More Mostly Quiet Music

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Have we today forgotten how to speak softly and with grace, or is the real danger that we aren’t screaming loudly enough?  —Sean Shibe

That’s how the BBC’s Kate Molleson leads off her notes for Shibe’s new album softLOUD (Delphian DCD34213). Musically he argues for both sides, starting with a selection of lute transcriptions from 17th-century Scottish manuscripts, then music from prominent living Scot James MacMillan (b. 1959, seen above). Let’s hear some. First, two brief ditties from the old manuscripts, starting with Ladie lie near me (Wemyss MS, c.1642):

and a bit of A Scotts Tune, by Mr. Lesslie (Balcarres (MS):

Shibe ends his “soft” section with MacMillan’s Motet I: Since it was the day of Preparation …, originally scored for theorbo:

As Molleson notes, “These manuscripts show us the roots of what we now call Scottish music, and that we were musical mongrels from the start.” Aye, lassie. Motet I apparently fits right in, since “it borrows from plainchant, Arabic dances, Bach, Stravinsky, and Britten—as well as Renaissance music and Scottish fiddle tunes.” (Seems like a tall order for a work that lasts about four minutes.)

Finally Shibe breaks out the hard stuff. If you were hoping for Hendrix or Allman, you might be disappointed. LOUD consists of three near-classic works by giants of minimalist or post-modern art music: Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, written for Pat Metheny (or rather several Pat Methenys); Julia Wolfe’s LAD, originally scored for nine bagpipes; and David Lang’s Killer, originally for electric violin and tape. If you’ve just come back from thirty years on Mars and thus haven’t heard Electric Counterpoint, click here. In this space I’ll cut to the chase, i.e., LAD, movement III (“The Fast Melody”):

Plus a spot of Killer:

Pretty sure you are encouraged to turn up the volume, although you may want to try our All-Soft-All-the-Time channel instead, where historic lute music is on tap 24/7. Recently a new collection crossed my path, bringing unexpected pleasure without ever raising its voice: Nocturnal, from Jakob Lindberg (BIS-2082, SACD and download). Mr. Lindberg, it turns out, is a recovering guitarist. When he decided to quit guitar, he was “motivated foremost by . . . the superior repertoire of the lute, but also by the sensual contact offered through plucking the lute’s pairs of strings with fingertips.” Makes sense. The European lute is descended from a noble Arabic ancestor, the ‘ud, still played in the Middle East, North Africa, and many parts of Eastern Europe. But ‘ud players continue to use a quill or nylon or cow-horn plectrum. And the ‘ud long ago dropped its fretted fingerboard. These two features enable players to work within a wider dynamic range that includes penetrating attacks on individual notes as well as pitch-bending inflections. Check out the opening moments of this, from ‘ud virtuoso Anouar Brahem:


But we’re talking about the lute. Midway through the 15th century, European players largely abandoned plectra. Most authorities also discouraged playing with the nails of the right hand rather than the fingertips’ fleshy pads (click here for a contrarian view). Players achieved some variety in timbre and dynamics by employing a mix of up- and down-strokes and by changing the position of the right hand relative to the bridge. The result was a rounder tone and expressive intimacy that compensated for its reduced volume.

In Nocturnal, Lindberg concentrates on English repertoire from the late 16th century. There’s a lot to choose from, so he focuses on works that “evoke aspects of the night.” The centerpiece of the album is Benjamin Britten’s 20th-century Nocturnal, after John Dowland, op. 70. It was originally written for guitarist Julian Bream but obviously inspired by the great Elizabethan lutenists, of whom Dowland may have been the greatest. So: first a few bits of the old music, beginning with Anthony Holborne’s The Honeysuckle (“a plant with flowers that perfume the evening air”):

and his Countess of Pembroke’s Paradise:

Lindberg tells us that Mary Sidney, wife of Henry Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke, was a poet and patroness of poets including Michael Drayton, Ben Johnson, and Samuel Danyel. Danyel’s younger brother John published a book of lute songs in 1606, setting many of Samuel’s poems to music. And: John’s Mrs. Anne Grene her Leaves be Green, a set of variations on a favorite English song, is track 9 in Lindberg’s album. I mention all this to give you a better idea of the riches within, including Lindberg’s colorful, information-laden booklet notes. Here’s one more music snippet, The Flowers of the Forest, an anonymous work from an early-17th-century mandora manuscript:

Britten’s Nocturnal consists of eight numbered sections and lasts nearly 18 minutes; it ends with his sublime transcription of Dowland’s Come Heavy Sleep. I’m only going to play you a bit of the first section, entitled musingly:

Section eight is a Passacaglia that leads seamlessly into the Dowland transcription. If you watch the entirety of the YouTube clip below, you’ll hear both Passacaglia and Dowland. And yes, that is Julian Bream, likely the greatest classical guitarist of the latter 20th century. When you hear Lindberg’s new lute setting, however, you’ll hear another great performance, brimming with even more timbral variety than Bream brought to it. Lindberg rounds off his album with six Dowland settings—including the rarely performed Galliard to Lachrimae—and three works by the slightly older John Johnson. A must-have.


If you simply must have more, I recommend either of these albums: (1) A Lute by Sixtus Rauwolf, also from Lindberg (BIS-2265), who plays a wondrously restored late-16th-century instrument to good effect in music by Dufault, Mouton, Kellner, Weiss, and “Mr. Pachelbel”—outstanding French and German Baroque suites, i.e., many preludes and dances; or (2) Ferdinand Fischer: From Heaven on Earth. Lute Music from Kremsmünster Abbey (Challenge Classics CC72740), in which Hubert Hoffmann, distinguished lutenist of Ars Antique Austria, rescues from oblivion the music of Fr. Fischer (=Pecheur; 1652–1725), a humble monk who was not only one heck of a lute player but also composed music of remarkable panache, drawing heavily on French models. So, three more suites consisting of short but flavorful preludes and dances. Nice booklet notes by Hoffmann and scholar Rudolf Flotzinger; a Turtle Music release from master producer/engineer Bert van der Wolf. I leave you with bits of three tracks, a Prelude, Aria, and Sarabande from Fischer’s Partita in D Minor:

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