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Exploring Music: An Exemplry Recording/ English Lute Duets

The MHS Review 394 Vol. 11 No. 16, 1987

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David M. Greene


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''How all occasions do inform against me!,'' to remind me of the fathomless depths of my ignorance. And that doesn't include my readers, who have used up hogsheads of ink and boxcars of paper to let me know that they' re on to my imposture.

One of the occasions that informs against me is this record--or rather its forebear from Bis. The front cover shows two fashionably shaggy young men sitting in a (presumably) Swedish weed patch playing their lutes. (On the back they sit more staid­ly in chairs before an ornate fireplace.) The notes inform me that lute duets were Very Big four centuries ago.

But the fact that these are quite modern ­looking young men (thirtyish anyhow) casts my mind back 20 years to the guitar craze. It was, you recall, a stage in the total democratization of America during which the offspring of the military-industrial nabobs showed their unity with the pro­letariat by wearing the garments associated with the deprived, singing folksongs, and playing what had thitherto been con­sidered folk instruments. Anyways, that link and the pastoral setting of the picture make me acutely aware that I don't know whether such people played guitar duets among the shrubbery.

The other question the record raises for me has gnawed at my subconscious for some time. One of the selections is the Dowland piece Lord Willoughbie his Galliard, which, says the original, is for "two to playe upon one lute." Annotator Lyle Nordstrom comments succinctly ''Fransett denna duos visuella charm ar den en utmarkt galliard," which, however perspicacious, doesn't tell me much about what Dowland had in mind. Do the players, seated side by side, hold the instru­ment across their laps, one fretting with the neck, the other with the belly? (Not a pret­ty thought!) Or is it one of those sly gim­micks to provide amatory dividends from aesthetic effort? (The lady fingers the stops; the gent, standing behind her, plucks the strings, an action necessitating an embrace of sorts.) Or is the formula one of those curiously Elizabethan things (see ''Lord Willoughbie his Galliard") that says, in translation, that each player has one lute on which he plays at the same time the other plays his?

To get on to more serious matters (at last!), Nordstrom provides, in minuscule type, a handsome thumbnail history of the English lute duet, which I'll try to sum­marize for you (as opposed to "winterize"). Lute-duetting began in Italy with one player playing a "ground"--the rhythmic and harmonic pattern for a dance form--while the other noodled variations on it. Such pieces began to crop up in England in the 1570s. In fact one of the earliest known was written by an Italian, the elder Alfonso Ferrabosco--whose lifestyle seems to have forced his eventual exit from England, and no doubt con­tributed to the unflattering portraits of Italians limned by some of the writers of the day.

John Johnson, whose son Robert became a composer of stature, may well have known Ferrabosco, for he was appointed court lutenist the year after the Italian skedaddled, and several of his lute duets are Ferraboscan in style. But it must be remembered that the ideal gentleman sket­ched in Castiglione' s influential 11 Il cor­tegiano (The Courtier) should know music and that it was mandatory for young English gents to tour Italy, so the link with Ferrabosco should not be insisted on.

Nordstrom rather generously accords to Johnson the versions of Sellinger's Round and Greensleeves because they are contem­poraneous with his output. How much John Dowland had to do with two of the pieces assigned him is moot. Some of the duets from Thomas Robinson's 1603 School of Musique appear to have been teaching-pieces ("You take the easy part!"); but his Fantasy, like that of John Marchant, is a show-off work. So is John Danyel's Passingmeasures Galliard; which seems to be chronologically the last of the Italian-­type duets. The performances are stylish, the recording exemplary.

Review of English Lute Duets Featuring Jakob Lindberg & Paul O'Dette, Lutes Pg 29

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