Saturday Knights of the Lute

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life with Spinario, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1628.

The lute is the most intimately expressive of musical instruments. A descendant of the lyre with which Orpheus mythically tamed the wild beasts, the lute returned to Europe more than a millennium ago through Muslim Iberian musicians.

By the standards of the modern world, but also those of the supposedly quieter Renaissance centuries during which the instrument achieved its apogee, the lute is soft. Yet its range of emotional evocation is limitless. It can explore and represent all human ambitions and frailties: sooth and enflame; argue urgently or daydream; indulge self-pity one moment, then stoke joy the next; depict battles and love. As a visual act, lute playing displays most directly for listeners and watchers the miracle of human hands conjuring, Orpheus-like, music from Nature refined. The lutenist makes wood and gut sing.

Before dissecting anatomists proved otherwise, early modern physiology construed the heart as having cords that sounded. Whatever historical linguists may say, I believe that the saying “plucking the heartstrings” comes from the lute: when expertly touched, it reaches directly into the soul.

The paired strings (called courses) are typically plucked not by the fingernail (as in modern classical guitar) but by the pad of the thumb, forefinger, and middle finger. This technique gives the onset of the sound a subtler quality, distinct yet warm. Unlike the violin, flute, trumpet or (most extremely) organ, the lute cannot sustain or swell its tones. It might therefore be assumed to be less affecting than nature’s instrument, the voice. Yet like no other musical tool, the lute speaks.

After the finger deftly strokes the strings, the sound lingers for a ringing, glowing instant then vanishes in the wash of subsequent strings plucked or resolves into the silence of a phrase-ending pause or the end of a piece.

This soft-spoken intensity is all the more enrapturing for its ephemerality. The transitory quality of the lute’s sound helps explain why it is depicted, often face down, in so many Vanitas paintings. No musical sound is more alive and yet shorter-lived. We cling to that life even as we know it must end. The lute well-played forces you—no, welcomes you—to dwell in the musical moment.

The evanescent quality of lute music extends across historical time: far more is lost than remains from the instrument’s glorious past. Many of the celebrated lutenists were renowned improvisers, producing on-the-spot preludes with proud chords and florid scales running up and down the necks of their instruments, and also working out complicated counterpoint. Beginning in the early sixteenth century publications in tablature, in which the string and fret and duration are denoted by lines and letters or numbers, began to appear. But most pieces continued to be transmitted in manuscript copies. All those improvisations are of necessity gone, but countless manuscripts vanished too. Nothing survives from many famed lutenists praised in letters, poems and paintings.

One of the great masters of the lute, an Orpheus of our time who have had have held his own against the richly prized and paid players of yore, Paul O’Dette periodically journeys from his home in Rochester, New York, where he is a professor at the Eastman School of Music, to Ithaca two hours to the southeast. O’Dette is a world treasure generous enough to be a local treasure too. Last Saturday night he returned to this college town in the Finger Lakes for a program called “Knight of the Lute.”

A recently discovered manuscript collection copied out by the Ambassador from Urbino to Rome and also a Roman senator, Orazio Albani (1576-1653), during his student years in the Eternal City in the 1590s brings to light important new music by two of towering lutenists of the period, Lorenzino Tracetti (c. 1550-1590) and Vincenzo Pinti (1542-1608). Both made music for the princes of church and state: cardinals, dukes and even a king of France, who completed their services. Spurning these offers, both musicians stayed in Rome and were made knights, though only Pinti was known as the Cavaliere del Liuto (Knight of Lute).

Given Albani’s own lofty status and love of music, he may have been able to study with Pinti himself. Albani certainly gained access to musical sources from the enigmatic Knight and from Tracetti. In Ithaca, O’Dette offered a selection from this sumptuous collection; many of the works were transmitted anonymously but, pending further research, some are likely to be ascribed to one or the other of these two Roman masters. In his informative and lively program notes, O’Dette claimed that Pinti and Tracetti were the “rock stars of their day,” both enjoying prestige akin to that of other celebrated Roman artists, Bernini and Caravaggio, who produced at least two paintings of a pouty lute player.

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Caravaggio, The Lute Player, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, c. 1600.

O’Dette’s present-day Italian colleagues provided with him digitized scans of the Albani manuscript, which he played from on Saturday night, bringing to life highlights of this extraordinary find after four centuries.

