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.