Friday, November 23, 8221

Alfonso X ("El Sabio") (1221-1284) - Lute

Alfonso X ("El Sabio") ("The Wise") - Cantiguas de Santa Maria "quel que de voontade" (Long-necked lute / Syrian tambura)

Alfonso X (November 23, 1221, Toledo, Spain – April 4, 1284, Seville, Spain) was a Spanish monarch who ruled as the King of Castile, León and Galicia from 1252 until his death. He also was elected German King (formally King of the Romans) in 1257. His nicknames were "el Sabio" ("the Wise" or "the Learned") and "el Astrólogo" ("the Astronomer").

Alfonso was the eldest son of Ferdinand III of Castile and Elisabeth of Hohenstaufen. His maternal grandparents were Philip of Swabia and Irene Angelina.

As a writer and intellectual he gained considerable scientific fame based on his encouragement of astronomy and the Ptolemaic cosmology as known to him through the Arabs. (Because of this, the Alphonsus crater on the Moon is named after him). His fame extends to the preparation of the Alfonsine tables, based on calculations of al-Zarqali Alzarquel. One famous quote attributed to him was supposedly said upon hearing an explanation of Ptolemy's theory of astronomy and being shown the extremely complicated mathematics required to "prove" it -- "If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking on creation thus, I should have recommended something simpler." The validity of this quotation is questioned by some historians.

From the beginning of his reign, Alfonso began employing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars at his court, primarily for the purpose of translating books from Arabic into Old Spanish. Most of these books survive in only one manuscript and were almost certainly created for the private use of Alfonso and his inner circle, which included Jewish and Christian courtiers. The first translation, commissioned by his brother, Fernando de la Cerda -- who had extensive experience, both diplomatic and military, among the Muslims of southern Spain and north Africa -- was a Spanish version of the animal fable Kalila wa-Dimna, a book that belongs to the genre of wisdom literature labeled Mirrors for Princes: stories and sayings meant to instruct the monarch in proper and effective governance. But the primary intellectual work of these scholars centered on astronomy and astrology. The early period of Alfonso's reign saw the translation of selected works of magic -- Lapidario, Picatrix, Libro de las formas et las ymagenes -- all translated by a Jewish scholar named Yehudah ben Moshe (Yhuda Mosca, in the Old Spanish source texts). These were all highly ornate manuscripts (only the Lapidario survives in its entirety) containing what was believed to be secret knowledge on the magical properties of stones and talismans. In addition to these books of astral magic, Alfonso ordered the translation of well-known Arabic astrological compendia including the Libro de las cruzes and Libro conplido en los iudizios de las estrellas, the first of these was, ironically, translated from Latin (it was used among the Visigoths!), into Arabic, and then back into Spanish and Latin.

As a ruler, Alfonso showed legislative capacity, and a wish to provide his kingdoms with a code of laws and a consistent judicial system. The Fuero Real was undoubtedly his work. He began the code called the Siete Partidas, which, however, was only promulgated by his great-grandson. Because of this, he is one of the 23 lawmakers depicted in the chamber of the United States House of Representatives.

Alfonso was the first king who initiated the use of the Castilian language extensively, although his father, Fernando III had begun to use it for some documents, instead of Latin, as the language used in courts, churches, and in books and official documents.

Throughout his reign, Alfonso contended with the nobles, particular the families of Nuño González de Lara, Diego López de Haro and Esteban Fernández de Castro, all of whom were formidable soldiers and instrumental in maintaining Castile's military strength in frontier territories. According to some scholars, Alfonso lacked the singleness of purpose required by a ruler who would devote himself to organization, and also the combination of firmness with temper needed for dealing with his nobles. Others have argued that his efforts were too singularly focused on the diplomatic and financial arrangements surrounding his bid for Holy Roman Emperor.

Alfonso's descent from the Hohenstaufen through his mother, a daughter of the emperor Philip of Swabia, gave him a claim to represent the Swabian line. Alfonso's election by the prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire in 1257 misled him into wild schemes that involved excessive expense but never took effect. To obtain money, he debased the coinage and then endeavoured to prevent a rise in prices by an arbitrary tariff. The little trade of his dominions was ruined, and the burghers and peasants were deeply offended. His nobles, whom he tried to cow by sporadic acts of violence, rebelled against him.

Alfonso's eldest son, Ferdinand de la Cerda, Infante of Castile, died in 1275, leaving two infant sons. Alfonso's second son, Sancho, claimed to be the new heir, in preference to the children of Ferdinand de la Cerda, basing his claim on an old Castilian custom, that of proximity of blood and agnatic seniority. Alfonso preferred to leave the throne to his grandsons, but Sancho had the support of the nobility. A bitter civil war broke out resulting in 1282 Alfonso's being forced to accept Sancho as his heir instead of his young grandsons. Son and nobles alike supported the Moors when he tried to unite the nation in a crusade; and when he allied himself with Abu Yusuf Yakub, the ruling Marinid Sultan of Morocco, they denounced him as an enemy of the faith. A reaction in his favor was beginning in his later days, but he died defeated and deserted at Seville, leaving a will, by which he endeavored to exclude Sancho, and a heritage of civil war.

Alfonso X commissioned or co-authored numerous works of music during his reign. These works included Cantigas d'escarnio e maldicer, General Estoria, and the Libro de los juegos ("Book of Games").

Among the most important of the works by Alfonso X was the celebrated Cantigas de Santa Maria ("Songs to the Virgin Mary"), one of the largest collections of vernacular monophonic songs to survive from the Middle Ages. The Cantigas de Santa Maria consists of 420 poems written in Galician-Portuguese with musical notation. The poems are for the most part on miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary. One of the miracles Alfonso relates is his own healing in Puerto de Santa María.

In 1246, Alfonso X married Violante of Aragon, the daughter of King James I of Aragon and Yolande of Hungary in 1249, although betrothed already in 1246. Because of her young age (Violante was only 13-years-old at the time of the marriage), she produced no children for several years [suprise!] and it was feared that she was barren. Alfonso almost had their marriage annulled, but they went on to have ten children.

[Not to be confused with Cuban hip-hop afro-rock singer X Alfonso (Equis-Alfonso, b. 1976)]


[Panpipe, looking suspiciously Sheng-like, from the E Codex of the Cantiguas de Santa Maria]

The Cantigas de Santa Maria ("Songs to the Virgin Mary") are manuscripts written in Galician-Portuguese, with music notation, during the reign of Alfonso X El Sabio (1221-1284) and are one of the largest collections of monophonic (solo) songs from the Middle Ages. All of the songs at least mention the Virgin Mary, and every 10th is a religious hymn. Some of the manuscripts containing this music also contain colored miniatures showing pairs of musicians playing a wide variety of instruments.

The Cantigas, written in Galician-Portuguese *the lyrical language of Castile at the time), are composed of 420 poems, 356 of which are in a narrative format relating to Virgin Mary miracles; the rest of them, except an introduction and two prologues, are of lore or involve Marian festivities. The Cantigas depict the Virgin Mary in a very humanized way, often having her play a role in earthly episodes.

The authors are unknown, even if several studies indicate that Galician poet Airas Nunes might well have been the author of a large part of them. King Alfonso X -- named as Affonso in the Cantigas -- is also believed to be an author of some of them as he refers himself in first person. Support for this theory can be found in the prologue of the Cantigas. Also, many sources credit Alfonso due to the influence of his works on the poetic tradition, including his introduction of religious song. Although King Alphonso X's authorship is debatable, his influence is not. While the other major works that came out of Alfonso's workshops, including the histories and other prose texts, were in Castilian, the Cantigas are in Galician-Portuguese, and reflect the popularity in the Castilian court of other poetic corpuses such as the cantigas d'amigo and cantigas d'amor.

The metrics are extraordinarily diverse: 280 different formats for the 420 Cantigas. The most common are the virelai and the rondeau. The length of the verses varies between two and 24 syllables. The narrative voice in many of the songs describes an erotic relationship, in the troubador fashion, with the Divine. According to 2000 publishings by scholar Manuel Pedro Ferreira the models for the Cantigas might acutally be something different than a traditional French rondeau. He calls the format for some of the Cantigas the "Andalusian rondeau" which has a structure of AB/BB/AB.

