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The Port-de-Voix… in English Song?!



If you are a lover of early 17th-century French song, that repertoire which we call airs de cour, then you are familiar with that most quintessential of French Baroque ornaments, the port-de-voix. You may not have known what it was called when you heard it, but the works of Pierre Guédron (c.1570–c.1620), Antoine Boësset (1586–1643), Étienne Moulinié (c.1600–c.1669), and other composers of airs de cour are littered with them. The port-de voix is simply a prepared appoggiatura from below, common at cadences but found throughout the music. It is almost always from a half step below and is most common on the tonic and subdominant. Here are some examples of the port-de-voix:


The port-de-voix isolated:

The port-de-voix in context:


There is absolutely nothing controversial about using port-de-voix when performing airs de cour, but what about in English lute song? What evidence is there that English singers might have been using this ornament? 


Since I know of no English source that explicitly describes the use of port-de-voix, we will need to look at other evidence. One way to determine if a singer or a particular instrument was using a technique or ornament is to look at the repertoires of the other instruments that were being used at the same time and in the same location. In this case, I believe that the English lute repertoire provides significant evidence that the port-de-voix was available to English singers. Lute repertoire is particularly important not only because the instrument was very often used in accompanying singers (and often played by the singers themselves) but also because vocal repertoire was very commonly arranged for solo lute. English lute repertoire in the late Renaissance primarily used two forms of graces (ornaments): the shake and the fall. Both were flexible ornaments that can be divided into several subcategories. 


The shake was an ornament that behaved much like a modern mordent except that it could be performed ascending or descending, using a half-step or whole-step interval. The shake is not relevant to our discussion of port-de-voix, but because this is an important ornament to be aware of, here is an example:


The shake is indicated by an octothorp (#) in lute tablature:


Potential realizations in standard notation:



The fall was an ornament that behaved much like a modern appoggiatura and so it is particularly relevant to a discussion of port-de-voix. Like the shake, the fall can be divided into several categories, ascending and descending, and half-step or whole-step. Here are some examples of falls:


Falls are found throughout the lute repertoire and it would absolutely blow my mind if singers didn’t use them. That said, I think the really controversial question is whether the ascending fall can be used at cadences like the port-de-voix. Again, I think the lute repertoire shows that lute players were obviously using ascending falls at cadences, essentially playing port-de-voix. The symbol for a fall was either a cross or x. Here are some examples pulled directly from the repertoire:


1610- M.s. 38539 Sturt Lute Book:

1610- The Sampson Lute Book:

1620- Margaret Board Lute Book:

If this is the case, why don’t modern singers use them when singing English lute song? I think the answer is relatively simple. We generally like to cleanly categorize music into styles and periods. We enjoy statements like, “late English Renaissance song was different from late French Renaissance song.” While it is true that there were certainly stylistic differences between different bodies of repertoire, it is easy to forget that the musicians who performed these works were human, just like us. They loved to blend styles, travel, and learn from other musicians, just like we do today. John Dowland is a great example of a musician who drew influence from many foreign styles. He spent significant time in France, Italy, Germanic territories, and Denmark. His music is filled with references and outright quotes of these influences. Even the famed Lachrimae theme was likely taken from his musical hero, the Italian madrigalist Luca Marenzio. So, if we accept the idea that port-de-voix were used in English lute song, where do we place them?


The quintessential port-de-voix is found on the downbeat of the resolution to a cadence, generally in slower or relaxed pieces, though this is not a hard rule. It is approached and prepared from below (see example below). When looking for places in your English lute songs to add port-de-voix, consider the affect and tempo of the piece or the particular verse you are on. For example, if you are singing a strophic piece with multiple verses, a port-de-voix may not be appropriate for the livelier verses but may be beautiful on a more mellow or sad verse. Here is a moment from John Dowland’s “Flow my teares” that might make for a wonderful opportunity for a port-de-voix:

Bear in mind that you certainly don’t have to add port-de-voix to your English lute songs, but now that you know that they are an option, have some fun trying them out in your pieces, and you might be surprised at what they add!

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