Mysterious doodles on a 17th-century manuscript provided Liz Kenny with the inspiration for this fascinating disc. The ownership of the ML Lutebook has been attributed to a number of court musicians from its discovery in 1912, but it was the name ‘Margaret’ occasionally scrawled throughout the copy which caught the contemporary performer’s imagination. Kenny writes that ‘this chimed with the train of thought that was beginning to focus on what and who these books were compiled for, rather than on any single composer who wrote them, and put it in line with other books belonging to Jane Pickeringe and Margaret Board (lute), Elizabeth Rogers (virginals), and Lady Ann Blount (singing), where a remarkable level of virtuosity was associated with private performance by women. There are plenty of great men and great tunes within its covers but ‘Margaret’ has remained in my mind over the years that I’ve been fascinated by the book’.
The Flying Horse (track 24) is an anonymous piece that seems to sum up the spirit of the book, a ground bass spiced up with an exotic chord of A flat and an incitement to improvise. Works by Dowland, Johnson, Bacheler, Sturt and others summon up an exhilarating musical world influenced by the court, the theatre and the cries of the street, and where mansucripts, passed from hand to hand, became palimpsests of the perfomer’s own art.
Liz Kenny, arguably the greatest lutenist of today, performs this entrancing collection with an aplomb and flair that seems to directly channel those virtuoso performers who were handed the music with the ink still wet on the page.
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What’s in a name? When the British Library acquired Add MS 38539 in 1912 it was mooted that the initials ‘ML’ on the cover possibly referred to Matthew Locke. A nice try though this was to fit in with a ‘great men of music history’ model, it was revised when these initials were shown to have been stamped before Locke was born, and the volume was then referred to by its less alluring catalogue number. When the early-music movement was under way and ‘not quite so great men’ came into the picture, it ended up being called the Sturt Lute Book, on the hope or assumption that Sturt, who was one of Prince Henry’s lutenists, compiled it in the 1620s (a handful of the pieces in it are by him). In his facsimile edition of 1985 Robert Spencer re-branded it simply ‘ML’, with a cautious link to one ‘Margaret’ (or ‘Margareta’ or ‘Marg’) who doodles her name on some of its pages. This chimed with the train of thought that was beginning to focus on what and who these books were compiled for, rather than on any single composer who wrote them, and put it in line with other books belonging to Jane Pickeringe and Margaret Board (lute), Elizabeth Rogers (virginals), and Lady Ann Blount (singing), where a remarkable level of virtuosity was associated with private performance by women. There are plenty of great men and great tunes within its covers but ‘Margaret’ has remained in my mind over the years that I’ve been fascinated by the book.
Some of the pieces in the book may be records of Margaret’s lute lessons—maybe with Sturt, certainly with a member of the inner sanctum of the Jacobean court, where masque and theatre as well as avant-garde chamber performances were being planned. Her namesake Margaret Board also practised her signature in her lute book, but her lute-playing story ended unambiguously on her marriage and the book was passed on. ML wasn’t simply handed over from one person to another when they’d finished with it: there are fifteen different hands involved in it, some of which appear to have been entering music contemporaneously, for example by filling up the odd gap at the bottom of a page, then handing the book back to the next or the previous writer. Whatever its purpose, it is a collaborative volume par excellence. Margaret may have been the patron-witness-pupil to hand: lute players were debating the state of their art, commenting on each others’ music, borrowing each others’ tunes, and perhaps wondering where they had collectively ended up after the confident Golden Age of the Elizabethan lute.
The Flying Horse is an anonymous piece that seems to sum up the spirit of the book, a ground bass spiced up with an exotic chord of A flat and an incitement to improvise. Pegasus flies onto several title pages of this period. He had a bad start, being the result of the seduction of Medusa by Poseidon. Athene, outraged that this took place in her temple, ordered Medusa to be decapitated, which allowed Pegasus to emerge. He stretched his wings and flew, eventually arriving at Mount Helicon, home of the Muses. There, he struck the ground with his hoof and, to their delight, from the rock gushed a spring of water. The goddess Athene later came to see it. A happy ending …
Lutes had acquired extra bass strings since the boyhood of John Dowland, which meant that bass notes were added to both older and newer tunes: so much for the ‘original’ intentions of the composer. Running passagework (the Renaissance style of division writing) using the thumb and index finger is notated alongside newer trends of using the thumb for the bass alone, with the fingers of the right hand playing the fast notes. An expressive—or, depending on your taste, hyperactive—layer of left-hand ornaments or graces is larded on top. One of the most significant concordant sources for the book, Kraków Mus. MS 40641, has neither the French-style dotted rhythms nor the ornamentation for the dances in ML. The music is often performed without them, or with relatively few, following the plausible logic of Adolf Loos’ provocatively titled essay Ornament and Crime (1908, translated into English in 1913). This essay was widely associated with the arts and crafts movement—itself bound up with the discovery and reconstruction of old instruments, which sought to distinguish fashion from substance and usefulness.
While the sort of ornamentation found in ML was undoubtedly a fashion and distorts the smoothness so prized by Loos in physical objects, as perhaps by us in musical melodies, there is much also to be gained from this obsessive manipulation of the natural decay of the string. The exploration of emotional expression in left-hand graces would become associated with the portrayal of feeling in the school of the French lutenists that followed. Here it is as if two photographs are superimposed, as this almost baroque use of ornamentation is applied to Renaissance musical forms. Mersenne remarked that it was sometimes difficult to decide whether a grace should begin a whole or a half tone away from the main note, which is a reminder that deceptively modern-sounding tunes weren’t always subject to our sense of key; leading notes weren’t automatically raised in scales until much later in the century (scholars seem to converge on a range of dates around 1680), enlarging the range of colours available through a wider choice of accidentals chosen to suit the character of the musical phrase or simply to exploit the sound of where an ornament might lie on the lute. French-style coulés and appoggiaturas are added in the book to the music of Robert Johnson. The sharp and cross signs are found in other sources, though not in the profusion they are here, suggesting a wide variety of interpretations would be required for there to be any point to them at all. In The Battle, for example, I found it hard to resist trumpet-like leaps of a third from the open string.
The other three Pavans here are by Robert Johnson. Johnson and Dowland are the Handel and Bach of their worlds; it should be no surprise to learn that Johnson, like Handel, was capable of the most extraordinary profundity, but his micromanagement of every aspect of masque performances, from buying strings to writing large swathes of music, and his administrative and musical production duties for Shakespeare’s company The King’s Men predispose us to imagine a genial man of the theatre rather than a private genius. Both C minor Pavans explore the darkness of the lute’s lower strings. The handwriting of the second is a not very elegant version of secretary hand which seems to match the haunting provisionality of some of the writing: lines of counterpoint which melt away rather than develop, as well as rhythmically fragile bits of style brisé, where inner parts and the tunes wind in a delayed fashion around the bass. Echoes of Dowland’s Lachrymae theme hover throughout, leaving a dark sense that the world is more complicated than when the older tune was written. In the F minor Pavan I was unable to forgo the divisions in Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s Lutebook, with their eloquent testimony to a tradition where one person’s composition is the spur to his own or another performer’s imagination.
There are several sources earlier than ML for The Battle. Dowland’s Galliard that appeared in Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610) as The King of Denmark’s Galliard here has its other name, The Battle Galliard, making the link with The Battle as explicit as the trumpet-call tune they both share. John Ward suggested that a version of The Battle might have been played while a spectacle was going on, which is not unlikely, but is a kind way of indicating that musically speaking very little happens. Without breaking a musical butterfly upon the wheel of cultural theory, music undoubtedly had a part in the mirroring and digesting of cultural experiences which were in their own way highly theatrical. There is a palpable tension as the trumpet calls and stylized manoeuvres keep going on and on, until the actual battle explodes with the force of this pent-up expectation, and then is over rather quickly, with a kind of victory passamezzo which fails to contain completely the energy that has just been unleashed.
Tunes and grounds
Elizabeth Kenny © 2009