Written by Anne E. Johnson

One of the defining factors of High Baroque music is the explosion in the number of instrumental pieces being composed. It’s easy to think of the 17th century and earlier as a time when vocal music like madrigals and Masses was the important stuff, with the occasional traveling lute-player passing through town to amuse folks. Acually, there was a ton of music for instrumentalists to play – it’s just that the pieces were short, and composers didn’t much care which instrument you used.

Lutes were popular because they were portable, easy to get some kind of sound out of (as with guitars today, I imagine there were a lot of really terrible lute-players back then because they thought it was an “easy” instrument), and they could handle polyphony. Those madrigals that courtly types were so fond of required multiple people to sing, but only one skilled lutenist to play all the parts. Instrumental music was, of course, needed for dances as well. And then there were the short works that today we’d call “absolute music,” music for its own sake.

Il Barbarino (Arcana) is a new album by German lutenist Paul Kieffer. It’s a study in typical types of pieces lutes were used for in the 16th and 17th century, before the heyday of multi-length instrumental compositions. For a few pieces, Kieffer uses viola da mano, also known as a vihuela, which is a guitar-like instrument.

Several tracks have only the name “Fantasia,” and most of those are by Fabrizio Dentice (1539-1581). The word “Fantasia” in its various forms (fantasy, fancy, phantasie)–and whether it’s in a musical context, or sexual, or related to elves and dragons–invokes wildness and the extraordinary and unpredictable. Renaissance fantasias were pieces that either were actually improvised or were meant to sound like they were. That’s why it’s disappointing that Kieffer’s playing is so… careful.

His technique can best be described as quite accurate, but it’s not always musical, and certainly not emotional. The complex lines of polyphony come through clearly, yes, but overall the motion tends to be plodding and robotic. I don’t know about you, but that’s not my idea of fantasy:


The playing is more supple for “Da poi che vidi vostra falsa fede” by Palestrina. That work represents another common category of instrumental music in the 16th and early 17th century—arrangements of vocal works. Before Palestrina became the poster boy for the Counter Reformation and the model for perfect sacred music, he was a typical composer of his time. He wrote secular madrigals and songs like everybody else.


The majority of the 24 tracks are in genres related to fantasia – pieces with an improvised feeling – such as ricercars, toccatas, and folias. Kieffer’s sound is pleasant, but rhythmically too conservative. I’m never convinced that he’s trying to make us believe each phrase is off the top of his head.

It’s useful to compare the young Kieffer’s playing of the fantasia family with that of a veteran in the lute scene. At 63, British lute virtuoso Nigel North has lived long enough to understand the unpredictability of life, love, and harmonic progressions. (He’s also done in-depth study of pre-Baroque style; I became a fan when he was the lute and theorbo [“a plucked string instrument of the lute family, with an extended neck and a second pegbox ” says Wikipedia—Ed.] player for the terrific trio Romanesca in the 1990s.)

In this performance of a fantasia by Francesco da Milano (1497-1543), notice how the phrases flow, and there is subtle rubato on certain notes, not only shaping phrases as statements in conversation, but almost as if North were trying to decide where to take the music next. He’s not deciding – this is a fully written-out piece – but the fantasy style requires that ruse.


Another lutenist who has tried his hand at these sorts of pieces, Lutz Kirchhof wins for most intriguing album title: Music for Witches and Alchemists (Sony; the 2000 release is out of print but still easily available both as CD and streaming). Considering that provocative title, let’s see how Kirchhof does with a fantasia. This one is by Luis de Milán (1500-1561):


I’d place this performance somewhere between Kieffer’s mechanical precision and North’s fluidity.

Dance music was perhaps the most common use of instruments in Europe before the High Baroque. Compared to the fantasia family, most early-baroque dances were staid and controlled. But there were exceptions, including the tarantella. The title of the one Kirchhof plays by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) explains exactly what it is: “Musical Cure against the Poison of the Tarantula.” Notice how it pick up speed, phrase by phrase. By the end, you should be whirling so fast that the poison will fly from your pores. Kirchhof doesn’t take it quite to that level, but he gives it a good try:


The association of lutes with fantasy is not limited to 400-year-old compositions. Medieval Celtic Folk Lute Fantasy of Magic Gothic Castle is a self-published album by the lutenist Andrei Krylov, who recorded it with guitarist Lana Ross. In this case, “fantasy” is used in the literary sense; this music is technically “filking,” or the creation of folk-like pieces inspired by ideas from speculative fiction. Enter the dragons and elves!

Magic Gothic Castle features 9-string lute, with Ross playing classical guitar on many of the 49 tracks. (49 tracks is what happens when there’s nobody but the musicians in charge of production.) Their provenance is unclear, but they are certainly folk-influenced, and some seem to have roots in the late medieval and Renaissance polyphonic lute traditions. Krylov writes that he and Ross recorded the album in “Ancient Monasteries, Caves, Castles, in the darkness of Night, under the full Moon, under the last rays of the Sun, with the help from the voices of Medieval messengers, songs of Gothic bards and dances of the shadows of the Past.” If that’s not lit-inspired fantasy, I don’t know what is.

Here’s a track called “Gothic Fantasy”:


It’s not as polished as the playing of Kieffer, North, or Kirchhof, and the polyphony isn’t as complex as the works of Fabrizio Dentice. Yet the rousing, rough-edged sound is what makes Krylov’s music “authentic” in a certain way. Maybe it steals from existing tunes, maybe it mixes in his own ideas. But it evokes a particular time, and it serves as an escape. A fantasy. No duke tossing silver ducats at his court lutenist ever demanded less.

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