The music is written in notation which is similar to that used for chant, but also contains some information about the length of the notes. Several transcriptions exist. The Cantigas are frequently recorded and performed by Early Music groups, and quite a few CDs featuring music from the Cantigas are available.

Three codices (copies) of the Cantigas are preserved. They are known as the E Codex, the T Codex, and the Florencia manuscript. The E Codex kept in El Escorial, originally from the royal court of Seville, is in two volumes and is the largest collection of the Cantigas; it is richly illuminated in a Gothic hand, containing no less than 1262 carefully detailed miniatures, and has been dated to 1280-1283. The T Codex, from Toledo, which had been considered a copy of an earlier manuscript, has now been reevaluated; it may be in fact be the oldest of the codices, dating from the lifetime of King Alfonso. Also, the T Codex is the least illustrated of the manuscripts. Instead of intricate depictions of scenes it contains alternation of ink throughout. The Florence manuscript has 109 of the cantigas but contains no music, only empty staves; however it is richly illuminated.

The musical form of the Cantigas, a central work of medieval music, is highly organized and, like other aspects of the collection, still a topic of debate and study to uncover the truth. According to Manuel Pedro Ferreira, the music found in the Cantigas cannot be classified as Arab, but instead must be classified as "Moorish- Andalusian." This influence of music lends to the Cantigas a mixture of reference from Western and Eastern traditions of music.


Lute can refer generally to any plucked string instrument with a neck (either fretted or unfretted) and a deep round back, or more specifically to an instrument from the family of European lutes.

The European lute and the Near-Eastern oud both descend from a common ancestor, with diverging evolutionary paths. The lute is used in a great variety of instrumental music from the early renaissance to the late baroque eras. It is also an accompanying instrument, especially in vocal works, often realizing a basso continuo or playing a written-out accompaniment.
The player of a lute is called a lutenist, lutanist, or lutist, and a maker of lutes (or any string instrument) is called a luthier.

The words "lute" and "oud" derive from Arabic al‘ud (literally "the wood").

Recent research by Eckhard Neubauer suggests that "ud may in turn be an Arabized version of the Persian name rud, which meant "string," "stringed instrument," or "lute."

Gianfranco Lotti suggests that the "wood" appellation originally carried derogatory connotations, because of proscriptions of all instrumental music in early Islam.

Lutes are made almost entirely of wood. The soundboard is a teardrop-shaped thin flat plate of resonant wood (usually spruce). In all lutes the soundboard has a single (sometimes triple) decorated sound hole under the strings, called the rose. The soundhole is not open, but rather covered with a grille in the form of an intertwining vine or a decorative knot, carved directly out of the wood of the soundboard.

The back or the shell is assembled from thin strips of hardwood (maple, cherry, ebony, rosewood or other tonewoods) called ribs joined (with glue) edge to edge to form a deep rounded body for the instrument. There are braces inside on the soundboard to give it strength; see the photo among the external links below.

The neck is made of light wood, with a veneer of hardwood (usually ebony) to provide durability for the fretboard beneath the strings. Unlike most modern stringed instruments, the lute's fretboard is mounted flush with the top. The pegbox for lutes before the Baroque era was angled back from the neck at almost 90° (see image), presumably to help hold the low-tension strings firmly against the nut, which is not traditionally glued in place, but is held in place by string pressure only. The tuning pegs are simple pegs of hardwood, somewhat tapered, that are held in place by friction in holes drilled through the pegbox. As with other instruments using friction pegs, the choice of wood used to make pegs is crucial. As the wood suffers dimensional changes through age and loss of humidity, it must as closely as possible retain a circular cross-section in order to function properly, as there are no gears or other mechanical aids for tuning the instrument. Often pegs were made from suitable fruitwoods such as European pearwood, or equally dimensionally stable analogues. Matheson, ca 1720, stated if a lute-player has lived eighty years, he has surely spent sixty years tuning.

