The uses of lute song: texts, contexts and pretexts for "historically informed" performance
Early Music, 36, (2), . (doi:10.1093/em/can045).
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Because English solo songs from the Golden Age period (c.1600–20) are chiefly familiar from printed books clearly intended for domestic use, modern scholars and performers have tended to assume that composers had the literary interests, practical needs and technical limitations of upper-class amateurs in mind right from the start of the creative process. According to this view, lute ayres are the musical equivalents of early 17th-century miniature portraits: objets d’art for personal contemplation (the self-accompanying singer) or special sharing with special friends. This article explores the lute song repertory from a different angle, as the domesticated tip of a professional and (at the time) a publicly appreciable iceberg much of which melted away with the professional performers originally responsible for its semi-improvisatory effectiveness. The manuscript Oxford, Christ Church Mus.439 is studied in particular—a source with probable professional provenance, preserving some highly ornamented versions of songs now much better known in their plainer printed versions and (at the other extreme) some songs from which the fully written-out lute parts familiar from the printed books have been removed. What sorts of alternative were improvised in their place? While lute song publishers assumed a ‘minimalist aesthetic’ and sensibly encouraged their customers to do the same, lute song composers were aware of other possibilities and those with a theatrical leaning (Campion, Rosseter, Johnson, for instance) might even have preferred them. Today’s historically informed performers have a wider range of interpretative choice legitimately open to them than perhaps they realize.
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