Early Venetian Lute Music

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Early Venetian Lute Music

Although the lute figures prominently inthe pictorial art of the fifteenth century, it was not a popular instrument inthe true sense of the word; it can hardly be seen as an instrument 'of thepeople'. In fact it was most cultivated by that section of society thatcommissioned the paintings in which it so often features: the aristocracy andthe upper echelons of the merchant class on whose success in business thepolitical power of a city-state like Venice really depended. Early in thecentury the instrument was principally the domain of the professional musician;lutenists usually worked in pairs, one showing off his consummate skill inimprovising exuberant variations over a slower-moving 'tenor' played by hishumbler partner. It seems likely that the junior partner sometimes played areduction of the lower parts of a well-known vocal ensemble piece, be it anamorous chanson or even a sacred motet, on his lute, While this complex texturecould be approximated by the skilful use of the customary plectrum, it wasactually easier to do using the individual fingertips of the right hand ratherthan with the 'strumming' technique of the plectrum. It cannot have taken longto see the expressive potential of playing with the fingertips, which allowed agreater range of dynamic and tonal nuance. This new technique also opened upthe possibility of playing truly polyphonic music devised for the lute, and bythe time the first lute music was published in 1507, it had become the dominantstyle, although the old plectrum technique must have remained in professionaluse for some time after that when the occasion arose.

The music beautifully printed byOttaviano Petrucci in Venice from around 1500 was not intended for professionalmusicians. It supplied a demand for high-quality music for consumption byamateur musicians with the money to spare They were emulating their richercontemporaries, the aristocrats and merchants, who were, of course, theprincipal employers of professional players, and most music manuscripts of theperiod, sometimes extravagantly calligraphed and decorated, come from thatexalted circle Since professional lutenists worked within an essentiallyimprovisational, aural tradition (as they continued to do throughout the lute'shistory) they had little need of music that was written any differently fromthat used by singers or players of any other instrument. From the latefifteenth century, however, there began to appear manuscripts and, from 1507, aseries of printed books, of idiomatic music specifically composed or arrangedfor the lute. All these manuscripts and prints used tablature, a form ofnotation that made it easy for an amateur lutenist to find the sometimescomplicated fingering positions for the sophisticated music, itself probablybased on the repertory of the professional players whose playing was so highlyrespected.

While the early lute manuscripts andprints hand down to us a repertory of elaborated versions of vocal courtlychansons and religious motets as well as idiomatic lute compositions,especially the quasi- improvised ricercars that were often used as preludes tothe vocal-derived pieces, they also preserve a considerable quantity of dancemusic. What is especially interesting about the dances is that they show thatthe music of the street was routinely heard in the elegant chambers of thewealthy, alongside the sophistication and delicacy of courtly music that seems,on the face of it, more suited to the gentle tones of the lute. But it is easyfor us to forget how important dancing was as a part of everyday socialintercourse in the Renaissance. It was literally as normal as eating ordrinking, and as important as a social skill as the more practical necessitiesof life such as elementary horsemanship or self-defence in the form of basicswordsmanship. Like dance music of all periods, that of the Renaissance tendedto move upwards in the social scale; folk-dances entered the ball-room, so tospeak, although they probably lost some of their rough edges in the process.

It is not hard to detect the earthyorigins of much dance music for lute, especially in those called calata orpiva by Joan Ambrosio Dalza from Milan, whose collection Petruccipublished in 1508. Sadly, as with all the lutenists represented in thisrecording (with one exception) we know next to nothing about his life, or eventhe reputation he enjoyed. However, given the consistently high quality of hismusic, we can surely assume that he was a professional player of high standing;Petrucci's edition simply calls him an 'excellent musician and lute player'. Aswith many dance collections of the sixteenth century, Dalza names his dancesaccording to their regional origin. There are, for example, two kinds of pavana,one from Venice (the pavana venetiana) and one from Ferrara (pavanaferrarese). Each of these has a distinctive tune and harmonic framework, aprinciple which can be seen at work in most Renaissance dance music, and onewhich gave clear audible cues to the dancers. Frustratingly, we have no recordof the steps of these dances; they must have been so familiar at the time thatno one bothered to write them down. Dalza's dances were mostly grouped intominiature three-movement 'suites', gradually increasing in pace: pavana,saltarello and piva, the latter sometimes replaced by a spingardo.

Near the end of his collection is a number of calatas, some labelledala spagnola, though what made them specifically Spanish is anybody'sguess at this distance in time. The volume also includes several recercars,free-style idiomatic compositions which explored the mode, or 'mood', of themusic to follow. These are often associated with an introduction, ostensiblyprovided to check the tuning of the lute, the tastar de corde. Thisfunctional aspect of these pieces is less important to a listener today thantheir remarkable expressive effect.

Petrucci' s first offering of lute musicwas published in two volumes in 1507. Most of the eighty or so pieces areattributed to Francesco Spinacino, about whom we know even less than we doabout Dalza. Most of it was originally conceived for voices, such as thechansons lay pris amours (possibly by Ghiselin) and le ne fay (possiblyby Busnois), but a few pieces, like Josquin's popular La Bernardina andsome bassadanza settings, were originally instrumental. Spinacinopreserved the old tradition in his lute-duet settings, where one player showsoff his skill at playing fast notes, while the other provides a foundationderived from the lower voices of the polyphonic original. In some casesSpinacino has provided a recercar specific to a particular piece, ahabit which Franciscus Bossinensis ('Francis from Bosnia') follows in hiscollections of part-songs set for solo voice and lute, published by Petrucci in1509 and 1511; Bossinensis clearly indicates which recercars from theset he provides might be suitable to introduce each song.

With Vincenzo Capirola, we come at lastto a composer-lutenist whose biography is not a complete blank. Boru in Bresciain 1474, he was probably the excellent Brescian lutenist who caused a stir on avisit to Henry VIII's court in England in 1515. His music is preserved in asingle, sumptuously-decorated manuscript written in Venice around 1517 and nowkept in the Newberry Library, Chicago. This volume, of obvious artistic value,produced by a devoted pupil named Vitale, who, with admirable prescience,decorated it to ensure it would not be destroyed after the music had gone outof fashion, also includes some valuable instructions on lute-playing byCapirola. His recercars range from easy pieces for a beginner to veryd
Disc: 1
Saltarello and Piva
1 Calata ala spagnola
2 Tastar de corde, Rececar dietro
3 Pavana alla venetiana
4 Rececar
5 Jay pris amours
6 Recercar
7 La Bernardina de Josquin
8 Recercar quinto
9 Canto bello
10 La villanella
11 O mia cieca e dura sorte
12 Che farala che dirala
13 Non mi negar signora
14 Recercar
15 Pavana
16 Calata
17 Recercar
18 Je ne fay
19 Recercar
20 De tous biens
21 Tastar de corde, Recercar dietro
22 Calata ala spagnola
23 Poi che volse la mia stella
24 Laudato dio
25 Saltarello and Piva
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