The geometry of the lute belly is relatively complex, involving a system of barring in which braces are placed perpendicular to the strings at specific lengths along the overall length of the belly, the ends of which are angled quite precisely to abut the ribs on either side for structural reasons. Robert Lundberg, in his book Historical Lute Construction, suggests that ancient builders placed bars according to whole-number ratios of the scale length and belly length. He further suggests that the inward bend of the soundboard (the "belly scoop) is a deliberate adaptation by ancient builders to afford the lutenist's right hand a bit more space between the strings and soundboard. The belly thickness is somewhat variable, but hovers between 1.5 and 2 millimeters in general. Some luthiers tune the belly as they build, removing mass and adapting bracing to ensure proper sonic results. The lute belly is almost never finished, though in some cases the luthier may size the top with a very thin coat of shellac or glair in order to help keep it clean. The belly is joined directly to the rib, without a lining glued to the sides, although a cap and counter cap are glued to the inside and outside of the bottom end of the bowl to provide rigidity and increased gluing surface.

After joining the top to the sides, a half binding is usually installed around the edge of the belly. The half-binding is approximately half the thickness of the belly and is usually made of a contrasting color wood. The rebate for the half-binding must be extremely precise to avoid compromising structural integrity.

The bridge, usually made of a fruitwood, is attached to the soundboard usually at 1/5 to 1/7 the belly length. It does not have a separate saddle but has holes bored into it to which the strings attach directly. Typically the bridge is made such that it tapers in height and length, with the small end holding the trebles and the higher and wider end carrying the basses. Bridges are often colored black with carbon black in a binder, often shellac, and often have inscribed decoration. The scrolls or other decoration on the ends of lute bridges are usually integral to the bridge, and are not added afterwards as on some Renaissance guitars (cf Joachim Tielke's guitars).

The frets are made of loops of gut tied around the neck. They fray with use, and must be replaced from time to time. A few additional partial frets of wood are usually glued to the body of the instrument, to allow stopping the highest-pitched courses up to a full octave higher than the open string ,though these are anachronistic and do not appear on original instruments. Given the choice between nylon and gut, many luthiers prefer to use gut, as it conforms more readily to the sharp angle at the edge of the fingerboard.

Strings were historically made of gut (or sometimes in combination with metal), and are still made of gut or a synthetic substitute, with metal windings on the lower-pitched strings. Modern manufacturers make both gut and nylon strings, and both are in common use. Gut is more authentic, though it is also more susceptible to irregularity and pitch instability due to changes in humidity. Nylon, less authentic, offers greater tuning stability but is of course anachronistic.

Of note are the "catlines" used as basses on historical instruments. Catlines are several gut strings wound together and soaked in heavy metal solutions which increase the mass of the strings. Catlines can be quite large in diameter by comparison with wound nylon strings for the same pitch. They produce a bass which is somewhat different in timbre from nylon basses.
The lute's strings are arranged in courses, usually of two strings each, though the highest-pitched course usually consists of only a single string, called the chanterelle. In later Baroque lutes 2 upper courses are single. The courses are numbered sequentially, counting from the highest pitched, so that the chanterelle is the first course, the next pair of strings is the second course, etc.

The courses are tuned in unison for high and intermediate pitches, but for lower pitches one of the two strings is tuned an octave higher. (The course at which this split starts changed over the history of the lute.) The two strings of a course are virtually always stopped and plucked together, as if a single string, but in extremely rare cases a piece calls for the two strings of a course to be stopped and/or plucked separately. The tuning of a lute is a somewhat complicated issue, and is described in a separate section of its own, below. The result of the lute's design is an instrument extremely light for its size.

The origins of the lute are obscure, and organologists disagree about the very definition of a lute. The highly influential organologist Curt Sachs distinguished between the "long-necked lute" (Langhalslaute) and the short-necked variety: both referred to chordophones with a neck as distinguished from harps and psalteries. Smith and others argue that the long-necked variety should not be called lute at all, since it existed for at least a millennium before the appearance of the short-necked instrument that eventually evolved into what is now known as the lute, nor was it ever called a lute before the 20th century.

Various types of necked chordophones were in use in ancient Egyptian (where they were introduced from Asia in the Middle Kingdom), Hittite, Greek, Roman, Bulgar, Turkic, Chinese, Armenian/Cilician cultures. The Lute developed its familiar forms in Arabia, Persia, Armenia, and Byzantium beginning in the early 600's. These instruments often had bodies covered with animal skin, as do the modern American banjo, Persian tar, Indian sarod, West African xalam, and Chinese erhu and sanxian.

