21st Century Theorbo Music

Matthew Wadsworth is a pretty amazing guy. Although blind, he’s nevertheless become a first-class lutenist, and even studied under Nigel North. There’s clearly a stubbornly ambitious streak in him. In addition to his lute playing, he’s trying to break the record for blind motorcycle jumping. An excellent little documentary was made of the whole process.

I saw him perform a couple of weeks ago — lute, that is. He is without a doubt a fine player with a profound understanding of the music he plays. I will say that there were a few wrongs notes and instances of string buzzes — enough to make one slightly uncomfortable. I found myself comparing him to the lutenist Thomas Dunford, who I also saw recently. Dunford can whizz through the fastest passages in a fairly carefree way. Wadsworth doesn’t even try to play that fast; he’s a more contemplative player, whether by choice or not. This actually made him very convincing on something like Robert Johnson’s Pavan in C Minor, which is a less florid and more intense piece. I wish he would do a whole album of Johnson because that and the two Almaynes were just superb — dare I say, they were even better than the versions Nigel North has recorded.

But surely the most interesting thing he played was a newly-written piece for the theorbo. It’s based on The Miller’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and written for Wadsworth by Welsh guitarist and composer Stephen Goss. The piece is structured sort of like a Baroque suite, but with a prologue and epilogue. Each movement is supposed to represent a character from the tale. Here’s Wadsworth performing the estampie; the character represented is John:

Wadsworth has since released an albumLate Night Lute, so I’ve had the chance to listen to give The Miller’s Tale another few listens today, now the novelty’s worn off. I’ve never read Chaucer, and my attempt to do so today ended in impatience with the Middle English language, I have to admit. But the music nonetheless appeals to me. It makes great use of those signature bass strings of the theorbo, and also quite interesting use of harmonics. The theorbo is a weirdly tuned instrument, so you have an unusual palette to paint with, and paint Goss does. The arpeggiated harmonics in the toccata are a good example of this, creating a truly unique effect, especially with those powerful bass strings. It does sound kind of otherwordly. In fact, much of the piece does, like something old but alien. The estampie above is perhaps a bit different, being more of a lively, rhythmic movement. But the rest are quite meditative, very much playing to Wadsworth’s apparent strengths. I wish we had more composers writing for this rich instrument. As far as I know, the only other example is James MacMillan, whose Since it was the day of preparation… begins with a beautiful theorbo solo.

Anyway. Very much recommend checking out Wadsworth’s new release, available on Spotify, Amazon, and all that. To sign off, here’s Wadsworth performing Robert Johnson’s Care Charming Sleep. It’s a very nice performance, but I’m starting to suspect that he might actually be more comfortable on the theorbo.

The Orpharion

I was listening to the lutenist Paul O’Dette play John Dowland’s Mrs Winter’s Jump and thought, Well chop off my legs and call me shorty, that sounds like a virginal! Listen for yourself:

Turns out it’s an orpharion. Typical of the Renaissance, the name ‘orpharion’ is derived from Orpheus and Arion. It was invented in England at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, and became a fairly common alternative to the lute. It’s tuned the same way as a lute, and various contemporary books list it as an alternative to the lute, but there seems to have been very few books written specifically for the instrument.

While the lute was clearly the more esteemed instrument, the orpharion may well have been equally popular in the home: in 32 examples between 1565 and 1648 of household inventories which mention musical instruments of any kind, the bandora (its larger sibling) and orpharion occur as frequently as the lute.

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An orpharion built by Francis Palmer in 1617 (see more photos here)

The orpharion differs with the lute quite significantly in terms of its shape, most notably the flat back. But the more important difference is its use of wire strings instead of gut. The subsequent brighter, metallic sound, and the more limited timbre and dynamic range it presents, are no doubt why I nearly mistook it for a virginal. Harpsichords, unlike the piano which uses hammer-action, are plucked instruments just like the lute and orpharion, so the method of attack is also similar.

Right-hand technique, however, differed between the orpharion and the lute because of the wire strings. William Barley published the first collection of music specifically for orpharion in 1596, and in it he wrote that

whereas the Lute is strong with gut stringes, the Orpharion is strong with wire stringes, by reason of which manner of stringing, the Orpharion doth necessarilie require a more gentle and drawing stroke than the Lute, I mean the fingers of the right hand must be easilie drawen over the stringes, and not suddenly griped, or sharpelie stroken as the Lute is: for if yee should doo so, then the wire stringer would clash or jarre together the one against the other

Here’s an orpharion being played. There seems to be very few videos on YouTube of the instrument — and half of them are by this guy:

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.

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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:

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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:

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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#.

Reflections on Learning Classical Guitar

Why the guitar? It’s a quiet, harmonically-limited, high-maintenance instrument compared to the piano, its chief polyphonic rival. The guitar has to be retuned daily, if not hourly, and restrung every month or two. It can play only four or, at a push, five notes simultaneously, whereas the piano can play up to ten. However, the guitar is by far my preferred instrument to play and to listen to.

In my more cynical moments, the piano seems a poor emotionless substitute for a full orchestra. It is far too mechanised. Most of the time, a guitarist needs two fingers to play one note, and the sound produced will be almost totally dependent on how the guitarist does this. The guitar therefore has a much greater variety of sounds, even if it lacks the orchestral scope of the piano. The piano, on the other hand, has just one attack, the hammer, variable only very slightly, and is incapable of glissandi, most harmonics, vibrato, and so on.

There is in fact a rich history of piano-bashing, particularly back when the modern piano was perceived as a great vulgariser. One shouldn’t take this too seriously, but Berlioz, a guitarist himself, in his excellent Memoirs goes on an enjoyable little rant about the great corrupting effect the piano was having on orchestral writing. Concluding, he writes that ‘the piano, for the orchestral writer, is a guillotine that severs the head of noble and of churl with the same impartial indifference’!

Perhaps it is a blessing of sorts, then, that the guitar isn’t quite manipulable enough to emulate full orchestral scores. It makes it a humbler and more intimate instrument, and one which the player has to exercise a much greater degree of control over. This is why it takes more learning than the piano to play tolerably.

The lute was once preferred over the keyboard, until at some point in the Baroque period. The instrument perhaps reached its peak in the first half of the seventeenth century, or there about — certainly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were when it was most prominent — and then its use rapidly declined. It was possibly its own doing, becoming an impossibly high maintenance instrument, with over a dozen courses (double strings) becoming commonplace. It faced extinction in the Classical era, but thankfully it was revived as part of the 20th century Early Music revival, and now you may well have better chance finding a lute recital in London than a guitar recital.

It’s a common mistake, however, to think the guitar is a child of the lute. The guitar is more a descendant of the vihuela, a Spanish instrument contemporary to the lute. It died out quicker than the lute but was superseded by the Baroque guitar, though it was more of a continuo instrument than a solo polyphonic instrument. Here are two Fantasias by Mudarra played on a Vihuela.

The guitar today owes a lot to Fernando Sor’s innovations during the Classical era. His compositions are not especially interesting musically but their pedagogical use has survived centuries. (His contemporary, Mauro Giuliani, is also worth exploring. I find his work more fun too, particularly his guitar concertos.) Julian Arcas, Francisco Tarrega and then Heitor Villa Lobos kept it alive during the Romantic era and into the 20th century. The guitar became a more common instrument, however, when gut strings were — forgive me for this — gutted, and the instrument actually held its tuning thanks to nylon strings. Segovia had popularised the guitar before then and continued to after, but in many ways his death liberated players from his dictatorial and sometimes incorrect pedagogy. The other twentieth century guitarist probably most worth mentioning, especially from a British perspective, is Julian Bream, for whom much of modern guitar music was written. Probably the most famous of which (and justly so) is the Nocturnal after John Dowland by Benjamin Britten, which is based on a song by English lutenist John Dowland, Come Heavy Sleep. The song melody emerges sublimely at the end. Here’s Bream playing the second half of the work:

I imagine a lot of this is as new to many readers as it was to me. From about 10-18 years old (that is, a few years ago) I was an electric guitarist. In that time I did Grade 8 electric guitar and much more importantly Grade 8 theory. Following a few years of not playing, having become terrifically unsatisfied and upset about music, I picked up the classical guitar after having almost miraculously discovered classical music. There were many factors influencing this, but having developed a love for classical music on my own, the internet was my primary means of discovery, and I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the importance of one blog, The Music Salon, whose author’s biography I found very encouraging. He made the transition from electric guitar to classical guitar at around 20, a similar age to me, albeit some decades ago, and became a very accomplished professional guitarist. I’m not sure I aspire for, or am capable of, the latter, but when considering whether to take up the classical guitar I had many doubts, as ridiculous as they may sound, about being too old to be any good at it.

Anyway, what I wanted to note is that the electric guitar does not in fact share the traditions of the classical guitar. You may be able to trace it back to the vihuela, but the electric guitar’s more obvious predecessors are the 19th century steel-string folk guitar and the banjo. It is something of a historical coincidence that the electric guitar seemed to be developed and popularised at the same time as the modern classical guitar, during the early-mid twentieth century.

So transitioning from electric to classical not only presents technical difficulties but also even greater cultural difficulties. You are inheriting a different tradition, such that the feel of the music, the performance practises, the nature of the score and improvisation, and the role of the guitar (the electric guitar is always part of a band, for instance) differ profoundly. Nevertheless, going from electric guitar or acoustic guitar to classical, despite the necessity of much unlearning, is still beneficial. You already have an interest in playing music in an era where that urge has withered. Why bother learning to play music when a five-inch slab of plastic can play all the music you’d ever want for you? In some ways, I’m grateful to have begun learning before the birth of Spotify, when music was not as omnipresent and music libraries not nearly as voluminous.

The thing about the electric guitar, also, is that it tends to attract talent, as its repertoire and style is often much more challenging and accomplished than other popular instruments. A metal guitarist in particular will know their phrygian mode from their lydian, can play scales and arpeggios with rapid precision, have a grasp of some degree of rhythmic complexity, and will be very capable improvisers. (With the popularity of this instrument and considering the sizeable minority of its players who are genuinely skilled and disciplined, a mass exodus to classical guitar is not an altogether impossible dream…)

All that said, the chasm between electric and classical is still great. Just to begin with, the classical guitar neck is like grabbing an elephant’s leg — so different to the narrow, slender neck of an electric. Your fingers don’t know quite where to go. All those habits from electric guitar playing — the left thumb hooked around the neck, the long left-hand stretches, the flexible postures, the devious ability to cloak mistakes with distortion — just get in the way. This is not even to mention the disconcerting switch from plectrum to fingers and the switch from single-voice to multiple-voice playing.

This is all such that, though I was a quite good electric guitar player, I’m a more clumsy, amateur classical one. Several wrong notes on electric guitar and it can still be a great performance. Several wrong notes while playing a Scarlatti sonata, say, and you’ve buggered up bigly. Classical instruments are naked things whose colour and dignity and beauty depend on who dresses them. With an electric guitar, the amplifier does most of that for you, and can easily cover up the blemishes. Though to my ear now, the lack of a human touch is painfully obvious.

The most useful classical guitar exercises I’ve found are those that deal with tone and balance. Scales and arpeggios are absolutely essential to make one an accurate player, but accuracy cannot make dull playing enchanting. For one exercise I just sit and play a B minor chord, for instance — B F# B D — and each time I try to accent a different note. This is much harder than you would think. But particular stuff like this is vital to learning the guitar: we may not have the sheer number of notes available and complexity that a piano has, but ours is by far a more expressive instrument.

The other problem is reading scores. Pieces for electric guitar grades will generally have two staves: the top one in musical notation, the bottom one in tablature. For me, this meant I read the tabs for the notes and the score for the rhythm. As anyone switching from rock to classical guitar will likely find that their playing will be much faster than their ability to read scores. Nevertheless, it’s worth the struggle. That sense of accomplishment when you learn a great piece is unlike any other. And in an era of low-attention spans, one where I included struggle to read books without very quickly and regularly distracting myself, it is strange and marvellous that I’m able to spend hours with the guitar without even the fear of distraction.


The final thing I want to do is recommend some resources and works for newcomers to the guitar, particularly those migrating from another instrument. The stuff that comes to mind:

  • The two books most helpful to me were Scott Tennant’s Pumping Nylon and Charles Duncan’s The Art of Classical Guitar Playing. Study those and you’ll have a solid foundation of guitar technique. (If anyone has other recommendations, please do say.)
  • Concerning repertoire, Fernando Sor’s studies are excellent, as everyone will tell you. Starting out, something like Luys Milan’s Pavanas are quite good. (However, the tempos are much faster than one initially thinks. In mensural notation the lowest value was the semifusa, the semiquaver or sixteenth note. So although a pavana is not a fast dance, I play the pieces as if the notes were half the value, otherwise it’s like a bloody dirge.) A lot of John Dowland’s work is manageable for someone of modest ability (though, of course, some of it really isn’t). One of the first pieces I learnt was Flow My Tears, which is the song version of his famous Lachrimae.
  • Some general tips are to explore the entire guitar, play ponticello (at the bridge) not just under or around the soundhole, play with a footstall or leg rest as much as possible and resist the temptation to slouch on the sofa with the guitar in hand, keep a contained and controlled right-hand and left-hand position (unlike the wild leaps of electric guitar), practise loads of finger-independence exercises, and don’t abandon your ‘a’ (ring) finger.
  • Read about music as much as possible. Even if it doesn’t seem relevant, reading people like Charles Rosen, say, will make one a better musician.
  • Also eat loads of jelly cubes and for goodness sake don’t use emery boards for filing your nails! (I use a glass file and P1200 sandpaper).

The last piece I learnt was John Dowland’s Frog Galliard, quite a popular piece for guitar. It’s probably of about intermediate skill. The fast runs are easier than they might initially seem (though that doesn’t mean I don’t frequently muck them up). The story goes that there was a ugly and petite dancer in Elizabeth I’s court with a face ruined by pox and an oversized nose. But boy was he a good dancer, favoured by Elizabeth for a time, and she referred to him as her ‘frog’. A galliard, by the way, was a dance in six beats popular in the Renaissance, appropriately characterised by a lot of leaping and jumping. Here’s a video: