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Plectrums, Pizzicato, And Plucks

Plucked instruments—lutes, guitars, harps and harpsichords will pick and pizz us through the hour. Plus, a special tribute to lute player Pat O’Brien.

Pat O'Brien's right hand.

We’re devoting this edition of Harmonia to instruments of the plucked variety. Lutes, guitars, harps and harpsichords will pick and pizz us through the hour. Plus, a special tribute from Paul O’Dette for friend and fellow lute player Pat O’Brien who passed away in 2014, and a feature release from Armonia Celeste called Lover’s Beware.


Let’s begin with a piece called “Liberta! Ragion mi scriva” by Luigi Rossi, performed by Armonia Celeste from their recording of music from the 17th-century Barberini courts. We’ll be hearing more from this CD later in the hour.

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Pluck and pizz

“Pluck”— it’s one of those words in the English language that can be used to mean a lot of things in a lot of different situations. You can pluck a chicken’s feathers, or pluck the petals off a flower; you can be plucked from obscurity and thrust into fame. You can go to the salon to have your eyebrows plucked, or you may find a troublesome gray hair on your head and pluck it out yourself! You can pluck up the courage to ask someone out on a date… Hey, you might even have a “plucky” personality!

Of course, you pluck the strings of a guitar, but did you know you could be serenaded by a pluck of shawmers? Yes. Just like you can have a herd of antelope or a mob of emus or an army of ants, according to the 15th-century Book of St. Albans you can call a group of loud, pre-oboe-type instruments “a pluck of shawmers.”

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Even though the viola da gamba has frets similar to plucked instruments like lutes and guitars, it is almost always played with a bow. But every now and then, it can double as a plucked instrument too.

One of the first written indications for bowed instruments to be plucked, or played pizzicato, is found in Tobias Hume’s The First Part of Ayres from 1605. In the piece, “Harke, Harke,” Hume instructs the performer to “play nine letters with your finger,” that is, to pluck the indicated nine-note phrase with the finger, rather than bow with the arm.

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Hume gives a similar pizzicato instruction in his “Souldier’s Song,” to “Play three letters with your Fingers.” Here’s Jordi Savall and Paul Hillier.

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Of course, Hume’s plucking directions were just imitating those instruments like lute and guitar that pizzicato all the time.

The harpsichord is another plucked instrument, though by mechanical means, with a device attached to the key called a “plectrum.” This differs from another early keyboard instrument—the clavichord, which is not plucked at all but rather operated by a hammered tangent. It’s a little bit like the action of a modern piano, except that the tangent doesn’t rebound from the string on its own, but stays in contact with the string until the player lets off the key.

Let’s hear a very short Bach minuet, BWV 841: First, we’ll hear Christopher Hogwood on the tangent-operated clavichord, and following that, a plectrum-plucked version from harpsichordist Elisabeth Joyé.

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Beloved Papa of the lute world

The historical plucked instrument world lost a seminal figure in their field. Lutenist Pat O’Brien has been described by friend and fellow lute player Paul O’Dette as “one of the most influential figures in the early music movement,” and when Pat passed away in July of 2014, his New York Times obituary read, “Pat O’Brien, beloved Papa of the Lute World, has died.”

We invited Paul O’Dette to remember Pat in a tribute, which he recorded at the studios of Eastman School of Music where he teaches in Rochester, New York. Here’s what he had to say:

Pat O’Brien (1947- July 16, 2014) was one of the most influential figures in the early music movement that many non-lutenists may not have heard of. That is because he was first and foremost, a teacher, mentor and advisor (more than a performer.) He was a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher who taught nearly every major lutenist in the world at some point. Those who did not officially study with him, consulted with him frequently. [Pat was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1947. He played and taught guitars, lutes, and historical harps in New York for almost 50 years; he played and sang folkloric and popular music as well as jazz and contemporary classical guitar before coming to early music.]

In contrast to all the instruction he provided others, Pat O’Brien came to the lute on his own before early music was systematically taught at music schools. What he had instead was plenty of experience under his belt, fed by his own exploration.

When he joined the faculty of Julliard in 2012, O’Brien had already been teaching renaissance and baroque lutes, vihuela, early guitar, theorbo, archlute, cittern and early harp for a number of years at institutions including Sarah Lawrence, Mannes, NYU, Queens College, Stony Brook U., and SUNY Purchase.

Paul O’Dette has said that O’Brien’s death “…has left an enormous hole in the historical plucked instrument community, but his legacy will live on for decades to come.”

Let’s hear some of O’Brien’s legacy in a performance from one of his former students, Charles Weaver.

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Here’s Paul O’Dette once again:

“Pat once told me that he was compelled to teach lute and guitar technique as a way of ensuring that no one else would have to go through the acute pain and agony he experienced having had severe tendonitis in both hands. After spending thousands of dollars on medical specialists who, in the early 70s provided no viable options for curing or preventing his condition, he realized he would have to find solutions on his own. He enrolled in night classes in anatomy and physiology at a local college and soon discovered exactly what movements encouraged in the modern classical guitar pedagogy of the late 60s, had led to his tendonitis. With tears rolling down his cheeks from the excruciating pain of the tendonitis, he resolved to dedicate the rest of his life to making sure no one else had to endure such agony. In the process, he developed a comprehensive understanding of how- to base playing techniques on the physiology of the human body, solving numerous mysteries in the process. He eventually expanded his research into the causes of and remedies for carpal tunnel syndrome and focal dystonia, the latter of which has had a debilitating effect on many of the world’s most prominent plucked instrument players. Under his patient and meticulous guidance, Pat was able to rescue a number of important careers, spending countless hours with each musician until the problems had been solved, often refusing to accept payment.

Beyond Pat’s unparalleled expertise into so many aspects of the lute’s history, repertoire and playing technique, it was his generosity and humanity that were his most remarkable traits. Nothing he did was ever about Pat. It was always about his friends, his beloved students, the music that he so loved and inhabited. Pat was one of the most influential figures of the twentieth-century lute revival, but was also one of its most beloved personalities. The world is a much poorer place without Pat, but our lives were so profoundly enriched for having known him.”

That was Paul O’Dette speaking about Pat O’Brien, and we heard one of Pat’s former students Daniel Swenberg in the background on lute, playing Kapsberger’s Toccata Arpeggiata.

[MUSIC: UNO + ONE: Italia Nostra, TENET (Daniel Swenberg, lutes), AVIE 2013 B00EW1GMQ4, Johann Kapsberger, Tr. 9: Toccata Arpeggiata (excerpt of 3:12)]

We’ll continue with our tribute to Pat O’Brien in the second half of the show.


Three, Four, and Twenty Lutes

Welcome back. We’re paying tribute to Patrick O’Brien, an early music luminary who passed away in July, 2014. Here’s Paul O’Dette again, sharing his memories.

[MUSIC: Lute Music, Vol. 2: Early Italian Renaissance Music, Paul O’Dette, harmonia mundi 1994, Tr. 10 Il est bel et bon (Passereau; arr. L’Aquila) (excerpt of 2:06)]

“I first met Pat in 1976. As a first-year faculty member at the Eastman School of Music I was invited to play a New York debut recital at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. After the recital, I was led to the greeting room where there was a line of audience members waiting to speak with me. The first person in line was a large, bearded man dressed all in black, who extended his hand and said, ‘Pat O’Brien, Secretary of the Lute Society of America. That was one amazing concert you just played. Just incredible! But I don’t know how you did it because your left hand is a mess!’

Being one who appreciates this kind of directness, and recognizing that I had a lot of technical issues to sort out, I asked him if he had any free time the next day, and we quickly agreed on a breakfast appointment at a diner near Pat’s studio. Before the menus arrived I was learning about abduction and adduction, flexor digitorum superficialis and distal phalangeal joints. Pat explained why my little finger stuck out straight and was never in position to play the next note, an issue I had raised with numerous guitar teachers whose only answer was, ‘you have to keep your little finger closer to the fingerboard!’   But my little finger refused to understand that command until Pat explained WHY my little finger was perpetually out of position. As soon as he explained the problem, I was able to fix it.

That discussion began a deep and rewarding friendship which lasted 38 years. Pat was both my closest friend and mentor. His knowledge of physiology and how to base playing techniques on the way the muscles and tendons are designed, helped me to understand technique and practicing in an entirely new way, allowing me to significantly improve my playing and deepen my understanding of the lute during the late 70s and early 80s.” 

Let’s hear Paul O’Dette and Pat O’Brien performing together in a concert at the Boston Early Music Festival in 1989.

[MUSIC: Three, Four, and Twenty Lutes, 1989 Boston Early Music Festival, Pat O’Brien, Paul O’Dette and 18 other lutenists, [Live concert recording; not commercially available], Three Dances by Robert Johnson, (written for Ben Jonson’s Oberon) (excerpt)]

We heard twenty lutenist, including Paul O’Dette and Pat O’Brien, performing three dances written by Robert Johnson for the 1611 production of Ben Jonson’s masque Oberon. They were arranged for this 1989 Boston Early Music Festival performance by the late Pat O’Brien.

Paul O’Dette recently revived this concert program, entitled Three, Four, and Twenty Lutes, at the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival, in honor of his friend and colleague Pat O’Brien.

