The Best Practical Musick: Thomas Mace’s Rule of Time-Keeping

 

The Best Practical Music

 

In a recent online discussion in the Historical Performance Research group, I gave

a timely warning to anyone who might be tempted by the idea that Rhetorical Eloquence is somehow contrary to rhythmical or harmonic structure.

My provocation drew the hoped-for riposte, with a suggestion that 17th-century lutenist Thomas Mace thought that ‘playing in time is [only] for beginners’. This suggestion, and the mis-reading of period texts as if they supported it, is so commonly encountered, that I took up the challenge, and re-read the whole of Mace’s 1676 treatise Musick’s Monument to find out what Thomas actually wrote.

 

 

Time-keeping

 

The book includes many music examples, even complete pieces and suites, in tablature. Its 272 pages are divided into three parts, on the Necessity of Singing, the Noble Lute and the Generous Viol. Concerning time-keeping, Mace’s instructions for beginners and comments for advanced players are found in the The Civil Part: or the Lute made Easie, starting at page 78:

In all musical performances whatever, if they be done according to Art, they are done according to the Rule of Time-Keeping

This alone should be enough to settle any debate. And Mace gives us plenty of further detail of how to keep time.

 

 

The inter-dependence of Time and Motion is rooted in Aristotle’s definition of Time as ‘a number of motion, in respect of before and after’. Not until a century or so later would Newton’s concept (Principia, 1687) of Absolute Time gain general acceptance. Mace’s Aristotelean time requires steady motion to drive it, and – according to the philosophy of the Music of the Spheres – the motion of music imitates the perfect movement of the stars and the harmonious nature of the human body.

On the lute, ‘an instrument on which both are hands are employed, we must therefore keep time with a foot’. Muffat gives the same advice for violinists in his preface to Florilegium Secundum (1698).

 

 

Mace’s requirement for

Exact, Equal, Constant, True and Even Motion… like the Balance of a good Clock

carries forward from 1592 the principles of Zacconi’s (hand-beating) Tactus:

regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any pertubation

 

 

Mace’s time-keeping foot moves just like Zacconi’s tactus-hand: down for one minim, up for the next minim, so that the complete tactus-motion occupies a semibreve.

 

 

The instruction (page 79) that there should not be ‘the least Difference’ during the piece is supported by Muffat’s repeated insistence that the vrai mouvement (true movement) of French dances should continue from the beginning to the end. And as a good teacher, Mace recommends that beginners ‘carefully practise; so that the good habi acquired ‘at the first’ will ‘ever continue’ for the rest of the player’s career.

In contrast, many of us who nowadays play Early Music, received our first training in the post-romantic school of the 20th-century, with its tacit assumption that the vacillating rhythm and wayward tempi of Rubato are the secret of advanced expression. We have to read Mace’s words carefully, if we are to escape our own assumptions and inhabit his world of Aristotelean time.

In chapter XI, Mace recommends a pendulum as an aid to learning how to keep time ‘by the most Exact, Easie and Infallible Way’, and as a test for ‘masters’ even for an ‘Artist of the Highest Form… a very Master’ that should ‘be able to keep Exact True Time’. The length of the pendulum should be adjusted so that one can count from one to four ‘with Deliberation, as a Man would speak Gravely or Soberly, and not Hastily or Huddlingly; yet not Drawlingly or Dreamingly; but in an Ordinary Familiar way of Speaking’. These four crotchet-beats, i.e. one semibreve, occupy the time for the pendulum to swing one way and then the other way, i.e. a complete oscillation.  The pendulum, as an ‘assured time-keeper’ should be the musician’s Director.

Mace’s advice for students concludes with a reminder (page 81) that

The Exact Motion of True Time-Keeping is one of the most Necessary and Main Things in Musick

Liberty

In this familiar 17th-century context of true time-keeping, which is supported so strongly by period French and Italian sources, Mace’s next remark might well seem contradictory:

Although in our First Undertakings we ought to strive for the most Exact Habit of Time-Keeping that we can possibly attain unto (and for several good Reasons) yet, when we come to be Masters, so that we can command all manner of Time, at our own Pleasures, we then take Liberty (and very often for Humour and good Adornment-sake, in certain places) to break time; sometimes faster and sometimes slower, as we perceive the nature of the thing requires, which often adds much Grace and Lustre to the performance.

