14. Improvise a Prelude!

This page will have tips on improvisation on the baroque lute in Dm tuning. PayPal donation appreciated, to help pay for this website and all the free stuff I give away:



This first video is for guitar players, finding familiar shapes on strings 2, 3 and 4 of the Dm-tuned baroque lute. There is a free pdf for it below the video.

Let’s face it: we should be improvising preludes. And that requires knowing chords in the tonal system, and how to link them melodically. Few of us do it – very few – yet it need not be hard, and you can be creative within your technique and harmonic awareness. On this page I give some guidance, and it might well be updated over time, so do please return if the subject is of interest.

The Simplest Method:

All that you are required to do in a prelude is to outline the key chord, and somewhere close to the end play a V – I cadence. So, for example, in the key of D Major our Harmonic Outline would be D A A7 D. But what knowledge should you have in order to do this?

Well, you should know Three Versions of Each Chord. And then you should work out the best ways to move between all of these chords when playing arpeggios.

Download and study the sketch of a score given above. The first four bars deal with different versions of the D Major chord. For this Simplest Method you only need the first two or three versions of D Major. Once that is in your brain and fingers, add the first A Major Chord followed by the first A7 chord, and then play one or two D Major chords. This is your Harmonic Outline. Memorise it, and just play the chords as block chords or arpeggios until you can fluidly move between them. Well done, you have now completed your first improvised prelude!

There is no great mystery to it. Memorise a Harmonic Outline, then explore various ways to realise it.

More Advanced Method:

Here you do the same thing, but with a more extended Harmonic Outline. The pdf score above shows such an outline: D, A, A7, V7b9 of Bm, Bm, E7, A, A7, D/A, Dm/A, A74/3, D.

This journey begins by outlining the Tonic and Dominant chords, then the root of the Dominant 7th is raised a semitone, introducing what will be a ii/V/I cadence in A Major, the Dominant chord – it’s as if we have changed key to A Major, but this is only temporary. Once established, we keep a Low A Pedal over which chords change. Once D Major over the A pedal is reached, we then finish with an A7sus4 chord – an A7 chord with a d falling to a c#, before the final root-position D Major chord.

It’s a slightly elaborate variation of the Home-Away-Home outline. D Major is our Home. We move away, go on a short journey, and then we return Home.

Here’s a quick explanation of the F#7b9 chord, which is used to approach Bm: The notes in the Dominant of Bm – f#, a#, c#, e – form an F#7 chord. To make it a little more dissonant – and therefore have more forward momentum – we can add the note g to the chord. G is the flat 9 (b9) above the Root. Often this chord appears in a Rootless formation, without the F#. Any chord can be approached with its own V7b9 chord, though it works best heading to a minor chord, as here, with a Rootless F#7b9 leading to Bm.

Why go to Bm? I wanted to reaffirm the Dominat A Major chord, and one way to do that is with a chord sequence – or cadence (same thing) – known as a 2,5,1 or ii/V/i – in this case that is Bm, E7, A Major. It really gives a feeling that we have changed key from the original D Major to A Major. But it is only temporary, and soon we wind our way Home again.

In the video I mention Modal Interchange, which simply means turning a Major chord into a minor chord, or vice versa. No big deal. Easy to do. But then continue with the next chords as if you hadn’t done it. It works best with chords I, ii, iii, and vi. For instance, instead of the Bm chord referred to above, try B major instead. You might like the change, you might not.

In Summary: To successfully play an improvised prelude you need the following:

  1. A Harmonic Outline memorised
  2. Knowledge of a few versions of each chord
  3. An ability to play arpeggios from one chord to the next

This will “get you through the gig”. Obviously you will want to make it more sophisticated, but this can be done over time, and we will look at ways to do this in future posts. A study of original preludes from the literature will help enormously, but that is for another day.

Any questions or comments, please do so below.


Next we explore the 4-note bass line known as the passaglia, what chords to put on it, and we take a look at the V of V chord, or Dominant of the Dominant. The second of two videos discusses the semi-improvised prelude from the first video:

Let’s focus in on the V of V, 1st inversion of a V7b9 chord. Using an inversion does not have a “final cadence” feel, so it keeps the music flowing forward. Here are the chords and intervals:

B7b9: B (Root) D# (3rd) F# (5th) A (b7) C (b9)

If we omit the root, the notes left are D# F# A C which is the same as D# diminished 7 chord, and it naturally has a diminished-arpeggio sound. But calling it a dim 7 chord does not tell us what it is functioning as: a Dominant 7 chord (B7) going to a Tonic (E or Em).

You don’t have to understand all this theory, but I find it helps me.


Secondary Dominants: very important compositional devices, great for expanding improvised preludes, or helping you find your way home when you find yourself lost.

Download the PDF and watch the video.

Stay Tuned – more to come on this page.

Rob MacKillop
29 July, 2022
Updated 28 August, 2022

13. Contemporary Music for Baroque Lute

I plan to reserve this page for new music written for the baroque lute – some written by myself, some by others. My own tablatures will be free to download, though a donation to https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/SupportRob?locale.x would be very much appreciated.

Observation by Gilbert Isbin – originally written for me to play on a 10-string classical guitar, I arranged it for Dm-tuned lute, and I think it works really well. Score for guitar from GilbertIsbin.com

Two Homages: to J. S. Bach and Jim Hall – by Rob MacKillop – The first is a serial composition using Bach’s surname as the first four notes of the tone row, followed by the same a fourth below, leaving three neighbouring chromatic notes and one extra note. The performer should improvise the rhythms, try different approaches for each performance.

The second is a homage to the great jazz guitar player, Jim Hall. It’s a regular 12-bar Blues, but I used an extended arpeggio as the basis for the melodic material: Root, 3, 5, b7, 9, #11, 13. Each bar has a different rhythm.

More to come, so pop back sometime…

12. Introducing the 12c Lute

Before discussing the 12c lute in general, I want to introduce you to my newly-made 12c.

I’m very excited about my new lute by http://www.lutherie.uk – the father and son team of Adrian and Lawrence Dodd of Derbyshire, England. After many emails firing in both directions, we settled on a bowl of walnut, which has proved to give a magnificent sound. The string length is 68cms for the fingered strings, and the strings themselves are all plain gut from Kurschner. The rose is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, perfectly carved by Lawrence.

But before perusing the images, let’s have a listen to a video I made the morning after the lute arrived:

And here are three pieces from the Panmure 4 collection, composed by Germaine Pinel, a composer I am getting very familiar with after having recorded his complete (two pieces!) surviving théorbe de pièces scores.

The 12c seems to be the only baroque-era lute that used both Renaissance and Baroque tuning, as well as a host of other tunings. It developed early in the 17th century, and was still being used – or at least depicted – in the early 18th century. Sizes varied, small to large, as can be seen from many of the Dutch paintings from the era of Vermeer:

The double headstock is part Renaissance lute, part new invention. Before wound strings became popular one needed to have increasing thicknesses of gut to access lower notes – as with a theorbo – or use different lengths of the same thickness, which is where the 12c extension comes in.

It’s a practical solution, though the joint at the neck needs careful attention from the luthier.

There are many images of the 12c lute, but this is one of my favourites:

The player looks like a “player” with a strong right-hand thumb rest stroke, and full concentration on the score. He also plays quite close to the rose, which might surprise some “bridge players” today.

Judging by the following engraving, some of these lutes were very shallow – also the hand depictions here are first rate:

Here are a few others pulled from the web:

And I can’t resist adding some of my own photographs:

So why chose a 12c over an 11c or 13c? I can only give my own reasons. The repertoire is both large and largely unexplored, as much of it is in the “new tunings” which few players are eager to get entangled in. Those tunings include Dm baroque and also regular Renaissance tuning, so you could play a wide variety of repertoire from England, Scotland, France, The Netherlands, and also Germany – Reusner, for example, had some 12c scores added to his New Fruits publication. Add to that all the 11c repertoire and many 12c items from the London manuscript of Weiss – probably 11c pieces altered when Weiss got a 13c, yet only using 12 courses.

Strings: I use all gut strings at 415 pitch, tuned down to 392, allowing me to tune selected strings upwards by a semitone or tone for the new tunings. Gut strings at low tension are best approached by plucking nearer to the bridge than rose, but keeping in mind my favourite image above, forays to and even over the rose make a welcome contrast.

So, what are you waiting for? Get yourself a 12c lute! I recommend http://www.lutherie.uk !

11. Hurel’s 1st Suite for théorbe de pièces

Charles (?) Hurel notated in manuscript form (c.1675) five suites for the théorbe de pièces, which are all of a high quality, characterful, and closer to the style of Robert de Visée than, say, Germain Pinel. One connection between de Visée and Hurel was the famous and influential, Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose work both men arranged for the théorbe.

Hurel belonged to a Parisian family of musical instrument makers. A civic document of 1684 mentions he was an “officer in ordinary to the Academy of Music”, and Du Pradel’s Livre commode de adresses of 1692, describes him as a teacher of the théorbe in Paris. Thanks to François Lesure’s preface to the Editions Minkoff facsimile for the above information.

The first suite in the manuscript consist of two preludes – the second clearly a variation on the first – allemande, gigue, two courantes, sarabande and a gavotte.


Judging from the few preludes (all unbarred) in the manuscript, Hurel liked to spend the first line or so establishing the key tonality, arpeggiating the tonic chord with added decoration, before heading to the dominant, and thereafter exploring a variety of possibilities.

Here’s my interpretation:

Listening back to it, I can say I have played it many different ways before, as befits an unbarred exploratory prelude. Unlike some 17th-century French lute preludes, it does seem focussed as opposed to random, moving forward to related tonalities while keeping the listener guessing. It’s a fine introduction to the suite. And it does feel like a suite, rather than a collection of pieces under the same tonality.


After the upbeat, the first chord contains a dissonant major second resolving to the minor third – indicated by the comma sign adjacent to the tablature letter b. Have a listen to the opening few seconds of this Robert de Visée suite for lute in Dm where another dissonance appears on the first chord:

I’m experimenting with different interpretive approaches these days, from articulating dance rhythms to – as here – a more oratorial approach, even a conversational style where the beat is more fluid, perhaps even unsettling at times. That introductory dissonance leads me to hear this more than a mere dance piece. On another day, I might well play it very differently, which doesn’t worry me at all.


There are two types of French gigue: in quadruple or triple time. This gigue is of the later variety, and although difficult is very enjoyable to play after the searching prelude and emotional allemande.

I have to admit to not knowing exactly what Hurel was indicating with the dash sign beneath the tablature letter d in the third full bar. He uses it a number of times during the suite, and here are a few examples:

  1. Separating two notes, but not the usual separée sign.

2. Over a sustained bass.

3. Simultaneous with a vertical line which indicates the bass and treble are to be played together.

I have checked the main ornament tables of the period, but without finding enlightenment. I found myself giving the note a little emphasis, so as a dynamic decoration rather than a figurative ornament. If anyone else can quote chapter and verse for a description, please do.

Courante 1

A straight-forward and typical rhythmical courante here. Again the horizontal dash – second page, second line, first bar – I’m tempted to claim it an accent mark, perhaps even a rest stroke (!) we might never know.

Just a quick word about the VERY common cross-string lower mordant, seen at the end of the first page, line three. These are ubiquitous in the French lute repertoire. They are executed by dragging the index finger across two strings, with the middle coming in for the first note in the subsequent bar. Worth practising!

Courante 2

I opted for the slow courante here, keeping in mind the following: “the sarabande is actually a slow menuet, and the courante a very slow sarabande” Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert, 1752. For more on the tempo of the courante, see my blog post HERE. Look at how often the second beat of the bar is prominent, akin to how the mazurka was accented in the 19th century.


A delightfully-playful sarabande, not in the “slow and stately” style favoured for all sarabandes in the 20th century. Note the petite reprise indicated by the S with four dots – two either side – four bars from the end. Other notational marks we haven’t discussed include the vibrato – on the letter f at the end of line three and elsewhere – and the sustain-the-bass, also on line three, over the last two bars. The right-hand index finger is sometimes marked á la Renaissance-era tablatures, with a dot below the note – see first bar.


A square-dance of sorts to finish off the suite. The B section breaks up the rhythm here and there, and rhythmical articulation takes precedence over melodic phrasing.

You can hear the whole suit and more without interruption here:

10. The Panmure Lute Manuscripts

The Panmure collection of manuscripts at the National Library of Scotland contains among other items three very interesting lute manuscripts , known as Pan 4, Pan 5, and Pan 8. The collection also contains three highly important manuscripts for viol of music by Sainte Colombe and Marais, these manuscripts being associated with the Maule family of Panmure, north of my home town of Dundee on the east coast of Scotland.

Pan 5 (circa 1640) belonged to a Lady Jean Campbell, daughter of the Earl of Loudon, Ayrshire, on the west coast of Scotland. The connection with the Panmure collection is that she married George Maule when he was heir to the Panmure estate. Judging by the content of her lute manuscript, Lady Jean was a talented player of the 10c lute in both Harp Sharp and Harp Flat tunings. She is likely to have familiarity with the two other Panmure lute manuscripts, and if that is the case then she had become a practitioner of the 12c lute in a variety of tunings, or “accords nouveaux”. It is thought that Lady Jean had a French lute teacher who, in which case, is the likely source of Pan 8 and perhaps Pan 4.

It is my intention to explore Pan 4 and Pan 8 with the 12c lute, but I have already made seventeen recordings of the music from Pan 5, though more will almost certainly follow:

And in Harp Flat tuning, nos 49 and 50:

Pan 4 Overview

Catalogue number: NLS MS 9451.

Contains 23 French lute pieces on 21 pages.

Composers: Vinsan, Vieux Gaultier, Bouvié, Pinell, Hautman, Gaultier d’Angleterre, and Jeune Gaultier – all spelling from the manuscript.

Tunings: D minor, D major, Dm with a C# 11th course.

Comments: the nine pieces by Pinell are almost all in D Major: Prelude, Almande, Courante, Almande, Almande, Almande, Courante, Courante, Sar(abande), with one Sarabande in Dm tuning. The last item – a Courante by Jeune Gaultier – is marked “sur l’arrival de Gaultier d’Angliterre.

I have not been given permission to share any of the copies I paid for, but the following pdf is easily found on the web, so I see no harm in placing it here, but will remove it if asked. It is not my copy:

So far I have made two videos from the manuscript, the first a collection of three pieces by Germaine Pinel (c.1600 – 1661 – the year Lully was named Superintendent of the Royal Music), or Pinell as the MS has it. He was one of the leading pre-Lully lute players, perfecting the older precious style instigated by the Gaultiers.

Here are the scores I used, with some pencil emendations (if you have good eyesight) here and there.

The biggest changes are in the Sarabande, where I took out a whole bar. It is a very different sarabande than we are used to associating with a baroque suit. For a start, the A section is only four bars long before the repeat sign. The B section is 5 bars long, the C section 8 bars, and a D section of 19 bars! I felt there was something not right about the B section, but reducing it to 4 bars seemed to tidy it up a lot – you are welcome to play it otherwise! The final 4.5 bars seem to beg to played with a petite reprise. You will notice that I employ a little judicious light strumming, as is sometimes noted by French players, to hint at the more playful dance-based roots of the sarabande. This is not a deep, contemplative, emotional rollercoaster of a Bach or a Weiss, and allows us to consider the comments from early to mid 18th-century composers that the courante is slower than a sarabande:

“lovely and tender…sweet hope…something heartfelt, something longing, and also something joyful” Johann Mattheson, 1739

“This piece is ordinarily made up of a measure with three slow beats” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1768

“…the noble courante, slow and majestic” Rémond de Saint-Mard, 1741 

“…it is beaten in a very slow three” Jean-Pierre Freillon-Poncein, 1700

“a very slow dance that inspires an air of nobility more than the other dances” Pierre Rameau, 1725

“the sarabande is actually a slow menuet, and the courante a very slow sarabande” Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert, 1752

Yet Pinel died in 1661, fifty to a hundred years before those utterances. My performances should be regarded as experimental, avoiding my learned habit of playing sarabandes slow and courantes somewhat faster. I find the results interesting, but might well interpret the pieces differently next time I play these beautiful pieces.

Note the tuning is D Major – all the F strings are now F#, although the 11th course remains C natural.

Now a suite in Dm by Vinsan:

I know nothing about Vinsan, though Vincent is known as a composer for lute in France at this time, though not a lot is know about him either. It is tempting to see these four pieces, grouped as they are at the start of the manuscript, as forming a suite, as opposed to just examples of pieces in the same key. An introspective Prelude gives way to an equally introspective Allemande, which rises from slumber in its concluding bars. A somewhat lyrical Courante gives way to another livelier Sarabande, leading me to repeat my exploration of tempi mentioned above.

I think I only made one emendation, and agonised over it:

The bass note in bar 5 is a low D that just doesn’t sound right, so I changed it to an F, though the F sounded too simple, too “right”. I must have vacillated between the two options fifty times…I play an F on the video. You might decided otherwise. And so might I, next time I play it.

Jacques Gaultier: Allemande de Gaultier d’angleterre de la dernière composition

Jacques Gaultier’s last composition? We’ll never know for sure, but that does seem to be the claim here. It has some decidedly odd moments, worth repeated listening to make sense of it all. The top line of the second page has some unusual and magical moments as it hovers around the lute’s lower mid region, seeking out shadows in the dark. It’s not an easy listen for a sensitive ear, and I feel he is struggling with his thoughts and emotions, going to some dark places, then pulling out and trying to walk straight, then failing. And on it goes. An extraordinary few minutes, which even manages to fit in the Lachrimae motif. Written towards the end of his life, is he aware the end is nigh?

So much for Pan 4. There are pieces I did not record, some by Pinel, others by Bouvier, Hautman, Vieux Gaultier, and someone apparently called Confesse. The music I did record is very beautiful, often dark and searching, with only the sarabandes bringing a smile to the proceedings. I’ve had this manuscript in my possession for 30 years, but have not had time to look at. Well, I took the time and am glad I did so. It gave me a great introduction to my new 12c lute, and we have bonded well.

Pan 8 Overview

Catalogue number NLS MS9449

Contains around 100 pieces in 57 folios, commencing with six keyboard pieces.

Composers: anon, but Mézangeau, Dufaut and Pinel have been identified.

Tunings: Dm plus three variants: f d bb g d a GFEbDCBb, f d b g d a GFEDCB, f d a f d a G F E D Bb A


Here is a selection from the pieces in Gm: Prelude, Allemande, Courant, Point d’Orgue, and a lively Sarabande. The Point d’Orgue is by Dufaut (unattributed in the manuscript) and references the organist’s technique of holding down a low bass note while harmonies change above it. The B section has only one low bass note reiterated throughout, resolving finally to the tonic chord. The Sarabande is of the sprightly kind. All titles are conjectural, as none are mentioned in the manuscript.

And here are the scores for these pieces:

To conclude…

Lady Jean Campbell must have been an accomplished and talented lute player, assuming items from all three manuscripts were within her technical abilities. She might have been the arranger of the Scottish items in Pan 5. She had access to the most contemporary lute style in France, either through a teacher or by visiting France, possibly both. She married George Maul in 1645, thereby moving into the large Panmure Estate near Carnoustie, north of Dundee. Her husband died in 1671, but she remained in the estate after her sons took inheritance. She died in 1703.

9. Spot the difference: One Prelude, Two Manuscripts

In Blog #4, Sound files for the French Théorbe de Pièces, I include Prelude 29v from Goess. Since making that recording I read through the music for théorbe de pièces by Charles Hurel, and recognised the same prelude (18v-19r) but with some interesting differences.

Here are the two scores – Goess first – with their sound files:

The differences in the first line are minor, but the second line of the Hurel MS version shows a stepwise descent to the 12th course (marked 5), and also a little manoeuvring on the 6th string before the arrival of the 13th course.

There is a big difference in line three, turning the Goess major chord into a Hurel minor chord. Goess goes straight for the Dominant chord of the key, while the Hurel version delays the Dominant until the end of the line, which I have to say I personally find more interesting, less obvious.

The passage in 10ths is similar with minor differences, culminating in an f on the first string, above an open third string. Goess indicates a lower mordent on the f, while Hurel has a vibrato sign.

Goes has a separé chord of the letters e/d/a at the end of the fourth line, while the Hurel version is spelled out.

The first minim note in the last line of Goess is a letter c, while the corresponding note in Hurel is b, a flat 7th of the prevailing Dominant chord.

Finally there is a difference in how the last tonic chord is played with Goess offering a lower auxiliary followed by the 14th course, and Hurel offering two chords after the 14th course, the last being strummed with the index finger.

Any performer based with two versions might cobble together a composite of their favoured bits, and there is nothing wrong with that. Of course, if you are giving a recital of Goess items, you would want to stick with that version, and the same for an Hurel recital. But for me the interest lies in the demonstration of the degree of freedom we can have in interpreting French baroque scores, at least in the prelude, but possibly in dances too. It would be interesting to compare two versions of, say, an allemande or a courante.

Of course, the ultimate freedom comes in improvising our own preludes, but that’s a discussion for another day.

8. Raising the tension – not strings

I’ve noticed while working through the Goess theorbo manuscript that a few pieces increase the tension before the final cadence. It’s something many composers have done before and after the 17th century, even now, but it is worth focussing in on how they did it back in the late 17th century.

I’ve mentioned in post #5 on Interpreting the French Courante the use of a hemiola in this unattributed courante. It’s the long bar in the second-last line:

Instead of two bars of 3/4 timing (giving 6/4) we have a 3/2 bar, showing three groups of minims. This changes the heavier beats from one every three beats to one every two beats, quickening the heart rate as it were. This is a great way to build up tension before the final cadence, which now brings even a greater degree of release and calm. Here’s its sound file:

Hautement or Hotman (both spellings appear in the Goess MS) seems to enjoy playing with our expectations as his compositions draw to a close. Notice the odd rhythm in the third-last bar, which actually starts at the end of the second-last line:

If we count eight quavers in a bar, numbers 3 and 7 are tied over, giving an odd limp to the rhythm compared to what has been going on in the rest of the piece. It’s like he has deliberately set out to trip up the dancers!

Here’s a recording to help you hear its impact:

Another way to wind up the tension is to introduce a deliberate dissonant note, surely designed to wake up any sleepy listener. Notice anything odd in this piece, again by Hautemant:

Here’s the score:

It’s that letter e at the start of the last bar of the fourth line. It has a squiggle after it, which might mean vibrato – I’m not certain. When I first played it – reading at a slower pace – I assumed it was a mistake, and looked for an alternative. One of the most common mistakes in tablature is for the scribe to place a letter on a wrong string, often adjacent to the intended string. So I tried the e on the second string – even worse! Then on the fourth string – just as dissonant with the bass.

The bass is actually doing something eminently sensible and acceptable: walking from the second note of the major scale to the dominant note before dropping to the tonic for the final chord.

If you play the melody on its own, that letter seems perfectly acceptable, arguably even sensible, as a chromatic lower auxiliary – in fact it sounds beautiful.

So, two acceptable lines coming together to clash horribly – there is humour here, I think. And placed just before the final cadence – a now familiar trope.

To sum up, we’ve seen three ways to increase the tension before the final cadence: hemiola, a rhythm at odds with the rest of the piece, and a deliberately dissonant harmony. Not all compositions in Goess do this, but some do. So listen out for such devices in especially the French baroque, as they do seem to have enjoyed them!

7. VIDEO: Goess Theorbo MS 29v/12v/37v

Three pieces in …well, what key shall we call it? On a large Italian theorbo it would be fingered for the key of G, but on a smaller French theorbo it is the key of C…but…at 392 pitch it comes out as Bb! I must admit to being in two or three minds about this whole naming thing.

I imagine most players of the smaller instrument had a larger one too for continuo playing, and would “just pretend” the keys are the same if the fingering is the same. It makes life easier, and if you are not accompanying anyone, what’s the problem? So G it is.

There is an assumption that the smaller théorbe was never used for accompanying, only solos, but was this really the case? If a singer popped around to your 17th-century Parisian apartment for a glass of Pernod and a blether, and after a drink or two decided a song would not go amiss, would you not accompany her on the only lute in your room, a théorbe de pièces? Surely any self-respecting theorbist or luthiste of the day would improvise with the instrument to hand?

If that is the case, then identifying the fingering with the actual agreed name it sounds at would make sense. So, these three pieces are in C! We’ll set aside the modern problem of 392 pitch! C it is!

I will now have to learn to play figured bass for the pitch of this instrument….always something to keep me busy!

Just a word in general about my videos and sound files: I regard myself an amateur in the truest if old-fashioned sense of the word: I love the music, but do not make a living from performing or making CDs. I’m an explorer, and every performance is only a snapshot of how I was playing at any given moment in time. These are not “final statements” of interpretation, so tomorrow I might play them very differently. And yes, I make mistakes – it’s very authentic to do so! Let’s not assume every amateur in 17th-century Paris was a virtuoso…then we are on safer ground 🙂 But mostly I do this for enjoyment, and am happy to share my findings.

PS You can download the Goess Theorbo Manuscript from HERE.

Rob MacKillop
South Queensferry
April, 20121

6. Short Review: Performing Baroque Music on the Lute and Theorbo by Peter Croton

I wish I’d had this book when I started learning the lute some 30 years ago. If you are a young player, buy this book now, and devour it every night before sleeping. What you learn here will live with you throughout your playing and listening life. Essential stuff.

So, why is it so essential? Well, it is packed with two important things: relevant performance quotations from those who lived through the baroque era, and the guidance of an intelligent and wise author/player who knows what he is talking about.

Take a look at the Contents page:

The Baroque era created and defined tonal music, and Croton’s aim is to emphasise that “…harmonic expression is one of the most powerful means for moving listeners, particularly in baroque music, this topic will find much attention in the following chapters”.

Our task is to learn a practical hands-on understanding of harmony, to recognise its expressive capabilities, and to realise and articulate that in our performances.

We will have to find a balance of freedom of expression within restrictive dance forms, and embrace the rules of rhetoric. Croton and his band of historical commentators help us do all of this and more. There are some surprises along the way: “…the sarabande is actually a slow menuet, and the courante a very slow sarabande” (Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert, 1752), and we will find ourselves being more creative in our interpretations.

There are too many interesting and even revelatory quotations to mention here, so I urge you to buy this book – there is a similar version for classical guitar too – and immerse ourselves in its findings. It will be your guide through a lifetime of study!

Available only through Amazon. Peter Croton’s website: https://peter-croton.com

Rob MacKillop
South Queensferry
April, 2021

5. Interpreting the French Courante

The above is a very melodic and enjoyable-to-play courante for théorbe de pièces by Germain Pinel from the Goess Theorbo manuscript. The Goess MS comes from the second half of the 17th century, we are not sure exactly when.

So, how to interpret a French courante? The Italian courante is certainly much easier to interpret, with it’s generally running 16th notes or semiquavers, sometime 8th notes or quavers (see how multilingual I am?!). The Italian Corrente likes to flow with the wind, and is often one of the faster movements of the suite. The French courante tends to be more rhythmically complex, but is often played at a medium to fairly fast pace. However, consider the following quotations, taken from Peter Croton’s excellent “Performing Baroque Music on the Lute & Theorbo“:

“One of the most common myths today, even among some early music specialists, is that the courante is fast” – Peter Croton, 2016

“lovely and tender…sweet hope…something heartfelt, something longing, and also something joyful” Johann Mattheson, 1739

“This piece is ordinarily made up of a measure with three slow beats” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1768

“…the noble courante, slow and majestic” Rémond de Saint-Mard, 1741

“…it is beaten in a very slow three” Jean-Pierre Freillon-Poncein, 1700

“a very slow dance that inspires an air of nobility more than the other dances” Pierre Rameau, 1725

“the sarabande is actually a slow menuet, and the courante a very slow sarabande” Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert, 1752

All of these quotations are from the early to mid 18th century, a little later – maybe twenty years or so – than the assumed date of the Goess manuscript. The main tenor is that the courante is a slow to medium piece, sweet and tender, even slower than the sarabande. Yes, the sarabande is said to have started life as a fast dance before slowing down over time. But these comments are mostly from within Bach’s active lifetime, when we expect the sarabande to sound the slowest and most heartfelt moment of the suite.

So, curbing my natural instinct, I tried a slow run through when I was first learning the piece. Here is a phone recording, warts and all:

Well, I don’t know what you think of it, but to my ears it has some nice moments, but is too slow and lacks any rhythmic definition. I want to hear the rhythm of the dance more, but the danger there is in playing any dance piece too fast. Here is a medium-paced interpretation:

I tried to combine both a vocal and a dance quality, the former because the piece certainly has a strong melodic contour, is quite singable, and the latter because it is after all a dance. I did try a very strict rhythmical version, but it did nothing for me. I’m reminded of an instruction at the head of a reel by Nathaniel Gow, a late 18th-century Scots violinist: “Slow unless danced to”.

But let’s take a look at another courante from the same manuscript:

This is a very melodic courante, reaching high up the chanterelle in the A section and containing a hemiola in the B section. Let’s look at what makes this piece tick.

The first full bar has a long note on the second beat, as do the majority of bars throughout the piece. The first full bar in the B section obfuscates this accent by placing it on the end of a slur – assuming slurs always sound strong to weak. But for the most part the B section has accents on the second beat: one TWO three, etc, which is a feature of some sarabandes and mazurkas.

Note the hemiola starting at the end of the B section’s second line. It is more clear to see in the other version inscribed in the manuscript, actually an earlier version. Here it is as the second bar in the second-last line:

Note that it has three groups of two beats each. So, instead of two bars of three beats each, we have one bar of six beats, divided into three groups of two beats. This feature can be seen in many courantes, and harks back to the branle and the galliard. I’m not a dance expert, so suggest that those interested in this aspect of the courante should read this webpage: https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/409098/530682

It is important that we interpreters accent this rhythmical change, as it builds up tension before the final cadence.

It is also worth noting the notational differences between the two versions, both inscribed by the same hand:

The minim (half note) in the first full bar has an upper auxiliary ornament added in the second version (remember, I presented you the scores in reverse order from the manuscript, so the “second version” is the first on this page). This places a dissonance on this rhythmically important second beat. In my most recent reading of this courante, I saved this dissonance for the repeat.

The bar lines in the second version are preserved for the end of each line, whereas in the first version, three end-of-line bars are incomplete. This might be an attempt by the scribe to clarify the rhythm, though it does render the visual impact of the hemiola less clear.

The eighth full bar of the B section has two important changes – I’ll leave them to you to study. And the penultimate bar has three thumb strokes in all.

So, we have a lot of rhythmical information to digest, and also not entirely unrelated to rhythmical accents is the decision to be made about the tempo of our performance. And we should consider its place within a suite – though the dances are not presented as such in the manuscript. Usually a courante lies between an allemande and a sarabande, neither of which are usually played fast. In some French sources we see an allemande gay, in which case a slower courante might balance better, especially if the following sarabande is of the older, faster type. Context.

In conclusion, you could try seeing how slow you could play both courantes while still articulating the rhythmical accents. To be honest, I find myself playing them now at a medium pace, not slow nor fast, singing yet steadfast. I still find it hard to envisage the French courante as being a “a very slow sarabande,” to again quote Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert…but tomorrow is another day…

Rob Mackillop
South Queensferry
April, 2021