Playing the lute is all about touch. O’Dette would have to begin, therefore, with the “Peludium overo Tochata del Sig. Lorenzino Tracetti.” The name of the ubiquitous genre of the toccata (which extends to Bach’s most famous example in D Minor, also playable on the lute) comes from the Italian verb toccare—to touch. O’Dette enthralled from the first ringing chord as he channeled the imaginative whims of the great Roman in florid runs and meticulous two-voice imitations, contrapuntal forays rounded off by glinting ornaments.

Less flamboyant, more researched offerings followed, impressive not just for O’Dette’s preternaturally unerring technical mastery, but even more for the emotion he draws from what on the page might look (at least to those who can read lute tablature) as potentially dry exercises in contrapuntal research.

Among these high-minded explorations came rustic dances and peasant revels evoked by the drones and cyclical rhythms of the hurdy-gurdy. These high-class Romans were not just musical scientists (Galileo was an excellent lutenist; his father had been a famous professional), but painters of everyday life, armchair ethnographers surveying dances and other doings from distant lands.

One such snapshot from afar was the “Follia”—a Spanish dance imported from the New World. Rather like the blues of a few centuries later, it became a favorite chord sequence over which instrumentalists proved their mettle. This example tentatively ascribed to Pinti was rich with fleet invention and elegant misdirection—a high standard set for the later efforts at the same folly by Corelli, C. P. E. Bach and Liszt among many others, named and unnamed.

Another jazzy standard of the day followed under the grand title of “Romanesca del Cavaliere del Liuto” with its brilliant swerves of texture and wonderfully paradoxical, Escher-like constructions in which scales rose up endlessly against the relentlessly descending bass pattern. Pinti’s dance for his high-flying, music-loving patron, a Corrente that was the “favorite of Cardinal Montalto” leapt and twirled before O’Dette gave it a whispered goodbye, the splendid solo musical entertainment of sixteenth-century Rome capering Upstate for a minute or two, then vanished again.

At the center of the second half of the program came the ornamented drama of an anonymous setting of Orlando di Lasso’s hit chanson “Susanne un jour.” This re-telling of the biblical story of Susanna and two old lechers—pillars of the community, of course—echoed the first half’s brisk variation set on another perennial springboard for invention: “Madre mia non mi fa Monica” relates the tale of a girl’s protest against her mother’s sending her to a convent. This intergenerational tussle was tossed off with deceptive, disarming ease. O’Dette’s playing is the embodiment of another Italian term—sprezzatura, making the difficult appear easy.

O’Dette closed the evening, its hundred minutes passing like a sigh, with a set of three dances that included two more favorites, blues-like chord patterns: the trusty Ruggiero and a Passamezzo moderna (the “modern step-and-half,” which could be the new name of a dance seen first on American Bandstand). These bright numbers came, fittingly, from the quill of the Knight of the Lute, Pinti, his virtuosity thrilling not with power and flash, but an ever-changing nuance and genius that flickers and warms like candlelight.

O’Dette’s encore of a touching dance made me think poignantly of my daughter a few blocks up the hill at our house. She was recovering from foot surgery, and we had thought about getting her down to the Unitarian Church for the concert, but transport proved too daunting. She kindly encouraged me to go anyway. I left her at home with the first of O’Dette’s five-CD set made in the 1990s of the complete works of John Dowland. That recording, one of the more than 150 that O’Dette has made, has long been a sonic staple in our household.

Had she been able to come to the concert she would have brought the median age down significantly. I think of the 80 or so people in the audience, there may have been a few younger than my 58 years. O’Dette is just shy of seventy and he’s younger than most of his audience, and not just thanks to his energetic playing, speaking, and demeanor. He tucks his beard, now white, behind the round belly of his instrument. Some concertgoers had canes. One elderly man listened intently from his wheelchair.

If music has healing powers, as the Greeks and increasing numbers of moderns believe, then the lute is the most potent and pleasing of medicaments. There is as yet no cure for old age, but in Saturday night’s program of Roman lute music there was, in that Unitarian House of God, life-giving treatment from three-knightly-doctors in-one: the Cavalieri Pinzi and Tracetti, and the goodly Sir Paul.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at