John Dowland — A Pilgrimes Solace

John Dowland’s lute songs make up about half of his oeuvre, totalling four books. They were (and are) among his most popular works. The Firste Booke of Songes or Ayres was the only lute-song book to get a second edition (and then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth). In fact, Dowland seemed to prefer his songs to his solo lute works, writing in his Firste Booke:

That harmony … which is skillfullie esprest by Instruments … easilie stirs up the minds of the hearers to admiration and delight, yet far higher authoritie and power hath been ever worthily attributed to that kinde of Musicke, which to the sweetness of the instrument applies the lively voice of man, expressing some worthy sentence or excellent Poeme.

A Pilgrimes Solace (a typically melancholy title) was Dowland’s last book. By this time he had come to play the role of ‘crusty old man’ rather well. Always temperamental, at fifty years old he had become especially so. That post in Elizabeth’s Court he had desired (and deserved) for fifteen years had still not been given to him, most likely because of his Catholicism. On top of this, his music was becoming old-fashioned. In the preface to A Pilgrim’s Solace, he attacks the cantors who are ‘meerely ignorant, euen in the first elements of Musicke’ and the young ‘professors of the Lute, who vaunt themselues, to the disparagement of such as haue beene before their time’. His tone is at times conspiratorial  — ‘these fellowes giue their verdict of me behinde my backe’.

But if Dowland had been more successful, we might not even have had these four song books. After 1612, the year A Pilgrimes Solace was published and the year he finally got a court post, he never published any more works. He had no financial need to do so; more financially successful lutenists published much less than Dowland. He died in 1626.

The duo Mignarda, who have released an excellent recording of songs from A Pilgrimes Solace, have a blog post on how they believe Dowland’s songs should be performed:

We submit that the paradigm of generic ‘classical’ singing, an approach that treats pre-Baroque domestic music as a simpler subset of art-song, is missing the point.  Early music singers typically have smaller voices, a trait that is inappropriately seen as a defect that relegates the poor singer to a less demanding repertory.  We think a consciously smaller voice can enable the singer to underplay the mechanics involved in projection, allowing volume of sound to take a backseat to the more important task of communicating both text and musical nuance.

If we look at the basis of training for the ‘classical’ singing voice, it is all about projection of a sound that smooths over the natural faults of the human voice.  This is analogous to using only closed fingerings and avoiding the overly resonant open strings of the violin.  The vocal result is an artificial sound (in the modern sense) that denies the natural characteristics of the human voice – characteristics like warmth and intimacy

They see modern-day recordings as reclaiming this intimacy. As lute songs would likely have been performed in homes, this is fair enough. I remember hearing the countertenor Iestyn Davies (who is otherwise excellent, especially in opera) sing Now oh now I needs must part, and thinking, didn’t his mother ever teach him about using his indoor voice? The lute is a quiet instrument, and the voice can overpower it, as it did in this instance. The recording by Mignarda, however, achieves a near-ideal balance.

You can stream their album for free below. If you just have time for one song, I recommend the second, Shall I strive with words to move?, the instrumental version of which is titled Mignarda, from which the duo take their name. Though what makes A Pilgrimes Solace especially novel is the central three songs — ‘Goe nightly cares’, ‘From silent night’, and ‘Lasso vita mia’ — which all have an independent obbligato part for treble viol — something quite new.

If I still drank, a rather good, albeit very geeky, musicological drinking game could be made using this album. Every time you hear the Lachrimae motif, take a swig. (Of course, in the spirit of melancholy, this drinking game should be played late at night, alone, in near-total darkness. Hell, you might as well throw in In Darkness, Let me Dwell too.) It is a four-note falling motif, and spans the interval of a fourth. See below, or listen to the first bar of Flow my Tears.



Gerald Barry — Canada

There are only a handful of living composers whose new works I invariably feel I must hear. Off the top of my head this includes: Sofia Gubaidulina, Kalevi Aho, Arvo Part, James MacMillan — and the latest addition would be Gerald Barry.

Gerald Barry

Gerald Barry’s music has the rather special quality of being challenging and mind-boggling while also being immediately accessible and, on the whole, rather merry. Even his most violent music makes me smile giddily.

Canada began its life unusually. Barry was in a Canadian airport, terribly stressed, and upon finally making it through security and to the bar, an idea came to him: a setting of Beethoven’s ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’ in English, French and German, all with the original text or translation — except for one addition, the word ‘Canada’.

Canada is a short piece, hardly ten minutes long. It begins with an exclamation by tenor Allan Clayton, then frenzied orchestration, then sorts of musical exercises, until finally Clayton shushes the orchestra into silence.

