Schola Cantorum Basiliensis
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We are indebted to this graphic description - to which one could add further passages on the faithful accompanist (fidus in arte comes) who as tenorista plays the unwavering accompaniment to this breathtaking music, on the complex rhythms of the upper voice, or on playing with a plectrum - for important information about the performance practices of lute duos. From a number of sources we know that until the years around 1500 the lute duo was the dominant formation, referred to in 1482 by music theorist Johannes Tinctoris as associati (teams), for professional lutenists who could improvise admirably on any composition (modulorum superinventionibus). Because of the transient nature of improvisation it is obvious why almost no musical records of this practice have survived: This was an art that required musical notation only in exceptional cases. However, we do have an approximate idea of the repertoire of these ensembles: arrangements of all sorts of sacred and secular pieces (for example, of French chansons and Italian frottole), of dances (above all courtly basses dances), and of widely known tenors. In addition, several musical sources make it possible for us to develop a more precise idea of their performance practices. These include, above all, the six lute duets in the very first printed tablature, Francesco Spinacinos Intabu-latura de Lauto (Venice 1507; printed by Ottaviano Petrucci, the self-styled "inventor" of music printing with movable type). In these, the lute playing the part designated Tenor takes the only slightly altered lower voices of the original piece, such as a chanson. In parallel systems Spina-cino attempted to notate a virtuoso upper voice in small note values, which exploits the entire range of the lute with unceasing rapid scale passages. To be found are embellished versions of the original cantus, but also wide-ranging passaggi that have "strategically" important notes of the original melody as their goals. This corresponds on the whole with the above-cited description by Brandolini. However, in the details there are peculiarities that are not to be overheard: Spinacino obviously had problems correctly notating the virtuoso lines with the means at his disposal. This could at least in part have to do with the then new technique of tablature notation. It is noteworthy that all other surviving duets from the time around 1500 are written in traditional musical notation, not in a special lute tablature, and do not display comparable problems. Such duos are above all to be found in a manuscript that is today preserved in Segovia. Among other things, it contains a collection of two-part pieces by Alexander Agricola, who was perhaps a lutenist himself, and by other important composers of the time. From among these duets a version of the frequently arranged rondeau De tons biens plaine by a certain Roellrin or Roelkin stands out, in which, because of its large range, the active upper voice is notated on ten lines. This is comparable to the notation of German organ tablature in which the upper voice is likewise notated on more than the usual five lines; the lower voice, on the other hand, is notated using tone letters. And indeed, a single leaf from the end of the fifteenth century, preserved in Kassel, explains by means of a drawing of a lute neck the special note signs of organ tablature for lute players - with which a rich written repertoire is opened to lute duos. The preserved written music is however only an imperfect mirror of the actual practice. This also becomes clear in the descriptions of the playing of famous lutenists. For even when they presented compositions, that is to say, music worked-out and set to paper, these did not remain unaltered. In 1533 the lutenist Hans Gerle described the strategies of a professional lute player, holding up Adolf Blindhamer, presumed to have been his teacher, as an example: After an improvised prelude, which provided an opportunity to tune the lute and served to set the mood for the listener, Blindhamer played a composition with only a few embellishments (Coloraturen, i.e., coloraturas). The second time through he interspersed the music with fast scale passages and diminutions (wolgestellten leuflein, i.e., well-fashioned little runs). The third time he brought in complex rhythmical variations (durch die Proportion geschla-gen vnd volfurt, i.e., played and executed through the proportion). With these abilities, a singular mixture of musical artistry and technical dexterity, Blindhamer and his professional colleagues distinguished themselves. These arts were passed on only orally - if at all, since they were the secrets of the virtuoso's success, and therefore of his profession. Thus, a certain Don Acteon reported in 1494 from Ferrara that Pietrobono - probably the most famous lute player of the fifteenth century, who is also the subject of the quotation cited at the beginning of this essay - taught him a number of pieces, including versions of the then extremely popular Scaramella and several excellent arrangements on tenores by Pietrobono (et li sot tenori che sono molto bom). Moreover, a number of formal contracts between lute teachers and their pupils have come down to us in which the pieces to be taught are exactly stipulated - obviously meant were the special versions of the respective teacher. If one considers all the above sources, the result is a rich and differentiated picture of the many-sided playing practices of the professional lute duos of the time around 1500, from whom not a single note has been preserved. The reports also create an understanding for the high regard in which the lutenists were held then: Pietrobono was compared to Orpheus, praised in verses, and immortalized on medals. The equally esteemed lutenist Gian Maria Alemani was ennobled by the Pope, in spite of his Jewish descent. If, however, all the sources are taken seriously and "translated back" with the appropriate technical skills and artistic sensitivity, the historical picture is again transformed into sonorous music.
- Martin Kirnbauer