In conversation with Greg Fealy
Greg Fealy: You began your musical career as a guitarist, but what enticed you to the lute? Was it the repertoire of the instrument or inspiration from another lutenist?
Anthony Rooley: Well, it’s such a long time back now that I find it hard to remember exactly. But, I remember that in about 1967 when I was in the last year of my studies at the Royal Academy of Music, where I was studying with Hector Quine as well as having some lessons with Julian Bream and John Williams, I was suddenly faced with what seemed to be a real dilemma. I was setting myself up to be a guitar soloist to travel the world and I discovered two things: firstly, that the guitar repertoire proper didn’t hold enough for me – at the time I was struggling with the Torroba Sonatina and it’s not a great piece of music – and secondly, I realised that I was a more gregarious person than that and I didn’t really want to travel the world playing solo anything. Meanwhile, I’d been getting increasingly involved in the British Museum manuscript department copying from lute manuscripts like the Jane Pickering Lute Book and transcribing material. By the end of 1967, I was playing almost all lute music on the guitar. This seemed a little perverse, spending my life transcribing from one instrument to another.
G.F: What about the aural and emotional attractions of Iute-playing? Some lutenists make reference to the psychological appeal of playing the lute. I seem to recall, for example, Susan Bloch (an American lutenist) likening the lute to a tranquil sanctuary to which one can withdraw from the pressures of modern life.
A.R: I would say the lute is the ultimate instrument for deep contemplation. The main difference between the guitar and the lute is that the guitar is an instrument where you learn to project, whereas the lute is an instrument where you can learn to draw people in. Lute playing is all about working with silence and spaces between the notes. And much of the music is also of a deeply contemplative nature. But I wouldn’t call it a sanctuary. I’m much more interested in a really ancient idea – one that stems from ancient Greece – called temenos. This is a Greek word meaning “a sacred enclosure” or space around a temple where the arts were used in dedication to the spirit. This idea of temenos and the uplifting of the spirit, sums up, for me, the whole nature of performance.
G.F: I wonder if we might discuss the influences on your development as a lute player. You mentioned Bream before; was he a major influence?
A.R: I’ve had help all along the way from a lot of sympathetic people and I would not hesitate to give all those people their due. But, on the whole, I would say I’m essentially self-taught. I think I’m probably one of these people who is virtually unteachable, being pig-headed and arrogant, and lacking a certain humility and grace. I found my own way of doing things, even if it took me an extra two or three years lo come to the same conclusion as someone had been trying to tell me. There was something cussed in me which wanted to pioneer my own discoveries. As I have matured, I realise I no longer have a need to protect myself and I realise that I have taken a long time to come around to realising some pretty obvious things. And, I would say, in terms of the lute, one of the most formative influences was Julian Bream’s early recordings of John Dowland. The “Dances of Dowland” and “Lute Music of Dowland,” which were his earliest recordings, and even his much later one, “Music in the Royal Courts of Europe,” were superb because Bream’s innate musicianship flowed through everything he did. Stylistically, I was, even at that time, aware of a certain over-percussive approach to the guitar. Perhaps it’s Bream’s character, but I don’t feel he ever plumbed the contemplative depths of the lute. Even his playing of a piece like John Dowland’s Farewell Fancy, which is perhaps the ultimate in instrumental contemplation, Bream is giving too many strong accents. But nevertheless, what came across is his incredible virtuosity. If only I had a fraction of that facility on the instrument. But you know facility, we have that, for instance, in much younger players like Paul O’Dette, a really wonderful musician who has such ease on the lute. It’s not for nothing that he is known as “the fastest lute in the West.” I mean, he’s just a marvellously gifted player. But again, his playing, for me, never quite plumbs the depths of contemplation, which is what I feel is the real essence of the lute. There are plenty of works which are showy and virtuosic, for which you need a phenomenal technique. But actually, you need an equally phenomenal technique of a slightly different kind to get the most out of the great pavans or the Farewell Fancy.
G.F: How do you regard the current state of the lute in the musical world? For example, were I to make a general comparison between the state of the guitar and that of the lute, it would seem fair to say there has been a certain stagnation with the guitar, whereas there appears to be many exciting things happening in the lute world. Do you agree and are you optimistic about the lute’s future prospects?
