This week we feature a new video and offer more insights on the music that may be heard on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, and seen in its companion book of scores. Highlighting the fourth of four settings of the Christmas responsory text, “O magnum mysterium”, we turn to the lute-friendly composer Adrian Willaert (c.1490 – 1562).
In addition to his estimable output of sacred music as maestro di cappella at San Marco’s in Venice (1527 – 1562), Willaert composed an ample amount of secular music including French chansons, Italian madrigals and Villanesca alla napolitana. Some of Willaert’s most beguiling madrigals are the settings of texts from the Canzoniere of Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374), published in Musica Nova, 1559.
Among modern lutenists, Willaert is known for his Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto da cantare et sonare nel lauto, intavolati per Messer Adriano, published by Scotto in 1536. As the lengthy title indicates, this work consists of madrigals from Verdelot‘s Il primo libro de madrigali, 1533, arranged for solo voice and lute. It is from such historical intabulations that we take inspiration for our own work as we continue to create arrangements of particularly good historical polyphony.
Returning to the subject of Willaert’s motets:
“Willaert’s greatest and most enduring compositions are his motets. Out of a provisional total of 175, 79 are for four voices, 51 for five, 38 for six and five for seven or eight voices. The motets enjoyed wide circulation during his lifetime in manuscripts, printed anthologies and a series of influential publications issued by Scotto and Gardano from 1539 on. These publications, which include two books of motets for four voices (1539, repr. 1545), one book for five voices (1539, repr. 1550) and one for six voices (1542), were among the first printed books to focus on the music of a single composer, attesting to the high regard in which Willaert was held at the time.”
– Michele Fromson, “Adrian Willaert”, Grove Music Online
Although Willaert was very highly regarded in his day, his music is rarely performed today. We aim to rectify this situation in future performances of our vocal ensemble.
“O magnum mysterium” and its secunda pars, “Ave Maria” (which we have featured in a past post) are from Willaert’s Motecta … liber primus, 4vv, Venice, 1539 (reprinted 1545). Setting the entire Christmas Responsory text, Willaert’s music is sublimely calm and understated, the cantus part almost narrative and descant-like as the lower parts weave and intertwine in leisurely imitation. The work is obviously the result of a thoughtful and deliberate composer aiming to create the perfect music to express the text—no matter how long it may take.
“Willaert is known to have been a slow worker. His pupil Gioseffo Zarlino writes that he composed in great concentration and without haste. In a letter of 15 March 1534 Ruberto Strozzi, a nobleman resident in Venice, writes to his mentor, the humanist and historian Benedetto Varchi, that he will do all he can to get Willaert to set an epigram to music, but that he can promise nothing, for much patience is required to persuade Willaert to compose.”
– Ignace Bossuyt, “O socii durate: A Musical Correspondence from the Time of Philip II”, Early Music, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), p. 441.
Much patience indeed. We all know the type who is compelled to try every possible approach to a thing, and its inverse, until the correct solution emerges. But Art cannot by rushed.
The quiet beauty of Willaert’s setting is established at the outset with his delicate treatment of the lower voices that tread lightly on tiptoes, following one another in not-quite perfect imitation while whispering among themselves; in awe of the great mystery unfolding before their eyes. The cantus enters midway through the ninth measure with an arcing line that is gently declamatory, the notes expressing the text perfectly right down to the “blue” note that colors the word “mysterium”.
Our performance of Willaert’s “O magnum mysterium” may be heard on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, available with a companion edition of scores arranged for voice and lute, with transcriptions of all lute parts in standard notation for harp or keyboard.
The holiday season is upon us and unfettered commercialism descends like the pall of particulate-laden air that is unfortunately commonplace in so many cities. As an antidote to the unseemliness of the season, we pause to feature a poignant song by Dowland and offer a tribute to a good friend to the lute.
