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Sound Precedent: Three, Four & Twenty Lutes

The MHS Review 405, VOL. 12, NO.9• 1988

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David M. Greene


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The late-Renaissance consort (as it was called in England) was, it appears, the im­mediate predecessor of the orchestra. There were two kinds. The "broken" con­sort was (when not impaired) made up of various kinds of instruments--often, one imagines, whatever happened to be han­dy. The "whole" consort consisted of in­struments of a single family, as common­ly with viols or recorders. The "24 Violons du Roi" of the 17th-century French court (the nucleus of the modern orchestra) were pretty obviously an outgrowth of the lat­ter concept.

I repeat all this well-known stuff partly to pad out the piece, since it is the curious whimsy of the BIS people to keep this record out of my hands, but mostly to ex­plain that I assumed from the title that we should be dealing with someone's notions about lute consorts. Lute consorts are, you understand, perfectly conceivable. But I had never encountered one, and, so far as I can recall, the closest I had come to the mention of anything like one was a piece or two "for two to playe vpon one lute" (or was it "for one to playe vpon two lutes"?). Moreover, such recent BIStly ex­cursuses into gratuitous transcription as The Criminal Trombone had made me suspicious. (Actually I thought The Criminal Trombone was a gas, but I have to preserve some appearance of uprightness for the purists.)

Well, once again the depths of my ig­norance and suspicion have been reveal­ed. A number of the selections on this record were actually written for multiple lutes, and the rest have sound historical and/or iconographic precedent. Expec­tably, the excursion takes one down some little-explored byways, whose obscurity may be judged from the fact that only two of the composers, Orlando di Lasso and Cipriano de Rore, are likely to have been heard of by the average record buyer. (This ignores the ubiquitous Anonymous, who is only once represented here.)

The Lasso work is a more or less contem­porary ( 1584) arrangement by a Dutchman, Emanuel Adriansen, of a four-voice madrigal, "Madonna mia pieta" (1555) for three lutes. Rore is represented by a madrigal "Amor se cos1 dolce" for two vocal quartets (1557). This version comes from an anonymous and incomplete manuscript preserved in Verona, which provides lute parts, derived from the madrigal itself, for the upper voices. Since the vocal part is known from other sources, it was easy to reconstruct the two missing lute parts. (Five lutes are involv­ed, and the singers include such stalwarts as Rogers Covey-Crump and Paul Elliott.) Anonymous' "Temprar potess'io" for four voices and four lutes comes from the same source, but since it is otherwise unknown, the lowest parts had to be guessed at.

Another such reconstruction posed a problem for a long time, since all that re­mains is a single lute part (of three). Even­tually, however, someone recognized that it was drawn from a song by Robert Par­sons, and it was then easy enough to come up with an approximation of the rest. A cathedral singer (Antwerp), Hubert Waelrant (ca. 1516-1595) left a fair number of forward-looking works, both secular and sacred, and is said to have invented bocedization, if you care. (It was a system of sight-singing.) He is represented by two four-voice songs to which Adriansen add­ed as many lute parts.

Robert Johnson the Younger (d. 1633) was a musician connected with the elaborate masques performed at the early Stuart court. We know that in 1611 he ar­ranged the dances for Ben Jonson's Oberon for an ensemble of 20 lutes, and so Tim Crawford has done that for three that have survived in simpler form. Of the other composers, Nicolas Vallet, represented by a longish dance suite for lute quartet, was a Frenchman who lived in the Netherlands in the first half of the 17th century. He formed, with three Englishmen, a lute quartet that hired out for weddings, wakes, and bar mitzvahs. The obscure Giovanni Pacoloni published, in the mid-16th cen­tury, a book for three lutes, from which two pieces are extracted, one of them a transcription of Janequin's famous vocal battle piece "La guerre." Finally, the Bolognese Alessandro Piccinini (b. 1566) offers a canzone for three lutes, and G.A. Terzi of Bergamo one for four.

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