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

Monday, March 15, 2010

Keys please

Remember the Pavan by John Johnson which finds its way to G flat major at one point? I've just been playing an anonymous fantasia from the Hirsch lute book (c. 1595), folio 68v, in the equally way-out key of G sharp minor. It's immediately followed by another fantasia in the much more common key (for lutes) of G minor. Equal temperament. Please.

Lautenschlagen du edle Kunst

I've just been listening to Paul O'Dette's lovely CD of solo lute music by Melchior Newsidler.

Newsidler's Teutsch Lautenbuch (Strassburg, 1574) is an ambitious book. It's written in German tablature, an unintuitive system of notation that makes even lutenists shudder. Most of the content is arrangements for solo lute of polyphonic vocal music: nine big motets by Josquin, Willaert, Verdelot and others, various chansons, madrigals, and German songs. There's also a set of German dances, and several passemezzos and fantasias.

In his foreword, Newsidler explains why he published two books in Italian tablature some years before [in 1566]. Firstly, because he hoped by this means to make the music most accessible to art-lovers in Germany and elsewhere; also, since he wanted to make his music available in countries to which German lute tablature hadn’t spread, and to counter the reputation that the Germans had only coarse, peasant, and drunken music (“ein grobe, Pewrische und Bachantische Musicam”). But then he learned that some people thought this displayed a contempt for his dear Fatherland; so he wanted to shake off this accusation, and to address the remaining portion of lute-lovers. Hence this Teutsch Lautenbuch.

Amazingly, Benedictus de Drusina in 1573 published a version of Newsidler's first two books transcribed into German tablature; maybe it’s this that prompted the Teutsch Lautenbuch the following year.

The Teutsch Lautenbuch contains some fairly early examples of music for seven-course lute. Newsidler explains the need for the seventh course, and why he prefers it to be tuned to F (on a G instrument), rather than the more logical D.

Although it doesn't sound so in O'Dette's hands, the music is pretty difficult. Newsidler's advice? If you find these pieces difficult, he says, study the simpler ones first – there are some – then the others will become easier.

There's a most impressive portait of Newsidler at the front of the book, together with a rather endearing motto:

Lautenschlagen du edle Kunst /
Erfröwest s Herz und machest gunst /

Lute playing, you noble art
You gladden the heart and create goodwill

p.s. Like Shakespeare, Newsidler's name appears in various spellings. He's Newsidler in the German book; Neysidler in the Italian ones (misspelt as Neysdler on the title page); and Neusidler on the CD. His more famous father, Hans, favoured the Newsidler spelling in his various books.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

I am NOT going to make a joke about this

What a fine instrument. This is the British Museum citole, made in around 1320, previously known as the Warwick gittern. It was the subject of a detailed presentation by conservator Chris Egerton at a recent meeting of the Lute Society, which has now been written up in Lute News, December 2009.

The article explains that citole and gittern were similar instruments, which existed contemporaneously in Northern Europe in the the medieval period. One mid 15th century gittern by Hans Oth survives, and the fragments of another have been recovered from the archaeological excavation of a latrine in Elblag, Poland, described in The Consort (2002).

Now, try as I might, I can't imagine any plausible reason that a gittern should be found in a latrine. Actually, I'm not even going to speculate here. No.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Temperament 2

I showed some scepticism in an earlier post about mean-tone tuning on the lute.

This is reinforced by the wide range of keys in which lute music is written. Tuning systems other than equal temperament have a 'home' key in which they sound best. The further away you get from the home key, the less good they sound. So non-equal tempered systems work best in a narrow range of keys.

Assuming a lute tuned in G, a good starting point is the key of G major or minor. The instrument sounds good, the fingering works well, and as a result there are plenty of pieces in those keys. Yet the repertoire stretches a long way on either side. On the sharp side there's a lot of music in D major and minor, A minor (think Lachrimae), and even in E minor (Dowland's Mignarda). On the flat side we find pieces in C major and minor, F major and minor, B flat major and minor, E flat major, and A flat major (think Walsingham). In modern terms, that's a range of key signatures from two sharps to five flats. The music isn't kept strictly separated into different keys, either: for example, the Fantasie by Laurencini in Varietie of Lute Lessons (Robert Dowland, 1610) finishes in D major and is immediately followed by Ferrabosco's Fantasie in B flat minor.

