p. 4

We tend to miss the point of historical music when we excise a small segment from the whole and remove it from its context.  If you appreciate the music of John Dowland, you may want to indulge in the music of Luca Marenzio, a composer Dowland held in the very highest esteem—but a composer who wrote no instrumental music.

For whatever reason, music history is taught today in easily digestible segments that remove facts from their context and rearrange them to highlight a particular point of view.  Yes, the lute was an important instrument in the 16th century and an enormous amount of appealing music was written for it.  But the amount of music for lute is but a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of 16th-century vocal music that survives, and the bulk of published lute music was vocal polyphony reworked and arranged for the instrument.

Saturday morning quotes 5.20: Dowland and Context

Our weekly posts are unapologetically focused on vocal music of the 16th century and the lute as it was regarded in its golden age; an emblem for all that was civilized and sophisticated, refined and nuanced.  Firmly committed to providing contextual references, we hope we might steer today’s lutenists away from their classical guitarist roots and and toward the sense and sensibility of an earlier time and a more intimate aesthetic.  Many guitarists turned lutenists tend to favor the more extrovert repertory that projects outward, and conversations with conversos often turn toward a discussion of the mechanical technique required to play the flashy pieces.

Likewise, we hope to offer a reality check for those modern instrumentalists who assume that historical figures like John Dowland (1563 – 1626) experienced music just as a modern musician would.  Dowland did not have a run of piano lessons imposed by a strict yet hopeful parent followed by a stint playing rock and roll guitar, then discovering his technique would be improved by studying classical guitar, leading to discovering music for the lute and finally finding a proper instrument and learning to play it.  As we pointed out in our series on Dowland’s training, his musical talent was most likely nurtured because he could sing.  It is unlikely that a member of the artisan class would have had access to an expensive musical instrument strung with enormously expensive strings if he did not demonstrate musical talent in the normal fashion for the times—singing, most likely as a chorister in a parish church or a small wealthy household.

As true today as it was in the 16th century, information is power, and another aspect of Dowland’s musical life was his role as a well-placed servant who was required to keep his ears tuned to the quietly uttered words and random asides falling from loose-lipped courtiers.  The question of “Was Dowland a Spy?” invariably conjures misguided references to Magnus Pym, or even James Bond.  But like many aspects of 16th-century life, spying was not the same kettle of fish.  No spiffy electronic gadgets, no exploding speed boats, probably no trysts with glamorous and scantily-clad double agents.  But as we will see, there was the equivalent of encryption in the form of secret codes devised for the passing of information.

Dowland was known to have traveled to France as servant to Sir Henry Cobham when he was Queen Elizabeth’s  Ambassador to France.  Rumors and lies about diplomatic integrity aside, the role of the 16th-century ambassador was to discover and report information about the goings on of foreign powers, just as it is today.

The choices a king made when appointing his diplomats was taken as an indication of what sort of prince he was: it could tell another court whether he was learned, interested in cultural trends, philosophically skilled, linguistically adept, pious or militarily capable. Consequently, ambassadors’ actions and qualities were read for evidence of what the king or queen from whom he had been sent thought and was. Sir Francis Thynne, who wrote the first English treatise on the role of the ambassador in 1576, therefore recommended that the men chosen to be ambassadors should be ‘learned, well born, free, no bond-man, of good credit in respect of his honesty, of good estimation in respect of his calling… wise, valiant, circumspect, furnished with divers Languages, eloquent of quick capacitie, of ready deliverance, liberall, comly of person, tall of stature, and…adorned with all vertues required’.

Those chosen were usually men of high social status such as dukes, earls or bishops. Such embassies were usually of short duration and were often lavish affairs.  Resident ambassadors were expected to gather information about the politics of the host court and international events; their reports back to England are full of such affairs. In critical moments in England’s international relations, the information ambassadors relayed from the continent could prove critical in gauging how to formulate foreign policy.

– Dr. Tracy Sowerby, University of Oxford, “The Role of the Ambassador and the use of Ciphers

Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1530 -1590), Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State from 1573 until his death in 1590, was known as the Queen’s spymaster.  Possessing all the traits of an extremely paranoid and manipulative government official, Walsingham invested heavily in agents and double-agents throughout the Continent as well as at home.  As Secretary of State, Walsingham was responsible for filtering all communications between his many minions and the Queen, and was uniquely positioned to understand the intricacies of diplomacy between England and France having himself served as Ambassador to France from 1570 – 1573, managing to survive the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572.

Here the story becomes interesting. Sir Henry Cobham (Henry Brooke) was Walsingham’s Ambassador to France from 1579-1583, and among his entourage was a youthful lutenist, John Dowland.  Cobham’s short-term directives included acting as go-between in Elizabeth’s  marriage negotiations with Hercule-François, duc d’Alençon et Anjou (1554 – 1584), also known as Elizabeth’s “Frog”. Walsingham was apparently opposed to the marriage and probably had a hand in ensuring its unsuccessful conclusion.  Cobham was reassigned in 1583 and whether Dowland returned to England with him or stayed on to serve his replacement, Sir Edward Stafford, is simply a matter of speculation.  However, if Dowland did remain in Paris, he would have been involved in the tension and intrigue that ensued between Stafford, a tool of the Cecils, and Walsingham.

Walsingham dictated the terms on which a government agent should report…In addition, as the patron of aspiring diplomats, Walsingham normally managed to provide ambassadors with staff whose first loyalty lay to himself…

The irruption of Sir Edward Stafford into such a sensitive yet ‘safe’ part of Walsingham’s territory created trouble almost immediately. Lord Cobham, the outgoing ambassador, departed without offering Stafford more than a handful of documents, and no details of informants whatsoever. Stafford retaliated by sending copies of all his despatches to Lord Burghley…

– Mitchell Leimon and Geoffrey Parker,”Treason and Plot in Elizabethan Diplomacy: The ‘Fame of Sir Edward Stafford’ Reconsidered”, The English Historical Review, Vol. 111, No. 444 (Nov., 1996), pp. 1134-1158

Perhaps this little spat is the reason there is no evidence of Dowland in England until 1590, the year of Walsingham’s death.  Perhaps it simply was not safe for him.  While he was in service, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that the young Dowland was excused from keeping his ears open and reporting what he may have heard while playing for and near the local luminaries.  This does not necessarily constitute spycraft in the modern sense but merely doing the job of an upwardly mobile servant.  Since Dowland was later known to be well connected with the Cecils, it may very well be true that he remained in Paris and was involved in the shift of power away from Walsingham and towards William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and his son Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1563 – 1612), the dedicatee of Dowland’s 1609 translation of Andreas Ornithoparcus’ Musicae active micrologus.

Just as in a police-state where no one’s phone conversations or e-mail communications are free from the prying eyes of the government and their corporate overlords, no 16th-century letter was expected to reach its destination without being opened and read, sometimes repeatedly.  Creatively devised secret codes were commonly used for the transmission of even the most mundane information.  A fascinating look at Ciphers during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I reveals a host of codes in common use in diplomatic communication throughout the 16th century—the equivalent of encryption today.

These bits of contextual information help us to understand the depth of Dowland’s humanity and the sort of constraints that affected a successful upwardly mobile musician of his time, something to consider when exploring the highs and lows, the nooks and crannies, the bravura and the pathos of his music.

Saturday morning quotes 5.19: Philip Van Wilder

notHolbeinWhenever the subject of Philip van Wilder (c.1500 – 1553) is broached, the conversation inevitably must turn toward things he was not, or the music he did not compose.  For instance, the portrait, “Unknown Man with Lute” by Hans Holbein the younger that is preserved in the Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin is not Philip Van Wilder, as many would wish it to be.  David Van Edwards has identified the object hanging on a gold chain around the sitter’s neck as the insignia of office of the Lord High Admiral of England.  While it would be nice to put a face to Van Wilder’s illustrious name, the office of Lord High Admiral was not among the few but lavish benefices bestowed by Van Wilder’s sometimes generous patron, Henry VIII.

Van Wilder’s surviving music consists mainly of a handful of sacred motets and some 31 French chansons in four or more parts, ably edited and anthologized in Philip Van Wilder, Collected Works, Parts I and II, ed. Jane A. Bernstein. “Masters and Monuments of the Renaissance”, iv. The Broude Trust, New York, 1991.  According to the New Grove article by Bernstein and John Ward:

Van Wilder’s wages and rewards reflect not only his special status but also the various services he performed at court. He played at royal ceremonies, entertained the king in his private apartments, supervised the purchase of musical instruments and lute strings (later he was named Keeper of the Royal Collection of Musical Instruments at Westminster), and gave lute lessons to the royal children (Princess Mary in 1537–43, Prince Edward in 1546). He also accompanied the king on his various journeys within and outside of England. One of the most important was the meeting in late October of 1532 between Henry and the French king François I at the Field of Cloth of Gold between Calais and Boulogne, where musicians from both the English and French courts entertained the royal retinues.

John Ward devotes an entire chapter to Philip Van Wilder and his music in Music for Elizabethan Lutes, Clarendon / Oxford University Press, 1992.  While ever so slightly more generous with his speculative attributions than Bernstein, Ward dismissed the works commonly ascribed to him by today’s wishfully thinking lutenists. Of the conjectural possibilities, Bernstein’s collected works includes only a single lute piece as attributable to the man who was first described as a “lewter” at the Tudor court.  A Fantasia found in the earliest of Mathew Holmes’ vast lute manuscript, Dd.2. 11, now in the Cambridge University Library, bears the stamp of a lutenist immersed in heady realm of vocal polyphony but possessing an understanding of the resources of the lute.

The set of variations on a tonic/dominant ground found in the Marsh lute manuscript titled “Dump Phili” is certainly not by Van Wilder.  While an attractive piece in its own right, attribution of this piece to Van Wilder is wishful thinking in the extreme.  The first clue lies in the very “Englishness” of the piece, as well as its stylistic commonality with the many other sets of anonymous variations in the book.  Van Wilder was valued as a musician and composer for his Continental sophistication and, as a highly-placed courtier, he was unlikely to have “dumbed-down” his style in order to pander to a royal court that still mainly spoke French.

Van Wilder’s reputation as a lutenist was recorded for posterity in Tottel’s Miscellany or Songes and Sonettes, written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other…(1557–87), which includes an elegy for Philip Van Wilder penned by an unnamed poet.

“On the death of Phillips”:

The stringe is broke, the lute is dispossest,
The hand is colde, the bodye in the grounde.
The lowring lute lamenteth now therfore
Philips her frende that can touche her no more.

But in our vain search to discover Philip Van Wilder’s surviving music for the lute, we need only examine his vocal polyphony.  Our appreciation of Van Wilder’s music stems from performance of his four- and five-part chansons, in vocal ensemble and in beguiling arrangements for solo voice and lute.  As a composer of secular polyphony, Van Wilder’s style is both delicate and engaging, elegant and sensitive.  You can hear our recorded version of his setting of the popular text, Pour un plaisir que si peu dure, here, and his unique setting of Puisqu’ ainsi est que suis escondit here.

Saturday morning quotes 5.18: Matters of Invention

Therefore I would give this Caviat, of Cautioon to any who attempt to Exercise Their Fancies, in such Matters of Invention; That They observe Times, and Seasons, and never Force Themselves to any Thing, when they perceive an Indisposition; but wait for a Fitter, and more Hopeful Season; for what comes most Compleatly, come most Familiarly, Naturally, and Easily, without Pumping for (as we use to say).

– Thomas Mace, Musick’s Monument, 1676

Sometimes one’s invention is indisposed or lies fallow and simply can’t be forced.  Between living a fairly subnormal modern life and delving deeply into sixteenth-century polyphony, generating overly long strings of words that collide, congeal, describe and reinforce an intelligent theme week after week can take its toll on the old steel trap thinking machine.  Occasionally one’s fount of ideas runs slightly thin, if not pumped dry.  So today’s post briefly touches on a few random matters of invention.

Invention in historical music is what happens when a musician elaborates on the outline of notes that appear on the page.  Famous historical lutenists like Francesco Canova da Milano were esteemed for their ability to improvise a fantasia with points of imitation that were developed and elaborated upon according to the rules one learned during the course of a conventional musical education. While Francesco’s improvisations must remain legendary, his music that survives in written form demonstrates a groundbreaking approach to writing for the lute in a style that emulates vocal polyphony while expressively and idiomatically maximizing the resources of the instrument.  According to Victor Coelho,

“During Francesco’s service under Clement VII, the lute fantasia developed from a functional, preludial (and postludial) work written to be played in conjunction with other pieces, to an autonomous work, an artistic creation, that is formally conceived along the lines of rhetoric.”

Victor Coelho, “Papal Tastes and Musical Genres: Francesco da Milano ‘Il Divino’ (1497-1543), and the Clementine Aesthetic,” in The Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture. Ed. K. Gouwens & S. Reiss. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005, p. 286.

It is certain that improvisation remained an integral part of music making throughout history, as it remains today among musicians who thrive outside the realm of the conventional classical conservatory.  While it’s important to study historical sources and strive to sensitively reproduce the notes on the page, if we probe just a bit deeper into the context of historical music we find allusions to the longstanding tradition of improvisation.  The notes on the page are frequently no more than an outline of ideas that require elaboration in order to realize the intended musical result.

The long-winded title to Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument (1676), states that the bulk of the book

“Treats of the noble lute, (the best of instruments) now made easie; and all its occult-locked-up-secrets plainly laid open, never before discovered; … directing the most ample way, for the use of the Theorboe, from off the note, in confort, &c.”

Mace’s mention of using the theorbo “off the note” clearly indicates that his instructions will enable the musician to improvise musical solos and accompaniments, as well he should.  Those of us who come from a background of musical improvisation are amused no end by the mystique and the amount of intense study given over to realizing harmonies over a written bass line. Most good jazz guitarists will not only improvise harmonies but also create the missing bass line from scribbled chord symbols. Like the 16th-century lutenists, guitarist George Van Eps was skilled in improvising three- and four-part polyphony, all the while maintaining interesting and proper voice-leading.

How do we learn to improvise?  The phenomenon has, of course, been studied.

“A summary of brain structure and function reveals the importance of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to creative thinking.”

“The frontal lobe is the seat of executive function and is essential to our ability to plan, to make decisions, to form judgments, to assess risk, and to formulate insight. The PFC, which occupies half the frontal lobe, integrates already highly processed information to enable even higher cognitive functions…”

“In regards to cognitive processes, improvisation can thus be defined as the spontaneous generation, selection, and execution of novel auditory-motor sequences. Since musicians must generate a potentially infinite number of contextually meaningful musical phrases by combining a finite set of notes and rhythms, researchers consider musical improvisation an optimal way to study the neural underpinnings of spontaneous creative artistic invention.”

– Mónica López-González, “Musical Creativity and the Brain

Matters of invention are really part of our daily life and musical improvisation is merely mindful use of our normally functioning faculties.  Whenever we find shortcuts to avoid traffic, or substitute ingredients in a recipe, or crack a joke, or lie to our guitar teacher about why we could not practice, we are indulging in invention.  Musically speaking, there was a very creative band called the Mothers of Invention fronted by Frank Zappa, surely the musical heir of the demented Carlo Gesualdo in their mutual use of dissonance and themed cacophony.

Another organization that calls itself the Mothers of Invention, sponsored by a car manufacturer that will remain unnamed, in 2014 rewarded a creative person from Texas who invented a way to bridge the ubiquitous language gap that is a barrier to effective communication commonly encountered in one of the largest states of our nation of immigrants.  But in 2015, hyperactive police types in the same state rewarded a creative high school student with arrest, handcuffs, illegal interrogation and suspension from school for taking his creative project to school just to show his teacher. Matters of invention have taken an ugly turn.

One is overcome both by extreme irritation and utter dismay at the complete absence of intellectual capacity and the arrogant misuse of authority by those in positions of responsibility.  But at least you have to give them credit for inventing an alternate reality where the inarticulate and mean-spirited trumps human logic and historically accepted Christian values.

Saturday morning quotes 5.17: Truth or spin?

The statement of facts…is a speech instructing the audience as to the nature of the case in dispute…Most writers…hold that it should be lucid, brief and plausible…[so that the audience will] remember and believe what we say.

– Quintilian IV, ii

We seem to be living in the age of spin where facts and truth are a matter of interpretation.  Way before the internet and even before radio and television, the idea of the news cycle was simply nonexistent.  News is and always has been tainted by a distinct commercial slant, and facts and so-called truth must somehow be crammed in between commercial announcements.  Then along came death to live entertainment in the form of motion pictures—and mass media advertising disguised as movie reviews.

In 2000, Sony executives decided it would be smart idea to invent a critic who would miraculously always love all of their movies. David Manning, aka thin air, thought that Hollow Man was “One helluva scary ride!” while Rob Schneider’s critically loathed comedy The Animal was “Another winner!”…Around the same time, it was revealed that Sony had also used employees to pose as moviegoers in a TV spot for Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. One of them described the violent drama with implied rape threats as “a perfect date movie”.

