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The Context of Lute Song and How it Affects Modern Performance 

Updated: Apr 22

The modern concert is something that we perhaps take for granted, but it is important to understand that it is actually a relatively new way of enjoying music in the context of human history. The first known public concerts, performances in which the public could buy tickets to attend, didn’t occur until the 1670s, 50 or 60 years after the heyday of lute song. The modern concert recital where a performer or performers go on stage and play a program of music for an hour or two doesn’t really solidify until the 19th century. With some rare exceptions, the context of lute song in the 16th century and early 17th century was generally quite intimate. Let’s discuss these contexts before diving into how they can influence the modern performance of lute song. 

When we examine the iconographic evidence and the way lute song was printed, it becomes clear that lute song was often enjoyed at home, often with no audience at all. Painting after painting shows individuals singing to a lute at home, sometimes alone and sometimes with other people playing instruments, often around a table, but almost always under casual circumstances. Of course, iconographic evidence can be misleading. Paintings were often staged and it was not uncommon for non-musicians to “pose” with instruments, so care must be taken in using them as evidence. That said, perhaps what is most interesting is what is not seen in paintings: lute songs being performed in large halls in front of a large audience. The only exceptions are paintings of drunken revelry (usually in a tavern or dining room) or some depictions of small groups of people music-making outdoors. In the case of the revelry scenes, it is clear that the “performance” is ad hoc, while in the case of the outdoor scenes, there is rarely any audience at all. The small group is usually making music together, clearly for their own enjoyment.

Lute songs were often printed in a format, called “table” format, that implies intimate performance, usually at home.The parts were printed in books that lay the music out so that they can be read from different sides of a table with the musicians all facing each other. This position allows the musicians to hear each other very well, but obviously has some serious weaknesses for performing in front of an audience. Of course, players could have memorized their music or written out their parts separately for a public performance, though this “standard” format shows that this music was primarily written for intimate environments, often with no audience at all. It should also be noted that the voice and lute part were often printed as a single part, showing that it was probably most common for the singer to also be the lutenist. The lute-and-voice part can, and often is, performed without any of the other parts (if there are other parts). Its ability to stand alone also supports the intimate nature of this music. So, if we accept that lute song was intended to be performed in this manner, how does that influence our performance of this music today? How do we capture this intimacy on a stage, sometimes for hundreds of people?

There are some elements of performance that can be slightly adjusted to make a lute song concert more intimate and, I think, more effective. Traditionally, classical singers will often sing standing and often a few feet in front of their collaborator. While this can sometimes free the singer to emote a little more freely and even incorporate some light staging into their performance, it does create a disconnect between the singer and their collaborator and can feel a bit formal. My first recommendation is that both the singer and instrumentalist should sit. Not only does this give the concert a more casual and intimate feel, but by putting the singer at the instrumentalist’s level, it is easier to adjust dynamics and to blend. Additionally, I recommend creating an inverted V shape with the accompanist and singer both angled slightly in toward each other. Again, this helps with the blend, creating a unified sound that is projected toward the audience, and allows the singer to more easily hear the lute part. This is important because unlike some later “accompaniments,” the lute is not just supporting the singer, but is often playing countermelodies and even what could be considered the other “vocal” parts. This is especially true with contrapuntal pieces. In these cases it is best to think of the lute player as an equal partner.

Treating the lute part as equal to the voice is another surprising way to improve the intimacy of the performance. While it is often standard practice in classical music for the “accompanist” to simply follow what the singer is doing, recommend give and take from both sides. By having the singer listen and respond to the lute’s melodies and countermelodies, it makes the performance more like a conversation.. While singers, used to having near-total freedom, may find this constraining at first, the overall result can be a much more beautiful and balanced performance. The lutenist can help this process by providing a transcription of the lute part for the singer to use and refer to in their practice.

Other elements can be helpful in creating intimacy in a performance. How we dress, whether we speak to the audience or not, and the venue of the performance can all have an impact. That said, I believe that the advice given above can be used in almost any circumstance, whether we are performing in a concert hall or at a house party. My recommendation would be to take some time to try them out and see what works for you. If you are a classical singer used to performing in a particular way, it may take a little time to adjust, but I firmly believe that you will find great value in doing it!

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