How are we to reconcile such Liberty with Mace’s uncompromising remarks on the ‘Exact, Equal, Constant, True and Even Motion’ of Time-Keeping’ … ‘in all musical performances whatever;?  Mace, a cleric in divine orders, greatly admired the lute-playing of John Dowland, who similarly preached

Above all things, keep the Equality of Measure. For to sing without law and measure is an offence to God himself.

 

 

And according to Shakespeare’s Richard II, sweet music becomes sour ‘when time is broke’.

 

 

It would be foolhardy to turn a blind eye to all this period context of ‘exact Time-Keeping’, and leap to the conclusion that Mace’s Liberty is an invitation to apply 20th-century rubato indiscriminately to 17th-century music. Rather we must search for evidence of precisely where the ‘certain places’ are, and of how to ‘perceive the nature of the thing’.

 

Humour

Above all, we need to understand Mace’s concept of Humour – not as a modern performer’s personal ‘interpretation’, but as a quality that already resides within the composition, and which the performer must perceive, so that the listener may understand, enjoy and be moved. In a philosophy of performance that goes back to the trobadors and trouveres, Mace requires players to find the Humour, not invent it.

17th-century ‘Humour‘ does not mean comedy: we might roughly define it as ‘Emotion’, ‘Mood’, or (to use another period English term) ‘Passion’. As a term for musical performance, Humour is rooted in period Science, where the doctrine of the Four Humours offers a self-consistent and practicable system for understanding and working with the psychological and physiological effects of emotions. Words and music that are heard and understood in the mind (see Enargeia, Visions in Performance) send signals (Energia) down to the body, creating changes in various body-fluids. The changing balance of those fluids creates the physiological effects of emotional change.

The Sanguine Humour is linked to blood, associated with healthy red cheeks, or a delicate blush, with love, courage, hope, with the enjoyment of music, good food and red wine. The Choleric Humour is linked to yellow bile, associated with desire, anger and the urge for strong drink. The Melancholy Humour (beloved of John Dowland and Shakespeare’s Jacques) is linked to black bile, paleness in the face (lack of Sanguinity, the opposite humour), associated with sleeplessness, too much study, unlucky love-affairs, and academic precision! The Phlegmatic Humour is linked to green phlegm, and lack of any emotional response: a wet blanket.

 

Of course, these four Humours are not a complete catalogue of the vast array of human emotion; rather, like the four cardinal points, North, South, East & West, they indicate primary directions within the whole area being mapped.

Like those cardinal points, the Four Humours focus attention on opposites: North & South, Sanguine & Melancholic. This supports the tendency in 17th-century music to contrast one Humour (in Italian, affetto) with its opposite (oposto) – see Motion and E-motion in the First Opera. In common with opera- and ballo-composer Cavalieri’s advice for singers, Mace’s instructions for lutenists ask for contrasts of loud and soft.

And Mace’s linking of three concepts: specific musical situations (‘certain places’), affetto (Humour), and subtleties of Time recalls Frescobaldi’s (1615) Rules for toccatas (applicable also to madrigals and other genres with contrasting movements). All too often, modern performers take Frescobaldi’s remarks as an encouragement to rhythmic anarchy and Rubato; but close reading of his carefully formulated Rules reveals both the underlying assumption of steady Tactus, and the precisely delimited circumstances under which the Tactus can change. See Frescobaldi Rules – OK?

To summarise, Frescobaldi advocates using Tactus to control the music, even if that Tactus sometimes changes. He limits the opportunities for change to the break between contrasting movements with contrasting emotions. He also allows a momentary pause, on the upbeat. Caccini suggests, and Monteverdi notates another practice of rhythmic freedom, where the accompaniment continues in steady measure, but the solo melody drifts around, like a jazz singer syncopating against the rhythm section. See sprezzatura.

And 17th-century musical Time has its own special shape, described by the concept of Arsis & Thesis and illustrated by the non-linear movement of a pendulum swing. Tactus is not ‘metronomic’, in the perjorative sense. See The Shape of Time

Time & Humour

So now let’s study Mace’s remarks about Time and Humour – all of them – and see what we can discover about the ‘certain places’ where the music might go ‘faster or slower’, and how it might thus go.

Page 97 – Brisk

In describing the character – we might well say, Humour – of the key of B major ( not Bb!), rarely encountered in 17th-century lute-music, Mace uses for this Key the words ‘Noble, Brave and Brisk-Lively’. This usage reminds us that, for Mace, the words Brisk and Lively convey character, not merely speed. It would be nonsense to write that B major is a ‘fast key’, but the quality of Brisk-Liveliness is shown by the dotted notes that Mace uses in the music example that follows.

Mace’s focus in these chapters is on correct left-hand fingering and right-hand strokes, preparing “by setting your Left Hand upon the Stops, and your Right Hand upon the String, ready to strike. yet

 

Strike them in their due time… according to their true Quantities

Page 101-102 – gentle

In his discussion of Full Plays (chords using many strings, for example at cadences – Full Stops), Mace describes the ‘Fashionable way of Playing them (now used)’ which ‘is much more easie’, in which the thumb plays the bass note, and the forefinger rakes down all the other strings, rather than playing each string with a different finger. He defines the word ‘rake’ as ‘smoothly stroke… very gently’. There is no suggestion of slowness, indeed Mace emphasises that an intervening short note ‘will not admit of any delay’.

From this, and my previous citation, it is apparent that Mace perceives two opposing types of Humour, in which Brisk Lively is contrasted with Smoothly Gentle, but without linking these qualities to any change between Fast and Slow.  As readers of modern English, we should be careful not to add any present-day connotations of brisk = fast, gentle = slowly, when we see these words in Mace’s next pages.

Page 103-104

Mace gives a ‘General and Certain Rule (never to be altered)’ for ornamentation – Graces or the Adorning of your Play (note the use of the word ‘adorn’, which he links also to the concept of Liberty), that ‘All Shakes’ must be made according to

The Aire and Humour of your Tuning and Lesson

He then sets down the Aire as a scale, determined by the nature of the tuning of the lute, not by the tonality of the piece at hand.

He rules out the idea that rhythm might be bent for the sake of prolonging ornaments – whatever his concept of Liberty might be, it is not this.

When I have thus continued Beating, so long as my Time will allow me

Page 109 – vibrato

I can’t resist this brief digression to note that Mace’s Sting, ‘a very Neat and Pritty Grace’… ‘for some sorts of Humours very Excellent’ is vibrato, “as to make the Sound seem to Swell with pritty unexpected Humour, and gives much Contentment, upon Cases”. Thomas believes that vibrato adds a pleasing emotional quality, but only in certain circumstances.

But the Sting is ‘not Modish in these days’.  It would seem that Dowland used more vibrato than Mace….

Page 109 – Loud & Soft

Mace gives great importance to dynamic contrasts:

Play some part of the Lesson loud and some part soft

‘which gives much more Grace and Lustre to Play, than any other Grace, whatsoever: therefore I commend it, as a Principal and Chief-Ornamental Grace (in its Proper Place)

Page 109 – the Pause

At the end of this chapter on ornamentation, we have the first mention of modification of Time.

‘The thing to be done is but only to make a kind of Cessation, or standing still, sometimes Longer and sometimes Shorter, according to the Nature, or requiring of the Humour of the Musick’

If this is done ‘in its due Place’, it is a ‘a very excellent Grace’.

In subsequent pages, Mace gives many examples of ‘due Places’ for the Pause. The effect recalls Frescobaldi’s description of the Tactus hand ‘hesitating in the air’  at certain moments. For both writers, the effect is used very sparingly, and as a one-off event. It is not applied repeatedly or continuously throughout a passage, in the manner of 20th-century Rubato. There is no suggestion of rallentando approaching the Pause, indeed Mace’s words ‘but only to make a kind of Cessation’ seem to rule out any anticipatory slowing-down.

Page 115-116 – touch, humour, key, conceit

In this discussion of improvisation, Mace celebrates the ability to manage contrasts in four inter-related qualities: touch (the sounding of one or more notes), Humour (emotional quality), key (what we would today call tonality), conceit (a musical idea, subject or theme). Once the particular key is established, ‘some little Humour’ (a few more notes, a fragment of melody) allows the listener to ‘discern some Shape or Form of Matter’.

The ‘Shape or Form’ is also called a Fugue, i.e. a contrapuntal point, a fragment of melody suitable for polyphonic imitation.

‘This term Fuge is a Term used among Composers, by which they understand a certain intended Order, Shape or Form of Notes, signifying such a Matter, or such an Extention; and is used in Musick as a theme, or as a subject-matter in Oratory, on which the Orator intends to discourse.

‘And this is the Nature and Use of a Fuge in Musick.’

‘Maintain a Fuge or Humour’

In this context of improvised playing, ‘maintaining’ seems to combine the compositorial skill of working a point of counterpoint (Fugue) and the performer’s skill of maintaining an emotional mood (Humour).

Page 117 – Fuge & Humour

‘As to the Humour of It, you may observe that it all tastes of, or similises with the first bar in some small kind; yet not too much of the same Humour…the last part is a little akin to the Fuge; yet perculiarly a Humour by itself. For you may carry on and maintain several Humours and Conceits in the same Lesson, provided they have some affinity or agreement one to the other.’

Mace criticises composers of the previous generation for too many contrasts of Humour in one piece. But in the following page (118) he declares that music is a language that can express any emotion, and that it is even more powerful than rhetorical words.

In Musick any Humour, Conceit or Passsion may be expressed, and so significantly as any Rhetorical Words or Expressions are able to do

‘If any difference be, it is in that Music speaks so transcendently, and communicates its notions so intelligibly to the internal, intellectual and incomprehensible Faculties of the Soul, so far beyond all language of words…. Those Influences that come along with it, may aptly be compared to Emanations, Communications or Distillations of some sweet and heavenly Genius or Spirit, mystically and unapprehensibly  (yet efectually) dispossessing the Soul and Mind of all irregular disturbing and unquiet Motions; and stills and fills it with quietness, joy and peace. absolute tranquillity and inexpressible satisfaction.’

 

On page 120, he observes the ‘Fugues, Orders and Forms’ of his first three examples, in which the Humour of the first two bars is maintained in the next two bars, then for the remainder of the piece there is ‘another Humour or Fuge’, distinct from the opening, ‘but alluding to it’.  Mace’s ideal contrast in Humour is subtle and simple, rather than dramatic or manifold.

Page 120 – Suite

 

A Sett or a Suit of Lessons… may be of any number as you please, yet commonly are about half a dozen. The first always … in the nature of … [an improvised] Prelude…. Then Allmaine, Ayre, Coranto, Saraband, Toy or what you please, provided that they be all in the same key; yet (in my opionion)… they ought to be something akin, or to have some kind of resemblance in their Conceits, Natures or Humours.

 

In the example prelude that follows, ‘the whole Lesson alludes to the same thing, and yet with pleasant variety.’  We might therefore assume that in such a piece , with no significant change of Humour, there will be no need for the Liberty of making any significant change in tempo.

 

Page 121-124 – The Author’s Mistress

Mace tells a touching personal story about the inspiration for the composition of this piece, 40 years previously, in passionate longing for his wife-to-be. He considers it ‘the Best Lesson in the book’ and its powerful emotional associations make it an important test-case for the realisation of Humours in performance.

