Galilei and the Well-tempered Lute

Nicolas Tournier portrayed this luthenist in the 17th century.
Nicolas Tournier portrayed this luthenist in the 17th century.

Everybody knows Galilei. Galileo Galilei, the mathematician, astronomer and philosopher. The one who dared thinking about the earth not being flat and the the sun not revolving around the earth. But do you know Vincenzo Galilei? He was Galileo Galilei’s father and a lutenist. He was born around 1520 in Santa Maria a Monte and died in 1591 in Florence. He was also a composer and a musicologist, though that term had not yet been coined in the 16th century. Vincenzo had another son, Michelangelo Galilei, who became a famous lutenist too. Vincenzo Galilei worked as a lutenist first in Pisa, later in Florence and was a member of the Florentine Camerata, a group of artists and intellectuals who wanted to revive the ancient arts like the drama as it was performed in Greece.

Galilei broke new ground with his treatise “Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna”, published in 1581 about the well-tempered tuning of the lute. At the same time he championed the monody as it was sung in ancient times according to the prevalent opinion of the members of the Florentine Camerata and rejected polyphony. This may seem a futile discussion today, but one doesn’t have to go far back in time to come across composers involved in bitter personal feuds about what is wrong and what is right in music. Pierre Boulez might be a case in point.

Instrument tuning before Bach

In 1563, Galilei wrote the “Libro d’Intavolatura de Lauto” (The Book on the Tablature of the Lute), a collection of vocal transcriptions and ricercari* for the lute. These pieces have been recorded under the title “The Well-Tempered Lute” in 2016 by the the London based lutenist and music scholar Zak Ozmo with the label Hyperion. Ozmo explains that “this fascinating work, which circulated 138 years before J. S. Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, is the first substantial musical collection to champion the versatility of a well-tempered tuning system, more precisely described as equal temperament… It demonstrated the ability of the lute to transpose pieces to any of the twelve degrees of an equally tempered scale, while using the two modes that most resemble the more modern notion of minor and major tonality: Dorian and Ionian.”

So, if you are in for some relaxing music that lets your mind drift off to ancient times, marked by heroic dramas and passionate philosophical discussions among Greek scholars, this might be something for you. Enjoy.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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2 thoughts on “Galilei and the Well-tempered Lute”

  1. Well, you’re responsible for my expense on my part! I’ve just rung the local classical music shop and asked them to put a copy aside for me.

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