Valentine Bakfark and Sixteenth Century Lute Music

The name Valentine Bakfark is now relatively obscure. A sixteenth century Transvylanina lutenist, he was among the most respected lutenists of the time, admired for his great technical innovation on the instrument. Five hundred years later, and the unfamiliar name of ‘Bakfark’ probably only conjures up images of a kind of foul regurgitation.

Bakfark himself

But regurgitation isn’t an entirely incorrect way to describe Bakfark and his contemporary’s music. Born sometime between 1507-1508 until his death, most likely from the plague, in 1576 (aged 69), Bakfark’s era was one long before the cult of originality and moreover before cults of personality. Even in the early seventeenth century with English lutenist John Dowland, who immortalised his famous melancholy image in song form, Semper Dowland, semper dolen (always Dowland, always doleful), such cults had yet to seriously develop. Musicians in this time and for much of history were not necessarily respected geniuses at the forefront of high culture. They could be people with modest backgrounds (Mozart, for example), and were often treated appallingly by the princes who employed them in what was virtually servitude. Composers from Monteverdi to Haydn were made miserable creatively and financially by ungrateful princes, even more so than many modern composers think they are by ungrateful audiences. (There is a good chapter on this in Tim Blanning’s The Triumph of Music.)

Furthermore, there was a clear hierarchy of music — and lutenists weren’t at the top. Hierarchies and divisions in music were particularly firm in the sixteenth century. Sacred music was indisputably of greater value than secular music. And instrumental music was considered inferior to vocal music. But this too was a sacred-secular division, and is why Palestrina composed only for voice. Within the hierarchy of instrumental music, the most lowly was dance music, usually homophobic, and the most respected was that which imitated vocal polyphonic music.

Unlike today, transcriptions were not considered of lesser artistic value. As Bakfark biographer Istvan Homolya explains, ‘the originality of ideas was not an essential aesthetic criterion. Artistic value was provided by the skill or ingenuity of elaboration’. The idea of originality, in fact, was yet to be born. The majority of Bakfark’s works were intabulations (transcriptions) of vocal polyphonic music. (And it wasn’t until the Baroque era that instrumental music really ceased to use vocal models.) Among instruments, the lute was the preferred one because it was portable and, moreover, capable of polyphony (playing more than one melodic line simultaneously). However, the lute is also thoroughly unsuited to polyphony. This may sound like an impossible contradiction, but it is the act of overcoming this contradiction that made Bakfark so remarkable.

A singer can sustain a note for a long period of time. On a lute, the note will die very quickly, in a matter of seconds. The way around this is ornamentation, so that you never linger on one note for too long. Bakfark was especially innovative when it came to ornamentation, and among other things he was one of the first pioneers of the mordent. He even used chromatic accidentals. Indeed, the dissonances and harmonies in Bakfark’s music can be quite surprising. In the third bar of the extract below, you have the unexpected use of a C♮ auxiliary note instead of a C# (in the key of B minor) that moreover sounds simultaneously with the F#, creating a tritone. I’ve noticed that in the Julian Bream recording, Bream ‘corrects’ the note to C#. Bakfark had a similar problem at the time, familiar to eccentric moderns like Charles Ives, in which the printers would try to correct these notes for him.

He also wrote much denser scores than his predecessors. While those like Francesco da Milano (1497-1543) primarily used the minima (minim, or half note) as the base rhythmic element, Bakfark primarily used the semiminima (crotchet, or quarter note). Shorter notes than that were ornamental rather than melodic (the shortest note at the time was the semifusa, the semi-quaver or sixteenth note). Naturally, this gave Bakfark’s work a much faster sense of movement.

Lute music was written in tablature form, not unlike guitar tablature today. This poses another problem as tablature, unlike musical notation, cannot notate the continuity of voices. It wasn’t possible to notate two musical lines separately. For example, these are the first lines of Bakfark’s Fantasia I in modern notation:


And here it is in tablature form (excluding the last bars from the above extract):

bakfark-e1494359774615.png(I’ll come onto how to read the tablature in a bit, though much of it should be plain.)

In the 5th bar, whoever transcribed the piece decided (rightly, I would say) to hold the B until the next bar. In the tablature, that corresponds to the 2 in bar 5 on 2nd string down. As you’ll notice, there is no indication that it’s to be held. Maintaining the integrity of the voices would have been up to the judgement and skill of the performer.

The lute is also capable of fewer independent lines. The lutenist only has six strings and four fingers (on each hand) at his disposal. Furthermore, the separation of parts will be much less distinct on a lute than in a vocal ensemble, or even in, say, a viol ensemble. Before Bakfark, lute music would usually be in two or three parts. Quite astonishingly, Bakfark managed to faithfully intabulate even six-part polyphony on the lute. Yet despite pushing the lute to do things that were the least lute-like, he nevertheless, as lutenist Daniel Benko has commented, ‘was able to produce perfectly the correct polyphonic transcription of vocal works’. Here’s Benko performing one of the two extant Bakfark intabulations using six-part polyphony:

One is struck of the wonderful musical diversity between nations and cities in the sixteenth century. And when it came to the lute, this meant, among other things, that there were various national styles of tablature. The main types were French, Italian and German. There are further variations — the English for example put notes in between, rather than on, the lines, and might notate the rhythms differently, but otherwise maintained the French style by and large. The facsimiles of Bakfark’s work that I’ve come across use both the French and Italian styles. I assume the books were printed in each region according to the prevailing style. Lutenists were not expected to be familiar all the varieties of tablature.

French lute tablature is probably the easiest to read. The lines of the stave, or the spaces in between (or below and above) the line, correspond to the courses on a lute. The lower on the stave, the lower the course, and vice versa. The fret positions are written using letters: ‘a’ means the open string, ‘b’ the first fret and so on. (Italian tablature used a numbering system instead and, confusingly, reversed the order of the strings so that the lowest string would be at the top of the stave. The excerpt included a few paragraphs above is an example of this style.)

The score doesn’t indicate precise notes. There were many different lutes, each with differing numbers of courses and tuned to different pitches. Moreover, players would often just tune the top string as high as it would go and then tune the other strings by it. (John Dowland for some reason did the same but with the lowest string.)

The flags above the stave notate the rhythm. A vertical line is equivalent to a semibreve, and each horizontal line halves the length. So the first three beats are: semibreve, dotted minim (you might have to enlarge the score to see the dot), and crotchet. The only other detail is the diagonal line, for instance in the 3rd bar, second row, that specifies the length of time that note should be held.

Hopefully I didn’t lose anyone. Just thank me for not attempting to explain the bafflingly cryptic German system!

Here is Bakfark’s Fantasia I again, but using French tablature:

Bakfark Fantasia No. 1

Although Bakfark wrote fewer works than most (and indeed, destroying much of what he did produce, leaving us with about 40 extant works), he took an unusual personal interest in his work being published. It would seem he was very protective of his work. The two books he published, Lyons and Krakow, were carefully crafted and published at Bakfark’s own expense. His predecessors did not care so much about having their work published, and indeed much of it wasn’t.

Here’s Daniel Benko again playing the Fantasia I. Though reasonably short, it’s hard to take in at first, each section blended together with no hard cadences to help negotiate its structure. (At least, that was my experience listening to it.) You can find the entire score — the entire book in fact — here. IMSLP also has a version in Italian tablatureFellow guitarists can easily play it from the score by tuning their G string to F#.

Taking the Recorder Seriously

The recorder is often regarded as little more than a kid’s toy with a piercing sound and little serious musical value. Even many who know that there is more to the recorder than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star — that is to say, those who are aware that the recorder had an important role in Renaissance and Baroque music — still seem to regard it as a less serious instrument, or something of a novelty. I certainly know this was my bias, especially thinking back to the squawks one made in primary school recorder clubs. But the history and repertoire is much richer than one generally imagines.


Some basics: recorders come in various types, the main ones being, from high to low, sopranino, descant (or soprano), treble (or alto), tenor, bass and contrabass. The descant is the one everyone learns Three Blind Mice on. The treble recorder is what most of the classical repertoire was written for. The tenor is a bit more obscure, and very few extant works exist for the bass recorder from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

The recorder is played by covering the holes with your fingers and blowing into the mouthpiece. (The tenor sometimes has keys to compensate for the longer length, and the bass always does). This distinguishes it from the flute which is played held sideways. For a long while in the 17th and 18th century the term ‘flute’ in fact referred to recorders and the modern ordinary flute was referred to as a ‘transverse’ flute. Other languages had similarly confusing distinctions.

A comparison between the penny whistle (fig. 1), very similar in its construction to the recorder, and an organ pipe (fig. 2). Of course this comparison only applies for pipe organs; reed organs are somewhat different. From John Stainer’s Complete Organ Method.

To give some perspective, it’s worth noting that the mechanism of the recorder is actually surprisingly similar to the organ. We know that going back to ancient times there were people who realised the simple fact that two recorders could be played simultaneously by one man (and no, not through one’s nostrils), and the organ basically mechanises and expands this idea. But instead of blowing into the recorders, air is pushed through by bellows. Early organs therefore required great stamina by the poor men tasked to operate the bellows. English organist John Stainer, writing in the late nineteenth century, remarked that ‘those who have any curiosity on the subject will still find in many continental churches, in some dark corner, a man busily engaged in mounting on first one and then another of several sets of feeders [the bottom bit of the bellows], and forcing the air into the bellows by his weight, as if he were under-going punishment at a musical treadmill.’ But even this is later on in the development of the organ. Before this the organ didn’t even have any keys. (Indeed, early keys were stiff things, hence the nickname at the time, ‘organ beater’, or pulsator organorum.) The pipes in this very early organ pictured below, essentially recorders without holes, are operated by pulling back the pieces of wood where the keyboard would nowadays be. This would either close or open up the foot of the pipe controlling the flow of air from the bellows behind.


The recorder itself came to prominence later on, in the sixteenth century, though duct flutes have existed since ancient times. The Renaissance recorder is similar to the modern recorder, but somewhat simpler in design. Renaissance recorders have fingerholes of all the same size, while the Baroque recorder, the design maintained today, has varying fingerhole sizes to facilitate higher notes. Renaissance recorders are also fairly straight and column-like, while Baroque recorders taper down towards the end. This means that Renaissance recorders are generally louder, more limited in range, and warmer sounding, whereas Baroque recorders are quieter but really pierce through when playing mid-high notes, while the lower notes are much harder to play. Naturally, the Baroque repertoire is on the whole much more challenging.

After the Baroque period the recorder seemed to face extinction. It was revived with a concert in England in the late 19th century, but the extent to which the instrument had been forgotten is evidenced by the fact that the player at this concert blocked up the thumb hole — he thought it had been put there by mistake! The mid-twentieth century saw its proper revival with recorder players like Michala Petri giving it its deserved respectability, and modern composers from Britten to Arnold to Part writing serious music for the instrument for the first time in about two centuries. (Of course it was also revived in the classroom, a mixed blessing.) Here’s Paul Hindemith’s ‘Plöner musiktag’ for one descant recorder and two treble recorders:

Still, the quality and quantity of modern recorder music is lacking, especially in proportion to the obvious number off enthusiastic and competent amateur players. There are often wonderful arrangements made of older music, though generally still Baroque or Renaissance — see the Flander’s Recorder Quartet, for example — or composers rearranging their own music for recorder, but seldom very remarkable original compositions. Usually it’s what you can expect from modernist music: lots of instrument-defying extended techniques, all very colourful, but little music.

Indeed, the recorder is capable of quite a few stranger techniques, given that it’s an instrument capable of microtonality (there are often two or more ways to play the same note, each sharper or flatter than the others, and the pitch can be altered also by how hard or soft one blows — or indeed by lifting your knee up to block the bottom hole, an endlessly amusing technique, especially if one alternates the knee), and also of multiphonics (a very fun effect, particularly on the recorder, whereby two notes sound simultaneously by singing one note into the recorder while playing another), among others. Below is an interesting video example. At one point the recorder is taken apart leaving only the mouthpiece. And at another point they are playing the unsightly Paetzold subcontrabass recorder, a blocky stereotypically-modernist beast so unattractive compared to the slender tapered beauty of the standard modern recorder. Still, it makes an impressive sound.

So perhaps its revival is better appreciated as an part of the early music revival as compared to, say, the 20th century revival of the classical guitar, which genuinely made it into a modern instrument. The recorder’s Baroque and Renaissance repertoire is rich and varied. In terms of Baroque composers, Handel and Telemann wrote sonatas for it, Vivaldi wrote recorder concertos, as did Scarlatti, Bach included it in many of his cantatas and two of his Brandenburg concertos, and C.P.E Bach even wrote a work that included bass recorder, one of the few rare instances we have of its use in a pre-20th century work.

Some of the most magnificent examples of recorder music in the Baroque period are found in Bach’s cantatas, a good portion of which specified recorders. His cantata ‘Gottess Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’ is one such example. The cantata is a lesson on preparing for death, e.g. ‘Ah, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, so that we might become wise’ (04:44-07:01), or more bluntly, ‘It is the ancient law: human, you must die! Yes, come, Lord Jesus!’ (08:06-11:55) The first movement (00:00-02:36) features two recorders prominently, then the most beautiful writing, I think, comes in the second part of the second movement (04:44-07:01). This is one of my favourite of his cantatas that I’ve heard (admittedly, I’ve still got well over a hundred to go), and it is nearly impossible to imagine how he wrote these gems week in week out.

In Renaissance music the recorder is perhaps not quite as immediately noticeable because of its warmer tone, such that it blends into the consort or orchestra more than the penetrating baroque recorder, as well as the fact that solo forms like the concerto and sonata had yet to be invented in this era of polyphonic equalibrium. It’s also the case that instruments weren’t always specified in scores, though recorders undoubtedly were prominently used among performers and many recorder consorts were set up, including by Henry VIII who even wrote a few tunes for the instrument himself. In terms of great works, you’ll find recorders in a lot of Monteverdi’s music, if you count it as renaissance music. There are a couple of recorders in L’Orfeo, for instance. If you watch this excerpt you’ll hear (and see) the recorders given the theme at about 3:50 and 5:20:

Why not end with this a performance of Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in C minor. Though one of the better known recorder works, one still has to be heartened by the fact that nearly 300,000 people have watched this (the recorder’s an alto, for those interested):

How Many Composers of March Music Can You Name?

For most people, only one name comes to mind: John Philip Sousa. Yet over a century ago, in America at least, the average person would be able to reel off a good number of names. Somehow a once-popular genre has become defined by just one of its dozens of major composers.

This was one of the topics on a recent EconTalk podcast with guest Chuck Klosterman on his latest book What If We’re Wrong? He examines past works and trends and demonstrates that contemporaries were almost always wrong in what they expected, or did not expect, to be a long-lasting masterpiece.

His best example is Moby Dick. At the time, it got mixed reviews and largely faded into obscurity. But come the 20th century it had become the American novel. Something similar happened to Bach, after Mendelssohn revived his importance in the 19th century.

After the discussion of march music, Klosterman asked what rock artist we expect to define the genre. He predicts, I think quite reasonably, that come a hundred years historians will treat rock music as much more homogeneous than we do. Just as Sousa has come to define march music, Elvis, say, may define rock music.

My guess is that it will be David Bowie. He is the sexual revolution, the avant garde, the popular, the adolescent, all in one.

How many jazz musicians can you name, for instance? My generation – let’s say the under 30s – can probably barely name five. My parents’ generation can doubtless name more, but gradually we’re seeing the genre homogenise through the narrow lens of history.

I suspect this is where rock is heading. It’s close to saturation point, with mainstream rock and pop musicians sounding ever-more alike, and with creativity being more subservient to commercial demands than ever before.

What will come next? Very crudely, and trying to accommodate both America and Europe, the transition of popular music seems to have been thus: local folk traditions, alongside popular variations on opera arias and the like, march and festive music, dance music from ragtime to big band, youth music starting with rock ‘n’ roll onto modern day rock and pop.

Rock and jazz owe everything to the musical traditions of African American slaves and their descendants. Will migrants (not that black slaves were ‘migrants’ exactly) again help to reinvent popular music? It would seem implausible in the case of Islamic migrants, the dominant migrant cultural force in Britain, at least. And Hispanic culture has always been inherent within American culture, so it is unlikely to be a revolutionary force either.

I wonder whether there will be a revival of jazz, say, rather than a new genre. Moreover, I wonder whether the increasing size of pop music – the stadiums, the production values, the celebrity, the ridiculous glamour – will become overwhelming, and that a new genre will be a more intimate form of music, rejecting the ostentatiousness of contemporary pop/rock. Perhaps it’s just my hope for a humbler, more local kind of popular music.

In reality, though, I’m much more pessimistic. And I have my doubts as to whether pop music will die anytime soon while billions still seem to be amused by the I-IV-V chord sequence – or the four-chord trick.

When the dominant form of music has very little to do with music and much more to do with the buoyancy of a female singer’s bottom, or how claustrophobic the dynamic range is, one does start to feel a touch apocalyptic.

But let’s say we know that rock/pop music will die out by the next century. How will the historians of 2150 view the genre, and who will emerge as its central historical figures? I doubt anyone’s guess will be right. Those at the forefront of today’s culture will fade, and historians will find relevance in the most unlikely of artists.

Desert Island Discs and Political Decline

Professed music taste is a pretty good rectal thermometer for judging politicians.* I’m sure everyone in Britain is still reeling, a decade later, from the moment when Gordon Brown claimed to be an Arctic Monkeys fan. He was subsequently unable to name any of their songs, and left us with only one coherent comment: ‘they are very loud’. Everyone called bullshit.

Thanks to the Desert Island Discs archive we have a long-running record of political figures from all sides acting similarly. Politicians tend to be the more intelligent, the more learned. Most of them have been educated in our country’s greatest universities. Yet increasingly they are lowering their standards — and we’re encouraging them.

david-cameronDavid Cameron, our Eton- and Oxford-education Prime Minister, claims to love the following: REM, The Killers, The Smiths, Radiohead, Benny Hill, Pink Floyd, and Bob Dylan (plus one lonely Mendelssohn track). ‘Dave’, as he insisted on being called, made his appearance on Desert Island Discs around the same time he went on The Johnathan Ross Show and was asked if he ever masturbated over Margaret Thatcher. It was a time at which, fresh from winning the Tory leadership, Dave was eagerly degrading himself with a kind of pandering populism. Composer Peter Maxwell Davies was enraged by his choices:

In any other European country, a politician who chose that sort of garbage would be laughed out of court. The anti-artistic stance of our leaders gets up my nose. Their main aim is to turn us all into unquestioning passive consumers who put money into the bosses’ pockets. That is now the purpose of education.

ed-miliband-sass-faceJeremy Corbyn has yet to make an appearance, but David Ed Miliband has. His choices are all popular music of one sort or another, with one ostensibly anti-apartheid-related track. We need not call forth suppressed memories about Ed’s various media embarrassments, but it’s safe to say that his music choices are nearly as cringe-worthy: Robbie Williams, A-ha –even Neil Diamond. The Edith Piaf and Paul Robeson are not awful choices, but nowhere in the list is there any indication of good taste and judgement.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The first two politicians to appear on Desert Island Discs were Labour’s Tom Driberg, an odd and once-popular leftie who was, incidentally, quite possibly a spy, and the Conservative Party’s Beverly Baxter, a man I know nothing about but from some cursory googling seemed to be quite all right. Both were interviewed during the war, in 1943, only a year after the programme’s creation.

Among Driberg’s choices were Palestrina, Mozart, and an unusual choice of James Joyce reading from his book Finnegan’s Wake, as well as a couple of popular songs. Baxter’s choices were indeed a touch more conservative — Wagner, Elgar, Strauss, etc. — but he also throws in a Louis Armstrong song. The choices seem believable for both politicians. They show good cultural taste while retaining a healthy attachment to some elements of popular culture. They are the kind of choices you would rightly expect well-educated politicians to make.

The cynic might say that they were simply adapting their choices to a different time, one that expected a certain gentility from its leaders. But so what? All this would mean is that the public expected its law-makers to be cultured and experienced. If only this were true today, then we wouldn’t have the likes of Donald Trump.

The modern politician defers to populist tastes. They are scared of any accusation of elitism. Conductor Antonio Pappano has said that politicians are even scared to show their faces at the opera. Instead, they withdraw what personalities they have, and unconvincingly opt for the most mass-market approved music their advisers can find.

It has created a curious situation where politicians attempts to seem normal have only resulted in greater hole-digging. They are scorned for being out of touch, but instead of trying to rectify this by mingling with the commoners, they engage in an embarrassing game of pretence, and everyone plays along.

Yet if anything the classes have only become more rigid. These well-educated politicians have climbed to the top rungs, only to kick down the ladder, all while pretending ever more so to be on the people’s side. But it’s not all their fault — we’re the ones who keep electing the buggers.

mayor_of_london_bo_1564736aWhich brings us onto Alexander ‘Boris’ de Pfeffel Johnson, a man with his finger irretrievably lodged in the wind. He tempered his choices in 2005 to cover all bases: a couple of poncy tracks, the Brahms and the Beethoven, to solidify his lovable toff image, but otherwise choosing mostly popular tracks, raging from his punkish side (The Clash) to his loose side (Booker T. and the MG’s). With his increasing television personality, most notably on Have I Got News For You, Boris had become adept even then at celebrity culture. I often wish their were a sign erected outside Westminster, similar to those in seaside towns warning of seagulls: Don’t Feed The Boris.

This is because we — and I use ‘we’ very loosely — encourage bad behaviour in politicians, with the perplexing mindset that they should be more like us. This denigration of elitism has created an obvious lowering of standards, as seen by the new predominance of unremarkable pop music over the artistic brilliance of Western civilisation. If we now think that, when stranded on a desert island, it is better to be stuck with a three-minute repetitive Smiths song than a Wagner opera, our culture has most certainly sunk. (And I say this even as a seasoned miserabilist rather partial to The Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.)

This surely proves my point: one of David Davis pick’s was Pink’s Get the Party Started. Really. I quite like David Davis, and I must say I was embarrassed for him when I read his choices. But worse was poor old Nick Clegg. No doubt still euphoric after the brief spurt of popularity he received in the 2010 election campaign (including, I’m so very ashamed to say, from me), he threw in Prince, Bowie and — listen to this — Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’ theme for the world cup (video below). Clegg also chose Radiohead, always a top choice among educated people who want a ‘sophisticated’ brand of rock. His advisers seemed, however, to permit him a bit of Schubert and Chopin.

Look at Michael Foot’s choices — the far-left chap so well respected for his political fights for the working classes — and it’s all ‘elitist’ classical music. Margaret Thatcher’s choices showed similarly good taste. Even into the 1980s we could expect our politicians to maintain high cultural standards. If I had to put a date on when things changed, it would be in 1997, with the election of ‘Tony’ Blair — as much a pretence as ‘Dave’ or ‘Boris’.

But never fear, I have a solution of sorts: a permanent vacation to a remote desert island for all guilty offenders. Any Etonian minister who claims his favourite artist is Kenya West must go. Any hip young thing in parliament who claims to adore Meghan Trainer must go. A purge is needed. These politicians must face the consequences of their words. If they claim to love Eminem, we should do a Mussolini — that is, exile them on some unremarkable island, but with the ‘luxury’ of their apparent favourite Eminem track as company. Let them suffer.

*The phrase is adapted from one by the late Christopher Hitchens, suggesting that he should carry ‘some sort of rectal thermometer, with which to test the rate at which I am becoming an old fart’

Ted Puffer: An Unsung Hero

Ted Puffer is someone who achieved incredible things, but who always lay on the outskirts of public recognition. He was an American classical singer, the founder of a small but prolific opera company, Nevada Opera, as well as a university professor and even a translator. Yet I doubt the name Ted Puffer is at all familiar to anyone reading this.

85293634_132987596931Born in 1928, Merle E. ‘Ted’ Puffer was a man clearly phenomenal in his musical talents, but also evangelical in his belief in classical music’s universal accessibility. Under his leadership Nevada Opera performed many operas with English translations, adamantly opposing the cultural elitism he thought too prevalent. Indeed, opera companies throughout the Untied States have used the English translations Puffer and his wife made. I think he was onto something, understanding that opera’s roots were not in elitism but in populism. ‘For too long, opera has been a status event where patrons could sleep’, he said. ‘I want people to come to the opera because they like it’. He apparently liked to tell his audiences this: ‘Leave the costumes to us. You don’t have to dress up.’ Puffer exemplified the best of egalitarianism.

His legacy lives on through the Nevada Opera, which is still active, as well as through those he mentored, notably Dolora Zajick. She is a mezzo famed for her Verdi performances and as someone who has sung many times for the Metropolitan Opera. She described him as ‘a quirky influence’, but ‘an excellent voice teacher ‘who proved crucial in her learning’. He taught me how to sing’, she said in 1991, while Puffer was still alive. ‘I’m still working with him. The more I got out in the wide world, the more I’ve learned and have to compare with, the more I appreciate what he has to offer. I had no concept in the beginning the level he was at.’

On 23 October 2003 Puffer died after a year-long fight with cancer. He is survived by his daughter Monica Harte, a successful musician in her own right. News of his death spread fast, she recalls. ‘[From] all over the world we’re getting calls … A couple of different people have said, “You know, I have the life I have because of your parents and because of the opera or because your dad taught me how to sing”.’

There is one other area through which Puffer is immortalised, and this is how I discovered him. In 1965 he recorded two volumes of Charles Ives’ songs. These are the only two recordings he ever made, and they are astonishingly unique. They sound ‘American’ — authentically down-to-earth and sung without European affectations. Of all those who have recorded Ives’ songs, Puffer is the one who comes closest to understanding that Ivesian blend of a free, humble, but proud America combined with the artistic complexity and expressiveness of classical music. Unusually for those singing Ives, he is a tenor, and his voice has clarity and a character you’ll find nowhere else.

Included below is Puffer’s version of Ives’ song West London, the first Ives piece I ever heard. (Feel free to skip ahead and listen if you don’t want the blurb.) Originally a sonnet by Matthew Arnold, West London depicts a tramp with her baby and young daughter begging on the streets of London. Ives sets this to music in ingenious ways. The song travels from the musical anxiety of the young daughter begging for money, to more confident chords when she comes back satisfied, money in hand. But then there’s a frosty chromatic descent sung by Puffer as the tramp follows the rich passers-by with a ‘frozen stare’; she knows that the rich men will not give her money as they do not empathise with her the way that working men do. ‘She will not ask of aliens [the rich], but of friends [the working men], Of sharers in a common human fate.’ Though not too long after, the song passes back into optimism, with these majestic chords  — almost anthemic — while the vocalist sings triumphantly, ‘And points us to a better time than ours’. That same chord sequence is then repeated at a whisper, and in a higher key, until ending on a plagal half-cadence — the opposite of the ‘Amen’ cadence, as it’s more commonly known. I’m not exactly sure what Ives meant in this musical addendum to the text, but it’s certainly evocative.

And Ted Puffer’s version is masterly — dare I say the definitive version. Please do listen (underneath are the words):

Crouch’d on the pavement close by Belgrave Square
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.
Some labouring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
Pass’d opposite; she touch’d her girl, who hied
Across, and begg’d and came back satisfied.
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.
Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.
She turns from that cold succour, which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.

