Friday, 7 April 2023

Flóra and the Capirola Lute Book


I know two people called Vidal.

One of them, being a fictional character, had his existence so confirmed - not so long ago.
Remember, at the end of the 'Karnevál' [*], Vidal, the librarian, when he is in a quite complicated situation, and in love, that is to say 'life', he asks for help from Amadeus, who is thought to be a mentally retarded person. In fact, they turn to the magic of music:

Your voice is pure and innocent -
With your voice, you instantly set down and depict what is right and wrong -
Have you a cigarette for me?

So, he asks you to repeat his sentences, and from this they will glean the truth or falsehood of what should be done.

I will gradually communicate the case to the Countess -
Wrong -
I will gradually communicate the case to Flora -
I'll wait a few days and think it over.
The devil. Wrong. Negative -

Vidal closes his eyes. He can't, he says.
Amadeus sucks on the pipe of his cigarette.

The Countess is out of the game -
Wrong, says Vidal.
False, says Amadeus.
I'll tell the Countess what's most necessary -
I'll tell the Countess what's most necessary -
That's good -
Impeccable -
Now you can do it, cries Vidal.
Please say that: I'll tell Flora what's most necessary -
I'll tell Flora what's most necessary -
Vidal is silent. False again -
Amadeus nods.
Now you say it: I warn Flora in a veiled way -
Vidal covers his ears. False, false -
False, says Amadeus.
I'll leave Flora out of the game -
I'll leave Flora out of the game -
No good, no good. What shall I do?
Amadeus sits and waits.
Now Vidal is shaking. Please say the following:

I'll ask Flora to marry me -

How do you like? asks Vidal, beaming.
'He has hit the heart,' cries Amadeus, and claps his hands.
Does it sound good?
Crystal! Like the E-flat major triad. It sparkles. No trace of shadow, blue as the sky is golden blue in April, cheers - clap again.


The other Vidal's existence from 500 years ago was also linked to music, just as strangely as the story above. Because he was the pupil, a lute student, who wrote down the works of his master Capirola and immortalised them with a tricky solution: he decorated the lute book with many, many tiny paintings, 'noble pictures'. He argued that even owners who were not so interested in music would definitely keep the book because of the magnificence of the illustrations.

Indeed, it was kept in existence, or rather, the coincidences were arranged into such a whirlwind that in 1883, in a London bookshop window display, the eye of J. P. N. Land, a Dutch lute music expert, was drawn to it, and in his sudden enthusiasm he wrote an eight-page commentary on it, which has since been appended to the manuscript. Eventually, after passing through the hands of a few antiquarian sharks, it was purchased by the Newberry Library in Chicago, where it remains today.

The real detailed 'excavation' was carried out by the Hungarian Ottó Gombosi in the 1940s, and the study was published in 1955, giving the final date as 1517.


Vincenzo Capirola - not much is known about him. He was born in 1474, in Brescia, in a Lombard noble family.
In 1515, a Brescian lutenist, John Peter de Brescia, turned up at the court of Henry VIII - the King was a lutenist, even a composer too - and Vincenzo probably visited his colleague, who may have been himself.

Around 1517, he lived in Venice, somewhat exaggeratedly the 'lute centre' of the time; his influence was enormous, with many contemporary and later composers incorporating his works, more or less transcribed, into their repertoires.

The Capirola Lute Book contains, in addition to, or rather before the tablatures, detailed instructions for performance: in addition to describing the playing technique, it also covers the steps of stringing and tuning, and the deciphering of the ornamentation symbols used. Some metaphysical hints are also included to help the lost seeker:
'Observe the most beautiful Secret and Art which lies in the putting things on (musicians still use this word today) and playing them, and let this be Aristotle's maxim, let this be the great foundation of everything: make sure that while you play you keep your finger pressed down through the beat until your finger finds the next beat that makes you stop playing the first one, and do this all the time, continuously, because this is the really important thing... although not everyone will understand it, but they will talk about it, they will certainly.'


The tablatures of the Capirola Lute Book contain the usual genres of Renaissance lute music: intabulations, ricercars and dances. Half of the collection are transcriptions of vocal polyphony; the interesting thing here is that the transposition of the four voices to no more than two lines on the lute can reproduce the original texture very faithfully: the 'how' of the ornamentation is key here.

Capirola's (re)discovery has been made: his works appear on several records, and there is a Capirola-specific edition dedicated to him:

It's a very special thing.
The ricercars, they are real 'brain' music, they are really free fantasies, which were just then getting on their feet, because for a long time they were in their original role of 'searching, rehearsing', that is, to find the intonation of the piece to come, to check the instrument / tuning and also to tune it; here things have gone further: from this intonation checking a very serious and free flow has started.
You can barely follow the initial melody, but you don't have to: the complexity itself, the sequencing rather non-sequitur, is simply fascinating.

The intabulations barely resemble the original polyphonic piece; if you're lucky, you'll recognize the opening few chords. The ornamentations and diminutions take on a practically metaphysical role, completely broadening the spectrum, making it transparent, so much so that, for example, I like the pieces a million times better this way.

The surprise, those dances. The well-known, overplayed tunes that could be found in almost every pub of the time. But here they become quite serious, and are translucent; an 'inner essence' runs through them, pointing to where the inexplicable origin is obscured.

The performance is first class.
Paul Beier graduated from the Royal College of Music in London a long time ago: he will be 70 next year.

Worrying? Well, new generations of lutenists have grown up; standards are extremely, extremely high.
But, this 2021 recording is blowing like a fresh wind.

And Vidal's spirit is right in front of us.
I look at these beautiful pictures.

And yet he proposed to Flora -
And I hear that he got Flora's hand...

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Thank you for the images: