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Francesco Corbetta (c1615-1681)

La guitarre royalle

William Carter (guitar)
Download only
Recording details: August 2001
St Andrew's Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: October 2004
Total duration: 73 minutes 13 seconds

2005 saw a new development in William Carter's career and his exploration of the world of the baroque guitar led to the release of his first solo album, La Guitarre Royalle, which features the works of Francesco Corbetta, the virtuoso baroque guitarist (1615-1681) who taught guitar to Louis XIV.


'[This album's] effect is hypnotic enough to win over even the most ardent critic of the guitar' (Gramophone)

'[Carter] indulges himself by inventing a lively Spanish-style prelude to one of the dances, but generally his laid-back style is at one with the idiom, beautifully recorded' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'Every movement [is] a unique and treasurable listening experience. Perfect late-evening listening' (Classic FM Magazine)» More

“The guitar is no more than a cowbell, so easy to play… that there isn’t a stable boy who isn’t a musician of the guitar” (Sebastian de Covarrubias, 1611)
“The exact contrary of what is generally believed is often the truth.” (Jean de la Bruyère, 1645-1696)

Something interesting happened in the 1580s. The renaissance guitar (think of a ukulele, its direct descendant) was enlarged and given a 5th string. This new instrument was perfect for strumming and people just couldn’t help themselves, they chucked the rules of polyphony out the window and started having fun on the guitar (Its first method book teaches you how to strum your way through a Palestrina mass!) A guitar craze started which spread throughout Europe and lasted over a century. The guitar was played by almost everyone, from Spanish stable boys to the crowned heads of Europe and by the middle of the 17th century there was a tremendous variety of music for it, from simple strummed chord patterns to some of the most complex and subtle music ever written for a plucked instrument. The apex of this pyramid of quality is occupied by the figure of Francesco Corbetta. In his music the guitar found a voice which allowed it to match in refinement and expressiveness the best solo music for the viol, harpsichord or lute.

Corbetta’s life as a wandering virtuoso was filled with incident and adventure and if the rough sketch we can reconstruct at this distance is anything to go by, the loss of his memoirs (mentioned by Adam Ebert in 1701) is a tragedy. He settled on the guitar early; his obituary in the Mercure Galant tells us ‘From his youth he was so fond of this instrument that his parents, who had destined him for something different, used caresses and menaces in vain to detach him from it.’ He published his first book of guitar music in 1639 (at about the age of 20) and then left Italy and headed north. After successes in Vienna, Hanover and Brussels, he travelled to Spain (where they were still talking about him 30 years later; Gaspar Sanz calls him El mejor de todos—“the best of all”). This was followed by an invitation to Versailles from the Cardinal Mazarin, where he not only taught the guitar to the young Louis XIV, but also had the honour of dancing alongside him in one of the Ballets de Court, the music to which was by another Italian guitar playing friend of Louis: Jean-Baptiste Lully.

He also moved in expatriate English circles and when Charles II returned to England, Corbetta came with him. This earned him some sour entries in Samuel Pepys’ diary; Pepys preferred the music of the lute and found the guitar irritating:

August 5, 1667
“After done with the Duke of York, and coming out through his dressing room, I there spied Signor Francisco tuning his guitar, and Monsieur de Puy, with him who did make him play to me which he did most admirably so well that I was mightily troubled that all that pains should have been taken upon so bad an instrument.”

However, it didn’t take Pepys long to fall under the guitar’s spell and the Pepys library in Cambridge contains a substantial amount of guitar music, some of it by Pepys himself!

Corbetta lived in London for a few years as part of the King’s “Private Music”, playing and teaching the royal brothers as well as other members of the nobility. I’ve got a feeling that the quick disappearance of the guitar from English musical life during the reign of William and Mary had to do with its association with James (who was a keen amateur of the guitar) and Catholicism.

Corbetta also used his royal influence to set up a complicated confidence game called “The Catalan Lottery” and after swindling a number of people he left for Paris under a cloud. Although he was to return to London on several occasions (including a concert in the Whitehall Palace for Charles and the court just a few days before Charles’ death), Paris became his main address until his own death in 1681.

It was in Paris that Corbetta published his last two books of music: ‘La Guitarre Royalle’ in 1671, and (rather confusingly) ‘La Guitarre Royalle’ in 1674. The first collection is his largest work and the source of most of the music on this recording. It’s dedicated to Charles II and is filled with extended suites and complex character pieces, many of them dedicated to members of the English and French nobility. The second ‘Guitarre Royalle’ is dedicated to Louis XIV and includes some extraordinarily chromatic guitar duets and solos mostly in the strummed style. This was apparently Louis’ favourite sort of music:

I had wanted to conform myself to the style of music most pleasing to your Majesty; The most delicate, the most chromatic and the least encumbered.

Louis was evidently a connoisseur of chromatic harmony as the exquisite miniatures in this collection are almost impressionist in their effect, with many strange and unresolved dissonances.

When Corbetta died in 1681 he was widely mourned, poems were published referring to him as ‘The Amphion of our Times’ and the Mercure Galant rather chauvinistically claimed him for the nation:

He finally returned to France to signalize by his death the regret he felt at not having spent all his life there.

Guitarists continued to play his music for another 70 years but, perhaps because his music survived only in tablature, the rest of the world forgot him quickly.

The programme
When Louis was in residence at Versailles he heard guitar music in his bedchamber for an hour or so every evening (except Saturday) as a way to wind down before going to bed. These private concerts were given by a variety of guitarists; among them Bernard Jourdain de la Salle and Robert de Visee, but my conceit for this programme is that sometime in the 1670s, perhaps recently returned from a concert tour or gambling trip, Corbetta gives de Visee the night off and plays his old friend Louis to bed.

Corbetta’s music is well suited to the night, for though it’s exceptionally demanding; it is rarely showy for its own sake and almost never ends with a bang. Similarly, in writing about ‘batterie’ (strumming) Corbetta goes to great lengths to stress the sweetness and delicacy he wants the player to strive for. Perhaps he considered a flashy ending inappropriate for the aristocratic circles in which he moved. Whatever the case, there is scarcely anything here to disturb the reveries of a weary monarch.

The music
I wanted to play pieces from different periods of Corbetta’s career and a few of them call for a little extra comment. I’ve taken the decision to assemble the opening Chaconne from various works in this form, as this seems to reflect the way that 17th century guitarists viewed this dance; as a continuously evolving structure to be constantly refined and updated, rather than a work with set boundaries (much as we think of the Blues today). Corbetta gives us a glimpse of this free attitude in writing about the final Chaconne in this group:

In this Chaconne there is a variation which I have already printed (in an earlier Chaconne), but because it has the gift of pleasing, I wanted to give it to you here too.

I’ve also taken the liberty of making up a ‘Spanish’ introduction to the Folia d’Espana. Corbetta boasted that he had composed in every different national style and actually wrote a book of music during his time in Spain. Sadly, the only surviving copy was sold to an anonymous bidder at Sotheby’s (London) on 20th November 1991, and is presently unavailable for study. I’ve based my prelude on chord progressions in a contemporary Spanish manuscript [E-MN Ms. 2209]. It also includes pieces in a scordatura only known to have been used by Corbetta, so there might be some sort of tenuous connection with him. The suites and other works are played as printed, and in connection with the suite, I think it’s worth calling attention to Corbetta’s (as yet unacknowledged) pioneering role. He first used the term in 1671 which predates Becker by 3 years and Mace by 5 (these 2 are given the palm in the New Grove) and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that his early wanderings so closely mirror those of his contemporary Froberger, who is often given credit for the development of the suite Froberger and Corbetta were together in Vienna, Brussels and Paris.

William Carter © 2003

Performance style and instruments
I feel that while standards of both playing and making lutes and theorbos have improved tremendously in recent years, the Baroque Guitar is still not so well understood. A partial explanation might be that most baroque guitars are made by instrument makers who specialize in the lute, and naturally use the methods of construction with which they are most familiar, but historically the 2 instruments were made in very different ways to achieve different musical ends. To generalize, the lute usually has a thin top with stiffer barring. This creates a sort of dry resonance which encourages the natural delivery of polyphony. Surviving guitars have thicker tops with very minimal barring which means that while each particular note may not have such special qualities, a group of notes can blend together into a whole which is more than the sum of its parts.

If one plays on a baroque guitar which is simply a guitar shaped lute (as most of us do these days) it’s very difficult if not impossible to integrate plucking and strumming (which require very different motions of the arm and hand) into a musical whole, and this is, I think, the touchstone of truly playing this instrument. I was fortunate early on to have a good instrument made on historical principles by the gifted luthier Martin Haycock (not because I knew best, I was just lucky). This wonderful instrument has taught me much and helped develop my musical imagination at least as much as hours spent studying dusty manuscripts and the muddled, contradictory surviving tutors.

“In tuning there is variety”, wrote Gaspar Sanz in 1697; words which are no less true today. Much ink has been spilt over the various tuning systems possible and useful on the guitar, and their unsatisfactory and casual documentation in the 17th century. Corbetta is just as unspecific as his colleagues; he calls for an octave string on the 4th course but is silent on the contentious issue of the 5th and 3rd courses. I’ve opted for a high 5th course and (more controversially) a high octave g on the 3rd course. This last practice is not well documented (a couple of Italian manuscripts, and a few paintings) and would have been difficult on larger guitars (as the thin G string would be liable to break) but I’m absolutely convinced that it’s necessary for La Guitarre Royalle. Much has been made by enthusiasts of this tuning about the correct disposition of notes in Campanella passages (a sort of barriolage which allows the player to play the notes in a scale on separate strings so they ring on in the manner of “little bells”), but in truth I find that these passages can be successful in almost any tuning if played gracefully. In fact, the sound of an occasional note in the wrong octave in a cascading campanella passage can have a sort of crooked charm all of its own. However in the Guitarre Royalle, there are many passages where two notes are slurred on the third string and resolved onto the first string, which can only make sense if the third string is high. Corbetta gives a vital clue to his preference in the ‘Allemande Cherie de son altesse, le Duc d’Yorck’ which exists in two forms; first as a guitar solo and then as a part song. The musical notation of the vocal version shows clearly that he was thinking of the third string as a high one. After playing all of Corbetta’s (available) music and living with it for some years I feel very confident that this is the tuning he used, but I don’t want to be too dogmatic, and I have to confess that one of the many pleasures of this wonderful and mysterious music is that we’ll never know exactly how it sounded, we’ll always have to make creative choices, and we’ll always have to be prepared to argue with our colleagues (preferably over a bottle of wine) about the results. So, in the words of Corbetta, “Vivi contento”—“Live happily”!

William Carter © 2003

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