As early as the 500's the Bulgars brought the short-necked variety of the instrument called Kobuz to the Balkans, and in the 9th century Moors brought Oud to Spain. The long-necked Pandora/Quitra had been common Mediterranean lute previously. The Quitra didn't become extinct however, but continued its evolution, its descendants being Chitarra Italiana, Chitarrone and Colascione, aside from the still surviving Kuitra of Algiers and Morocco.

In about the year 1500 many Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese lutenists adopted vihuela de mano, a viol-shaped instrument tuned like the lute, but both instruments continued in coexistence. This instrument also found its way to parts of Italy that were under Spanish domination (especially Sicily and the papal states under the Borgia pope Alexander VI who brought many Catalan musicians to Italy), where it was known as the viola da mano.

Another important point of transfer of the lute from Muslim to Christian European culture might have been in Sicily, where it was brought either by Byzantine or later by Saracen musicians. There were singer-lutenists at the court in Palermo following the Christian Norman conquest of the island, and the lute is depicted extensively in the ceiling paintings in the Palermo’s royal Cappella Palatina, dedicated by the Norman King Roger II in 1140. By the 14th century, lutes had disseminated throughout Italy. Probably due to the cultural influence of the Hohenstaufen kings and emperor, based in Palermo, the lute had also made significant inroads into the German-speaking lands by the 14th century.

Medieval lutes were 4- or 5-course instruments, plucked using a quill for a plectrum. There were several sizes, and by the end of the Renaissance, seven different sizes (up to the great octave bass) are documented. Song accompaniment was probably the lute's primary function in the Middle Ages, but very little music securely attributable to the lute survives from the era before 1500. Medieval and early-Renaissance song accompaniments were probably mostly improvised, hence the lack of written records.

The lute enjoyed a revival with the awakening of interest in historical music around 1900 and throughout the century, and that revival was further boosted by the early music movement in the 20th Century. Important pioneers in lute revival were Julian Bream, Hans Neemann, Walter Gerwig, Suzanne Bloch and Diana Poulton. Lute performances are now not uncommon; there are many professional lutenists, especially in Europe where the most employment is to be found, and new compositions for the instrument are being produced by composers.

During the early days of the early music movement, many lutes were constructed by available luthiers, whose specialty was often classical guitars. Such lutes were heavily built with construction similar to classical guitars, with fan bracing, heavy tops, fixed frets, and lined sides, all of which are anachronistic to historical lutes. As lutherie scholarship increased, makers began constructing instruments based on historical models, which have proven on the whole to be far lighter and more responsive instruments.

Lutes built at present are invariably replicas or near copies of those surviving historical instruments that are to be found in museums or private collections. They are exclusively custom-built or must be bought second hand in a very limited market. As a result, lutes are generally more expensive than mass-produced modern instruments such as the guitar, though not nearly as expensive as the violin. Unlike in the past there are many types of lutes encountered today, including 5-course medieval lutes.

The modern repertoire is largely drawn from historical publications and manuscripts, though quite a few modern compositions do exist. The historical corpus is vast, consisting of over 40,000 pieces, and about half of it exists only in the original manuscripts and has never been published. Much material circulates among lutenists in facsimiles of the manuscripts or as photocopies of handwritten copies. Historical lute music is most commonly written in tablature, though sometimes in ordinary musical notation instead. Several computer programs now exist designed specifically for the editing and printing of lute tabulature of many types.

Ottorino Respighi's famous orchestral suites called Ancient Airs and Dances are drawn from various books and articles on 16th- and 17th-century lute music transcribed by the musicologist Oscar Chilesotti, including eight pieces from a German manuscript Da un Codice Lauten-Buch, now in a private library in northern Italy.

Modern lutenists tune to a variety of pitch standards, ranging from A = 392 to 470 Hz, depending on the type of instrument they are playing, the repertory, the pitch of other instruments in an ensemble and other performing expediencies. No attempt at a universal pitch standard existed during the period of the lute's historical popularity. The standards varied over time and from place to place.

[8225 Thomas Aquinas / 8221 Alfonso X / 8220 School of Notre Dame]