Monday, December 28, 2009

Lots of lutes

My recent concert in Pau included a number of French Airs de Cour for voice and lute from the early seventeenth century. More than a thousand of these were published, in beautifully-produced editions.

The voice parts are written in conventional musical notation and the lute part in tablature. An unexpected problem arises. My lute is tuned in G. However, the songs we chose for the concert appeared to require lutes tuned at four different pitches (G, A, C and D) in order for voice and lute to come out in the same key.

What's the answer? Well, for most of the songs I ended up transposing, which is a shame since it completely changes the fingering of the lute parts, rendering the tablature useless.

So, should I have four lutes by my side, switching instruments for each song as required? It seems impractical, not to mention expensive. Is that really what the composers intended?

Jonathan Le Cocq also thought this was odd, and published a study about it in the Lute Society Journal, 1992. 68% of the air de cour repertoire appears to require a lute in A, 27% a lute in G, and the rest lutes at other pitches. However, the A-lute pieces are strongly associated with a certain set of keys: C major, D minor, and G minor. Played on a lute on G these would come out in B flat major, C minor and F minor. It's possible, then, that the songs should sound in those keys and that it's the voice part which has been transposed up by a tone, to avoid having to write too many flats. In other words, I can stick to playing everything on my G-lute and the singer can adjust. That's just fine.

As it happens, though, lutes did exist in many different sizes and pitches. As Matthew Spring explains in his book The Lute in Britain, many continental lute duets are for instruments at different pitches, often a tone or a fourth apart. Trios are found for lutes at the unison, fourth and fifth, and Adriaenssen's quartets require lutes in A, G, E and D. So maybe I need to buy more instruments. Lots more instruments...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Elementary (2)

Now that looks a bit better, doesn't it? This is a sneak preview of the same page from Dd 2.11, but taken this time from the copy that the Lute Society will be using for its facsimile publication. Legible! In colour! Place your orders now.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Cambridge University Library MS Dd.2.11. The very title makes the heart beat a little faster and sets the mouth watering, doesn't it? Alright, I admit it's not the most thrilling of names. But it's possibly the most important source of English lute music. Copied by Mathew Holmes in c. 1588 - 1600, it contains 200 pages and 325 wide-ranging pieces of music.

The bulk of the music is by the great English lute composers of the time such as John Dowland, Anthony Holborne, Francis Cutting, Francis Pilkington and John Johnson. But there are also appearances by continentals such as Francesco da Milano (from 50 years earlier), Emanuel Adriaenssen, Alfonso Ferrabosco, or Matthäus Waissel. As well as the expected pavans, galliards, fantasias and the like, there are also lots of short page fillers, little pieces lasting maybe 30 seconds with colourful titles: Clement's squirrel, Hunting of the mouse, Go merrily wheel, Playfellow, and various Jigs and Toys.

I'm lucky to have a photocopy of the manuscript, but it's a poor quality copy and often illegible, as the picture shows. So I'm delighted that the Lute Society is publishing a smart new facsimile edition in 2010. I am putting together a concert programme of music from Dd.2.11 which I'll be performing in several concerts in May 2010. One of them is planned to be at the second European Lute Festival in Germany, where Ian Harwood will also be giving a talk about the manuscript. Ian is president of the Lute Society, and the scholar who did the pioneering research on the Holmes manuscripts, and it's a privilege to be working with him.

My picture isn't just a random page. The manuscript contains several vocal intabulations: arrangements for solo lute of polyphonic pieces originally for voices. This particular one seems to have been unidentified until now, so I was rather chuffed when playing through the manuscript to find that I recognised it. It's an arrangement of the 5-voice motet Verbum Iniquum by the Spanish composer Cristobal de Morales, which also exists in printed versions for lute from Germany (Newsidler, 1544), Spain (Fuenllana, 1554) and France (de Rippe, also 1554). It seems to have taken another 40 years to reach England.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

From harmony, from heav'nly harmony, this universal frame began.

Now pay attention. This diagram (click to enlarge) reveals the secret of life, the universe and everything. It appears in Marin Mersenne's Harmonie Universelle, volume 2 (1637). It depicts the great Lyre of the universe, governed by the divine Orpheus, who tunes all the parts of the world as he pleases. At the top right you can even see a divine hand emerging from a cloud and turning a tuning peg.

The diagram equates musical notes and intervals, on the right, with the planets and their orbits, on the left. It seeks to demonstrate that the universe is constructed according to musical principles, with the same fundamental ratios governing both. Whence the 'Music of the Spheres': the idea that the planets produce harmonious musical sounds in their movement.

