The Sound of One Hand Clapping

How can one play six-part polyphony on a Renaissance lute? To me, this question is like the Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping. In my search for enlightenment I turned to Francesco da Milano’s intabulation of the six-part motet Pater Noster/Ave Maria composed by Josquin des Prez.

To learn from Francesco’s method of intabulating, and by extension distil an approach at playing this piece, I have printed (pdf-file) the first nine measures of Josquin’s motet above Francesco’s intabulation, the latter notated in tablature as well as on three staves to make the polyphony clear. You could argue about the exact length of some of the notes in the intabulation, but for its current purpose this transcription will serve. In measure 5 I have silently corrected the printing error in the 1536 edition.

The first lesson is that long notes don’t work on a lute, according to Francesco. Already in measure 1 he replaced the double whole by a whole note and two halves. Every subsequent entry of the Pater Noster theme receives the same treatment. The motet suddenly sounds like a French chanson with its characteristic long-short-short opening! This is more than plucking the strings again to prevent the notes from fading away; it is giving a new, rhythmic character to the theme. So, don’t be afraid to be rhythmic in what is a free flowing vocal piece in the original. Another good example of added rhythmic interest is in the second half of measure 6. Here the bassus gets quite some attention by the off-beat jump from the g to the d.

The second lesson is that if two voices share the same pitch, we must play these notes on different positions on our lutes whenever possible. The entrance of the piece, unisono by superius and altus primus played on two courses, makes that clear. Every course can have its own character, especially when using gut strings, and we should exploit these colours to make the different voices stand out.

In measure 2 one of the two upper voices has a florid run. This draws attention away from the fact that we do not sustain the other upper voice. Francesco gets away with murder here and so can we. That is a good lesson in playing polyphony: it is all right to kill a voice as long as we distract our audience by providing entertainment elsewhere. In measure 8 the same happens. Here the altus secundus provides the distraction for the fact that the superius is not sustained. And see how cleverly the superius is picked up again at the end of measure 8: out of the blue comes a gentle stepwise progression to the d in the next measure.

On the fourth half note of measure 2 Francesco wrote a crunching dissonance that is nowhere to be found in Josquin’s original. Our lesson is not to fear adding spice if we think the music is bland. The best example of added spice is on the last half note of measure 6. Already halfway the measure Josquin’s f in the altus primus has been altered into an f-sharp, so Francesco has prepared us for that note. Also, the stepwise progression to the entrance of the superius in the following measure, starting on a b-flat is melodically logical. But at the end of measure 6 f-sharp and b-flat clash spectacularly in a diminished fourth (on top of the minor ninth of the b-flat with the a in the tenor secundus)! A similar dissonance with a similar preparation can be found at the end of measure 8; here it is an augmented fourth as a result of added passing notes.

Measure 3 ends with an f-sharp in the altus primus that is not notated in Josquin’s original. Our lesson is that with knowledge and experience it is accepted to alter notes. Here Francesco’s lesson is valuable for singers as well as lute players, as only in tablature musica ficta are notated unequivocally. Other musica ficta can be found in measure 6 and, a quite spectacular sequence of alterations, in measure 9.

In measure 4 the florid run starting in the altus secundus is picked up in the tenor secundus. This is common practice in Francesco’s fantasias. Our lesson is to treat the vocal polyphony flexibly like we do in instrumental music.

The lessons learnt from these nine measures are valid for the whole piece: we can hide the weak points of the lute by providing distractions and we can spice up our piece with rhythmic, melodic and harmonic alterations. The end result is an instrumental piece that can be appreciated without knowledge of its model. For the player, of course, it remains valuable if not vital to check the polyphony against the vocal original.

David van Ooijen 2008

This article first appeared in the Quarterly, the news letter of the Lute Society of America, Volume XXXXIII, No. 2 May, 2008.