REVIEW: Introducing the Lute, Brighton Early Music Festival

Toby Carr

‘Introducing The Lute’ Workshop given by Toby Carr in Brighton Early Music Festival’s pre-opening night run-up at The Rose Hill Arts Centre.

At 6ft 2in tall, Toby Carr, dwarfs his upright theorbo by only a fraction of an inch. It cost him £6,000, specially made, and although this giraffe-necked lute from Renaissance Italy slenderly grazes in its own aircraft seat, it fitted into his hatchback for his morning drive to Brighton from Stockport.

The theorbo indeed now takes Carr around the world but, on the morning after a humbling Manchester United defeat at Huddersfield, his journey south from the northern metropolis for a 2.30pm start may have felt like an exercise in exorcism. Also in his car was a bursting mega back-pack of music and stuff, a music stand, plus a heap of instrument cases protecting one Baroque guitar and five Renaissance lutes, one his own and the other four borrowed from Britain’s Lute Society.

No sober black tie and evening wear for a professional appearance with an opera company, early music ensemble or a touring choir and orchestra with, say, Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Not even smart casual to give the Junior Lute Class he gives at Dartington Summer School in Devon. This was ablind date with some inquisitorial down-to-earth city guitarists bent on discovery, who arrived to find on Rose Hill Terrace a deceased pub with a possessing period exterior but a spartanly unprepossessing inside, furnished with old chairs, benches, stools, a modest upright piano and a minimal yellow drum-kit on a small stage.

So it was sweater, chinos, Carr’s own 29-year-old smiles, and an admission that this event was as rare an occurrence as a genuine lute in an average junk shop. So he was very capably busking it. And he had hardly started, and the participants (including me) introduced themselves to the young master, than up stepped a dark, tousle-haired lady proffering a musical instrument as at an antique roadshow.

It was larger than Carr’s own lute, seductively decorated featuring a pair of Middle Eastern desert scorpions, sandy coloured, slackly strung and untuned. ‘What kind of lute is this’? The answer came half from the owner (‘It’s Israeli’) and from Lou, a member of the floor (‘It’s an aoud’). A lute cousin making an evocative and on-cue workshop contribution.

Toby Carr went to Trinity College to study classical guitar. His tutor, sensing a fertile-filled waiting flowerpot, gave him a lute to try. The rest will be the history of surprise musical career. Carr was thus kindred with his audience – he in his tutor’s role, we as potentially Carr.

There were 11 of us, including a jazz, blues, slide and lap steel guitarist-composer; an aspiring post-graduate film composer; a student at Brighton’s own British and Irish Institute of Modern Music; a fully professional touring teaching and session guitarist from Hastings; among three women, a classical guitarist, and a classical pianist and chorister; Jon Rattenburg, a performing Hove member of The Lute Society, assisting Carr; and a Siberian ex-percussionist now playing in various guitar genres.

With Carr playing some lute and theorbo examples to illustrate (Johnson, Dowland; Piccinini, Kapsburger, de Visée), we learned about tuning, string pairings and quantities (six or seven pairings on the lute with a single top string; on the theorbo, seven or eight strings on its shorter neck, seven more bass strings on its unfretted long neck, played open and tuned to a diatonic scale); musical notation (six-line stave; if French, letters for frets; if Italian using numbers and turning the stave upside down); music (stacks free online, out of copyright – “More than a lifetime’s enjoyment”, said Carr ); right-hand fingering and thumbing (mainly first three digits, aiming for a pinging projection); international repertoire (the mere 25 years of John Dowland’s music publication spelt the British golden age of the Renaissance lute from the early 1600s, said Carr).

Also instrumental usage down the centuries (the lute proliferated in France, a larger Baroque lute succeeded the Renaissance version from the mid-17th century, then came the Italian mandolin, and the Baroque guitar); its traditional roles (by itself or accompanying the solo or group voice as in Dowland or John Denyer, often improvised continuo following the figured bass with larger instrumental and choral forces as in Monteverdi, and orchestral colour accompaniment as in intimate Handelian operatic aria). And, of course, more.

After a tea break we got to try for ourselves the lute (instruments start at £400), the theorbo (also known as the citerrone) and Baroque guitar – the smaller, narrower guitar often seen played by women as well as men, in historic paintings. A world of frets in gut/nylon tied around the neck instead of single metal bars. In our hands, all felt startlingly, disarmingly and blissfully lightweight, and precious.

The 10-stringed Baroque guitar worked easily for us because all the modern guitar chord shapes work, although with adjustment because the modern guitar’s sixth (bottom) string is not present. The lute and theorbo are tuned slightly differently and require familiarisation. The challenge for we seasoned dog guitarists was to ignore the thought that we were too old to learn new tricks.

One facet was fingernails. Popular thought is lutenists did not cultivate them and the fleshiness meant a pingy, percussive sound was required to compensate. They did not have modern nail clippers to lose.

This instrumental workshop is new but nothing strange in Brighton Early Music Festival’s innovative thinking and presentation. Over the years, amateur singers have been given choral workshops leading to performance during BREMF. But maybe someone realised there’d be no new players to accompany and embellish them in perpetuity. One beauty of Tony Carr’s afternoon was the message that we know guitar is simple to learn – it’s replaced the piano in modern domestic life – so lute, thorbo, and Baroque guitar are natural follow-ons.

Therefore, I hope BREMF and Carr might a) happily repeat this workshop because the world teems with guitarists, some perhaps getting bored; and b) present similar workshops in the instrumental early music world. I’ll be first in the queue for the sackbut and cornett. I fancy a more sublime kind of blow.

Richard Amey

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