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But there is a great deal of lyricism and poetry in English lute music too; a piece like Holborne’s ‘Countess of Pembroke’s Paradise’ seems like a poem without words, its musical argument, replete with little moments of rhetoric, unfolds in three sections, like the quatrains of a sonnet.In a repertoire largely preserved in manuscript sources, chances of survival are, happily, skewed in favour of quality, as the more popular a piece was, the more it would be copied, and the more likely it was to survive, so it makes some sense to consider lute composers in terms of their extant output.
His collected lute music, edited by his great scholar and apostle, Diana Poulton (with Basil Lam) is published by Faber, and should be on every lute scholar’s Christmas list. Daniel Bacheler comes next in the league table with 55 extant solos.A milestone seems to be John Johnson’s ‘Pavan and Galliard to Delight’ in the Willoughby lute book (1570s) ‘the first fully extended piece by a known English composer in a completely English idiom’.From around 1580, English lute music was sufficiently good to start appearing in Continental sources.And then of course there are significant articles scattered in back issues of the Lute Society and Lute Society of America journals, Early Music, and the New Grove dictionary of music.But do take all this learned research with a pinch of salt.So little survives, really, from the long, complex and flourishing culture of the lute—far fewer than 1% of lute manuscripts can survive—so all it takes is one dog-eared manuscript fragment to turn up in a muniments room or auction sale and the scholars have to go back and rewrite their theories.
If you don’t have the time or inclination for any heavy reading, don’t worry; you will pick up a great deal by osmosis, from CD booklets and concert programmes, and conversations with other lute players!
Of the 2,100-odd solo pieces in the English renaissance repertoire, pavans (658), galliards (750) and almains (196) account for just over half of the repertoire, with song arrangements accounting for a further 289 items; and other dances (masques, volts, jigs, sarabands, ballets, bransles, canaries, hornpipes and a single gavotte) acounting for 270 more pieces, plus 247 variation sets on popular grounds.
The English always liked a nice tune, and tunefulness is certainly one of the strengths of the repertoire.
Douglas Alton Smith has remarked that the lute was an emblem of the renaissance, and rose and fell with it.
So at the same period that Erasmus, More and others were bringing in the ‘new learning’ and royal palaces were starting to be decorated with classical motifs, the fashion for the lute was beginnng to gain ground.
Happily, a good deal more music has survived, however.