Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

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Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by Altophile » Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:23 am

Hi all,

I've long wondered why guitarists opt to use a Capo when playing Renaissance lute music on the guitar. I know, I know, you're probably thinking: Well, duh, Sean, that's rather obvious: Doing so allows one to perform the music with the same (or close to the same) fingerings while matching or closely matching the key of the original! What a stupid question!

Yeah, I get that, believe me. However:

1. I've noticed that many if not most guitarists who use a capo when performing Renaissance lute music place the capo on the second fret rather than the third fret, which means that they aren't actually playing the piece in the same key. So much for matching keys.

2. More importantly, a guitar is not a lute, i.e. while the lute excels at creating a light, airy, ethereal atmosphere, the guitar has greater volume, and is more richly textured.

While I find the key choices of any number of Renaissance pieces arranged for guitar curious, the one that may exemplify my curiousness the most is the the famous beginner piece, "Packington's Pound". Everyone arranges this piece in A Minor for the guitar, and most guitarists put a capo on the second fret and perform it in B Minor. Why not arrange this piece in D Minor and perform it without a capo? I did that today and was quite happy with the result. I also arranged Watkin's Ale in C Major rather than A Major (typical) and was equally happy with the result.

Give this approach a try and let me know what you think.

~Sean

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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by pogmoor » Mon Jul 17, 2017 2:54 pm

Though I largely agree with you, Sean, some of the music written for the 6-course renaissance lute can be played most successfully with a guitar in lute tuning and a capo at fret 2 or 3, not only for the lightness in texture this provides but also because it shortens the scale length and allows some of the stretches that lutenists evidently found easer than do guitarists!

However with my own arrangements I often transpose the music a fourth above the key you get from a direct transposition of the lute tablature. As a lot of the best of this music was written for a lute with 7 (or more) courses that can allow the preservation of the original bass line. This applies, for example, to Dowland's Fortune (Fortune my Foe) which is usually arranged in B minor but would sound in D minor on a G lute. Arranged in E minor (with drop D) it is a bit more difficult to play but allows the inclusion of the bass Ds that are implied by the tablature.

The approach of using a capo at fret 2 or fret 3 also (in a way) neglects the historical fact that some of the music you can find in lute tablature sources is also found in settings for other instruments (such as the bandora, the cittern and the lyra viol) and in consort or vocal settings in a variety of keys. Leaving aside the vexed question of whether lutes were in fact tuned consistently in G, at A = 440 (almost certainly not), this suggests to me that there is nothing "inauthentic" about playing the music from this time on our modern instruments.
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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by cedartop » Tue Jul 18, 2017 12:31 am

I've seen period instructions (I think Morley, but its been a long time) in which the lute is to be tuned as high in pitch as the first string will stand. That does away with any concern for historical accuracy in tuning to a particular pitch. On the occasions when I use a capo on early music, it is only for a change in timbre and, in some cases, to shorten the scale length which makes the left hand fingering easier. The shortened string length also reduces the "give" in the strings for the right hand and makes the light, quick scales easier to execute. Nothing you can do will make a guitar sound like a lute, so just do what pleases you. It's sort of like ornamentation - no matter what you do, someone will tell you that you are wrong :) - and they may be correct to do so. In general, I think it is more important to retain the voicing of the lute than a particular pitch, particularly on more complex pieces. When I was in grad school, I performed Dowland's Fantasy #7, as did a friend of mine. I played with the 3rd string tuned to f# and fingered it like the tablature. My friend's teacher had him play it in G with modern fingerings. They sounded completely different and, naturally, I thought mine sounded better :) .
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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by Guitar Slim Jr. » Tue Jul 18, 2017 6:13 am

Transposing a melody, a bassline or a chord progression is easy enough to do -- and that's basically what you're doing with these fairly simple tunes. But dive deeper into the the lute repertoire and you will find music that is both difficult and completely impractical to try and transpose.

And why would you want to? Under most circumstances, you wouldn't want to take music that lies so well on *both* the ancient and modern instruments, and alter it an a way that would completely change the strings, positions and fingerings. After all, the pieces were written by masters of the instrument, and I think they work best when played as they were intended to lie on the instrument.

Think of it this way -- why transpose a beautiful Dowland piece in (virtual) Am to the much more difficult key of Cm? Cm has three flats, and neither the tonic nor dominant chords have roots on open strings. Usually, if you're transposing something for guitar, that's the kind key you would try to avoid.

So, for the reasons above, the vast majority of classical guitarists will play lute music in the virtual key instead of the concert key, and keep the original fingerings and positions. The only question, then, is: should I use a capo or not?

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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by Stephen Kenyon » Tue Jul 18, 2017 8:54 am

Sean, the point is that using a capo to change pitch does not, as far as the fingerboard is concerned, change the key. You still read Packington in A minor, with capo on 2nd fret, you don't transpose the notes into B minor, put the capo on the 2nd fret and read the open first string as an F sharp.

As I discuss at length (ahem) in my book "Getting into Lute Tuning" (available from all good music shops, on order) the point about capo 2 is that for most guitars, that is i. where it sounds better, and ii. where it is easier to read up the neck. So;
i. capo 3 tends to sound little bright and harsh. It can be good on really deep throaty sounding guitars.
ii. most lute/vihuela pieces stay close to first position, but for those that stray up the neck, most people find it easier to make a 2 fret adjustment as they read, and learn, up away from the capo, that a 3 fret adjustment.

Lastly, the whole point about key is a red herring in the sense that while we now use the notation G lute as a standard assumption and reference, in practice for a renaissance musician, they would not have cared in the slightest, using a higher or lower pitched instrument, for example for singing to, as suited them. So they were not thinking of key or pitch in an absolute sense, not least that in the absence of tuning forks or other fixed pitch references, actual pitch must have varied greatly. Oh and even if it was about pitch, which it isn't, the usual notion would be that in those days fixed pitch instruments like organs, woodwind etc, would have been about a semi-tone or so lower than 440 - but that's a large, complicated and contentious question, so fortunately it doesn't actually matter!
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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by Altophile » Tue Jul 18, 2017 10:24 am

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I certainly agree that it would be impractical to arrange some more complex pieces from the Renaissance into different keys. However, some pieces lend themselves to this pretty nicely, and there can be good reasons for doing so, IMO.

I understand the desire to bring greater precision to the dialogue, but all of my guitar instructors taught me that putting a capo on the third fret of the guitar would cause the piece to "sound" in the same key as the lute. This may not be precisely correct musicologically, but I've noticed that when I put a capo on the 3rd fret, a piece will sound the same "key-wise" as the same piece performed by a modern lutenist, whereas if I omit the capo then it sounds lower than it does on the modern lute.

Anyway, to my ears some pieces simply either (a) sound better on the guitar when arranged so that they sound in a higher key without the need for a capo (e.g. Packington's Pound, which is not difficult to play in that "key"), or (b) they sound fresh and interesting. I'm about half done arranging Passemenze by Adrian LeRoy in D Minor as well, and it also works very nicely in that key. I'll move on to Piva next:-)

If you want to hear how good Watkin's Ale can sound on the guitar when arranged so that it sounds in a higher key without the need of a capo, here's a duet that I believe is in C Major:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyrGYLIiIJM

Granted, this is a duet, but I've arranged it as a solo in C Major and it has a similar character, which I like.

I arranged Greensleeves in E Minor, and now I can perform the traditional melody followed by Siegfried Behrend's nice Fantasie on Greensleeves, also in E Minor:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRoI99HtlMs

Narciso Yepes arranged the four variations on Guardame las vacas in D Minor, which allowed him to pair it with the "Otra Parte" (the other three variations that are already in D Minor in most guitar arrangements [e.g. Pujol]) for a nice performance that keeps the entire work in the same key.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmEIMn-Wglo

Alirio Diaz went the other way and arranged the "Otra Parte" in A Minor so that it could be performed with the first four variations that are typically in A Minor for the guitar, again keeping the entire work in the same key:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYFfibeIsys

I agree wholeheartedly that it wouldn't work to arrange Packington's Pound in C Minor to better match the key on the lute. I actually tried that, and while it's playable, the character of the music changes in such a way that it looses its charm. So I wouldn't put a piece in a different key just for the sake of it, but when doing so allows me to shed the need for a capo while either retaining the charm of the original or expressing the charm in a new way that works well, then why not?

~Sean
Last edited by Altophile on Wed Jul 19, 2017 12:43 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by Guitar Slim Jr. » Tue Jul 18, 2017 7:21 pm

Sorry, just a little confused. If you' wouldn't transpose to preserve the original key, and you're not transposing for ease of playing, then what is the rationale for transposing at all? Are you saying that we,as guitarists, can make a Dowland masterpiece somehow more charming by rewriting it in a different key? I certainly wouldn't make that claim.

Usually in music we transpose to suit the instruments -- most common being to fit the range of a particular vocalist. Also, transposing is common when arranging -- as above -- again to suit the ensemble and possibly to increase the range. We also transpose to more guitar-friendly keys when transcribing music originally not written for guitar.

None of these apply to playing solo lute music on solo guitar. I really can't see any rationale for transposing a piece *already* written for guitar, by masters of the art.

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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by Altophile » Wed Jul 19, 2017 12:32 am

Guitar Slim Jr. wrote:
Tue Jul 18, 2017 7:21 pm
Sorry, just a little confused. If you' wouldn't transpose to preserve the original key, and you're not transposing for ease of playing, then what is the rationale for transposing at all? Are you saying that we,as guitarists, can make a Dowland masterpiece somehow more charming by rewriting it in a different key? I certainly wouldn't make that claim.

Usually in music we transpose to suit the instruments -- most common being to fit the range of a particular vocalist. Also, transposing is common when arranging -- as above -- again to suit the ensemble and possibly to increase the range. We also transpose to more guitar-friendly keys when transcribing music originally not written for guitar.

None of these apply to playing solo lute music on solo guitar. I really can't see any rationale for transposing a piece *already* written for guitar, by masters of the art.
Suite yourself, my friend, but remember that the guitar is not a lute. The character of the sounds the two instruments produce and the capabilities each has make exploring keys one way to bring out the best in the music in relation to the medium used to convey it. That's my view, anyway.

Ironically, to my ears Packington's Pound performed in D Minor on the guitar with no capo sounds more lute-like than the traditional A Minor arrangement performed with a capo on the 3rd fret.

~Sean

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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by pogmoor » Wed Jul 19, 2017 11:13 am

Guitar Slim Jr. wrote:
Tue Jul 18, 2017 7:21 pm
We also transpose to more guitar-friendly keys when transcribing music originally not written for guitar.
Yes, ease of playing is often a reason for transposing. This piece by Bacheler (for 7-course renaissance lute) can be played with drop D in the key of D (which would be a direct transcription) but it is quite a bit easier to play in E.
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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by Guitar Slim Jr. » Wed Jul 19, 2017 5:53 pm

It should also be noted that "Packington's Pound" is a song -- a simple song with just a few chords. Most arrangements I've seen are little more than the melody with a few added bass notes. Also, I've seen song versions of the piece in a variety of keys, including D minor.

A competent musician should be able to transcribe this to at least one or two other guitar-friendly keys on the fly with very little effort. But it's not really a great example of "solo lute music," as it didn't start life as an instrumental, and already exists in a variety of keys.

After all the debate is done, the vast majority of Renaissance solo lute pieces -- everything but the simplest tunes -- are impractical to transpose from the original, virtual keys. So it's kind of a moot point -- even if you do think you can improve on the masters by re-writing their masterpieces, it's going to be virtually impossible to to create accurate, playable versions in alternate keys.

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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by pogmoor » Wed Jul 19, 2017 10:44 pm

Guitar Slim Jr. wrote:
Wed Jul 19, 2017 5:53 pm
After all the debate is done, the vast majority of Renaissance solo lute pieces -- everything but the simplest tunes -- are impractical to transpose from the original, virtual keys.
That's an oversimplification. Dowland's Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens (hardly a 'simple tune') is generally rendered in B minor as a direct transcription from the lute stave, but the best arrangement I've come across is by Michael Lewin (and can be found in the Trinity College Grade 7 book from 1986 - 1989). This is in D minor (the way it would have sounded on a G lute) and so does not follow the original lute fingering.
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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by Altophile » Thu Jul 20, 2017 1:53 am

Guitar Slim Jr. wrote:
Wed Jul 19, 2017 5:53 pm
But it's not really a great example of "solo lute music," as it didn't start life as an instrumental, and already exists in a variety of keys.
As a side note, the short charming lute pieces are the ones I enjoy the most, and there are quite a lot of them! Ronn McFarlane did two full length CDs just of the short Scottish stuff alone, and there are some real gems among them, most of which have been rendered in different keys for different reasons by different people.

Matthew McAllister has arranged a nice set of five of these pieces for performance, and I'm pretty sure that at least two of them are in different keys from the originals.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmglCgKtnaE

Incidentally, the literature and the recordings are full of examples of guitarists who not only chose different keys for reasons not typically stated (though we can often make an educated guess at the reason), but who took advantage of guitar techniques that wouldn't have been used at all by a lutenist. As one example from the Baroque period, Parkening's performance of Weiss' famous Passacaglia is the best I've heard on any instrument, yet he not only changes a couple notes, but he uses harmonics. Alexandre Lagoya also did some interesting things with the same Passacaglia which would probably not have been employed by a lutenist. Karl Scheit broke with tradition and arranged Kemp's Jig in E Major rather than the more typical key of D Major, possibly for the same reasons I arranged Packington's Pound in D Minor. I've seen Greensleeves arranged for guitar in just about every minor key available, etc., etc., etc. (a bit of an exaggeration, yes).

Some choices are possibly made to make some ancient music more "appropriate" as performances pieces. I mentioned Guardame las vacas along with the Otra Parte in a previous post (and in one of my first posts on this forum). These pieces present a bit of a challenge to the modern performer because it seems appropriate to perform both the first four variations and the Otra Parte, but how is one to do that logically? The fourth variation of the first four presents such a decisive conclusion that it's a bit jarring to then go on to perform the Otra Part. Also, the first four are in a different key, with no transition making it flow from A Minor to D Minor more naturally.

Many guitarists seem to just throw up their hands in defeat and they omit the Otra Parte altogether. This is an unfortunate choice, IMO, because the Otra Parte is quite beautiful and deserves to be performed just as much as the first four variations.

Segovia was a tiny bit more daring and opted to arrange the first variation from the Otra Part in A Minor, and he placed it right in the middle of the four variations. So he played five of the available seven. Not ideal, but at least the decisive ending comes at the end, and the key transition issue is avoided.

Narciso Yepes arranged the first four variations in D Minor to match the Otra Part, but performed the two sets of variations in order so that the decisive ending occurs right in the middle of the piece. Also not ideal, but at least the key transition issue is avoided.

Alirio Díaz went the other way and arranged the Otra Part in A Minor (taking some liberties with octaves), and put all three variations from the Otra Parte right in the middle of the first four. That's the most logical approach I've seen so far, though I would suggest a more interesting solution (see below).

Angel Romero performs the first four variations followed by the Otra Part, both in their different keys. While this is faithful to the original, it seems doubly problematic, because it not only has the decisive ending of the first set of variations in the middle of the performance, but it has that quirky shift from one minor key to another with no musicologically "sound" transition (pun intended).

Of all of these approaches, Angel Romero's seems to be the most problematic, musicologically speaking, yet only it mirrors the original composer's intent, as far as we're able to ascertain it.

I would suggest another approach: Put both sets of variations in the same key, whether it be A Minor or D Minor (I'd probably opt for D Minor), but then alternate them as follows:

1st variation from the first four played vigorously (like Segovia does)
1st variation from the Otra Parte played a bit more pensively
2nd variation from the first four played vigorously
2nd variation from the Otra Parte played a bit more pensively
3rd variation from the first four played vigorously
3rd variation from the Otra Parte played a bit more pensively
4th variation from the first four played vigorously for a strong decisive ending

This creates a sort of "musical conversation" between the somewhat more decisive statements of the first four variations and the somewhat pensive responses from the Otra Parte. To my knowledge no one has taken this approach yet, but I think it would express this old music in a new and interesting way. True, it strays from the original composer's intent, but so did the the approaches of Segovia, Yepes, Diaz (and probably others I haven't heard).

In making these sorts of choices I don't think that guitarists are necessarily suggesting that they know better than the original composer, and I don't think the original composers, were they alive today to witness such use of their music, would feel anything but pride and surprise that people still love it enough to play it after all this time.

~Sean

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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by Guitar Slim Jr. » Thu Jul 20, 2017 6:13 am

On a less argumentative note, and to address a question from the very first post: there are some possible possible reasons for preferring capo II to capo III. For one thing, it's a relatively easy and common position to transpose TO -- A becomes G, D becomes C, E becomes D. Several nice guitar keys are *still* nice guitar keys at capo II.

Pop guitarists like capo II for that reason, and also because the first two dots on the fretboard retain their relative position. In other words, at capo II there's still a dot at your virtual 3rd and 5th frets. Same applies if you've got dots on your classical, and having the dots in the right position is just as useful for reading as it is for comping.

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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by Altophile » Thu Jul 20, 2017 11:03 am

Guitar Slim Jr. wrote:
Thu Jul 20, 2017 6:13 am
On a less argumentative note, and to address a question from the very first post: there are some possible possible reasons for preferring capo II to capo III. For one thing, it's a relatively easy and common position to transpose TO -- A becomes G, D becomes C, E becomes D. Several nice guitar keys are *still* nice guitar keys at capo II.

Pop guitarists like capo II for that reason, and also because the first two dots on the fretboard retain their relative position. In other words, at capo II there's still a dot at your virtual 3rd and 5th frets. Same applies if you've got dots on your classical, and having the dots in the right position is just as useful for reading as it is for comping.
Good points. The only time I capo III is when I play David Qualey's modernized version of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring", and when I work on Weiss' Ciacona in G Minor.

Qualey's Jesu was written for an octave guitar, and it really doesn't sound as good on a regular guitar with no capo. Putting a capo on III brings back some of the charm and offers a bit more sonority than putting a capo on V as some do (even Qualey, if memory serves, when teaching this piece on his instructional DVD).

Compare the following three performances:

On an Octave Guitar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kh_sckAUkgE

On a Quint Guitar (sounds like a capo on the 5th fret of a standard guitar): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEemo9i-sCI

On a guitar with no capo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e99IMJ8tpU8

The reason I capo III for Weiss' Ciacona is because the piece is easier to play in the key of E Minor, so I play it in E Minor with a capo on III to get to G Minor. This piece really doesn't sound very good in E Minor (i.e. with no capo). You need at least a seven string guitar to pull this off, but it would work better with eight or ten. If you have a six-string guitar then I'd stick to an A Minor arrangement (Alice Artzt's is excellent).

~Sean
Last edited by Altophile on Thu Jul 20, 2017 8:13 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Music from the Renaissance: On Capos, Keys, and Curious Choices

Post by rojarosguitar » Thu Jul 20, 2017 11:37 am

I thought the capo is placed on 2d instead of 3d fret because of the lower pitch of renaissance instruments, so the f# of today is roughly g of the renaissance time. Isn't that so? Another fake news?
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