Sunday, December 05, 2010

On camera

Finally, some videos of me in concert!

I've played quite a few solo concerts this year of a programme of music from the Matthew Holmes lute book, to mark the publication by the Lute Society of a new facsimile edition of this important manuscript. These videos are of my concert in October at an English Country House, Hammerwood Park in Sussex. It's a live recording, of course, so no second chances or retakes!

It's a curious experience to watch yourself on video. It takes a little while to detach yourself from being the performer, reliving the experience from the inside, and to become an observer, watching and listening from the outside like anyone else. Then you can start to relax and enjoy it...

Monday, November 01, 2010

No-one expects the Italian Inquisition

The title page of Giulio Caccini's songbook 'Le Nuove Musiche, published in Venice (and available online from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France). It's a classic work, introducing the new style of solo song with figured bass continuo, and containing such favourites as 'Amarilli mia bella'. Caccini was one of the first players of the newly-invented chitarrone, and explains in his preface how the songs are to be accompanied by this instrument. The preface also sets out in some detail the ways in which the singer can ornament the vocal line, and the songs themselves show this in elaborate practice.

But before getting to this, there's a hurdle to be jumped...

"I, Brother Francesco Tibaldi Fiorentino of the Minori Conventuali have read these madrigals in music by Signor Giulio Caccini Romano, and being composed in the matter of worldly love, I have found nothing in them repugnant to the catholic faith, nor against the precepts of the holy church, republics or princes, and in faith of this I have written these four verses in my own hand in Santa Croce of Florence, on the last day of June 1602, with the dedicatory letter to Signor Lorenzo Salviati and another to the Readers.

The printing is allowed, with the permission of the Father Inquisitor, the 1st of July 1602. Cos. Vicar of Florence.

Granted licence to print them in Florence. In quorum fidem. Florence, the 1st of June 1602. The Inquisitor of Florence."

The title page shows a date of 1601. So it looks as though the censorship process delayed the publication by at least six months. Bureaucracies, always reliably slow.

Friday, June 18, 2010


More from the Matthew Holmes Cambridge lute manuscripts. This page contains a galliard by John Dowland, entitled Mignarde, which is an adjective meaning "d'une délicatesse, d'une douceur affectée", according to Larousse. Not entirely positive, then.

Mignarde is in the very unusual key, for the lute, of E minor. This might be a wordplay on the title, since Mi is the musical note E. Dowland used this device in other music, most notably the song Lasso vita mia, mi fa morire, where the highlighted syllables outline the initial melody, dropping from A down to D.

There are quite a few incorrect notes in this piece, some corrected and overwritten, some not. Generally, they're out by a semitone (i.e. by one fret). For example, in the B major chord in the final cadence, the added dominant 7th A, which should be fret e on the 4th course, has been written as fret f.

How did this happen? It looks as though Holmes can't have been copying directly from a tablature source (unless his source also had all the same mistakes). He's unlikely to have been making an intabulation from an original in conventional notation, since such originals don't really exist. Most likely he was working from memory, but away from his instrument. An unusual key means unfamiliar chord shapes and fingering patterns: easy to go wrong. If he'd had his lute to hand, he would have spotted and corrected those mistakes.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Sweet torment

Si dolce e'l tormento has become one of Monteverdi's greatest hits, simple yet affecting, recorded by Philippe Jaroussky with L'Arpeggiata and by many others. But it's surprisingly difficult to find the music for it. Look in the 9th book of madrigals, as suggested by the BBC. It's not there. An online search turns up only a sadly unreliable modern transcription which confuses E flats and D sharps.

It turns out that the song comes not from one of Monteverdi's own books but from a 1624 collection by Carlo Milanuzzi, the Quarto Scherzo delle Ariose Vaghezze. And, deep inside a master's thesis by Cory Gavito of the University of North Texas, there's a facsimile of the original song.

Surprise: above the voice part, there are chords for guitar, just like a modern pop song. The chords are in the Alfabeto system, widespread at the time, in which each common chord is rather arbitrarily assigned a letter of the alphabet. The song opens with chords E, D, H, G which in today's terms are chords of D minor, A minor, B flat major, F major. I'd love to hear what Joni Mitchell would make of it.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

A double-headed mace

Thomas Mace, stout defender of women lutenists, earned his place in the pantheon of great eccentrics with his invention of the magnificent Lute Dyphone. The Dyphone cunningly combined two instruments in one, the Majestick Theorboe (on the right) and the High Improved French Lute, with no less than fifty strings between them. Mace says that he himself built the only Dyphone in existence in 1672. I'm not aware that anyone has tried to build one since, despite the numerous advantages detailed by the inventor.

Mace's reason for creating the Dyphone was an unexpected one: his deafness. He could no longer hear the soft sound of a normal lute, and was searching for something stronger. The Dyphone proved to be 'absolutely the Lustiest or Loudest Lute, that I ever yet heard'. Even so, he still needed to hold his teeth to the edge of the instrument to hear everything distinctly.

Mace was already in his 60's when he published Musick's Monument, in which the Dyphone appears, in 1676. The book was published thanks to the generosity of 300 subscribers, each of whom took a copy ('in sheets' - the binding was extra) for twelve shillings. Which was quite a lot of money: equivalent to £81 today using the retail price index, or a staggering £903 using average earnings. One of the subscribers was Isaac Newton, like Mace a member of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Egality, sorority

There's a thriving internet mailing list dedicated to the lute. Based at Dartmouth, an Ivy League university in New Hampshire, it hosts lively discussions between lute enthusiasts around the world. It's friendly and egalitarian, and all are welcome.

But I noticed something strange a few months ago, and I posed the question: "Of the last 100 individuals to post to this list, 95 were men. Is this representative of the wider lute world? Any ideas why?". Lots of replies, lots of theories, including some anxious denials from men that any sort of discrimination existed. Most plausible, I think, is that the huge male bias in the guitar world (and why is that?) finds a reflection in the lute world. And, as one woman pointed out, larger hands help too.

It's not just that internet mailing lists have a male bias, although this may be true. A recent meeting of the Lute Society in London was at least 75% male, and some of the other 25% had been dragged along by their partners.

It wasn't always so. The excellent Thomas Mace, in Musick's Monument (1676) rebuts a number of 'False and Ignorant Out-cries against the Lute', including this one:

The Fifth Aspersion is, That it is a Woman's Instrument.

To which he stoutly answers:
If this were True, I cannot understand why It should suffer any Disparagement for that; but rather that It should have the more Reputation and Honour.

Good on you, Thomas.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Online Melchior

Brilliant: a facsimile copy of Melchior Newsidler's Teutsch Lautenbuch (see my earlier post) has just been put online by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. High-definition, un-retouched, with even the covers and the blank pages. Scrumptious. Unfortunately, this copy doesn't appear to contain the page with the portrait of Melchior. That, for the record, came from the facsimile published by Cornetto Verlag, Stuttgart, which is taken from a copy in the Heidelberg university library.

I've added it to my ever-increasing database of online lute and early music books at