La Rhétorique des Dieux
- Edward Bond
• Baroque sensibility
The Baroque period spans the entire Seventeenth Century and continues well into the Eighteenth. In France, music was the paramount Baroque device. In France, the lute was the paramount Baroque instrument.
In Baroque music we find apparent surface disorder and complexity; in fact there is a hidden organic unity. A dominant motif creates unity by fusing disparate structural elements into tense and energetic structures. An open form, whose goal aspires to only relative clarity. The constantly shifting perspectives create, through the language of ideological representations, a structure through which individuals move and act. There are implications concerning the body politic, with King and Pope at the center of this Theatrum Mundi, this theatre of the world.
The goal of the Baroque culture worker was to reshape and reform the craft in order to touch with emphasis and exaggeration new emotional chords in new and dramatic ways . A style prone to excess, spilling over the artificial structural boundaries with vigorous details, possibly extraneous, certainly sensual. Inclusive rather than confrontational. The suggestion of the infinite.
Central to the Baroque is the notion of the device, something to be construed from a particular object or action to a quality of a single individual. Umberto Eco suggests that:
the device is a mysterious notion, the expression of a correspondence. Every good device has to be metaphoric, poetic, composed, true, revealing of soul, noble, admirable, new but knowable, evident but effective, singular, proportionate to its space, acute and brief, ambiguous but frank, popularly enigmatic, appropriate, ingenious, unique, and heroic. Every good device is the familiar in surprising garb.
Music was the quintessential medium of devices. Every aspect of the musical world functioned in this way. As a device, the lute was considered as the arbiter of Love, Peace and War.
• Some lute history
Over many thousands of years, the lute has surfaced in many forms and many cultures, a family of instruments, all related: vihuela, guitar, cittern, orpharion, balalaika, banjo, chitarrone, mandolin. pipa, shamisen, sarod, oud, ukulele.
The lute came to Europe towards the end of the thirteenth century from the Arab culture. A mere two hundred years later, the instrument was already well established throughout the European cultural fabric. It was the Renaissance instrument of choice from street musicians to the courts, both as a vehicle for solo performance and as the accompaniment for song.
There were a many sorts of lutes: all had a rounded pear-shaped body, fabricated with a number of ribs, and a short wide fretted fingerboard. The number of strings was not standardized, nor was the size of the instrument, which varied in length from 40 to 240 centimeters. The lute was double-strung in courses; this to increase the volume of the sound. The head of the lute was bent backward from the neck, almost to a right angle, forming a pegbox to which the strings were attached.
• French culture and politics in the Grand Siècle
Louis XIV, wanted nothing more than to establish French cultural autonomy throughout Europe, to be preeminent over Austria, over Rome, and as always, over Spain. The King was the fabric of all their dreams.
In Seventeenth Century France, by virtue of this cultural policy, this political motivation, we find a range of brilliant intellectual and artistic creation. The playwrights: Jean Racine, Molière. The writers: Tristan L’hermite, Jean La Fontaine, La Rochefoucauld, the real Cyrano de Bergerac. The philosophers: Descartes, Pascal. The architect, Mansart. And the lutenists Mezangeau, Gaultier, Gallot, Dufaut, and Mouton - masters all of the Style Brisé.
The composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was the only musician permitted by Louis to contribute to the public sphere. The only one. Can we imagine what this means? The cultural power allowed to Lully? It was only his music heard at court. It was only his music heard in the theatres. It was only his music heard in the arena of power and success and glamour. There were naturally numerous attempts on Lully’s life. It is a theory of mine that therefore the intimate world of music - the world of the salon and the home - as a result of Lully’s power, was now gloriously open and free and quite promising. Musical imagination was possible here in a way that it was not in the public sphere. A fertile environment for the Parisian lutenists.
We find the lute, as cultural icon, in all the different genres of 17th century French painting: allegory and history, religious, still life, portraits of musicians. In the Louvre, one may still appreciate François de Troy’s magnificent and sensitive portrait of the lutenist Charles Mouton. The lute in these paintings seems to represent the search for some semblance of harmony in the family, in society and in the state; an idealized vision of their cultivated civilized very French existence, and of themselves and their desires.
• the Parisian lutenists
Many lutenists voyaged to Paris, many worked there. The historical documents list hundreds of professionals throughout the Seventeenth Century. Names like: Bataille, Bruslet, Blancrocher, François Chancy, L’Enclos, Chabanceau de la Barre, Jean Le Messager, Nicolas Martineau, Dessanssonnières, Poussilac, Le Sage de Richée.
Most notable was René Mezangeau, who created the new lute tuning so essential to the Style Brisé. And François Dufaut of whom so little is known except for several sublime musical scores. And the Gaultiers, Denys (who originated the Tombeau) and Ennemond (my particular favourite), paramount throughout Europe. And Jacques Gallot who innovated the concept of a single key for each suite of pieces. And Charles Mouton, the last of the great Parisian lute practitioners in the twilight of the century.
There is a sociology here that is quite interesting, a striking similarity to other special musical communities. An intense productivity, a magical creativity, a community focus. A bond through commonality. The jazz mileau in New York in the 40’s comes to mind, as does the the San Francisco rock scene of the 60’s, and the Vienna of Schoenberg, Mahler and Brahms. And as these mileau were to their times, so too were the lutenists to the Paris of the Seventeenth Century.
They played their Style Brisé in the salons of the Right Bank, in grand Hôtels Particuliers scattered throughout the Marais. They taught the aristocracy and the bourgeois - for playing the lute was the mark of a gentleman. They influenced each other’s sound and touch - and what else is the lute if not sound and touch? It was a true community: with its hierarchies, rules of comportment, jealousies, rituals of passage and apprenticeship, moments of grief, times of celebration and times of joy. They lived in the old minstrel’s quarter on the Left Bank, near the Sorbonne. On Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie, on Saint-Séverin, on Saint-André-des-Arts, on the Quai des Grands-Augustins. Their houses still stand.
The lute tradition arrived in France at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century from the Renaissance virtuosos of Spain, England, Italy, Germany: Hieronymus Kapsberger, Piccinini, John Dowland, Gsapar Sanz. Mezangeau learnt it first. He taught Ennemond Gaultier. Ennemond taught Jacques Gallot and his cousin, Denys. Denys taught Dufaut and Mouton. Mouton taught Robert de Visée, and Philipp Franz le Sage de Richée, who taught Silvius Leopold Weiss, who was to be the last great baroque lutenist.
• Their instruments
The standard Parisian instrument had eleven courses, or pairs of strings, though this number could often be extended to twelve or thirteen. Compared to the Renaissance lute, we can see that the fingerboard of this instrument is much wider, and with twice the number of strings. This allowed for a more intricate manner of playing. Less strummy, if you will. It was 60/70 centimeters in length.
As well there was the theorbo. In essence it was a regular lute, with added bass strings, called diapason. These bass strings were unfretted, tuned to the notes of the scale. There was an additional pegbox and even another neck for these diapason. The theorbo was almost two meters in length. In total, there were fourteen courses of strings.
All these strings required much tuning. It was said that if a lutenist lived to be eighty years old, surely he would have spent sixty years tuning. The cost of the strings alone was formidable: a contemporary wag suggested that it cost as much to keep a lute as it does a horse.
• Their music
The musical function of the lute was threefold: as partner to the voice in the airs du cour, as basso continuo, and as a solo vehicle.
The sole repertoire is written in Style Brisé. Here we find a gentle lofty grace, a restrained pathos, a particular arrangement of intensity, articulation and timbre. Broken melancholic delicate chords, subtly ornamented, offer the merest suggestion of polyphony. Deft jabs of sound, brocaded with the syncopation of jeu inégal, and modal and obscure harmonies, and evasive cadences parade the whole expanse of the human condition. Strangely in its delicacy like the aesthetic sensibility which we associate with Japan. For the French lutenists, even C major, that most prosaic of keys, is surprisingly poignant. This style evolved naturally out of the instrument itself, out of its very nature, for it conceded the quick decay of the sound and used this tonal insubstantiality as a creative resource in the formulation of musical gesture and rhetorical device.
The tuning of their music, the scale, was not equitempered as our’s is. Nor was it pitched at A=440. In fact the Parisian pitch was somewhere between 390 and 407. And their scale was in mean-tone tuning, which means that in a C major scale, the F is sharpened, and all the rest of the notes are slightly flatten. The result is a softened, less intense sound, with stronger, more resonating, harmony.
When Mezangeau changed the tuning of the instrument he created the possibility of more freedom for the left hand. It was in D minor, a very brooding key, and was referred to as Sharp Tuning. It allowed the use of many more open strings, which lets the lute resonate in a wonderful way.
The music was fashioned into suites: collections of dance-referenced movements, sets of devices. For the Baroque musician, each movement in a suite is a different facet of the complete sentiment. These movements can be divided into two sorts: those of binary and those of ternary meter. The structure of the suite was often an alternation between one sort and the other. Binary movements include: gavotte, allemande, pavane, rondeau, tombeau. Ternary movements: canarie, minuet, galliard, gigue, chaconne. The beginning of every suite was the prélude, often unmeasured, frequently improvised. The prélude was an opportunity for the musician to tune both his own sensibilities and the strings of his lute. There was the courante as well, deliciously ambiguous in its meter, alternating as it does between two beats and three. It was very beloved for this essential Baroque quality.
The movements in the suites were often portraits of a sort. Things and persons of personal and cultural import. Ennemond wrote The Loss of the Golden Rose Lute. Mouton, La Belle Homicide. Gallot, La Montespan. Denys, Cleopatre Amante.
It was Denys Gaultier, whose wrote the set of suites called la Rhétorique des dieux. In his dedication he suggests that:
It is by this celestial discourse the illustrious Gaultier expresses perfectly his gratitude towards the gods for the knowledge with which they have endowed him and with all possible respect he dedicates to them both his person and his works
It was in the Tombeau that the Parisian lutenist spoke with the greatest feeling. As they mourned the passing of beloved musicians and friends and colleagues and family. There are many fine examples. Robert De Visée wrote: La Plainte ou Tombeau de Mesdemoiselles de Visée, filles de l’auteur, surely reflecting the saddest of sad moments. He also wrote: Tombeau de Gallot, and Tombeau de M. Mouton. Default: Tombeau de M. Blancrocher. Ennemond Gaultier: Tombeau de Mezangeau. Gallot: Le sommeil de Dufaut. Dupré: Tombeau de Dufaut. Mouton: Oraison Funèbre de Monsieur Gaultier. The mourning of the passing of something irreplaceable: individual artistic sensibility. As when Charlie Mingus composed the haunting Goodbye Porkpie Hat in memory of Lester Young.
• And in the end....
What happened? The culture changed as it surely always does. Taste became different. Robert De Visée, at the turn of the century, was the beginning of something new: a different harmony, a different texture, a journey that would arrive in Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven. Amateurs now played the harpsichord and the flute. Music became louder. Larger orchestras emerged; the intimacy of the salon disappeared. As the fashion for lute music declined in 17th century France, courts in the German-speaking countries and Sweden welcomed French players with open arms. Theirs would be the last great age of the lute. And it would be a sophisticated harmonic idiom, arpeggios proliferated. The delicacy of the style brisé became a thing of the past.
And now? Lute playing is back, in the sense that its available. There are luthiers, and musicians like Hopkinson Smith and Konrad Junghänel and Toyohiko Satoh. Hardly a major cultural impact, but.... available.
When thinking of this musical culture, one that I love so much, one that moves me so deeply, I feel a loss. As John Fowles has so eloquently said:
It is not only species of animals that die out, but whole species of feeling. And if you are wise you will never pity the past for what it did not know, but pity yourself for what it did.
Text: © Don Druick. Elmira 1999. All rights reserved.