John Dowland (1563 – 1626) is well known as the foremost lutenist of the Elizabethan period and a composer of some of the most melancholy songs ever written. “Flow my tears” and “In darkness let me dwell” are a few of Dowland’s dark and brooding songs that find their way into recitals by singers and accompanists of all sorts. But, thankfully, exposure to Dowland’s more popular songs perhaps acts as an introduction to the lute and the enormous surviving historical repertory for the instrument.
Of Dowland’s four books of songs, his Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, published in 1603, contained several lighter songs, some texts of which appear to be directed toward Queen Elizabeth, who died that same year after a long and eventful 45-year reign. While songs from the 1603 book like “Say love if ever thou didst find” and “Time stands still” indeed were likely dedicated to the ageing Queen, “Me me and none but me” seems much more heartfelt, intimate and personal in nature.
Me me and none but me,
dart home O gentle death
and quicklie, for
I draw too long this idle breath:
O howe I long till I
may fly to heaven above,
unto my faithfull and
beloved turtle dove.
Like to the silver Swanne,
before my death I sing:
And yet alive
my fatall knell I helpe to ring.
Still I desire from earth
and earthly joyes to flie,
He never happie liv’d,
that cannot love to die.
Dowland (or the unnamed poet) used the imagery of the turtledove in the close of the first verse, referring to the legendary faithfulness of the Streptopelia turtur that was mentioned in ancient mythology and in biblical times.
“The flowers appeare on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”
– Solomon’s Song II:12 (King James Bible)
The “turtle” in the bird’s name has nothing to do with the amphibian reptile but rather refers to the particular sound the dove makes in Spring, the time of forging certain alliances.
The faithfulness of the turtledove was often employed as image woven into the poetry of Dowland’s age, and was the subject of Shakespeare’s enigmatic poem, “The Phoenix and the turtle” (from Chester, 1601). Another poetical image frequently used was that of the swan, as found in the same poem by Shakespeare as well as referenced in the plays, such as the quotation from Othello:
“…I will play the swan, And die in music.”
– Shakespeare, The tragedy of Othello, the Moore of Venice, V:ii
The “swan song” refers to the ancient understanding that the swan remains silent most of its life but sings a beautiful lament in its final moments of life. One of the earliest references to the phenomenon is in the play, Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, dating from 458 BC.
Our performance of “Me me and none but me” was recorded just this week after having played for a somewhat belated memorial service for lutenist and friend, Stephen Toombs (1951 – 2016). Stephen was a fine lutenist who studied at Washington University and later with Toyohiko Satoh at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, The Netherlands. But he was probably better known as the expert, gracious and helpful music librarian at Case Western Reserve University. To those who knew him only in passing, Stephen could appear serious and rather solemn. But to those of us fortunate enough to catch a glimpse behind the mask, he was an amusing, animated and enthusiastic lover of the lute and its music.
Stephen was quite active as the director of his Ensemble Lautenkonzert, and also performed with Cleveland area singers. I (RA) was asked to accompany two of his colleagues for the recent memorial service, and when one was unable to sing due to illness, Donna graciously filled in at the last moment with a song that happened to be in the lute case. We had not performed or rehearsed the song for at least two years, but the spontaneous performance of “Me me and none but me” was effective and well received.
In response to requests, and having a spare moment to do so, we recorded the song just a few days ago. Our performance may be heard here.
This is our third post highlighting another polyphonic setting of the Christmas responsory text, “O magnum mysterium” from our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, and we also announce the availability of our new companion book of scores from the recording.
In previous posts, we have offered background and details on versions by William Byrd and Tomás Luis de Victoria. This week’s post is devoted to the beautiful setting of “O magnum mysterium” by Spanish composer, Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 – 1553), offering background and essential insights that lead to an historically-sensitive performance.