Mersenne was inspired by the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who had finished his book Harmonice Mundi on this topic less than twenty years before. Kepler, in turn, was influenced by the lutenist and music theorist Vincenzo Galilei, father of Galileo Galilei.

There's an interesting article about Kepler by Andrew Brown on the Guardian website.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wild Barley

In 1596, William Barley published three books of tablature, one each for the lute, orpharion and bandora. They are among the very few printed sources of English solo lute music.

In the introduction to the orpharion book, he explains that the pieces for lute can also be played on the 'stately Orpharion', and vice versa. But since the orpharion is strung with wire strings, and the lute with gut, the orpharion requires a 'more gentle & drawing' stroke than the lute. The right hand must be easily drawn over the strings, and not 'suddenly gripped or sharply stroken as the lute is', otherwise the wire strings will clash together and make a nasty sound.

He's very insistent on this, and repeats: "sudden and sharpe as the Lute is alwaies stroken." Today, we tend to think of the lute as a gentle, sweet-sounding instrument. Perhaps we're wrong?

The sincerest form of flattery

More from Adrian Le Roy's A briefe and plaine Instruction, published in London in 1574. I love these pictures, which show how to test a lute string before putting it onto the instrument. The good string appears to divide into two when it's plucked, the bad string looks all fuzzy. Note the lovingly-drawn detail: the dainty ruff at the end of the sleeves, the hank of string-gut hanging down on the right, the curly end of the string on the left. (Click the picture to see a large version).

Someone else who clearly liked the picture was Marin Mersenne, author of Harmonie Universelle, a music theory book published in Paris in 1636 and weighing in at an impressive 1,600 pages. Here's his illustration of the same thing:

Definitely a family resemblance.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Por la gracia de dios

This splendid picture is from El Maestro, the book of music for vihuela by Luis Milan published in Valencia in 1536. It shows Orpheus playing his vihuela, and charming the birds and beasts. There's a city on fire in the top right of the picture.

The text around the frame reads:

El grande Orpheo / primero inventor
Por quien la vihuela / paresce en el mundo
Si el fue primero / no fue sin segundo
Pues dios es de todos / de todo hazedor.

The great Orpheus, first inventor
Through whom the vihuela appeared in the world
If he was the first, he was not without a second [?]
Since God is creator of everyone and everything.

Ruggiero Chiesa reproduces this image in his edition of El Maestro (Milan, 1974). Strangely, though, the text isn't quite the same. The last line now reads:

Porque es de todos / de todo hazedor.
Since he is creator of everyone and everything.

God has been excised. Worse, this text makes it look as though Orpheus is being credited with being the great creator. Some mistake, surely.

Howard Mayer Brown (Instrumental Music printed before 1600) also gives the Godless text. I would guess that this was printed first, that someone noticed, and insisted it was changed.

The introduction to the recent facsimile edition by the Sociedad de la Vihuela (Córdoba, 2008) lists thirteen surviving copies of the book, but doesn't draw attention to the changed text or suggest that there was any more than a single edition. Quite a mystery.

You'll find a facsimile of the book (with God) on line at the Spanish Biblioteca Nacional.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Bet you haven't seen one of these before. The cittern is normally a modest little four-course instrument, remarkably similar to a 16th century ukelele. But this monster has fourteen courses, the result of an unwise match between a cittern and a Italian chitarrone four times its size. It's the cover illustration from Thomas Robinson's New Citharen Lessons, published in London in 1609. He called his book "the sweetest Cornell of my conceited Cithering" and optimistically described the new instrument as "most fulle, sweete and easie".

In fact, most pieces in the book are for the old-fashioned four-course cittern, and there's just half a dozen pieces at the end for the big fellow. There's some satisfyingly big six- and seven-note chords, but the extra bass strings are disappointingly sparingly used. An opportunity missed.

Cittern music looks rather scary to lute players. The chords require apparently impossible stretches; but the instrument is much smaller so (I guess...) they can be reached. And the music routinely goes much higher up the fingerboard than lute music: up to fret q (the 15th fret) on occasion.

Robinson wasn't the only English lutenist to stray onto the cittern. Antony Holborne published The Cittharn Schoole in 1597. In the dedication, he calls the instrument 'this little Wanton' and the book 'my silly Citharn Schoole'. Clearly a man with a healthy sense of the ridiculous.