 

Mace declares that the first two bars give the Fugue, which is maintained through the whole Lesson. The Form and Shape consists of two uniform and equal strains, but the Humour of it ‘which you may perceive by the marks and directions is not common’.  The only marks and directions in the tablature are contrasts of loud/soft, ornaments and slurs.

These three terms ought to be considered in all performances of this Nature (Ayres and the like): Fugue, Form & Humour

The Fugue is Lively, Airy, Neat, Curious and Sweet – like my Mistress.
The Form is Uniform, Comely, Substantial, Grave and Lovely – like my Mistress.
The Humour is singularly Spruce, Amiable, Pleasant, Obliging and Innocent – like my Mistress.

Mace’s verbal directions are ‘to Play Soft and Loud, as you see it marked’; ‘use the Sting (vibrato) where you see it set, and the Spinger after it’; ‘observe the slides and slurs, and you cannot fail to know My Mistress’s Humour, provided you keep True Time, which you must be extremely careful to do in all lessons:

For Time is One Half of Musick.

Thus in his best composition, a work of powerful emotions and deep personal meaning, Mace looks for expression of passions by dynamic contrasts, by subtle use of vibrato and by elegant slurs, whilst insisting on ‘True Time’.  There is no place here for Rubato. Even contrasting tempi for the two sections are not suggested, probably because the nature of the piece is uniform, without contrasts between the sections.

 

Page 125-126 – The Offspring

 

This piece was composed to create a consort, combining with My Mistress as a lute-duo. It can also be played as a solo, continuing on from a solo performance of My Mistress. When it is played as a solo:

 

You must for the Humour’s sake make Pauses

 

Mace marks where the three pauses should be made, in the last strain of the piece: on each of the pause-notes, vibrato should be added. As previously, he emphasises the need for ‘soft and loud, as you see it marked’, and to ‘take notice of the Fugues, which are … maintained to the end, yet various from each other’. The Fugues determine the Humour, the Humour requires dynamic contrasts, and (for the first time) here Mace applies his concept of Liberty, for the sake of Humour.

As we would expect, the Pauses come at the end of (short, internal) phrases, on a consonant, sustained harmony, and on the up-stroke of the lutenist’s time-keeping foot. This corresponds closely to Frescobaldi’s identification of consonant, sustained harmonies as the mark of the end of a section, and with the hesitations of his Tactus hand being also on the up-stroke.

Page 126-129 – Uniformity & Contrast

Mace is teaching the student to improvise, as well as to perform composed music. So he emphasises that renaissance compositorial skill, of working out a contrapuntal point (managing a fugue) and creating ‘a True and Handsome Form or Shape’. Uniformity of Form consists of matching the number of bars between strains, and having an even number of bars in each.

The Fugue or Humour may be whatever one wants, yet they should be neat and spruce, and they should be maintained uniformly and evenly.

Uniformity is especially desirable in short dance movements: Allmaines, Ayres, Corantoes, Sarabands should always be Uniform and Even. But longer pieces – Preludes, Fancies, Pavans etc – often have ‘Humours of Pauses and Flourishes in a wild way, according to their Nature’.

Some pieces have ‘Fansical, Humorous or Conceited Names’ yet have regular ‘Forms, Shapes, and Order of their Time, or Proportion’ and may be called Allmaines or Ayres.

Mace now describes the various movement-types in a suite, He criticises some improvised Preludes as ‘confused-wild-shapeless-kind of intricate-play … in which no perfect Form, Shape or Uniformity can be perceived…. and has an unlimited and unbounded Liberty … of Forms, Shapes and all the rest.’

Pavans are ‘very Grave and Sober; full of Art and Profundity’.

Allmaines are ‘very Airy and Lively’;

Galliards ‘are performed in a Slow and Large Triple Time …. grave and sober’.

Corantoes are ‘shorter … and quicker triple-time, full of sprightfulness and vigour, lively, brisk, cheerful’.

‘Sarabands are of the shortest triple-time, but are more toyish and light than Corantoes’

A Tattle de Moy ‘is much like a Sarabande, only it has more of Conceit in it’ as if ‘speaking the word Tattle de Moy, and of Humour.

‘Chiconas are only a few conceited humorous notes at the end of a suite, very short … commonly of a Grave kind of Humour’

‘Toys or Jiggs are light-squibbish things, only fit for Fantastical and Easy-Light-Headed people’

Common Tunes are popular street songs: Mace praises them as ‘very excellent and well-contrived, neat and spruce’.

‘The Ground is a set number of slow notes, very Grave and Stately … expressed once or twice very plainly … then several Divisions upon it.’

We must understand the word ‘conceited’ in its period meaning, as ‘full of clever and witty ideas’.

Page 130 – Another Liberty

Mace calls the fourth lesson a Coranto, ‘and properly…. by the Time and Shape of it.  However [Mace] would have it played played in a Slow and Long proportion, for the Nature of it is far more Sober than a Coranto.’

‘The Fugue is seen in the first 3 notes, and perceptible’ throughout. ‘The Form is Even, Uniform and Perfect. The Humour is a kind of sorrowing, pitying and bemoaning.’

We can see something of Mace’s underlying assumptions from these instructions. He considers that there is a standard tempo for a Coranto, but that for the sake of the Humour one should adopt a different tempo, in this case slower. His ‘slow and long proportion’ might be a specific tempo, Sesquialtera proportion (rather than the usual Tripla) based on a standard tempo of common time.

Here we see one ‘certain place’ where Liberty is appropriate: for the sake of the Humour, a particular piece may be played slower (or faster) than the standard speed. Nevertheless, within that piece, the (unusual) tempo would be maintained. This application of Liberty still satisfies the absolute requirement for accurate time-keeping. Mace mentions the possibility of varying the length of the tempo-pendulum, and Frescobaldi allows certain movements to be faster or slower, but still ‘facilitated by Tactus’.

In short, performers may take an unusual tempo, if the Humour suggests it, but that tempo should be maintained accurately.

Without contradicting his insistence on ‘vrai mouvement‘ from beginning to end of a given movement, Muffat describes an interesting practice for fast dance-types, which can be played three times through: each time, the tempo is faster. Perhaps this is how we should perform some of the thrice-repeated dance-movements in Handel’s Fireworks and Water Music.

 

Page 130 – Finding the Humour

One short paragraph gives valuable advice for finding the ‘General Humour of any Lesson’,

by observing ‘its Form or Shape’. If it is ‘Uniform and Retortive’ with ‘Short Sentences’, then ‘you will find it very easy to humour a lesson by playing some sentences loud, and others again soft, according as they best please your own Fancy; some very Briskly and Couragiously and some again Gently, Lovingly Tenderly and Smoothly’.

Here the performer has free choice of where to apply Loud and Soft. But there is no indication of contrasting tempi. From Mace’s usage in previous chapters, we know that ‘Brisk’ and ‘Gently’ do not imply changes of tempo, but are character words, linked here and elsewhere in the treatise to Courage or to Love, Tenderness and Smoothness. Notice that according to the doctrine of the Four Humours, these are all aspects of the one, Sanguine Humour. So the contrast of Loud and Soft is not so great, as to require change of tempo.

 

Page 130 – The Pause

 

The ‘choicest lustre… in such Humours’ is given by making ‘your Pauses at Proper Places, which are commonly at the end of such sentences, where there is a Long note.’

This advice correlates well with Mace’s own practice, as observed in earlier chapters.

 

Page 131 – A Humour

This is another coranto-like piece, which Mace calls ‘A Humour’.

 

The Fugue or Subject-Matter … is throughout maintained. with handsome and various intermixtures. The Form is Uniform (each Strain within itself), though not all of the same number of bars’.

 

Here, the strains vary in humour.

‘Sometimes (for Humour-Sake) more Pleasant and Delightful… Humorous and Conceited… and seems to mock, or mowe, or jest; to be blyth or merry, as if it were telling some jiggish story, and pointing at this or that body … In the four last bars … you must pause and use the stinging Grace [vibrato] a pretty while; and then softly whirl away and conclude.’

