Paul O’Dette at Wigmore Hall

I only found it about it this morning, and impulsively I hopped onto the next train, just managing to get to London in time for this afternoon recital by the great American lutenist Paul O’Dette. The programme consisted entirely of English lute music, including O’Dette’s own arrangements of William Byrd’s keyboard music. It’s a fair representation of the music of the time, often called the ‘golden age’ of English lute music (approx. 1580-1620). Lots of dance music — almaines, pavans and galliards — and popular tunes, alongside Dowland’s two ‘Farewell’ fantasies. The programme is more or less the happier side of the lute, more dance than counterpoint, more extravagance than reflection. None of this is a dismissal of the music — a John Johnson pavan is generally as artful and interesting as a fantasie, though in different ways.

Paul O’Dette played the challenging show-off pieces with apparent ease. The last piece in the programme was Daniel Bacheler’s variations on ‘Monsieur’s Almaine’, a tour de force of tremolo playing and rapid passages. His playing of the Dowland ‘Farewell’ fantasie (P3), a slow, chromatic and contrapuntal piece of incredible beauty, was less convincing. I felt it was too fast, for one, and just not as expressive as, say, Nigel North, who manages to get that warmth and purposeful expression O’Dette somewhat lacks. It probably didn’t help that the piece was repeatedly interrupted by one man’s prolific and unstifled coughing. (This same man, as well as the woman next to him, presumably his wife, was asleep for the first part of the concert, lightly snoring.)

A very pleasant lady next to me said she found the music soothing, which it indeed is, but I also gently pointed out to her that the pieces aren’t so soothing to play, not only because of difficulty, but also because of the remarkable dissonances in pieces like the Dowland ‘Farewell’ fantasie. Though admittedly the lute might need a venue even smaller than Wigmore Hall to be at its most brilliant. I was about twelve rows back, and even there it was beginning to sound a bit distant, despite O’Dette’s loud (and occasionally harsh) playing.

O’Dette is also an excellent writer, so I was glad to see that he wrote his own programme notes. Particularly interesting was the few paragraphs on playing Byrd’s keyboard music on the lute, how much interpretative freedom lutenists gave themselves and some of the technical challenges.

An aside, at one point I saw O’Dette adjust his frets. Lute frets are not fixed; they are gut strings tied around the neck. You can change the intonation this way (the lute is a pre-equal temperament instrument). I have wondered whether lutenists adjust the frets for different pieces, especially for different keys — perhaps he was doing this?


How can I handcuff a blooming shirt?

I am just recovering from a cold, and the great thing about a cold is that it enables you to enjoy guiltless leisure. I took the opportunity, such that it was, to do something I almost never do and watch a couple of films: The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Invisible Man (1933). For some reason I got it into my head that I should watch some old films. I probably thought they’d be a safer bet. What has weathered the fashions of the past several decades and is still admired must be good.

I was captivated by The Ten Commandments from the first moment when a screen appeared with ‘OVERTURE’ written in big letters, and we are treated to exactly that. I was not aware such operatic conventions had survived into the Golden Age of Hollywood (there is also an entr’acte). Clearly there has been a progression from opera to musical theatre to film overtures to title credits.

The film is grand and almost pompous. Incredible sets of sphinxes, temples, obelisks and Egyptian statues. The special effects are astonishing, from when Moses turns water into blood to the raising of a giant obelisk to that famous, brilliant moment when the Red Sea parts. All these moments are driven by Elmer Bernstein’s invigorating score. Bernstein was a prolific film composer, also composing the scores for The Magnificent Seven, Airplane and The Great Escape, among many others. It is refreshing not to hear plodding electronica or screeching orchestral horror in the score. This is pure, unapologetic splendour — cheesy, perhaps, but more artful than Hanz Zimmer or John Williams. Here’s the overture, which someone has set to clips of the film:

The most striking thing about the story, which I must admit I was not intimately familiar with, is that it is full of argument. There is always someone, usually the slimy Dathan, giving the counterarguments we are all thinking. Each point is rebutted. The story is argued and won.

The Invisible Man is the Ten Commandment’s antithesis: understated, set in a small town, and characteristically English. The premise is simple: a scientist has managed to make himself invisible, but the chemicals involved have also made him starkers — in both senses. I didn’t notice much music, perhaps being distracted by the mesmerising, hilarious acting of Claude Rains as Dr. Jack Griffin, the ‘Invisible Man’. Take this scene of Griffin prancing about in only a shirt (don’t worry, invisible remember), laughing maniacally. Then he merrily causes havoc about the town.

The effects are ingenious for 1933. He really is invisible. It is as convincing as any computer generated imagery, if not more so, for unlike with CGI all viewers ask themselves that magical question, how on earth did they do that?

Reforming the Guitar Repertoire

If I say ‘classical guitar repertoire’, what comes to mind? For most people it’ll be the Spanish guitarists from Sor to Villa Lobos. But while the Spanish repertoire is ever popular, it can be rather dull. I notice that the British guitarist Sean Shibe, clearly a rising star, has distanced himself from it:

My gripe with the “Spanishry” associated with the guitar is not that it is associated with the guitar, it’s that often it’s the only thing associated with the guitar – because it can be the most marketable. I always felt pushed to play that repertoire, because promoters always want something fast and flashy.

He instead looks to the 20th century British composers who, thanks to the efforts of Julian Bream, gave us a wealth of guitar music. Shibe’s album, Dreams and Fancies, can boast impressive performances of Walton, Berkeley, Arnold and Britten (alongside a couple of John Dowland fantasies).

Nevertheless, I take the opposite approach to Shibe. Learning the guitar, I’ve found that the best music for the instrument predates the modern classical guitar. The period 1497-1757 contains the most sublime music playable on guitar. (The dating, or at least the starting date, is somewhat arbitrary: from the birth of Francesco da Milano until the death of Domenico Scarlatti. 1500-1750 covers nearly everything.) First, there is the music for Renaissance lute, much of it written for a six-course lute, and pieces written for seven or eight courses are usually easy to adapt for guitar. Secondly, pieces written for the Baroque guitar, which are fewer than those for the Renaissance lute, but contain some marvellous pieces by composers such as Robert de Visée and Gasper Sanz. Thirdly, the Baroque lute repertoire, which is generally less suited to classical guitar than its Renaissance counterpart, but there are many great exceptions. And fourthly, Bach and Scarlatti, many of whose works are not only easily playable on guitar, but arguably sound better on guitar. The supreme example is Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, originally for violin. John Feeley playing:

I’m flicking through the ABRSM guitar grade syllabus considering whether or not to pursue them. In addition to the sight reading, scales and all that, you have to pick three pieces from their list of around 20-30 pieces. The list is divided into three sections, each representing an era, roughly: 1) Renaissance and Baroque 2) Classical and Romantic and 3) modern. You pick one from each list.

Not all the pieces seem very idiomatic. For the first few grades, instead of going for some of the simpler (but nevertheless beautiful) pieces for lute, we get often unimpressive arrangements of Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi et al. for guitar. Things start to improve in later grades when pieces by de Visee, Weiss, Milan et al. appear.

The Classical and Romantic section is the usual stuff: Giuliani, Sor, Tarrega, Aguado and some lesser knowns and transcriptions. All quite pleasant, but not a lot of it is terribly interesting.

The modern section feels a bit desperate. In between the Ponces and Brouwers, there are a lot of mediocre compositions by unfamiliar names that are basically pastiches (not writing them all off, though). There really isn’t much to choose from, as much of the best modern guitar music is too difficult for even Grade 8.

And while I of course see the advantage of such a comprehensive grading system, the eras aren’t anyway near as discrete as the syllabus suggests. Playing de Visee’s guitar suite requires a quite different approach to a da Milano fantasie, though they somewhat misleading come under the same section. One would also hope ghat most students are taught about the different types of ornaments used, the difference between Renaissance and Baroque (in the former you neither slur them nor let the notes ring), though somehow I doubt it. 

So, the grades are problematic and uninspiring — not that that I would expect them to be otherwise. The problem is that many students, at least in the UK, seem to learn their instrument almost solely through grades. They never stray outside this patchy repertoire.

The guitar needs to somehow de-shackle itself from the Spanish masters. No other instrument is so burdened by its national heritage. The Spanish repertoire consists of too much insipid music and makes the guitar seem a less serious instrument. Sor is great for learning, but rather tedious. Giuliani is good fun, but not that enriching. Tarrega wrote some lovely music, but none of it on the level of a Scarlatti sonata or even a Dowland galliard.

Okay, then, what pieces should enter the repertoire? To start with, how about the Kapsberger toccatas. The Toccata Arpeggiata is frequently played, but the others seldom are, yet they work so well on guitar. Here’s his Toccata VI:

And more Zamboni:

And Bacheler. I was trying to find a video of his variations of the popular French song, Une Jeune Fillette, but here’s Monsieur’s Almaine instead:

And you can never, ever have enough Dowland. Should be as much required playing as Bach or Sor for any guitarist. 

More of this and less of the Spanish stuff — yea or nay?

Samuel Johnson

In what is a wonderful coincidence I just noticed, thanks to the Google homepage, that today is the anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s birth (18 September 1709). I say a wonderful coincidence because I just purchased both volumes of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson this weekend. I must have been searching for a couple of months now, never finding that almost impossible combination of affordability and good quality. So I was delighted to have spotted a lovely, if rather well-worn (especially the jackets), £3 hardback in a charity shop.

According to Boswell, Johnson ‘had a peculiar facility in seizing at one what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end’. He was irritable and impatient, rushing from one book to the next. I have read an introduction to one edition that encourages the reader to read the book by opening pages at random, examining the parts before taking in the whole, as this is how Johnson would have read it.

Nevertheless, I’m just reading it from cover to cover. Happily, the book is even more absorbing than I expected. Boswell was clearly unusually fascinated with his subject. At one-hundred or so pages in, the image I have of Johnson is extraordinary vivid — his peculiar gesticulations which so amused pupils, his ‘vile melancholy’, his odd marriage to ‘Tetty’, the widow twice his age — Boswell writes of her, ‘Mr. [David] Garrick described her to me as very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, with swelled cheeks of a florid red, produced by thick painting, and increased by the liberal use of cordials; flaring and fantastick in her dress, and affected both in her speech and her general behaviour. I have seen Garrick exhibit her, by his exquisite talent of mimickry, so as to excite the heartiest bursts of laughter; but he, probably, as is the case in all such representations, considerably aggravated the picture.’

Returning to this blog’s raison d’être, here are two quotations by Johnson on music:

[Oliver] GOLDSMITH. ‘The greatest musical performers have but small emoluments. Giardini, I am told, does not get above seven hundred a year.’ JOHNSON. ‘That is indeed but little for a man to get, who does best that which so many endeavour to do. There is nothing, I think, in which the power of art is shown so much as in playing on the fiddle. In all other things we can do something at first. Any man will forge a bar of iron, if you give him a hammer; not so well as a smith, but tolerably. A man will saw a piece of wood, and make a box, though a clumsy one; but give him a fiddle and a fiddle-stick, and he can do nothing.


‘JOHNSON. (laughing,) ‘No, Sir; it must be born with a man to be contented to take up with little things. Women have a great advantage that they may take up with little things, without disgracing themselves: a man cannot, except with fiddling. Had I learnt to fiddle, I should have done nothing else.’ BOSWELL. ‘Pray, Sir, did you ever play on any musical instrument?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. I once bought me a flagelet; but I never made out a tune.’ BOSWELL. ‘A flagelet, Sir!—so small an instrument? I should have liked to hear you play on the violoncello. THAT should have been YOUR instrument.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I might as well have played on the violoncello as another; but I should have done nothing else. No, Sir; a man would never undertake great things, could he be amused with small.

Dowland’s Lachrimae

Some things never change. Lachrimae (‘tears’)by English lutenist John Dowland, was one of the greatest hits of its time, and those who hear it now immediately understand why. When I first discovered this music (i.e. ‘early music’, so called, especially Renaissance music), one of the biggest surprises was how easy it is to understand. There is nothing arcane about it, no cryptic musical language to decipher. Lachrimae is as unmistakably beautiful today as it was in Dowland’s time.

The piece began its life in the 1590s as a lute pavan. It can be found in many manuscripts, but the first to have a certain date is William Barley’s A New Book of Tabliture published in 1596. A song version, Flow my Tears, was later included in Dowland’s Second Booke of Songs (1600). In 1604, he published Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, a collection of seven variations (all pavans) on Lachrimae for five viols and lute. (This was only the third book of consort music in England, and the first music to be specifically written for five viols and lute.) Eight years on, Dowland’s last book, Pilgrimes Solace (1612), ends with a Lachrimae galliard.

These are but a fraction of the manuscipts available. Lachrimae was very popular abroad too, even after Dowland’s music had gone out of fashion in England. According to Peter Holman, author of a book on the 1604 Lachrimae collection, Dowland’s music survived longest in Netherland, particularly the songs Now o Now I Needs Must Part and Come Again, sweet love doth now invite, the Earl of Essex Galliard, and of course Lachrimae. Dowland’s music became popular abroad for two reasons: one, he spent many fruitful years on the continent as a virtuoso lutenist; and two, English dance music was very fashionable in Northern Europe in particular. There is also plenty of evidence of composers after Dowland using the ‘tear motif’ from Lachrimae — the four-note falling sequence that starts the piece — though they may well have been unaware of its provenance.

So when we refer to ‘Lachrimae’, it’s not clear exactly what we mean. There are many ‘Lachrimae’s, and no where is there a definitive or original version. One of the problems is that Dowland, and indeed most musicians contemporary to him, exercised little control over the arrangement, distribution and performance of his music. We know this annoyed Dowland. In 1597 he complained that his pieces had ‘lately printed without my knowledge, falce and unperfect’. Performances would have included some improvisation, certainly with regards to ornamentation. (And indeed when I play it on guitar, I fiddle around with the divisions, maybe change a chord a bit to make it more playable.) Some of these versions have survived thanks to personal manuscripts. A fun example is to listen to the Fantasie P. 1 found in Paul O’Dette’s John Dowland: Complete Lute Works Vol. 5. It is a wildly ornamented arrangement written in the early 17th century. (Unfortunately it’s not on YouTube, but it is easily found on Spotify etc. If you read lute tablature, you can find the manuscript here — the Fantasie is on page 27.) Part of the appeal of the lute repertoire is that it gives the player so much freedom. The tablature is skeletal, with no expression markings and seldom anything more complicated than three ornament signs. And we aren’t even always sure what the ornament signs indicate!

Here’s a performance on lute using the manuscript Dd.2.11 (1590s); I think it’s image 158.

Some of Dowland’s contemporaries made arrangements of Lachrimae. Here’s William Byrd’s:

And see this video, at 2:39, to hear Thomas Morley’s 1599 arrangement for consort:

In Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Dowland writes: ‘And though the title doth promise teares, vnfit guests in these ioyfull times, yet no doubt pleasant are the teares of which Musicke weepes, neither are teares she alwayes in sorrowe, but some-time in ioy and gladnesse.’ A rare sign that Dowland wasn’t entirely the miserabilist he seems. This will be the last video, Lachrimae Verae, the final Lachrimae from that book. But quickly before that, Peter Holman again: ‘Today, Dowland’s music is more popular than at any time in the 400 years since it was written; indeed, Lachrimae [referring to the 1604 book] is probably the most recorded and performed collection of instrumental music before the Water Music or the Brandenburg Concertos’.

Arvo Part, 82 Years Old Today

I’m not big on this whole wishing famous people a happy birthday thing, but Arvo Part’s birthday is a good enough excuse to reflect on why his music is so loved, and why I so love it. Robert Reilly, whose book I recently blogged about, has elsewhere written this about Part:

His work emerges from deep spiritual discipline and experience, and demands (and gives) as much in return. One will not be washed away in sonorous wafts of highly emotional music – there is no effortless epiphany here. Pärt is the most formally austere of the three [composers Reilly discusses], but is also the one with the most ontological sense – he presents a note as if it were being heard for the first time … Pärt’s music comes out of the fullness of silence. “How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?” he asks. During a rehearsal of his composition The Beatitudes, Pärt told the conductor, “The silence must be longer. This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.” The puzzled conductor asked Pärt, “Exactly how many beats? What do you do during the silence?” Pärt responded, “You don’t do anything. You wait. God does it.”

Earlier in the piece, Reilly makes the interesting point that Tavener, Gorecki and Part ‘have found the sonata principle of development that has driven music since the 18th century, and which gives music so much of its sense of forward motion, extraneous for their purpose.’ This is why Arvo Part’s music so often gets labelled as ‘relaxing’. The music hovers rather than flies. It is about sustained focus on a point rather than a journey. In his ‘dramatic’ works — the John Passion, the Stabat Mater — the music doesn’t progress with the narrative. It would be fair, instead, to call his music meditative. (Though I have not closely followed the text, his newer work, Adam’s Lament, admittedly sounds more dramatic.)

I love Part’s music for a simple and incontrovertible reason: it’s so very beautiful. Even when I was young and disdained all classical music, I surreptitiously kept a CD titled ‘The Very Best of Arvo Part’. No music was more mesmerising — indeed, there was none I treated with more reverence — than Tabula Rasa. One can see why the piece has been such ‘a vehicle of solace’, as Alex Ross has written. ‘Angel music’ is how one dying AIDS patient described the second movement, ‘Silentium’. Listen:

People want beauty. Arvo Part’s music, unlike most contemporary classical music, has found its way into the hearts of so many people. (For instance, listen to this episode of the BBC radio programme Soul Music.) In some quarters his music seems to be treated with suspicion for this reason. I certainly used to feel, in a typically middle-class way, suspicious of myself for liking it. And how foolish I was. As Jay Nordlinger wrote a while back:

Arvo Pärt is a figure to be reckoned with, the genuine article. Someone once said to me, “Who’s a good composer today, and don’t say Arvo Pärt!” I think my questioner meant that too many say Pärt. Well, I do too.