Pat O’Brien was a long time director of the Lute Society of America, and the founder and director of the New York Continuo Collective—an organization that offers classes and performing opportunities for anyone interested in learning more about the art of continuo playing, regardless of experience or expertise. Pat O’Brien was also a recording artist, collaborating on several projects with the King’s Noyse, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, and the Harp Consort with Andrew Lawrence-King.

Luz y Norte was one of the first recordings the Harp Consort undertook after its founding in 1994, and O’Brien was central to the recording, leading a consort of guitars of various sizes and tunings. Here are two tracks from that disc of Spanish and South-American dance music.

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O’Brien can also be heard on the Harp Consorts’ disc of music by 17th-century Irish harper and composer Turlough Carolan. Besides the airs and jigs he composed, Carolan also wrote planxtys.

Carolan may have invented the term “planxty” (planks-tea) to describe a cheerful tune composed in someone’s honor, and one can be found on the Harp Consort’s recording Carolan’s Harp.

How appropriate then that, in honor of Pat O’Brien, we play a planxty from this recording.

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Let’s conclude with more words from lutenist Paul O’Dette, who before O’Brien’s death had been co-authoring a method book for 16th-century lute with O’Brien, and then finally we’ll roll out with a bit more music from that 1989 Boston Early Music Festival Concert.

“It would be impossible to summarize Pat’s encyclopedic knowledge about the lute and its music and his extraordinarily deep insights about music-making in a short discussion such as this. It’s not just that he seemed to know everything about every aspect of the instrument and its repertoire, but it was the curiosity that drove him to always search for the reasons behind specific approaches to each style. His passion to explore every detail and the insights that exploration provided, were an inspiration to everyone who met him.”

[MUSIC: Three, Four, and Twenty Lutes, 1989 Boston Early Music Festival, Pat O’Brien, Paul O’Dette and 18 other lutenists, [Live concert recording; not commercially available], Red Pepper, A Spicy Rag (Henry Lodge) (excerpt)]


Lovers, Beware!

If you were a musician in mid-17th-century Rome, you probably had it made, especially if you were tight with the Barberini family. The extravagant display of art and music was a major status symbol, and a status that the Barberinis were eager to confirm with their support of all kinds of musicians.

The Barberinis were wealthy not only in monetary and social capital, but in religious influence as well—even the Pope was a Barberini! A recent Centaur Records release called Lovers, Beware! by the ensemble Armonia Celestegives us a glimpse into the music associated with the Barberinis in Rome. Here’s the opening track.

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We heard “Udite, Amanti,” the title track of Armonia Celeste’s recording featuring composers related to the Barberini family in Rome during the mid-seventeenth century.

We’ve been hearing from plucked instruments of all varieties this hour on Harmonia, and the harp is an especially significant instrument on Armonia Celeste’s recording.

Luigi Rossi’s wife was a harpist, as was another composer on this disc, Marco Marazzoli. What’s more, in the 1630s the Barberinis had an elaborate harp made for them, complete with the family’s coat of arms.

Armonia Celeste’s harpist Paula Fagerberg plays a copy of that Barberini harp on this recording. (The original instrument is kept at the Musical Instrument Museum in Rome.)

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Let’s hear one more track from our featured recording, once again with the entire ensemble.

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Break and theme music

:30, Carolan’s Harp, The Harp Consort, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 1997 (reissue 2009), Tr. 21 O Flin (Planxty Flinn) (excerpt of 2:05)

Segment B music bed: UNO + ONE: Italia Nostra, TENET (Daniel Swenberg, lutes), AVIE 2013 B00EW1GMQ4, Johann Kapsberger, Tr. 9: Toccata Arpeggiata (excerpt of 3:12)

:60, Carolan’s Harp, The Harp Consort, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 1997 (reissue 2009), Tr. 24 Separation of Body and Soul (excerpt of 1:16)

Segment C music bed: Lute Music, Vol. 2: Early Italian Renaissance Music, Paul O’Dette, harmonia mundi 1994, Tr. 10 Il est bel et bon (Passereau; arr. L’Aquila) (excerpt of 2:06)

:30, Baroque Lute Music, Vol. 1: Kapsberger, Paul O’Dette, harmonia mundi 1990, Tr. 22: Bergamasca (excerpt of 2:40)

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer and producer for this edition of Harmonia is Janelle Davis.

Special thanks to Paul O’Dette for his remembrance of Pat O’Brien and to Nana Stotz, Michael Farrington, and the folks at the Eastman School of Music’s Technology and Media Production department.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.

Janelle Davis

Janelle Davis is a violinist and performer with period instrument ensembles throughout the United States. She is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Music degree from Indiana University, Bloomington where she specializes in early music.

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