Within pieces, the keys range still further. The first example below is from Sir John Langton's Pavan by John Dowland, which appears in Varietie. The piece has started in D major but at this point we're on a chord of F sharp major, the dominant of B minor. In the second example, from a Pavan in F minor by John Johnson in Dd 2.11 (f. 44v), we've hit G flat major at the beginning of the second bar. The same chord? Whichever way you approach it, it's going to be problematic in a non-equal tempered tuning system.

The argument is sometimes made that the different sound quality of different keys is one of the positive characteristics of non-equal tempered systems. Up to a point, I would say, but examples like this go well beyond that point for me. It's also an aesthetic that would apply only to instruments, since singers don't generally choose to sing out of tune in more remote keys. That makes it unconvincing for me.

Interestingly, John Dowland gives detailed instructions in Varietie on how to position the frets on a lute. He recounts the anecdote about how Pythagoras discovered musical proportions by hearing smiths in a forge beating iron with different sized hammers, and he tries to follow these simple Pythagorean ratios in his fretting system. The 12th fret is positioned at half the length of the string, the 7th at one-third the length, the 5th at one-quarter, and the 2nd at one-ninth the length. The positioning of the lower frets is more complex: the first fret at 2/33 of the string length, the third at 5/33, and the fourth at 53/264 which is almost, but not quite, a pure Pythagorean major third, which would be at 1/5 the length. The 8th, 9th and 10th frets are positioned at one third of the sounding length of the string stopped at the 1st, 2nd or 3rd fret: in other words, a pure Pythagorean fifth higher.

Phew. That would seem to be definitive, coming from the master himself. But the problem is that this tuning system is as skewed as any other. In particular, the semitones are of very different sizes, with the widest being 38% bigger than the narrowest, and as a result various octaves and other intervals are out of tune. So it really can't be said to give a more satisfactory result than any other system. Incidentally, there's no suggestion from Dowland that frets might be moved for different keys.

So what's the answer? Well, as I said before, every system is a flawed compromise. But for me this is one further factor in favour of equal temperament on the lute.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Pro am

The English royal family employed lute players for over four hundred years. The first record dates from 1285, when 'Johann Le Leutour' appears in royal accounts, and the line continued into the seventeenth century. Distinguished names along the way included Philip van Wilder, John Johnson, Daniel Bacheler, Philip Rosseter, John Dowland, Robert Johnson and Jacques Gaultier.

Much of the surviving English lute music was composed by these top professionals. Yet they didn't generally transmit this music themselves. In fact, Matthew Spring in The Lute in Britain (p. 111) suggests that:

"Composers may have actively avoided transmission to prevent plagiarism and competition. Surviving sources are strongly biased towards the amateur, and were often compiled as the result of a course of lessons ... Professional lutenists may have played without music ... and are likely to have been prompted to write down their pieces when teaching them to others, rather than for themselves."

Jane Pickering, Herbert of Cherbury, Margaret Board, Dallis: all amateurs. The pupils, says Spring, "were often young, between 15 and 20, and were typically young ladies from the leisured classes ... or young men of a lower social standing who wished to improve their employment and social acceptability." Even the great set of manuscripts compiled by Matthew Holmes exist "as a result of amateur enthusiasm. A professional lutenist would not have bothered".

As for published books of lute music (of which there were very few in England), each is presented as a didactic work, containing instructions on how to play the lute as well as the actual music.

This does all make one wonder: is the surviving music simplified stuff, geared towards the amateur? What did the professionals play? Was there a whole different style of playing, now lost?

Maybe; but I'm inclined to think not. Contrapuntal works such as fantasias (which occupy pride of place in Robert Dowland's Varietie of Lute Lessons, 1610) are fully worked-out and ambitious pieces. Varietie contains some exceptionally challenging music, with highly elaborate diminutions. Aesthetically, not to mention technically, one wouldn't want to go much further.

Possibly these are written-out examples of what might normally have been improvised. It reminds me, from a different age, of the contemporary editions of Corelli
which present the music as the composer himself is supposed to have played it: masses of gorgeous detail built on a simple written foundation.