Role model

Now, that is one hell of a
  • big lute
  • hat
  • playing posture
  • set of leg muscles
  • costume
  • beard
  • scowl
Thanks to Adrian Le Roy (1574) for the picture.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Tarnished reputations

After being at the pains of scoring several of Dowland's compositions, I have been equally disappointed and astonished at his scanty abilities in counterpoint, and the great reputation he acquired with his cotemporaries, which has been courteously continued to him, either by the indolence or ignorance of those who have had occasion to speak of him, and who took it for granted that his title to fame, as a profound musician, was well founded.

Actually, that's not me speaking. It's Dr. Charles Burney in his General History of Music, published in 1789.

After demolishing Dowland he continues with Ferrabosco:

I have my doubts likewise concerning the genius, at least, of the second FERRABOSCO, who had the Poets and Dilettanti all on his side; but whose works, that have come under my inspection, seem wholly unworthy of a great professor... [He] published Ayres, with an accompaniment for the lute, in London, 1609, which contain as little merit of any kind as I have ever seen in productions to which the name of a master of established reputation is prefixed...

Burney is fair in his criticism and includes four pages of music by these composers so that readers can judge for themselves. He annotates the Dowland and comments that "The places in Dowland's second composition marked with a +, will be not be found very grateful to nice ears". Expressive augmented triads: absolutely not allowed. As for Ferrabosco, "the musical critic in the following plates shall have it in his power to discover such beauties in them as may have escaped my observation." Ouch.

Interestingly, neither transcription contains any lute music. To illustrate Dowland, Burney has chosen two Lamentations by Dowland, for 4 and 5 voices, published by Leighton in 1614, and little known today. In the original source (illustrated above) the 4-voice piece is a consort song, with tablature parts for lute, bandora and cittern which Burney has suppressed. His transcription of a Ferrabosco air reduces the tablature lute part to a figured bass, eliminating much of the detail. Possibly, with his emphasis on strict counterpoint as the mark of a good composer, Burney was simply unable to come to terms with the greater fluidity of polyphonic writing on the lute. Or possibly the closed world of tablature discouraged him, as it has so many others.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


Oh my god. Temperament regularly arouses heated passions and arguments among lutenists, especially on the lute mailing list. Intemperate is more like it. The arguments are futile because there is, mathematically, no right answer to the question of how different notes should be tuned relative to one another, so the different temperaments (tuning systems) are all flawed compromises. So it's largely a matter of which flawed compromise system you prefer, tinged with a little information about the systems used in the past.

Equal temperament (boo, hiss) is the modern standard. Mean temperament (1/5 comma, 1/6 comma, ...), just intonation, Pythagorean/ natural temperament, Valotti, Werckmeister, .... The debate rages. There are even i-phone applications for different historical tuning systems.

Refer elsewhere for more detailed explanations, for example Stuart Isacoff's book Temperament, aimed at non-specialist readers.

I'm not aware that the issue ever arises with modern guitarists. Firstly, fixed frets mean there's nothing to be done anyway. Secondly, guitarists seem to have accepted equal temperament long ago. Early nineteenth-century experiments with enharmonic guitars with crazy side-stepped fret dispositions gave impractical, not to mention unplayable, results.

On the lute, despite its movable frets, even the compromises have to be compromised. Each fret, as on the guitar, has to serve for five different notes. For example, the first fret on a G lute gives G#, C#, F#, A# and D#. Or, rather, ten different notes, since it also has to serve for Ab, Db, Gb, Bb and Eb. In systems other than equal temperament, these are not the same notes as the sharp equivalents. Which means, basically, that any tuning system other than equal temperament is shot to pieces.

A particular problem: Bb on the third course and F# on the fourth course require the first fret to be in different places. Both notes are frequently needed in the lute's favourite key of G minor. What to do? Some players have tried placing so-called tastini (little frets) just behind the real first fret, to allow both notes to be achieved. My own limited experience of tastini is that they are a serious impediment to accurate playing.

So, I'm with Vincentio Galilei (father of Galileo G) in advocating equal temperament. He put his theory into practice in his Libro d'intavolatura di liuto in 1584, with a mighty set of Passemezzos, Romanescas and Saltarellos, written in all the major and minor keys. This was a full century before the birth of J.S. Bach, he of the Well-Tempered Klavier. Various composers for baroque guitar (e.g. Bartolotti, Pellegrini) wrote similar cycles in the seventeenth century.

To be fair, I should allow the other side to put their case. Here are two well-written articles from Martin Shepherd and David van Ooijen. I'm not yet convinced, though...

