Monday, March 20, 2017

The Lute Player

Not sure if I will do any posting today or not, but as a token effort I offer this painting of a lutenist tuning by Theodoor Rombouts:

Click to enlarge
The painting is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and they comment as follows:
Lute players were often ridiculed for the inordinate amount of time they devoted to tuning their instruments. The intense look of this street musician seems to underscore the difficulty of the task and suggest that perhaps more than musical harmony is at stake. Showing a musical instrument being tuned was a veiled reference to striving for harmony in love. Stringed instruments could also symbolize temperance, especially when shown in the company of a tankard and a pipe, as here.
Yes, in one 17th century manual the author writes that a sixty year old lutenist has spent thirty of them tuning. But remember, a lot of lutes, especially after 1600, had an inordinate number of strings: twenty-five or more! Oh, and why would string instruments symbolize temperance?

Let's hear some lute music from the 17th century. This is "Narcisse" by Denis Gaultier played by Richard Labschütz:


Will Wilkin said...

Its not stringed instruments that signify temperance but rather fretted (and keyboard) instruments that demanded it. We fretless fiddlers can follow our ear to the just intonations that God and nature gave us, handed down by Pythagoras and incontrovertibly confirmed in the overtone series.

My guess is tuning 20 (or 88) strings actually requires a drink.

Bryan Townsend said...

You are pulling my leg, right?

Will Wilkin said...

Yes and no. But most seriously, NO. I am playing with the pun on "temperance", by which I think the Philly Museum meant sobriety.

But musically, temperance means modification of the scale intervals to mitigate or eliminate the wolf tones inevitable in tuning according to pythagorean (by which I loosely interchange the word "just") ratios. Technically, it is written that Pythagoras himself only had ratios for the octave and the fifth (and, by moving down a fifth, arriving also at the fourth), and the later development of just intonation was based on extending the natural overtone series to the other scale intervals.

There is nothing arbitrary about the intervals in just intonation; they are a product of physics, and also happen to strike the human ear as particularly sweet. As you probably know, these very sweet consonances (and clean mathematical ratios: 3:2, 4:3, 5:4, 6:5, etc) that naturally occur in the overtone series produce interval half-steps that are not equal in size, which renders such tuning impossible in a fretted instrument of more than 1 string. A further (and irresolvable) tuning problem results when selecting one of these natural intervals (such as the 3:2 ratio of the perfect fifth) and using it to generate a whole gamut in multiple keys, because there is no non-octave natural interval that ever adds up to a perfect octave (2:1) after spiraling around. And so there is a "comma," that difference, which was usually dumped into the last interval, creating a "wolf" dissonance that, under various systems of temperament, could be spread out to try to diffuse the dissonance throughout multiple intervals where it would be less noticeable.

Additionally, tuning a keyboard or fretted instrument with perfect ratios in one key renders other keys progressively more and more dissonant as they move away from the original key.

And so various systems of temperament have been invented through the ages to imperfectly resolve these problems.

Bryan I recall not so long ago you cited an article by Stuart Issacoff. It was on a different topic but I recognized his name as the author of a book I very recently read, called "Temperance". Now I'm reading a very different perspective on the same question, by Ross Duffin, titled "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony." Violinists and players of other instruments without fixed pitches have a lot more freedom to find the exact pitch most pleasing in a musical moment, whereas keyboard and fretted instrument players must adhere to some system of temperament of their fixed pitches.

Marc Puckett said...

Will, It's all very interesting, the temperaments, but my own fascination (last year? Duffin, Isacoff, Bryan posting here, too, I believe) was fleeting and is now happily dormant: I began to be afraid I was going off the edge of the abyss, into the region where live the encomiasts of the golden ratio, key to understanding all civilisation, past, present, future. Be warned! :-)

Will Wilkin said...

Hi Marc, Although the history of tunings and temperaments (like all cultural and intellectual history) is inextricable from the mysticism and larger thought of those earlier times, I didn't appreciate Isacoff's account precisely because he seemed to parallel the "ad hominem" debate strategy when depicting the older systems as not just tainted with mysticism but defined by it...when really it is the physics and ear-proven consonances of the overtone series that justify just intonation. But he's a piano guy and, like fretted instrument players, relies on equal temperament to make his instrument versatile in the gamut of many scales. Fair enough, and even Duffin makes the point that he deliberately entitled his book "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony" and did NOT say it ruined music. My point though, is one needn't dive into mysticism to appreciate the different emotional colors of the scales in a non-equal-temperament tuning scenario. Its a legitimate exploration even in our contemporary skepticisms.

Bryan Townsend said...

Personally I have always been a big fan of Werckmeister III.