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Using Original Sources

Updated: Apr 22



One of the most intimidating, but rewarding, elements of studying early music is the reading and interpretation of original sources. Whether it is lute tablature, mensuration notation, theoretical treatises, or more holistic documents on musical life, reading these sources and understanding their content can be a real challenge, even to the experienced early musician. It is tempting to bypass this critical step and find a quality edition of the music you are planning on performing, essentially putting your trust in another expert to have done the hard work of “translating” the music and its performance practices to modern notation. For many reasons, we believe this is a mistake. That is not to say that you should never use a modern edition when performing (we certainly have!), but that some time should be spent looking at the original material and coming to your own conclusions, perhaps checking it against the edition you are planning on using, or creating your own. So, how does one do this? The answer, as with so many things, is slowly.


I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you break something into small enough pieces, you can learn practically anything. This is true for learning a piece of music, but it is also true for approaching original sources. Some of the challenges that you will run into include the following: archaic spellings, unique notation systems, unusual fonts, printing and manuscript errors, damage to the source, esoteric references… the list goes on and on. Luckily, one element that used to be a challenge has almost disappeared entirely: access. In the past, getting access to a source might mean flying to another country and getting permission from a library to look at a book. While this is occasionally still true today, luckily, most sources are now easily available online, either with a simple Google Search or by visiting the website of the digitized collection of the library that holds the source. Once you have the source, the real fun begins!


When someone hands you a 200-page book written 400 years ago, the effect can be quite intimidating. You might open the introduction and be immediately overwhelmed, or jump directly to the piece you are learning and discover that you barely recognize it. Let’s talk about my first experience with the Capirola MS. (c.1517), an early lute source that contains a stunning body of solo lute works by Vincenzo Capirola, many of which I performed in BEDLAM’s early days. This manuscript is also famous for its beautiful, and sometimes raunchy, illustrations. 


The Vincenzo Capirola Lutebook can be found in many places online, including IMSLP and multiple lute sites, but the advantage of viewing it through the digitized collection of the Newberry Library in Chicago is that it is in color! The beautiful illustrations and ornament symbols become much clearer when viewed this way. The first thing you notice when you look at the manuscript is the fact that it opens with a rather lengthy introduction in 16th-century Italian. This introduction contains a tremendous amount of useful information about how the composer wishes the music to be performed. Sadly, a translation of this introduction is a bit harder to find than you might expect. After a few frustrating days of looking in the music library for a translation, I decided to hit some online lute forums, and within minutes, I had found several well-respected translations of the introduction. People were incredibly helpful, allowing me to start digesting the information in the introduction. 


Contained within a few pages of 16th-century Italian were instructions on how to hold and play the lute, how the strings should be set, and how to interpret the ornamentation and hold signs in the manuscript. While some elements are quite basic, others are fascinating and quite unique. For example, Capirola preferred that his lute frets be high enough to cause a gentle buzzing sound whenever a note is played  (akin to the bray harp). Mind-blowing! At the time, I didn’t have the money or wherewithal to restring and refret my instrument to create this effect, but just knowing that Vincenzo Capirola preferred this sound completely changed my perception of tone in the 16th century. At this point I hadn’t even looked at the music, but I had already learned a plethora of useful information. Once I examined the music, I started to notice spots that differed from modern editions of the pieces. The editions had placed notes in different positions, re-fingered techniques like “course splitting” which could be found in several pieces, and ornaments and subtle hold signs had either been ignored or were left unnoticed. In many places, the source material provided a tremendous amount of information that was pertinent to phrasing and articulation. It was the same music that was contained in the modern editions, but now I had options, and that feeling is particularly empowering when dealing with 400-year-old music!


Ultimately, there were places where I did agree with the modern editors but there were also places where I preferred the original. Beyond that, the experience  even opened my mind to making some of my own choices, particularly when it came to note positions on the fretboard. The end result was that I created performance editions of the pieces that served me well for many years. Now, having gone on to read hundreds of sources, I have no doubt that I would make different choices than I did 12 or 13 years ago. In fact, if I do play them again, I will certainly do that!


Each source that you read contributes to your confidence as an early music specialist and it gets easier and easier as you spend more time with them. My recommendation is to find a single source that is connected to music you intend to learn and perform. Don’t worry about finding 50 sources, just choose one. Go through that source cover to cover and when you finish, read it again for good measure. As with learning music, approaching sources is best done with an emphasis on quality over quantity. When you really soak it in, then you feel like you own it! 

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