Canada is ‘everyday and other’, Barry said in the interview broadcast in the interval. (It is worth listening to the entire interview, in which he demonstrates his remarkable ability to make the banal seem exciting.) Exemplifying this, one section sees Clayton singing musical exercises Barry wrote when he was nineteen. This is all set to one word (I’ll let you guess which one). The exercises keep repeating, and with each repeat sound sillier, to what sounded in the radio recording like much laughter from the Prommers. It is like when you keep saying certain words over and over again: the normal becomes unfamiliar and amusing. As I think I’ve said before, Barry’s music, like Beethoven’s, does a hell of a lot with very little. It’s economic, tightly-controlled, inspired music.

Allan Clayton, tenor

The piece ends with a simple dialogue between Clayton and the orchestra. In it Clayton is Fidelio and the orchestra are the prisoners. Fidelio says ‘softly’ and the orchestra replies ‘Canada’, each time quieter than the last. Fidelio is teaching the orchestra how to be quiet and discreet.

At the end, the radio presenter told us that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (the conductor, and one to watch out for) burst out laughing and embraced Barry.

You can listen to the concert on the Radio 3 site for the next 30 days.

Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument (and the Flesh versus Nails Debate)

I have just been reading the lute section in Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument (1676), one of the few extant English language lute instruction books. (IMSLP link to the facsimile.) Unfortunately for us, lute technique was generally passed down from tutor to student, with books costing nearly as much as a cheap lute (source). Mace’s book comes late in the history of the lute. The Golden Age of English lute music (and arguably of all English music) had long since passed.

Mace lists the the ‘false and ignorant out-cries against the lute’ in his time:

First, That it is the Hardest Instrument in the World.

Secondly, That it will take up the Time of an Apprenticeship to play well upon It.

Thirdly, That it makes Young People grow awry.

Fourthly, That it is a very Chargeable Instrument to keep; so that one had as good keep a Horse as a Lute, for Cost.

Fifthly, That it is a Womans Instrument.

Sixthly, and Lastly, (which is the most Childish of all the rest) It is out of Fashion.

Mace then rebuts each one of these points quite well, but little good it did. ‘Thus having (I hope) to full satisfaction explained the Matter,’ he wrote, ‘I doubt not but the Lute henceforward will be more look’d after and esteemed than of late years it has been’. Come the middle of the eighteenth century, the lute was all but extinct.

Of equal interest to me is his discussion of technique, particularly as I have now switched to nail-less playing on the guitar, which makes right-hand technique on the lute more relevant. Most of his very detailed instructions are not of general interest, but his comments on nails might be:

… take notice, that you Strike not your Strings with your Nails, as some do, who maintain it the Best way of Play, but I do not; and for This Reason; because the Nail cannot draw so sweet a Sound from a Lute, as the nibble end of the Flesh can do.

I confess in a Consort, it might do well enough, where the Mellowness (which is the most Excellent Satisfaction from a Lute) is lost in the Crowd; but Alone, I could never receive so good Content from the Nail, as from the Flesh: However (This being my Opinion) let Others do, as seems Best to Themselves.

Nail-playing lutenists were by far in the minority. Over a century earlier the vihuelist (the vihuela is an ancestor of the modern guitar and was a Spanish alternative to the lute) Miguel de Fuenllana also wrote that nails produced an imperfect sound compared to flesh. The most notable exception is Alessandro Piccinini, a seventeenth-century Italian lutenist who advocated the use of nails. We can, however, assume quite a few lutenists did play with nails, even if the top lutenists weren’t generally among them. The great eighteenth-century lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss apparently witnessed many people playing with nails (which he disapproved of).

I am scratching my head trying to think of a lutenist contemporary to Mace. There was a brief flourish of lute music in the early eighteenth century, but Mace’s despair over the state of lute music in his time seems to have been well-founded. The best I can do is the French lutenist Robert de Visée (1655-1733), who came along a bit later and wrote some excellent solo theorbo music. Can you believe this wonderful video has over 700,000 views? (Also, it looks like he might be using nails. The camera keeps jumping around, but his nails do look suspiciously long.)

Flesh versus Nails

It has become orthodoxy that you play classical guitar with nails. But this wasn’t always the case. In the early nineteenth century there were two leading guitarists, Fernando Sor (1778-1839) and Dionisio Aguado y García (1784-1849). Among other differences, Sor believed one should use the flesh of the fingertip to pluck the string and Aguado believed one should use the nail. Sor was aware that this had possible disadvantages, especially when it came to speed and projection (Aguado was the more virtuosic player, for sure), but he was confident that the purer and warmer tone of flesh playing was worth it.

