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

4. Sound files for the French Théorbe de Pièces

The following SoundCloud playlist is devoted to my recordings of the repertoire for the French théorbe de pièces made by Dodd Lutherie. Currently it only has a few items from the Goess Theorbo manuscript, but more will certainly be added as I explore the repertoire.

The recordings were made at home, not a professional recording studio, using a Rode NT4 stereo mic into a Fostex FR-2LE hard-disk recorder. I think the sound quality is pretty decent, but you might hear the odd bird song on the background, or my breathing.

Some people have asked how they can contribute something as a thank you, so I’ve created a Tip Jar: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8vWtQ14BwS

3. Introduction to the Théorbe de Pièces

The above instrument (a detail from Les Charmes de la Vie, by Antoine Watteau) is not a théorbe de pièces, but an angelique. It is the closest illustration we have to the small French theorbo created for playing the solo French repertoire. “Small” is a relative term, the full-size theorbo being much larger, and of a deeper pitch. The first string of the large theorbo was tuned to A, that of the smaller theorbo a fourth higher at D. And as regards pitch, like many performers, I do like to play at 392hz, meaning D sounds as a C at 440 pitch. The string length of the petite jeu (the fretable strings) is 76 cms, that of the grand jeu (diapasons) being 129 cms. Theorbo courses in France seem to have always been single.

The théorbe de pièces I have was made by Adrian and Lawrence Dodd of Dodd Lutherie, and you can read what they have to say about it on their website HERE. The measurements come from one James Talbot, who in 1650 wrote down in manuscript various measurements taken from a variety of musical instruments. Talbot referred to it as the “Lesser French theorbo for lessons” – “lesser” of course meaning smaller (in a non-derogatory way), and “lessons” referring to complete pieces of music as opposed to exercises or a visit to your local theorbo teacher. In short (so to speak) this théorbe de pièces was created to play and compose the French solo repertoire, in contrast to the operatic continuo role of the large theorbo.

Théorbe de Pièces by Dodd Lutherie

From the Dodd Lutherie description: The theorbo is modelled after dimensions given in the Talbot manuscript. The general appearance of the instrument is based on iconography and an angelique (now in Paris). The back is rippled sycamore. The soundboard is a fine grained piece of Alpine spruce. The pegs are blackened plum; the bridge blackened walnut. The extension is pear veneered maple that is then blackened, and the neck is ebony veneered.

Repertoire

The greatest body of work by far comes from Robert de Visée (1650 – 1725) who was in the employ of Louis XIV and subsequently Louis XV. He also wrote for the 5c guitarre and the 11c lute, and is know to have also been a violist. Many of his theorbo pieces are to be found in the manuscript of Jean-Etienne Vaudry (1668–1742), seigneur of Saizenay, Conseiller au Parlement de Besançon. A facsimile of this Vaudry de Saizenay manuscript can be downloaded from The Lute Society website HERE. But a word of warning, de Visée’s music is not easy to play if you are not already an experienced theorbist…

A somewhat easier repertoire can be found in the Goess Theorbo Manuscript, with music by Pinel, Hotman, d’Angelo, Reusner, and possibly St. Luc. The same manuscript also contains music for archlute and Dm-tuned 11c lute. Although easier to play than the théorbe music by de Visée, it is not uniformly easy, but good intermediate repertoire as the following video will show:

Technique

Any classical guitarist looking for a baroque lute to play will be pleased to learn that it was not unknown for theorbo players to play with the nails of the right hand – we can only assume this also extended to the “lesser French théorbe” – but we are also fairly certain that no-nails players played it as well.

The best tip I can give for navigating the diapasons (long bass strings) is to NEVER look at your right hand. Believe me, looking at it won’t help much as it is almost impossible to differentiate any of the strings: they all look the same, especially if the instrument is entirely strung in gut (as it should be). And always use rest strokes with the thumb. Always. Not only will rest strokes help you judge distances to other strings, you will also get the best tone out of the instrument. The index and middle fingers always play free strokes. The pinkie or little finger rests almost all of the time on the soundboard, with some players raising it when the index and middle are playing on the lower fretted strings. Note I say “rest” and not “planted” – tension in the pinkie is your enemy.

The left hand will be engaged in playing a string length of 76 cms, so some small hands might be stretched a little more than normal – unless, of course, you play a large theorbo already, in which case the lesser théorbe will feel like a ukulele! There are almost no barré chords to worry about, as most of the bass notes are open strings.

I intend to write another blog post – at least one – discussing the interpretation of this repertoire.

Rob MacKillop
South Queensferry
April, 2021

2. Pre-2021 Sound Files

I once set out to record the complete Scottish lute manuscripts, but ran out of steam after a while, and no wonder: there must be around 500 pieces. Here are some of the files, starting with 102 pieces (the equivalent of four CDs) from the magnificent Balcarres manuscript for 11c lute. To the right of the track name you will see a number of plays. The first track has almost twice as many as the second, which indicates that most people just listen to the first track without delving further, and that is a great pity as the first track one of the least interesting off all 102 tracks! So delve away!

Next up are 17 items from the Panmure 5 MS, which while containing mainly French music with a smattering of Scots tunes, is of Scottish provenance. The MS calls for a 10c lute in either Harp Sharp or Harp Flat tunings. If my memory serves me well, all the tracks are in Harp Sharp tuning, which is Renaissance tuning with the first string down a minor third to E, and the second string down a tone to C, relatively speaking as the actual pitch is lower.

A few pieces from the difficult-to-read Wemyss MS, again in Harp Sharp tuning:

And finally some Bach, with my own arrangement of the second cello suite, with nothing added or taken out, though played in Gm. The score is available to purchase for a low price HERE.

1. Personal Lute History to April 2021

I started with an archlute in 1994 (coming from a classical guitar background) and was immediately called upon to play in many ensembles, the first being The Scottish Early Music Consort, who asked me to join them for a short tour of England, Ireland and Scotland, performing excerpts from Monteverdi operas. I had to learn figured bass reading in a week (!) before the first concert in Belfast, and also master the instrument. Well, I never did master the archlute, but managed to do reasonably well in the continuo department. In retrospect, figured-bass reading formed the best musical education I ever had.

I soon started work on the solo Scottish lute repertoire from the Rowallan and Straloch manuscripts, and formed a duo with early harp specialist, William Taylor, called the Rowallan Consort – every group had to be called “consort” in those days! I started doing solo concerts, and recorded my first solo album, called Flowers of the Forest..and here it is:

To my great surprise, that went to the Number One position in the Scottish Classical Music Chart [The Scotsman]! With some financial help from the Scottish Arts Council and the Russell Trust, I managed to amass a few instruments: a 10c lute by Dallas Sutherland, a mandour by Peter Forrester, and an 18th-century wire-strung “guittar”.

I found myself being in demand for a while, with concerts and radio broadcasts, and was also granted a Churchill Fellowship to study music I knew nothing about. I soon found myself in Istanbul studying Turkish classical music with a Turkish oud, and in Morocco studying their style of oud playing – until 9/11 happened, bringing a sharp end to my studies there.

My second album was called The Healing, and included not only more selections from the Scottish lute manuscripts, but also some new compositions. And here it is:

The final track, The Healing, was my reaction to the 9/11 attacks.

In those days I was not too focussed on complete lute authenticity. I used nylon trebles and copper-wound basses, and my technique was just what came natural to me, but I did play without nails. The recordings were also done in a modern “rock band” type studio, with close mic-ing and digital reverb.

More recordings followed of Scottish music, including the complete “Twelve Divertimentis for Guittar” by James Oswald, which along with the first two solo albums became my third Number One album in Scotland. But, I was not happy with the music scene and also my own playing. I gave up performing and teaching – I had been Lecturer in Lute and Guitar at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and also at Napier University – and took some time out earning a living in a library, and being a father.

Meanwhile the world was changing, and it became possible to make recordings and videos from home. I preferred this much more, and to date have about 300 YouTube videos and a good few hours of SoundCloud sound files.

I now feel a new lease of life to record music from the baroque period, with gut strings on appropriate instruments. A house sale has released some money for two or three instruments, and I have started with a French théorbe de pièces by Adrian and Lawrence Dodd, more on that later. I have commissioned a 12c lute from Dodd Lutherie, and also something-to-be-decided from Jiri Cepelak. I’m tempted by a six-string gallichon with a string length of a mere 92cms! It’s the only continuo lute which can play chromatic bass lines as written.

My intention is to discuss the background to these instruments, upload sound files and videos, and also discuss aspects of interpretation. Your comments and questions will always be welcome. I also teach via Zoom.

Rob MacKillop
South Queensferry
Scotland