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.

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