Walter Bitner

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“To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I

There is no known attributed portrait of John Dowland. This miniature of an unidentified subject, painted by Isaac Oliver (c1565-1617) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was suggested as a possible likeness by Roger Traversac in The Lute Society’s PDF Colour Supplement to LUTE NEWS no. 116, December 2015. “Anno Domini 1590 . . . 27th year of his age” describes this man as the correct age for Dowland, who was born in 1563. (click images to enlarge)

The Lute Part XIV

…happy they that in hell
feel not the world’s despite.

~ John Dowland
Flow, my tears

The English musician John Dowland (1563 – 1626) is the central figure in the history of the lute. Composer, lutenist, songwriter, translator, publisher, traveler, academic – four centuries later, Dowland appears larger than life, and in many ways his dreams and accomplishments eclipse those of his contemporaries. Yet Dowland was very much a man of his own time, and his ideals and struggles reflected the concerns, crises, and aspirations of the Elizabethans even as his music expresses universals that resonate deeply with musicians and audiences today.

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Simone Molinaro

Title page, Simone Molinaro: Intavolatura di Liuto Libro Primo, Venezia 1599 (click images to enlarge)

The Lute Part XVII

Simone Molinaro (c 1570 – 1636) was the leading musician in Genoa when the Most Serene Republic was at its height of wealth and power. In the early decades of the seventeenth century, he served Genoa first as maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, then as court musician and eventually maestro di cappella di Palazzo – the chapel of the ducal palace. Molinaro was the most prolific and highly esteemed composer in the Genoa Republic, and published many volumes of his own works as well as anthologies and collections of compositions by his contemporaries, including the first printing in score of Gesualdo’s five books of five- and six-voice madrigals.

In addition to being a composer and chapel master, Simone Molinaro was a lutenist, and in 1599 published one of the most highly esteemed volumes of music for the lute to appear during the Renaissance.

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The Golden Age of English Lute Music

Elizabeth I playing the lute by Nicolas Hilliard, c. 1580 ~ Berkeley Castle, Berkeley, Gloucestershire, UK (click images to enlarge)

The Lute Part XIII

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I – an astounding 45 years from 1558 to 1603 – is often referred to as the Golden Age of English history. The long rule of the Virgin Queen brought momentous advances for England: colonization of the New World and circumnavigation of the globe by English privateers, the dramatic defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Elizabeth and her advisors’ miraculous achievement of reestablishing and maintaining a Protestant state for nearly fifty years in the face of continental Catholic opposition.

England brought forth an artistic and cultural flowering under Queen Elizabeth – most famously in the development of the theatre and the work of the playwright William Shakespeare, whom she patronized. Music, too, flourished during the Golden Age: English musicians were renowned not only at home but abroad for their excellence and virtuosity, and the Queen herself not only patronized court musicians, she played the lute herself.

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The Lute at the Court of Henry VIII 

The Lute Part XII

Unknown Man with Lute by Hans Holbein the younger (1497/8 – 1543), Berlin, Gemäldegalerie ~ American musicologist John Ward speculated that this might be Philip van Wilder, but David Van Edwards has cast doubt on this theory here. (click images to enlarge)

When Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) ascended to the throne of England in 1509, the lute did not play the prominent role in English society and culture it would come to hold by the end of the 16th century. In addition to his matrimonial activities, waging war in France, and reforming the church, it is well known that Henry VIII was an enthusiastic musician, and even composer. He invigorated and developed the musical aspects of life at the English court in the first half of the 16th century far beyond what they had been under previous English monarchs, employing dozens of musicians, including lutenists (or lewters, as they appear in contemporary account books).

Before Henry VIII, the English court was still heavily influenced by Burgundian culture, and use of the harp superseded the lute there until the end of the 15th century. The lute rose to prominence in England by the second half of the 16th century, lagging behind much of the continent by a couple of generations.

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Renaissance Lute

The Lute Part V

Lutes ~ Plate XVI from Michael Praetorius: Syntagma Musicum, 1619

Lutes ~ Plate XVI from Michael Praetorius: Syntagma Musicum, 1619 (click to enlarge)

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?

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Attaingnant’s Lute Books

facsimile of Attaingnant's Tres brevet familiere introduction... (1529) by Editions Minkoff, Geneva, 1988

facsimile of Attaingnant’s Tres breue et famílíere introductíon… (1529) by Editions Minkoff, Geneva, 1988 (click to enlarge)

The Lute Part XI

continued from
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.

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Music Printer to the King: Pierre Attaingnant

The Lute Part X

portrait of Francis I of France (1494-1547) c.1530 by Jean Clouet (1475-1540)

portrait of Francis I of France (1494-1547) c.1530 by Jean Clouet (1475-1540), Louvre Museum, Paris (click to enlarge)

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.

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The Capirola Lute Book

a page from the Capirola Lute Book

a page from the Capirola Lute Book (click to enlarge)

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.

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The Frottolists and the First Lute Songbooks

Un Concerto, c. 1485-1495 by Lorenzo Costa (1460-1535) ~ National Gallery, London

The Lute Part VIII

continued from
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.

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Ottaviano Petrucci and the First Printed Lute Books

Frontispiece of Harmonice Musices Odhecaton ~ Canti A (1501) by Ottaviano Petrucci

Frontispiece of Harmonice Musices Odhecaton ~ Canti A (1501) by Ottaviano Petrucci

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.

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