Historically many classical guitarists used flesh (e.g. Julián Arcas (1832-1888) and Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), though Tárrega was a convert to flesh in his later years). I recommend visiting Rob MacKillop’s site for comprehensive list of players old and new. MacKillop is undoubtedly the best advocate for flesh playing online.

Come the end of the twentieth century flesh playing had become a rarity. If one were a partisan for flesh playing, it would be easy to see this as an unmusical compromise: speed and loudness in exchange for sound quality. But nails do give you more variety in some regards: you can’t, for example, achieve that same crisp ponticello sound with flesh. However, the consistency possible by using flesh means that volume won’t affect tone as much. With nails, a loud note sounds much brighter and more metallic than a soft one. But with flesh, a loud note retains its warmth (if you want it to).

This is, at least, my experience thus far. I recently cut off my nails. It was all rather traumatic: late at night, whisky bottle half empty, sweat drenching my clothes, the nail clippers poised an inch from my fingertips, as if a metaphysical wall were in the way. The clippers felt like twelve stone; my hands were shaking unrelentingly.

Okay, okay — not quite that bad! But I did oo and uh over it for some weeks. I am probably historically-minded, generally more interested in what is old than what is new. And when I found out there was a common practise (flesh playing) with many weighty advocates, but that has since become very unorthodox, I naturally wanted to try it. It also fits nicely with my desire to eventually play the lute, which is generally played without nails. (Though perhaps the same contrarian spirit will inspire me to take up the cause of those minority lutenists, past and present, who have advocated nails…)

In case you are unaware of the stigma against flesh playing, the guitarist Phillip de Fremery has an excellent post about it on his site. In it he notes that

There is reliable record of players whose applications and subsequent auditions to long-established Masters programs were summarily rejected, with the proviso that if they grew their nails back they would be considered for admission. Another case surfaced more recently, when a casual exploratory interview was met with the same quick closing of the door without a note being heard.

Pedagogy gone mad, I say. Flesh playing has many advantages that any musician with an ounce of imagination and historical knowledge would realise. Among the advantages I can think of: a more tactile way of playing, a more consistent tone, more angles of attack available, in some instances more ‘authentic’, if you go for that. Fremery notes another rather interesting possibility:

those who find themselves interested in the physics of all this will observe that when one plays without nails the string can be pulled much farther back – and further back at many different angles – before it is released, and that when one thinks of this from the point of view of archery, for instance, the implications are interesting to say the least

I recorded myself playing Tarrega’s Lagrima, a rather easy piece. I tried to give it as much dynamic and textural variations as I could, which might be why every recording I made had one or two mistakes (but recording oneself is generally an infuriating experience). This one, despite two very slight hesitations, best demonstrates the possibilities. Apologies for the quality — it was recorded on my phone:

[ETA: Fellow guitarists might like to know what I’m using. It’s an old Kimbara guitar (a low-end guitar from late 60s/early 70s) with D’addario Pro-Arte normal tension strings. Nothing special or historical.]

I cut my nails Thursday, and at first the sound was much worse than this. One has to learn to pluck the string in a completely different way: pushing down and then pulling under and across. Watch this video for the technique in slow motion. It also helps to tune the strings down about a semitone, to help lower the tension so the string is easier to pluck at first. I saw a suggestion in a forum to sandpaper (very fine sandpaper, I must add!) the part of the strings where one plays. I used P1200 sandpaper for this and it worked very well. Nylon strings are usually too smooth, it seems. The fingertips need to grip onto the string a bit. It is often recommended that you use gut or nylgut (nylon-gut hybrid), which I will do in due course.

Now, in case my meagre little recording was unconvincing, here’s a nail-less virtuoso, Virginia Luque. If anything, her left hand is the most impressive — those chord changes, my God!

Classical music for [insert present participle]

In today’s Times, the columnist Melanie Philips wrote about the supposed calming effects of a police initiative to pump classical music into a troubled housing estate. It’s behind a paywall, but nearly everything you need to know is contained is this one dreary sentence:

Many studies have found that listening to classical music has beneficial effects on the brain and behaviour.

We are then told that Baroque music is particularly calming due to its ‘characteristic pattern of 60 beats per minute’. Huh? Maybe a largo or adagio movement would be, but most Baroque music is much faster than that. And how is a tempo a ‘pattern’? You just know that a paragraph beginning with ‘many studies have found’ will invariably end with such nonsense.

(She displays greater musical ignorance still when describing Philip Glass, Messiaen and Stockhausen as ‘rarefied composers’ whose ‘signature motifs’ are ‘dissonance, alienation and rebellion’. Messiaen — alienation and rebellion? Philip Glass — dissonance?!)

I have no doubt she is trying to help promote classical music, but this kind of scientism, besides being misleading, makes classical music seem incredibly boring. Anyone who loves classical does not find it calming or relaxing. We don’t generally, as YouTube ceaselessly suggests, listen to it for help ‘studying’. I am made ecstatic listening to Monteverdi’s Vespers. And there’s no way I can listen to Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor without single-minded intensity. 

Classical music isn’t some kind of self-help toolbox or a real-life soma. Yet one of the few times classical music makes the headlines (apart from those articles by its wearisome obituarists) is when a ‘study’ has shown how ‘useful’ it is. It will make your baby smarter (see the ‘Mozart effect’) or pacify a drunken customer — what a mundane technocracy we live in.

Oftentimes, classical music’s utility is an ironic symptom of its own near-death. Novelist Philip Hensher in an Independent article:

A couple of years ago, I arranged to meet a friend at Vauxhall Tube station. I was there a few minutes early. In the ticket hall, there was a pleasant and familiar sound. Surprisingly, London Underground seemed to have decided to play Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony over the tannoys.

There’s probably no noise which gives me more pleasure than the first two bars of Beethoven 7, and I listened in the grimy surroundings with enjoyment and a little surprise. What had caused this outbreak of civilisation?

I was being naïve. At the time, criminological theorists had discovered that there was no noise which would disperse people more quickly than classical music. Beethoven 7 was being played, not because it would give innocent pleasure to passers-by, but because people, on the whole, could be relied upon to loathe it.

Any would-be ne’er-do-wells are running away from a putrid corpse. Hardly an advertisement for classical music.

It would be wonderful to read an opinion piece in a national newspaper about the inherent worth of classical music, and how it’s a great shame that so many people are numb to its beauty. Instead, we get a piece promoting this numbness as a virtue — a useful social pacifier.

Why is Beethoven’s Ninth so popular?

I’m generally omnivorous in my music tastes. And I try to approach the great works especially with total humility and little suspicion. But there’s one notable exception: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Recently I attended a performance of the symphony, which was met with ferocious applause and a stomping, standing ovation. I must have been one of the few who did not stand — and the only one who did so out of stubbornness, not age or disability. I wonder why the Ninth gets such a raucous reception? At first, one suspects politics. The concert was a conspicuously European-themed Proms concert: first was James MacMillan’s European Requiem (though not the Brexit piece many doubtless thought), then the Ninth. Dozens of little EU flags were waved, and several supersized flags were draped over the railing by Prommers.

But politics, if it matters at all, is a peripheral reason for why the work is so adored. (Nor is its modern appropriation as a universalist secular hymn why I dislike it.) Not long ago the Ninth was performed on every penultimate night of the Proms. It’s an exceptionally popular work, particularly with a Proms audience. And the sheer volume of the choral finale filling the vast space of the Albert Hall is admittedly impressive.

However, as Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford writes, ‘the Ninth has attained the kind of ubiquity that threatens to gut any artwork’. Think Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Faure’s Pavane. And indeed it is the most popular part I dislike most: the interminable choral section blu-tacked onto the fourth movement. This pushes the symphony to way over an hour (was it the longest symphony to date?). Following what Wagner called a ‘horror fanfare’ and a bizarre recapitulation of the first three movements, the anticipated moment arrives. First the tune is played on the cellos and double basses, expanding out to the rest of the orchestra, then, after another ‘horror fanfare’, comes the elongated, almost Oratorio-length variation on the Ode to Joy theme.

Interestingly, this is what Verdi, a man who knew a thing or two about choral writing, had to say about the finale:

… Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, marvellous in the first three movements, [is] very badly set in the last. No one will ever approach the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as in the last movement. And supported by the authority of Beethoven, they will all shout: “That’s the way to do it…”

Quite a number of contemporary critics disliked the symphony. Many blamed its failings on — yep, you guessed it — Beethoven’s deafness. They found it too harmonically extreme, not sufficiently ‘beautiful’, or simply too long and trying. These critics weren’t in the majority. But as musicologist Nicholas Cook points out, had the symphony been written by Berlioz it would likely have been roundly rejected ‘as eccentric, wilful, and probably incompetent too’. (Berlioz of course loved the symphony.)

My problem might be a prejudice against the grandiose. Seldom do musical forms become more humble with time; they often seem to metastasise. It then takes someone like Arvo Part to do the radical thing: go back to the beginning. When I hear the Ninth, I think to myself, Beethoven did the exiting, celebratory fourth movement much better in the Fifth Symphony and with far less.

Were I musically more competent, I’d be tempted to rewrite the fourth movement without the chorus. But even then, it wouldn’t come close to Beethoven’s true masterpiece: the Seventh Symphony. Riccardo Chailly conducting the Gewandhausorchester: