Looking back…

This year has resolved itself nicely. On a personal note, only a few months ago I would have assumed this year would end in discontent. The considerable improvement in my state of mind can be attributed to the beautiful things in my life — which, for the sake of this blog, means music. I hope I am not being too self-absorbed. I simply want to affirm what most people reading this already know: what a consolation music can be — how meaningful it is for many of us.

I’ve noticed some changes this year in the way I listen to music. I spend less time sitting at home listening to music and more time going to concerts, playing guitar and composing (however badly). When I first discovered classical music a couple of years ago I was in such an excited rush to hear new music that I approached many composers and their works superficially. Spending more time playing, reflecting, composing, attending performances etc. seems to me more meaningful and lasting than binge-listening online.

When I do listen to music, I close my eyes more often. This is much less trivial than it might sound. I am bombarded with visual stimuli throughout the day and this soon becomes habit-forming. My head in particular has the peculiar habit of jerking about trying to survey the room as if I were doing an impression of a pigeon. On top of that, I’m a terrible fidgeter, pen-chewer and joint-cracker. Closing one’s eyes concentrates the mind to the extent that, with a really good piece of music, I remain quite motionless and totally absorbed.

The highlight of the year has undoubtedly be the discovery of the lute repertoire. I’ve had the privilege of hearing three extraordinary lutenists perform this year (Thomas Dunford, Matthew Wadsworth and Paul O’Dette), then the joy of learning some of this music on guitar, and finally the thrill, just in the last two weeks, of getting my hands on a lute (which I’ll blog about soon).

My favourite concert this year was the early music group L’Arpeggiata performing relatively obscure works by Luigi Rossi (c. 1597-1653). Runners up include The Feinstein Ensemble performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (just two days ago), Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House, Thomas Ades conducting the Beethoven symphonies, and Monteverdi’s Vespers (annoyingly I can’t recall the performers).

I am completely enamoured of this aria from Rossi’s opera Orfeo. L’Arpeggiata performing:


Robert Johnson — Pavan No. 3 in C Minor (Guitar Transcription)

A few weeks ago I rambled on about the guitar repertoire, suggesting that we focus more on the lute and guitar music from around 1500-1750 and away from the Spanish repertoire. I suggested, among others, more Kapsberger, Zamboni and Bacheler. Now I can add another name.

Robert Johnson (c. 1583-1633) — not to be confused with the African-American blues guitarist — was the last great English lutenist. As it happens, he was also the son of the first great lutenist, John Johnson. The two Johnsons essentially bookend at either side the short but fruitful Golden Age of English Lute Music. There are about twenty extant solo lute pieces by Robert Johnson. Most are almains, four are pavans, a few are galliards, and there is only one fantasie. I dare say if more survived he would be a more celebrated composer. 

His Pavan No. 3 isn’t playable on guitar from the original lute tablature, and I don’t believe it has been transcribed for guitar before — so I thought it would be good fun to try. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. (Next several sentences are purely technical, if you want to skip ahead to the video and score.) The pavan was written for 10 courses (paired strings), with the added bass notes extending the range by a fifth. Therefore I transposed the piece from C to D minor and tuned the guitar’s sixth string down to D. This way all the bass notes remain and the piece is transcribed almost note for note. (The only exception I recall is bar 29, where the inner voices of the first chord had to be removed.) Given the reduction from ten to six strings, there are a few big left-hand stretches — the biggest stretch is from the second to seventh fret (bar 12, beat 2) — but it isn’t a fast piece, and most players should have little trouble playing the piece once the fingering has been worked out. 

I like to think I am an able Sibelius user, though I will admit that formatting multiples voices on a single stave was a bit fiddly. If anyone thinks I’ve done something wrong, or scored it weirdly, please tell me and I’ll make any necessary corrections.

Here’s the PDF. Beneath the video are image files. The pavan begins at 2:40, before which is the The Prince’s Almain, also by Johnson.

Johnson Pavan 3-1

Johnson Pavan 3-2

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?

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?

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’.