A.R: Oh yes. I mean the lute is essentially an optimistic instrument and even with the greatest melancholy works, it still has an optimistic effect on the listener and lifts them up. The lute is a great instrument and its repertoire is one of the great reservoirs of musical creativity in Western culture. Mind you there is a lot of dross as well. There is an unbelievable amount of rubbish amongst what survives in the lute repertoire, because a lot of it was written for people to play at home to entertain themselves. They just enjoyed struggling around with a few chords and that was satisfaction enough. But even if ninety percent of the lute repertoire wasn’t up to putting on the concert program, the ten percent that’s left is going to take a long time to work through. I don’t feel that the lutenists of my generation and just slightly younger in England, which is where all this stemmed from – people like myself, Jakob Lindberg, Chris Wilson, Nigel North. Tony Bailes – I don’t think any of us have done enough really to encourage a younger generation. We’ve been too concerned about our own well-being and development as players and our own exploration of the repertoire. We’ve been pioneers, like people who went out to dig goldmines; they went alone because they didn’t want any body else joining in. And I think there’s been a bit of that amongst the lute-playing fraternity of the mid-seventies. This has meant that in the early ‘eighties, there was a sort of decline in the number of young people coming up. Now, we’re starting to find a generation of younger players coming up.
G.F: What do you think of the possibility of the lute acquiring a contemporary repertoire? I ask this question in light of the piece which Stephen Dodgson wrote for yourself, your wife (Emma Kirkby) and David Thomas several years ago.
A.R: Yes, we performed that work very successfully in the States and it had a great response. It encourages me that more should be done along those lines. Since that work was commissioned, I’ve had my hands so full of music theatre projects of the seventeenth century, recording projects we’re doing with Virgin Classics, and so on, that I’ve not actually had time to commission any more new works. I am beginning to feel that it’s a very important area, but it’s not exactly the area that I should be operating in. On the other hand, there is a new line that’s emerging for me, and that’s in the area of making my own kind of transcriptions of works from the seventeenth century which we know maybe had a connection with lute, though sometimes the connection is a bit flimsy because the original version is lost. What I’m doing is taking what’s left and putting it back inside what might have been the lute version. This appeals to me because it requires a kind of creative step. We’ll never know how close I’m getting, and I don’t really care too much, because what I’m doing is actually creating a new lute repertoire from seventeenth century bits and pieces. I’m really enjoying doing it. I’ve been using some of the material in concert with great success. And I’ve made a solo record.
G.F: With Virgin Classics?
A.R: Yes, it is my first solo disc with them. This is mostly made up of my own transcriptions and includes the first Sonata from Michelangelo Galilei’s book of 1620, and an original suite. The disc also includes some of my own re-workings of Anthony Holborne’s dances. The dances transcribed for lute have survived almost by accident. There is one particularly beautiful one, The Countess of Pembroke’s Paradise, the surviving lute version of which was done by a rather bad arranger in about 1605. It is pretty stiff and doesn’t really fit that well on the lute because he’s chosen the wrong key. So what I’ve done is chosen what 1 think to be the right key. I’ve taken the five-part original of Paradise, as this also gives me the Galliard to pair with Paradise. The original lute music contained no version of the Galliard. It seemed to me that if the Galliard went down a fourth from the ensemble version it would fit perfectly on the lute, and I then discovered that if I put the Paradise down a fourth, it gave a wonderfully deep, sonorous, relaxed account of it, which is much more lutey than the original version. So I think that I’ve happened to have made a better arrangement than the one that survived from the odd manuscript version of some lute buff. The record, in fact, begins with a fairly lengthy suite of Holborne which is a pavan-galliard pairing and about three-quarters of it is my own new arrangement. So the record starts with that and then it goes on to some suites that I have arranged of William Lawes. Murray Lefkovitz, the American musicologist, has put forward a theory that Lawes was putting together a manuscript of his work dedicated to the King, with the King’s arms on the front, and he surmises that there was a lute manuscript of this work which is now lost. This is maybe based on spurious grounds but the idea appealed to me. I started to look amongst William Lawes works, and there’s a great deal that can transcribe to the lute very well indeed Some, we know, had lute originals or at least lute versions during his career, and now only survive in harpsichord or cittern versions. I look a suite called The Royal Consort for two treble instruments, two basses, and two theorbos. This is an unusual style, a kind of Stile brise, not in French style but one peculiar to Lawes. He was always an eccentric. It’s essentially a treble and bass style where he breaks up the treble and bass and divides them so you sometimes get the treble bursting into a descant and the bass bursting into divisions. If you can discern what the original skeleton of the composition was, you can put it back to suiting the lute extremely well.
G.F: Do you have any further lute-centred activities in mind?
A.R: I thought that the recording I did, “Renaissance Fantasias,” would be my last disc, because I had become less and less interested in the lute in its solo capacity. Now I find myself making a new one and it is very exciting. I can’t see beyond that because it’s very time consuming creating these new works and it does take a lot of time building up new material. I really don’t know what my interests will be in terms of the lute. Meanwhile, though, the Consort of Musicke is decidedly my main vehicle for expression, and our main project has been to record for Virgin, the complete Montiverdi madrigals, a set of twelve CD’s.