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.