– Benjamin Lee, “How my negative review of Legend was spun into movie marketing gold”

Anyone in the entertainment business knows that talent means absolutely nothing as a measure of exposure and success.  Success results from solid inside connections and well-paid PR professionals.

Eventually, it occurred to me to investigate – and the answer was that the PR industry simply wrote its own history. Despite PR professionals regularly telling us they’re storytellers, the only tale they’ve woven is an elaborate farce of empty self-importance that borders on the religious.

– Ed Zitron, “I work in PR – and we’re all terrible people”

Paradoxically, the spin doctors of early music, sell to the public a cast of performing artists, and their recordings and live performances, lavishly presented and characterized as historically-informed, honest and transparent.  But peering behind the curtain reveals that we are treated to a product that is at best unsatisfying and at worst downright dishonest.

To begin, chosen tempos we hear today, frequently from one or two well-publicized renaissance lutenists but mostly in baroque ensemble performances, are not even close to historically accurate.  Every historical writer on the subject tells us that taste and elegance are primary, and that tempo is ultimately based on the beat of the heart.  One can only surmise that some musicians have had heart transplants to the disadvantage of severely inconvenienced chipmunks.  Some orchestras sound like they are falling over themselves in an attempt to make the music seem more exciting, but we hear clipped notes, mangled phrasing and barely managed dynamic contrast—the absolute antithesis of taste and elegance.  Among those of us with experience in theater, it is well known that flash and speed are merely cheap tricks used to cover a lack of depth.

A particularly egregious example was heard last week when I (RA) entered the room to hear a radio broadcast of a certain group playing Vivaldi in what was once a live performance.  I instantly experienced the sensation of eating a perilously dripping ice cream cone on a very hot day as quickly as possible in order to avoid a sticky melting mess.  But when the performance was over, the encore brought on a serious attack of dyspepsia.  This group had the audacity to purloin a down-and-dirty Kentucky fiddle tune that is near and dear to my heart and make a foot-stomping quasi-Celtic arrangement out of it.  I felt the same sensation of dismay when someone stole boxes of our CDs at gunpoint and later blithely sold them on Amazon—and the law said there was no recourse.

As a musician who has (true confession) spent a good deal of his life playing traditional American fiddle music, I felt empathetic toward legends like Gus Cannon, who lived in a cardboard shack in the 1960s while the Rooftop Singers made millions off his song, “Walk right in, sit right down”.  Or Roscoe Holcomb who taught his version of “I am a man of constant sorrow” to Ralph Stanley on that tour bus; a song that was later purloined and t-boned into a popular movie. The upshot is that this collection of paper-trained types really has no business playing real music in front of people until they learn how it goes.

The tune in question is “Glory in the meetinghouse” and the original recording was by one Luther Strong (1892 – 1962).  If you follow the links you’ll learn that the tune falls more neatly into the “Kentucky blues” category than the Sligo-ornamented “Irish reel” category, not to diss our friends who play Irish music.  And further reading will tell you that Luther recorded this tune in 1937 on a borrowed fiddle after spending the night in jail for public drunkedness, having been bailed out by Alan Lomax for the occasion.  No tuxedos were involved.

The Chieftains-type treatment of “Glory in the meetinghouse” is really not in the best of taste for a powerful Kentucky fiddle tune, which is meant to be a fiddle solo.  I was first introduced to Irish fiddle music via the first Chieftains record, and they are truly classics, but everyone knows the Chieftains did for Irish music what Lawrence Welk did for popular dance music of the 1940s.  Yes, it’s true that Luther’s version of “Bonaparte’s retreat” had already been purloined by Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) for the “Hoedown” bit of his Rodeo suite. But if you’re going to do that to his music, perhaps you were thinking you might look up Luther’s family in Hazard, Kentucky and pay them some royalties.  Just click here, scroll to the bottom and read the comments from three of Luther’s relatives.

That’s the facts.  And anything else y’all want to know about real fiddle music before you go messing with it, you just ask.

Saturday morning quotes 5.16: Two by Sermisy

prodigalAs a duo specializing in polyphonic music of the 16th century our primary focus has been performance of surviving repertory for solo voice and lute. While there is an ample supply of historical music that survives in this format, there also exists a vast amount of 16th-century vocal polyphony that not only adapts well to arrangement for a solo voice and lute but is improved upon when performed with this appealing combination.  In many cases the meaning of the text is brought to the fore and made clear without the competing distraction of vocalization of the lower parts which can, insensitively rendered, devolve into a shouting match.  The lute solves the problem by proffering a sensitive and transparent filigree of wordless dialogue.

We have added many new arrangements to the canon by following instructions of historical figures including Adrian Le Roy (A Briefe and Easye Instrution…, 1568, 1574), and Vincenzo Galilei (Fronimo Dialogo di Vincentio Galilei, 1568, 1584).  The historically-appropriate process of arrangement, or intabulation, has been a truly enlightening experience and has given us as performers important insights and a way to become intimate with the compositional style, devices and musical personalities of several sixteenth-century composers of vocal polyphony.

Today we share a snapshot of our process with a short description of two pieces by one of the best known proponents of what we have come to call the sixteenth-century Parisian chanson, Claudin de Sermisy (c. 1490 – 1562).

“During the first half of the sixteenth century the music publishing industry created a market among ever-widening circles of amateur performers.  Not every circle could muster the forces or the sophistication to cope with the courtly chanson in its original part-song guise.  Arrangements for keyboard and intabulations for lute and other fretted instruments helped many amateurs—the professional musician could improvise or arrange his own versions, of course, without such aids.”

– Daniel Heartz, “Au pres de vous”, Claudin’s Chanson and the Commerce of Publishers’ Arrangements”, Journal of the American Musicological Society , Vol. 24, No. 2 (Summer, 1971), p 209.

Au pres de Vous

Au pres de vous secretement demeure
Mon povre cueur sans que nul le conforte
Et si languist pour la douleur qu’il porte
Puis que voulez qu’en ce tourment il meure.

Beside you secretly dwells
My poor heart with none to comfort it,
Thus languishing for the pain it bears
Since you will that in this torment it die.

Our inspiration for arranging this chanson for solo voice and lute was the illustration above and a descriptive article by Daniel Heartz, who examined the painting known as “Prodigal Son among the courtesans,” (Franco-Flemish School, 16th century: Paris, Musee Carnavalet, P619).  Upon close inspection Heartz discovered on the table a visible musical fragment of Sermisy’s chanson, notation and a scroll of lute tablature from which a singer, lutenist and flautist are playing.

The four-voice chanson, Au pres de vous, appeared in Attaignant’s first publication, Chansons nouvelles en musique a quatre parties, 1527-8, with a few subsequent reprints.  We consulted copies of the original and carefully matched the music to surviving intabulations for solo lute, including a Bavarian lute manuscript where it is attributed to Marco Dall’ Aquila (c.1480 – 1538) and in the print, Des chansons reduictz en tablature de luc à trois et quatre parties, published in 1545 Louvain by Pierre Phalèse.

Our performance of Au pres de vous may be heard here.

Las je m’y plains

Las! Je m’y plains, mauldicte soit fortune,
quant pour aimer je n’ai que desplaisir.
Venez, regretz, venez mon coeur saisir,
et le monstrez a ma dame importune.

Alas! I bewail my evil fortune
As for love, I credit that displeasure
Come regrets, come seize my heart
And remonstrate my importunate lady.

Las je me plains is Sermisy’s setting of the poetry of Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585), a simple, wistful and melancholy text with a transparent musical character that seems to look ahead to a more flowing and sensuous melodic style.  The four-part setting appears in Attaignant’s Trente et sept chansons musicales a quatre parties, Paris,1531.

An intabulation for solo lute appears in the very earliest prints of lute tablatures by Francesco da Milano, including the undated Intabolatura da leuto del divino Francisco da Milano novamente stanpata, printed from engraved copper plates, an unusual practice in 16th-century music printing and rarely seen again until the early 17th-century prints of Nicolas Vallet. A single copy of this unique print survives in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

Our performance of Las je m’y plains may be heard here.

The 16th century intabulations for solo lute served as a useful guide for pitch and decoration but they also revealed other important interpretive clues. Like most music that is or was popular, the poetry communicates to much better effect when the part music is transposed downward and pitched in the same range as the versions for solo lute, imparting a greater warmth and offering further evidence of an entirely flexible and adjustable historical pitch standard.


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