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.)

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 album, Late Night Lute, so I’ve had the chance to listen to give The Miller’s Tale another few listens today. I’ve never read Chaucer, and I have to admit that my attempt to do so today ended in impatience with the Middle English language. 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, giving the player 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 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.

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: