About this Recording
8.573854 - Lute Duo Music (Two Lutes with Grace - Plectrum Lute Duos of the Late 15th Century) (Lewon, Kieffer)
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Pietrobono and the 15th-century Lute Duo


Acclaimed in his lifetime as ‘the foremost lutenist in the world’, the Ferrarese virtuoso Pietrobono dal Chitarino (c.1417–1497) remains today without a voice, since we have no written record of the music he performed at the Italian courts in the 15th century. The voices of his fellow instrumentalists remain silent as well, since few examples of notated music have been preserved. nevertheless, all is not lost. While contemporary chronicles are very sparing of details about musical performance, the Latin poems of a number of learned men provide a surprising amount of information. Hitherto what instrumentalists played in the 15th century has largely been a matter of guesswork. Today we have a firmer basis for knowing their repertoire and how they performed it.

Marc Lewon and Paul Kieffer have been bringing medieval music to life for a number of years. On this album they turn their attention to the lute duo, a partnership that is exemplified by Pietrobono himself, since he was always accompanied by his ‘tenorista’. We know something about their repertoire from the Latin poets. The most informative is the semi-blind Aurelio Brandolini Lippi, who was knowledgeable about music since he himself declaimed verses to the lira da braccio. He heard Pietrobono at a wedding banquet in naples in 1473—these occasions are never without music. Pietrobono had come all the way from Ferrara in the entourage of the Ferrarese courtiers sent to escort their new duchess, Eleonora d’Aragona, to her husband, Duke Ercole d’Este. Lippi asked rhetorically: ‘What tunes does he play on his strings? What songs with his plectrum?’ He responded: ‘Whatever songs Britain sings, beloved of the Muses, and France, no less favoured by the Muses, the beseeching laments of Spain in her wide lands, and the songs of serious Italy.’ From this we understand that Pietrobono performed and ornamented the upper parts of the most popular songs from an international repertoire. He did not sing, and he did not improvise freely. nor could he, because his tenorista, who provided the tenor or lower parts of the arrangement, kept him rhythmically tied to a regular tempo. Brandolini is very informative about how this is done: the tenorista ‘begins various songs with his learned plectrum and plays whole songs in consistent measures…the other sets out on his journey with left and right hand flying, the fingers of one and the nimble plectrum of the other working in harmony. Throughout the song he goes beyond the prescribed boundaries and he continually invents new rhythms.’

The wide-ranging repertoire of 15th-century lute duos is reflected on this album, with a focus on the French, English, and german hit songs of the day: De tous biens playne ( 7  and  27 , arranged by Roelkin and Tinctoris), Le souvenir ( 18  in a version by Tinctoris), Tout a par moy ( 22  by the Englishman Walter Frye, arranged by Tinctoris), and Mit ganzem willen ( 31  anonymous in the Lochamer Liederbuch). It is an especial pleasure that five songs are sung by grace newcombe: this allows us to hear the familiar melodies and then listen for them in the accompanying instrumental version: the anonymous rondeau J’ay pris amours ( 4  and  5 ); gilles Binchois’s Comme femme desconfortee ( 11  and  12 ); Johannes Bedyngham’s Fortune alas ( 15  and  16 ); Frye’s So ys emprentid ( 21  and  22 ); and the anonymous Mit ganzem willen ( 30  and  31 ).

not all music on this album was originally vocal. The opening work, Josquin’s La Bernardina, is an instrumental ensemble piece that was intabulated by Francesco Spinacino and published in print in 1507. Spinacino has an instantly recognisable style: constant running notes in the top voice supported by the lower voices sounding with a steady beat as seen in  1   6   10   17   19  and  28 . This is a clever way of solving the problem of a tenor in long notes, where one note per bar could be completely overwhelmed. Dividing such notes into four beats per bar ensures that the harmony is not lost. La Spagna  8  is based on a basse danse tenor. This version is taken from a manuscript in Perugia, Biblioteca Comunale Augusta, MS 1013 (M 36), that preserves many similar instrumental arrangements, including also  2   5   16  and  25 . Dance music is represented by Joan Ambrosio Dalza’s Calata  3  and his Saltarello  23  and Piva  24 , published in Venice in 1508. These pieces incorporate a steady beat, but are more flexible than Spinacino’s arrangements. Dancing was an indispensable feature of court life, and most court instrumentalists were engaged in supplying suitable music.

Other aspects of the repertoire are more reflective of private performance. For two duos,  2  and  25 , no melodic basis has been detected. Unusually, the first one has a double attribution: to Alexander Agricola and Johannes ghiselin, as if they had invented the duo between them (they were long-term friends). In these duos the voices are equal; the interest lies not in the melody but in the interplay between the instruments. The same is true of Tinctoris’s Fecit potentiam  14 . His Alleluia  9  is a written-out example of improvised singing over a cantus firmus taken from chant, known as singing ‘super librum’. Harder to place is Agricola’s Gaudeamus omnes in Domino  29 , which begins with a chant intonation, but is hardly vocal in character.

Some of the music on this album will strike the listener as surprising: stopping and starting in unexpected places, slowing down suddenly, running here and there seemingly without a plan, and tumbling into triple metre and then back. Why this happens can be understood by looking at the original notation: these pieces (especially  5   13  and  16 ) are full of changes in proportions; sometimes what looks like long notes must be played very fast. Two come from the Perugia manuscript mentioned earlier, and another one from a manuscript of c. 1500 in the Archivo de la Catedral of Segovia. Both contain extensive collections of duos with such proportions; they may be didactic, but they certainly test the mettle of performers. I suspect they were meant to provide at least a pale imitation of what a virtuoso lutenist such as Pietrobono could do.

 20  has been unknown until recently, when it was discovered on a flyleaf in an Oxford college manuscript. Without text, it is labelled ‘Tenor So ys enprentyd etc.’ in an English hand. But it is not the tenor of Frye’s well-known song, performed here vocally  21 . It is in fact a new tenor, fitted to Frye’s superius, providing an apt example of the inventiveness of composers and performers in the 15th century.

Bonnie J. Blackburn

For an in-depth study on Pietrobono, see the recently published article by Bonnie J. Blackburn: ‘The Foremost Lutenist in the World’: Pietrobono dal Chitarino and his Repertory, in the Journal of the Lute Society of America 51 (2018), pp. 1–71.

Two Lutes with Grace

Aside from the alta capella—a combination of loud wind instruments—the lute duo is arguably the best-documented ensemble combination for 15th-century instrumental music. In recent decades, research on this ensemble, including its repertoire and its players, has yielded interesting results. These findings have been put into practice by a number of modern performers, with Crawford Young leading the field. His work culminated in a recording with his duo partner Karl- Ernst Schröder in 2001 (AMOURS AMOURS AMOURS. Lute Duos around 1500, glossa, 2001). All three of us were taught by Crawford Young, and it is to him that we dedicate this recording project, which we acknowledge as a consequence and continuation of his ground-breaking album. The recorded repertoires overlap by almost a third, largely due to the six Spinacino duos which lie at the core of both recordings. While Young and Schröder took their lute duo model from the turn of the 16th century and used finger-plucked lutes, in this album the emphasis is placed on a repertoire and playing technique from the late 15th century, when plectrum playing was still standard. We combined either two of the same instrument (two plectrum lutes in nominal A tuning) or two lute family instruments of different sizes, by using the smaller gittern to play the ornamented upper lines (see  8   12   13   16   18  and  27 ). In the case of the tenorista having to play more than one line (an intabulation of tenor and contratenor, as in the duos by Spinacino and Dalza), we used a combined plectrum and fingernail technique, which was also developed by Crawford Young and has since been handed down to his students. This technique, which belongs on the border between pure plectrum and pure finger playing, can be deduced and reconstructed from arrangements and depictions from the mid- to late 15th century.

The aim of this recording has been to collect and consolidate a surviving instrumental repertoire that can plausibly be connected with the lute duo practice of the 15th century. Some of the recorded tunes—or comparable arrangements—would most certainly have been part of the repertoire of Pietrobono and his tenorista.

Marc Lewon

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