Morales was a gifted and prolific composer who took pride in his Spanish heritage to the extent that his publications described him as “Christophorus Morales Hyspalensis”. His extensive output consisted primarily of sacred music, leaving behind only a handful of secular pieces including the anonymous romance, “De Antequera sale el Moro”, a piece that survives in an intabulated setting found in Miguel de Fuenllana’s Libro de música para vihuela, intitulado Orphénica Lyra, Sevilla, 1554. If Morales was proud of his Spanish identity, Spain was likewise proud of him: Music theorist and author of Declaración de instrumentos musicales, Fray Juan Bermudo (c.1510 – 1565), described Morales as “the light of Spain in music.”
Morales’ setting of “O magnum mysterium” is not found among his ample corpus of published works, but appears in at least three separate manuscript sources; Biblioteca Casa Ducal de Medinaceli, Madrid, Parroquia de Santiago, Valladolid, and also in the more recently studied manuscript at the Catedral, Archivo y Biblioteca Capítulares, Toledo. Michael Noone, in Códice 25 de la Catedral de Toledo, (Madrid, Alpuerto, 2003), speculates that Morales’ setting of “O magnum mysterium” may have been copied into the Toledo manuscript while the composer was there, circa 1545-1547, a case for assigning the motet to the latter part of Morales’ career.
A unique aspect of Morales’ setting of “O magnum mysterium” is that the manuscript sources agree on notation in high clefs, a much misunderstood feature that has had a lasting influence on performance and reception of the motet. Bernadette Nelson mentions the stratospheric disposition of parts in her article, “A Little Known Part-Book From Toledo. Music by Morales, Guerrero, Jorge de Santa Maria, Alonso Lobo and Others in Barcelona, Instituto Espanol de Musicologia, Fondo Reserva”, MS 1 Anuario Musical, N.º 65, enero-diciembre 2010, 25-56.
“O magnum mysterium and Monstra te may be distinguished for having been written for a quartet involving at least three high voices, which is indicative of intended performance by the choirboys, or seises.”
While stratospheric performance by choirboys may very well have been intended by the scribes who copied Morales’ “O magnum mysterium” into the surviving manuscripts, it may just as likely have not been the composer’s intention. Polyphonic music notated in high clefs was typically intended to be transposed down according to what is known today as the chiavette.
“Chiavette (It.: ‘little clefs’): Term for certain combinations of clefs used in 16th- and 17th-century polyphonic music, distinct from the chiavi naturali (the combination of soprano, alto, tenor and bass clefs); it is especially used for the combination of ‘high clefs’ (treble, mezzo-soprano, alto and baritone clefs). Some theorists stated that the chiavette implied transposition by a 4th or 5th into the register of the ‘normal’ clefs, whence the alternative term chiavi trasportate (transposing clefs). These terms arose in the 18th century, when the practice was no longer current outside the papal chapel in Rome. Some modern scholars see clef combinations as an important clue to the mode of particular compositions, especially ones from late 16th-century Italy.”
“Pieces notated in high clefs were intended to be transposed downwards, according to Ganassi, by a 5th, and according to Banchieri (Cartella, overo Regole, 1601) and Picerli (Specchio secondo di musica, 1631) by a 4th when the Bb is present in the signature and by a 5th with no key signature.”
“High clef notation was used for much longer: in the age of Palestrina and Victoria the vast majority of a cappella polyphony was notated in this clef grouping. It remained in use in the stile diatonico osservato alla Palestrina of the Roman school throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, when it was last used by Giuseppe Baini (Apparuit Dominus Salomoni, 1837). This conservative practice was, however, restricted to composers writing for the papal chapel.”
– Patrizio Barbieri, Grove Music Online
While the sources mentioned by Barbieri date from a bit later in the 16th century—just like the application of accidentals and many other commonly employed aspects of the performance of polyphonic music at the time—the practice was observed and in use much earlier, and there was no need to state the obvious to skilled musicians who would have recognized that the high clefs with a flat in the key signature in Morales’ “O magnum mysterium” should naturally be transposed downward by a fourth.