Verdi and the Risorgimento: Correcting the Myth

Going to an opera in mid-19th century Italy was a raucous affair. Unlike the symphony and ballet, opera had yet to be pacified — there was none of the reverential silence we now associate with a classical concert. It could almost feel like a piazza: people applauding between songs, chatting during songs and even getting rather merry and violent. During one opera, the audience was divided between those who wanted an encore of one particular scene and those who did not (the concert hall as a kind of battleground was not unique to this event). After the burst of cheering had subsided with defeat of the encore party, a drunken soldier from the boxes demanded an encore nevertheless. As those in the orchestra seats shouted back at him, he started throwing weapons and chairs onto the stage. The audience rushed toward the exits, ladies in the boxes fainted, and after the drunk was finally arrested the theatre was half empty.

In some ways the opera was an escape from a heavily censored society. It was a place where people could gather together and collectively express feelings. But under no circumstance would they have been allowed to express anything like an overt political opinion. It is argued by some music historians, therefore, that any political messages in opera were communicated throughout a subtly coded language that the composer and his audience understood, but that evaded the censors and police. This makes it especially difficult to study the politics of the operas of the time, and has led to a great deal of overly imaginative historical interpretations.

The chief victim of these historical exaggerations is Giuseppe Verdi. His operas are often seen as the backdrop to the Risorgimento (the struggle for Italian unification in the mid-19th century). And his now beloved song, Va, Pensiero (also known as Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves), is seen ahistorically as the hymn to the revolution. The song, we are often told, is about liberating a people oppressed by foreign powers, and that its early audiences reacted with nationalist fervour. Absolute rubbish. There are indeed a number of myths about this song, almost of all them wrong. There is absolutely no evidence to show that the audience piled out onto the street enthusiastically singing the melody, as some have suggested, nor is there any evidence to suggest there was an encore. If there had been an encore, it would have doubtless been prominently reported, as encores were technically illegal. We don’t even have any record of Va, Pensiero being used politically until 1859. In fact, there are few contemporary reports of any patriotic outbursts in any opera. When it comes to Verdi, there are only 15 examples of his music being appropriated for political statements in the 1840s — this strikes me as a miserably low number.

Nevertheless, there were some attempts to politicise opera throughout the Risorgimento. Giuseppe Mazzini, a leader of the nationalist movement, had already theorised about the role opera could play in the movement. He advocated the use of choruses to represent the people, and to remove extravagance from opera and emphasise harmony. These changes largely did occur for whatever reason, but it does not appear that they resonated politically. Mazzini’s Filosfia della Musica, which expounded these revolutionary musical ideas, was from an obscure 1836 Parisian journal, and it was never circulated in Italy until 1848. Nabucco was written in 1843. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that the use of chorus in Va, Pensiero had any political intent.

You may have also heard of the nationalist slogan of the time, ‘Viva Verdi!’ If not, it’s quite ingenious: it both celebrates the operas of Verdi and the King who would lead a united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia. However, the slogan wasn’t adopted until 1859. Verdi’s operas, such that they were being used politically, had been reinterpreted somewhat imaginatively to fit a revolutionary narrative. Even then, his supposedly political operas were not his most popular. His most popular opera was actually Ernani, a non-patriotic opera. Some did come to associate Ernani with relatively liberal new Pope, Pius IX, but the opera still remained the most popular even after Pius had stood up in 1848 and opposed nationalism.

Verdi’s funeral in 1901

Over half a decade later comes the death of Verdi, right on the cusp of a new century. By this time, the struggles of the last century had been romanticised and Verdi’s music really had become a symbol of the Risorgimento. He had two funerals. The first was a small affair, but it was reported that bystanders spontaneously began singing Va, Pensiero, a heart-warming tale if true. At his second funeral — the ostentatious, public one — hundreds of thousands of people were in attendance, and you can guess which song they sang and which slogan they shouted. But it is mistaken to think that Verdi’s operas were intended to be particularly subversive, and indeed it’s all too easy to overstate their influence on making Italy.