The Lute Part V
In which I offer some observations about the instruments themselves and how they were tuned
If someone finds out that I play the lute, it’s not uncommon to be asked: “oh…what is that?” I’ve even been asked “do you blow it?” once or twice. For non-lutenists – and especially non-musicians – distinctions between this or that lute are esoteric details.
But when one lutenist meets another and they both realize their common pastime (or obsession), often the first question that comes up is: do you play renaissance or baroque?
The Lute Part XI
Music Printer to the King: Pierre Attaingnant
In 1529, Pierre Attaingnant published the first book of lute tablature to be issued in France: Tres breue et famílíere introduction pour entendre & apprendre par soy mesmes a iouer toutes chansons reduictes en la tablature du Lutz. (Brief and simple introduction for understanding and learning for oneself how to play any song reduced to tablature for the lute.) Hereafter: Introduction.
This first volume of lute pieces to be printed in France – a collection of preludes and chansons – was followed less than four months later by a second volume – Dixhuit basses dances: 18 basses dances as well as branles, pavanes, galliards, and other dances in lute tablature.
Together, these two small books comprise the humble beginning of the long tradition of French lute music, which was eventually to dominate the solo lute repertoire throughout the continent. By the middle of the 17th century, “French lute” would represent the apotheosis of refined expression in instrumental music and the repertoire of the French lutenists would in turn influence the fledgling keyboard repertoire… but that’s getting considerably ahead of our story.
The Lute Part X
The French Renaissance is sometimes called the “long sixteenth century” by historians to describe a period from the end of the 15th through the beginning of the 17th centuries. During this period, the arts and culture flourished anew as France imported humanism, artistic ideals, and their proponents from Italy and adapted them according to French tastes and aesthetics. In the first half of the 16th century the French King Francis I – François Premier – was a great patrons of the arts and the epitome of the renaissance monarch: a poet himself, it was under his reign (1515 – 1547) that this cultural transformation took place most dramatically.
It was also during the reign of Francis I that the very first printed music books appeared in France – including the first printed lute books.
The Lute Part IX
In the early 16th century an amateur lutenist in Venice compiled an undated manuscript consisting of lute pieces in Italian tablature composed by his teacher. He names himself Vidal in the book’s preface, and states that in order to ensure that the music contained in its pages is preserved, he has decorated it with “noble pictures” so that it will be treasured for their sake should the book come into the possession of some who may not appreciate music. Indeed, 45 of the manuscript’s 147 pages feature elaborate pastoral illustrations in full color, and the book has been preserved: this is the famous Capirola Lute Book. It is one of the earliest and finest manuscripts of lute music to survive – perhaps the most beautiful – and it contains the only known selection of music by one of the the early 16th century’s finest lutenists, a Brescian nobleman named Vincenzo Capirola.
The Lute Part VIII
Ottaviano Petrucci and the First Printed Lute Books
From the end of the 15th century into the first decades of the 16th century – a period estimated by historians to be from about 1470-1530 – a secular polyphonic song genre known as frottola flourished throughout the courts of Italy. This poetic and musical movement paved the way for a distinctly Italian musical renaissance style featuring primarily Italian musicians and composers in contrast to the dominance of composers from Northern Europe in Italy from the 14th – 15th centuries, and prepared a fertile ground for the development of the madrigal later in the 16th century.
Hand in hand with the rise of the frottola was the development of a revolutionary technique that allowed musicians to play polyphonic music in 2, 3, or more parts on one lute. By the end of the 15th century, most lutenists had dropped their plectrums in favor of the new style, and plucked the strings with the fingers of the right hand. When Petrucci published the first books of lute tablature beginning in 1507, all of them and all of the tablature that followed for the next next two and a half centuries assumed the new technique.
The Lute Part VII
He did not compose for lute nor was he known to perform on it, but Ottaviano Petrucci (1466 – 1539) was nonetheless a vital figure in the history of the instrument, and profoundly influenced the course of musical development in the 16th century, and indeed music history in general.
Petrucci was an Italian printer and a pioneer in the publication of music printed from moveable type. In Venice at the very beginning of the Cinquecento, Petrucci produced the first known example of printed polyphonic music: a collection of secular songs titled Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, in 1501.
He also was the first to print instrumental music: several books of lute tablature, produced in 1507 and 1508. Today he is known as the father of modern music printing.
I don’t like to think of myself as a critic or a reviewer, but occasionally I make a raid into the territories inhabited by these creatures. Last week the English choir The Tallis Scholars released a new CD of Josquin Masses, and as I marveled for the ten-thousandth time at the sublime accomplishment of this ensemble in the stolen moments I was able to spend listening to it, I decided not to let it pass without remark.
Just in case you aren’t familiar with them, The Tallis Scholars were founded in 1973 by their director Peter Phillips, and are the world’s leading performers of renaissance polyphony. A good argument could also be made that they are the finest and most accomplished choir in the world, and the finest early music ensemble – notwithstanding their occasional foray into contemporary choral literature. (more…)
The Lute Part IV
The Lute and the New Humanists
The lute was already well-established as a favorite instrument in Italy by the 14th century (the Trecento). The happy circumstances that led to the rise of the lute as the emblematic and most revered instrument of the European Renaissance can be traced to its being readily on hand for the new humanist philosophers and poets who created the movement.
Already the lute was so familiar that in the early years of the century Dante (1265-1321) had used this simile to describe the counterfeiter Master Adam encountered in the eighth circle of Hell:
Io vidi un, fatto a guisa di lēuto
(I saw one, who would have been shaped like a lute)
~ Inferno XXX, 49
But Petrarch actually played the lute, and equating it with the the lyre of Classical Greece, he imbued the cultural perception of the instrument with a rich symbolism that permeated European art, music, and poetry for centuries.
The Lute Part III
By the middle of the 16th century, professional lutenists led by virtuosi such as Francesco da Milano had established the lute, and more importantly secular instrumental music, as a deep, abiding, and richly developed component of Western culture. The impact the early lutenists made on both their contemporaries and on the generations that followed influenced the course and development of our musical traditions in ways that are still felt today.
How did the lute rise from a little-known cultural import to become the defining instrument and symbol of music in Renaissance Europe – including its elevation to preeminent stature as the instrument of princes?
The Lute Part II
In one of my first lute lessons with Pat O’Brien (c. 1993) I must have enthused about the music of Francesco da Milano, which I had been listening to on one of the first CDs of lute music I came across at Tower Records, a collection of this composer’s works played by Paul O’Dette that had just been released by Astrée. (This superb recording – still one of my very favorites – is now out of print.)
In what I was to learn was Pat’s typical unrestrained style, he took down two large, thick, heavy, volumes off of the bookshelves that lined the back wall of his studio – or perhaps dug them out from under a pile of other books, I don’t remember – and put them in my hands. This was Arthur Ness’s monumental The Lute Music of Francesco Canova da Milano published by Harvard University Press in 1970, which by then I believe was out of print and generally difficult to come across. American musicologist Arthur Ness is to Francesco like Ludwig von Köchel is to Mozart: Ness was the first to collect all Francesco’s known works from prints and manuscripts found in libraries all across Europe, catalog, and number them. As Mozart’s works are known by their Köchel numbers, Francesco’s extant pieces are known and differentiated by their Ness numbers – especially helpful as more than ninety of them are either untitled or simply named Fantasia or Ricercar in the original sources.