Again, according to the principles of chiavette that were in common use during the 16th century, a piece that appeared in high clefs was intended to be transposed downward by a fourth. While most modern performances take the high-clef distribution literally, employing high women’s voices rather than choirboys, in our performance, we observe the essential downward transposition, carrying the result a step lower sung at our typical pitch standard of A=392. The lower tessitura results in a much more relaxed performance allowing for a calm interpretation and communication of the text and also allowing Morales’ characteristic overlapping syncopations and delicate parallel duets to emerge convincingly and with greater ease. Our recording may be heard here.
Now for the bad news: Like the setting of “O magnum mysterium” by fellow Spaniard, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Morales’ adaptation of the text indicates that his setting of the motet was actually proper to be sung In Circumcisione Domini, for the Feast of the Circumcision. But even with Morales’ adaptation of the text, the motet can be considered proper to the Nativity and, happily, the (no longer observed) Feast of the Circumcision falls within the Octave of Christmas. As music historians, church musicians, and performers of historical music, we feel it is important to be informed of these details that guide performance practice. But we also feel that Morales’ setting is wonderfully evocative of the mystery of the Nativity, and have thus placed the motet as the opening track of our new recording.
Now for the good news: This week, we begin shipping Mignarda Editions’ new book of scores as a companion to our new recording. The book includes all of the music on the recording with lute parts notated both in French lute tablature and, in a separate section, with all the lute parts transcribed in keyboard notation. As a Christmas season offering to our readers, our new edition is available for a limited time for a special low price, and can be purchased with a CD or by itself. Visit our Mignarda Editions page for more information.
Autumn has always evoked a sense of melancholy; the fateful end of the growing season colorfully illustrated with fallen leaves and portentously scented with the aroma of overripe fruit. Perhaps that is why major elections in the US are scheduled for November, a time when the public is inured to the profusion of rot and the stench of decay.
While all of us have very good reason to be down in the dumps just now, today’s post has to do with the archaic term, “dump”, and we feature our recording of the lute solo, “Dump philli”, which coincidentally appears on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, to which we’ll return after a bit of historical background and context.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73
Shakespeare’s autumnal theme reflects the melancholy mood so prevalent in art, literature, and music in England at the time of the Tudor/Stuart dynasties. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) offers a medical description of the symptoms of melancholy, and also describes the role of music as a treatment for the affliction:
But to leave all declamatory speeches in praise of divine music, I will confine myself to my proper subject: besides that excellent power it hath to expel many other diseases, [music] is a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself.
A term that describes an aspect of the aesthetics of melancholy is “dump“. Citing sixteenth-century examples, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “1. (a) To fall into, or be in, an abstracted or absent state of mind; to muse. (b) To be in the dumps; to be sad or downcast in spirit. 2. To cast into melancholy, sadden, grieve, cast down.”
In musical terms, Grove Music Online defines a Dump as:
“A type of instrumental piece occurring in English sources between about 1540 and 1640. Some 20 examples are known, more than half of them for lute and most of the remainder for keyboard. The word is of uncertain derivation. In the 16th century it denoted mental perplexity or a state of melancholy. The musical dump was variously described as ‘solemn and still’, ‘deploring’ and ‘doleful’; there is some evidence to suggest that it was the English equivalent of the French déploration or tombeau, a piece composed in memory of a recently deceased person.”
– Alan Brown, Grove Music Online
In listing a few prime examples, Brown describes “a relatively ambitious work in the Marsh Lutebook (IRL-Dm Z.3.2.13) labelled ‘Dump philli’ (ed. in Ward, 1992, ii, no.4; the piece is unlikely to be by either Philip van Wilder or Peter Philips as was formerly thought).” We have written about this piece in a few prior posts. At risk of repetition, the piece really has nothing to do with the sophisticated polyphonic music of Henry VIII’s lutenist, Philip van Wilder. The “philli” in the title refers to an incomplete fragment of a word that was clipped by the binder’s shears when the manuscript was bound, and could just as easily refer to the mythical “Phillis”, or even a French lutenist named “Phillibert”.
“Dump philli” is a rather long set of variations constructed on a tonic-dominant ground, a characteristic of most other pieces bearing the label. The original lute tablature is missing a bit music that interrupts the regular pattern, and while some performers like to think of the gap as a “moment”, I (RA) think of the obvious break in the pattern as nothing other than yet another mistake in copying, which one finds so frequently in historical manuscript sources. I think playing the piece with the mistake is just like learning a tune from a 78 RPM record that skips. Rather than playing the mistake, I fixed it.
The piece has been recorded several times, and is frequently performed as a virtuoso showpiece played at breakneck speed, sounding more suited to a banjo than the noble lute. Since I already play the banjo, I feel no need to use the lute in such a manner. As for the interpretation on our live recording, I prefer to consider the historical aesthetic of the term, “dump”, and perform the piece as an unfolding discourse of complimentary ideas as evidenced by the implied polyphony that is revealed through thoughtful study of the piece.
Our performance is on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, which is available for streaming and download at the usual sites. The CD is available directly from the artists, and can be ordered with an edition of scores of all the music on the recording set for voice and lute, with keyboard transcriptions included.
Despite the profusion of disquieting world events and the looming unpleasantness of the U.S. presidential election, we return to the subject of our new recording of music for the Christmas season, Magnum Mysterium, which tends to serve as a calming antidote for world-weary angst and frazzled nerves—even for us. We began with last week’s post that included background and details of music by William Byrd. This week, we offer background and context for another of our four polyphonic settings of the Christmas responsory text, “O magnum mysterium”, the well-known and beloved favorite by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548 – 1611).
As usual, things are not always what they seem on the surface, and received ideas and generalizations tend to unravel when subjected to a closer examination. For instance, while we typically refer to the composer as “Victoria”, his surname was actually “Luis”, and we should really refer to the composer as Tomás Luis from Victoria. The same goes for the famous lute composer, Francesco Canova da Milano. When we simply refer to him as “Milano”, we tend to negate the value of all the other notable musicians who happened to be associated with capital of the Lombardy region.
Tomás Luis de Victoria’s setting of “O magnum mysterium” was published in Thomæ Ludovici de Victoria abulensis. Motecta que partim. Quaternis. Partim, quinis, alia, senis, alia Octonis Vocibus Concinuntur. Venetijs Apud Filios Antonij Gardani. 1572. The collection included 33 motets and antiphons in four, five, and six voices, with a setting of Ave Maria in eight voices. The composer liked his setting of “O magnum mysterium” so well he used it as the model for a Mass setting, published in Liber secundus, 1592. The motet is justifiably well-known and is a staple in the Christmas holiday repertory of many choirs, professional and amateur. The organization of the piece is clear and succinct, with three discreet sections delineated by strong cadences.
For more detail, we quote from a description found in An Analysis of Performance Practice Trends in Recent Recordings of Tomás Luis De Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium…as Related to Historical and Contemporary Scholarly Literature, a dissertation by Adam Gerhard Walter Luebke.
“The first section of the motet, as outlined by the text, describes the first mystery of the text through the words “jacentem in praesepio.” This A section is set in imitative polyphony and delineated by a strong perfect authentic cadence on G, the fourth scale degree. Marked by contrary motion expanding from a sixth on the penultimate chord to an octave on the final chord, the cantus approaches the final tone from a raised preparatory leading tone while the tenor steps down to the G. The bass drops a fifth to the G and the altus sings a raised third on the final chord.”
“The second section of the work celebrates the second mystery of the text: the Virgin
birth. The delineation between the A and B sections stems from the strong closing cadence of the A section and the contrast of all voice parts singing simultaneously in the B section. The parts continue in homorhythm until a brief moment of polyphony sets up this section‟s closing cadence, again on G. The mensuration remains the same as at the beginning.”