Monday, October 05, 2009

Musica Ficta

Musica ficta is the practice in pre-1600 music of adding non-notated accidentals at cadences and elsewhere, usually to avoid ungracious harmonic and melodic intervals. Practical problem for performers, especially modern ones who have not been brought up with the medieval hexachord system: knowing where, how, and how much to do this.

Lute tablature comes galloping to the rescue! In tablature, pitches of notes are shown precisely. So a composer or arranger for the lute had to show his musica ficta decisions explicitly. This means that arrangements for lute of music for voices or other instruments can offer solutions, or at least insights, into musica ficta practice. There are hundreds of such arrangements, of both sacred and secular polyphonic music, throughout the sixteenth century.

Firstly: on this evidence, music ficta undoubtedly existed. And was heavily used.

But, secondly: there are no universal rules. Where different composers have written versions of the same piece, they often adopt different musica ficta solutions at the same points. For example, a cadence going from e-g-c to d-a-d might have E flat and C natural in the first chord, or E natural and C sharp.

Or even a mixture of both. Albert de Rippe's version of Janequin's chanson D'un seul soleil in this context consistently uses a chord of E flat - G - C sharp, with an extra A in the middle for good measure. An early example of what, a couple of centuries later, came to be known as a German sixth, sounding strikingly out of place in 1552 but undoubtedly authentic. And the first of his two fantaisies for guitar (also 1552: yes, the guitar has been around for a while) has some even more exuberant scrunches in it: accidental logic taken to extremes.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Howard Mayer Brown

Instrumental Music Printed Before 1600: A Bibliography

An dry title for an astonishing book, first published in 1965 by the Harvard University Press. Howard Mayer Brown's aim was to catalogue and describe all of the instrumental music published before 1600. It has entries in chronological order for some 400 books, giving a brief description of each book and a full listing of the pieces of music in it. Equally valuable are a set of indexes (indices?) by library, type of notation, performing medium, composer, and titles of works, allowing easy access to the contents through different routes.

Now that these music books are widely available in facsimile, printed and online, Brown's book takes on a new life as a guide to these publications. The sparse examples he gives of the modern reprints available in 1965 show just how much things have moved on since then.

Index III is gratifying. It shows 206 volumes containing music for solo lute and only 76 for keyboard solo. Plus further volumes for similar instruments such as cittern, guitar, or vihuela. Music for other instruments is almost all generic ensemble music: there is very little that specifies named instruments, and very little solo music.

Brown's book is still available in a good-quality reprint from

p.s. I've just discovered a review from 1966, when the book first came out, which starts: "This is a volume that I would not hesitate to call magnificent". Quite.


A nice name for a horrid phenomenon (pace Howard Mayer Brown). A concordance is another version of the same piece in a different source. A table of concordances is when someone goes through a book of music and lists the known alternative versions of every piece in it. A real enthusiast will highlight the differences between the different versions.

Tables of concordances feature heavily in modern publications of lute music, whether facsimiles or new editions. Of course they have a scholarly purpose. But they sit like a lead weight, dull, depressing, sapping energy, turning the publication into a cataloguing exercise rather than a musical one. And making the musical reader feel somehow inferior if he doesn't know his way round the arcane abbreviations for libraries, manuscripts, folios and sigla which are used to locate the pieces.

Worse, one forms the distinct impression that publications can be delayed, or simply fail ever to appear, because of the enormous time and labour required to assemble this catalogue of stuff that no-one wants to read. Not good.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The old jokes are the best ones

Heard the one about the lutenist who spent longer tuning his instrument than he did playing it? Thought so. Fresh, witty, apt. Not bad for a joke that's been around for almost three hundred years.

Johann Mattheson in his Neu-eröffnete Orchestre from 1713 wrote: ‘Denn wenn ein Lauteniste 80. Jahr alt wird / so hat er gewiβ 60. Jahr gestimmet.’ (When a lutenist reaches the age of 80, he must surely have spend 60 years tuning.) To which he added: ‘Das ärgste ist / daβ unter 100. insonderheit Liebhabern / die keine Profession davon machen / kaum 2. capable sind / recht reine zu stimmen.’ (The worst is that among 100 amateurs, those that do not make a profession of it, hardly two will be able to tune really well.)

Goethe repeats the joke, at the expense of his dad Johann Caspar Goethe (1710-1782) who was a keen lutenist. In "Dichtung und Wahrheit", Buch 8, he writes:
"mein Vater ... stimmte seine Laute länger, als er darauf spielte." (my father ... tuned his lute for longer than he played it).

To be fair, by this late stage in the lute's development it was a multi-string monster. A thirteen-course German baroque lute has 26 strings.