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.