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’.

Giovanni Zamboni

Giovanni Zamboni was a Roman lutenist in the late 17th/early 18th century (as well as a successful jeweller). In fact, he was a virtuoso of lute, theorbo, guitar, mandore and harpsichord. His Sonate d’intavolatura di leuto was published in 1718, late in the life of the lute, especially lute tablature. It was the last Italian publication for lute.

His sonatas are something of hidden gem — well, not so hidden thanks to the internet. The entire book is available freely on IMSLP, and there is a rather good selection of recordings on YouTube. The one I’m learning is the sixth, after stumbling across this superb video:

It’s one of those pieces that draws you in immediately. The first movement has these exquisite slurred passages throughout, and a very lyrical, Italian melody. The harmonies comes unexpectedly — a sudden major third (0:19), hints at the phrygian mode (0:21, 3:43). It is mostly in natural minor (that is, the raised seventh is somewhat uncommon, at least in the first movement). Just at the end of the first section of the Allemande, it becomes very difficult to establish what key we’re in (0:50) — it’s either a modulation to the dominant or the dorian mode. Then you’re hit with a second inversion subdominant chord in the original minor key (1:00). The major sixth you expected is replaced by a minor sixth, and it sounds brilliant.

Reading that back, I sound rather like an excitable football commentator. ‘He goes for it, he’s got the ball, and… and… I don’t believe it — a modulation to the subdominant!’ (Which, incidentally, occurs at 3:13, I think).

In case my amateur musical analysis was unpersuasive, here’s more music. His Sonata No. 9:

I’m enormously fond of the lute, more so than the guitar, but I have to say I think his music sounds better on guitar. The more expressive tone palette and vibrato — essentially playing it in a more Romantic way — is preferable to my ears. (Whereas I much prefer Dowland, say, or even Kapsberger played on lute.)

[ETA: After listening to Luciano Contini’s recording of the sonatas, I’m changing my mind on the above.]

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.


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.)