“The third section, C, is an extended expression of the word Alleluia. The delineation between the B section and the C section also results from a strong authentic cadence that closes the B section. Additionally, Victoria changes the mensural sign to contrast the joyfulness of the word Alleluia with the solemnity of the motet’s preceding text. Here the breve is divided into three semibreves with the sign 3/2. Because scholars believe that Victoria oversaw the publication of this motet, they believe it is clear that he intends sesquialtera proportion, or three semibreves of the proportion in the space of two semibreves of the preceding section.”
“The ternary proportion, 3/2, reverts to the original mensuration, for the final flourish of the motet. Building up to the closing cadence Victoria returns the four voices to imitative polyphony elongating the word Alleluia through descending scales. The final cadence is a perfect authentic cadence on G approached by the raised leading tone in the cantus and against contrary motion down to the raised third and fifth in the altus and tenor. The bassus drops a fifth to G.”
– Luebke, pp. 64-65
While the rather technical language may pass over the heads of those who simply appreciate the music, a deeper understanding of the composer’s conceptual layout, artistic vision, and musical devices only adds to that appreciation. A detail that seems to be missing in descriptions of the piece is the significance of the repeated falling fifth, a device that appears throughout. The falling fifth in sacred music of the sixteenth century is typically symbolic of a genuflection, a fact that demonstrates the priest-composer’s intimate grasp of symbolism within the liturgy.
Tomás Luis de Victoria’s understanding of the liturgy is further elucidated by the inscription at the opening of “O magnum misterium”—while the text is proper to the Nativity, this setting of the motet was actually intended for the Feast of the Circumcision, a fact that is strengthened by the composer’s close supervision of the 1572 publication. Currently, the Feast of the Circumcision is renamed and observed on the 1st of January, the Octave Day of the Nativity of the Lord, the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, and also the commemoration of the conferral of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.
Even though the music is meant for a different feast day, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s setting of “O magnum mysterium” will remain an evocative reminder of the great mystery of Christmas. As with all the music on our recording, our performance is arranged for voice and lute, effectively highlighting the text with subtle interweaving of the three lower voices on the lute. Our recording, released November 1st, 2016, is available for streaming on Spotify, as mp3 downloads on Amazon, Bandcamp, and iTunes, and the CD is available directly from the artists, on its own or packaged with an edition of all the scores, notated for voice and lute with transcriptions of lute parts in keyboard notation.
We are very pleased to announce the November 1st release of our new Christmas CD, Magnum Mysterium, which features four polyphonic settings of the evocative Christmas responsory text and includes other seasonal and contextual music. The recording is available to pre-order as a digital download on Amazon, Bandcamp, and iTunes, and the CD will be available on its own or packaged with an edition of all the scores, notated for voice and lute with transcriptions of lute parts in keyboard notation.
Since all of the music on the recording is newly arranged for solo voice and lute from historical sources, we take this opportunity to provide a bit of insight into our working process and how we follow the examples from the 16th century. We will also offer details describing each of the four settings of “O Magnum mysterium”, this week beginning with that of William Byrd.
The fact that printed works for lute solo and printed works for the combination of voice and lute appeared within the span of 1507 and 1509 indicates that the format was in common use well before that time. And the fact that Francesco Spinacino’s 1507 book–the very first published work for lute–contained mostly intabulations of vocal polyphony by 15th-century composers, indicates that abstract instrumental works for the lute were really a secondary, if digitally satisfying, indulgence. Following the cookie-cutter categories established by historians, we tend to believe that the earliest surviving printed evidence marks the beginning of a musical format, style or technique. But consideration of surviving paintings and earlier contextual clues informs us that music for solo voice with a lute playing more than one part with the fingertips of the right hand was a common practice many years before the appearance of Petrucci’s publications.
The first printed works for solo voice and lute are attributed to Franciscus Bossinensis, published in 1509 and 1511. These works were mostly transcriptions of four-part frottole by Bartolomeo Tromboncino, Marco Cara and other composers writing what amounted to pop music of the time. Bossinensis produced fairly straightforward arrangements with the cantus part in mensural notation and with the tenor and bass parts arranged for the lute appearing below. This legible format that facilitated performance by one singer-lutenist persisted throughout the 16th century and was found in Adrian Willaert’s 1536 arrangements of Verdelot’s first book of madrigals.
We see a bit of variation in the 1552 print of Pierre Phalese, who printed the voice and lute parts on separate pages, making it difficult for one person to sing and play the lute part, and creating a host of problems for those of us who edit old music. We performed Josquin’s “Stabat Mater dolorosa” from this source only last month and had to borrow heavily from the five-part vocal score in order to arrive at a plausible performing edition. And in order to create a more satisfying lute accompaniment, it was also necessary to borrow bits of figuration from other intabulations of Josquin’s “Stabat Mater” for solo lute, including those by Francesco da Milano and Simon Gintzler.
In choosing a polyphonic work to adapt for solo voice and lute, it is essential to have a complete grasp of the original piece; its character, its compass, the function of the cantus part within the polyphonic context, the nature of the text and its expressive possibilities, the shape and length of musical phrasing, and whether it is possible to create a convincing and playable arrangement of the lower parts for the lute. The keyword is “polyphony”, and the primary task of the lutenist is to observe the horizontal aspects of the multiple moving lines and avoid falling into the trap of turning a flowingly transparent and textural piece into a dull chordal clomp.
In choosing William Byrd’s setting of “O magnum mysterium”, we face a primary challenge in that, unlike the friendlier works of many sixteenth century composers, Byrd’s music is not particularly easy to play on the lute. His individual vocal lines have a tendency to be quite rhythmically active with an abundance of quirky syncopations tossed to and fro between the parts. Despite the appearance of several of Byrd’s keyboard and other instrumental pieces arranged for lute by his English contemporaries, unlike Palestrina, there is nothing to indicate that Byrd ever composed with lute in hand.
But among those arrangements by his contemporaries is a collection of Byrd’s vocal polyphony arranged for lute and voice, with most of the solo voice parts unfortunately missing. The Paston manuscripts have been amply studied by Stewart McCoy (“Edward Paston and the Textless Lute-Song”, Early Music, Vol. 15, No. 2, Plucked String Issue (May, 1987), pp. 221-227.), Hector Sequera (link is pdf), Samuel Schmitt (“The Paston Manuscripts in Context: A Study of Folger Shakespeare Library MSS V.a. 405-7”), and Philip Taylor.
“One would dearly like to know in just how many Jacobean households Catholic Mass was celebrated in choir with music from the Gradualia. Appleton Hall in Norfolk was one, the home of Edward Paston, member of a distinguished family best known for the 15th-century “Paston Letters”. At court in the 1570s Paston had been known as something of a poet, but he had soon retired to the quiet life of a country squire, a life that allowed him to practise the old religion with less interference and to indulge his hobbies, poetry and especially music. He had a mania for copying music; perhaps a third of all the surviving manuscripts of the time were written by his personal scribes, and we know from his will that cupboardsful of others existed which are now lost. A dozen anonymous consort songs in these manuscripts were identified as Byrd’s by Dart and Brett.”
– Joseph Kerman, “William Byrd,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980), 5:543.
Byrd’s setting of “O magnum misterium” (Byrd’s spelling) was published in the second book of his Gradualia in 1607, a rather risky time to be publishing Catholic music in Protestant England.
“The political climate may well have appeared favourable in early 1605, but things changed with the Gunpowder Plot and there is record of someone being arrested in possession of Gradualia partbooks. Byrd seems merely to have withdrawn the edition and stored the pages. He issued a second volume of Gradualia in 1607 and reissued both, with new title-pages, in 1610.”
– Kerman, “William Byrd,” 5:543.
Regardless of the sudden shifts in attitudes towards Catholicism in early Stuart England, Byrd’s reputation as “a Father of Musick” persisted until his death in 1623. Representing the generation before Dowland and the lute song composers, Byrd managed to create and maintain a unique style of music that resisted the character of foreign influences.
Back to Byrd’s setting of “O magnum misterium”, we have a beautifully independent cantus line that clearly carries the complete text of the responsory after a quiet and pensive introduction by the lower parts. The standard text for the responsory is “et admirable” rather than Byrd’s “O admirable”, which could be a printing error by someone unfamiliar with the liturgy. We adopt the standard text.
However, Byrd indulged in a bit of clever text-setting by introducing and tossing back and forth the braying leap of a fourth at the words “ut animalia”, a playful imitation of a donkey in the stable. The complete responsory text includes the secunda pars “Beata Virgo” and the versus “Ave Maria”, which thins the texture down to the top three voices. The setting then repeats “Beata Virgo”, ending on a unresolved dominant harmony. And we will end for now with an invitation to join us next week for a look at another setting of “O magnum mysterium”.
This post ought rightfully to be titled “Alt-early music IV”, but our readers may have gotten the point by now. The point being we have from the beginning of our duo consciously taken a different path from the more orthodox approach to early music. “Hang on”, you may very well say, “Isn’t early music meant to be an alternative to the more orthodox world of classical music?” Yes, it started out that way.
But just as we saw the once esteemed Mother Earth News morph from a mimeographed “how-to” newsletter into a slick mag loaded with outrageous adverts and scams; and just as we saw our food coops evolve from community buying clubs into sprawling superstores; and just as we saw a small tech firm that began in someone’s garage whose motto was “don’t be evil”, grow into an unfeeling, if user-friendly, corporate behemoth of a search engine, controlling and selling personal information without personal consent; the grassroots early music community has grown to become a corporate orthodoxy in and of itself.
The goal of a corporate entity is monopoly, control of supply and demand, and exclusion of competition, and, at least in the US, local control over early music events has been given over to the national organization which acts as a clearinghouse for academic connections, artist representatives, record labels, (some) syndicated radio programs, and regional music festivals. We accept this as a reality and we congratulate the corporate entity on its success. But we still believe in the uniqueness of individual insight, and we respectfully reject what has become an orthodoxy in its approach to early music.
It’s no secret that I (RA) spent many years performing different music before turning my focus to early music. Having experienced the honesty and directness of traditional folk music, it’s a bit much to witness a performance where the paper-trained musician—let’s say a lutenist—sits on a stage and stares at a sheaf of paper on a stand, bobbles his head meaningfully, and plays a fanciful but distinctly undanceable galliard by Dowland, and then the audience politely applauds. In traditional music, the standard of interpretation is measured by whether the performance is honest, engaged and convincing.
But that is not to say traditional folk music has not acquired its own orthodoxy. There are just as many people involved, mostly academics from large northern cities, who like to decide upon what is authentic and what is not. We offer them the same raspberries and quote the venerable Norman Blake, who aptly describes his own polite rejection of the chafing orthodoxy one finds in traditional folk music.
“It’s old-time music. We’ve done a lot of original things though, and sometimes people don’t think that qualifies you for strictly this or that, but I’ve always believed that you can add your own dimension to anything that you did, and writing a lot of instrumental tunes and songs has been something I’ve done over the years. I’ve also tried to do a lot of traditional material. Not to do it like some old record that I might have heard of it. I mean I love the way that the tunes are on the old phonograph records, and really, you know, nobody does it quite like the old guys from the 20’s and 30’s and those old records that were made in warehouses and hotel rooms and things like that.”
“But you can give something of yourself to it, you know, that doesn’t make it a direct copy of their performance…You can put your own self or soul into it and try not to take away too far but try to give it something that might bring it on across a little bit into today’s world without sacrificing the real heart and soul of it.”