This delightfully whimsical description conveys a vivid impression of the character of the piece, without resort to any suggestion of tempo change, until the Pause just before the end. Notice that the Pause is all the more prolonged in this witty and active piece; and that after the pause the ending ‘whirls away’ softly, but not slowly.

In this piece, the Liberty is not that the time is altered, but that the Humour is so witty that the performance departs from the normal mood of a Coranto.

‘And although it be Coranto-Time, yet (in regard of the Conceitedness of the Humour) I give it that name.

The title over the tablature reads ‘The fifth lesson of the first set, being a Coranto, but called I like my Humour well

Page 132 – A perfect Coranto

‘This … perfect Coranto … has its Fuge ,,, throughout maintained. Its Form is Uniform … the Humour is Solid, Grave and very Persuasive… Expostulating the Matter with great Ferventness, which you must humour by performing Soft and Loud-Play in Proper Places, where you may easily perceive such Humour to lie’.

 

Page 133 – Tattle de Moy

 

Mace helps students to find out for themselves Fugue, Form and Humour. But notice that students should find these elements, and not invent them for themselves.

The Fugue is in the first two bars. The Form is absolutely Perfect and Uniform … Its Humour is Toyish, Jocond, Harmless and Pleasant, and as if it were one playing with or tossing a ball up and down; yet it seems to have a very Solemn Countenance, and like unto one of a Sober and Innocent condition or disposition; not Antic, Apish or Wild etc’.

‘Remember [as always] to play Loud and Soft …  Briskly and Gently, Smoothly, as your fancy will (no doubt) prompt you’

Memento, that Soft and Loud play is a Chief Grace.

Mace encourages students to persist, even if his advice at first seems strange – this is welcome support for today’s Early Music performers too!

These ways of discourse will seem strange to very many at the first, because they are unusual.

 

Page 142 & 147 – Observations

The Humour must be found out, by playing Soft and Loud, and making your Pauses

‘When you meet with such Seeming-Single-Moving-Walking things; and find Affinity between parts and parts, or bars and bars… then Soft and Loud play is the most necessary for to Humour it…

In modern English: if you find a movement that seems rhythmically consistent, with affinity between one part, or one bar and another, then the way to Humour it is by dynamic contrasts.

‘Many drudge and take great pains to play their lessons very … fast [but] you will perceive little Life or Spirit in them…. they do not labour to find out the Humour, Life or Spirit’

 

Page 149 – a Grave Galliard

For the preceding Coranto, Mace writes ‘Loud and Soft, which is enough’.

The next piece has the form of a Galliard, but should be played ‘in a very Sober and Grave Proportion; for it has a most singular Humour in the way of Expostulating Grief and Sorrow’. Here again, the Humour suggests taking the Liberty to play in an unusual tempo, but there is no suggestion of rhythmic irregularity.

The Galliard on page 171 is marked ‘Play this Lesson in very slow time’

 

Page 152 – Slow with Pauses

‘Play it slow, make your pauses, and observe the Humour’

Otherwise, pauses seem to be used mostly in fast pieces.

 

Page 153 – Tattle de Moy

 

‘Find the Humour yourself, by Soft and Loud play’

 

Page 170 – Crackle the crotchets

This special effect on three-note chords consists of arpeggiating each chord, causing them to ‘sob’ by slacking the left hand grip as soon as the note is struck, suddenly deadening the sound. Mace is careful to specify that this is all done in such a way

‘so as not to lose time, but give each crotchet its due quantity’

 

Conclusion

It is beyond debate that the underlying context for all Mace’s advice is of regular Time-Keeping. That time-keeping is by Tactus, counting by minims in common time, and with proportions for triple time. There are standard expectations for the speed of common time, and for the appropriate proportion for particular dance-types.

The model of perfect time-keeping is the Pendulum. The practical means of time-keeping is by moving the foot, down for one minim, up for the next.

The performers’ role is not to impose their own ‘interpretation’ on the piece, but to find out the Humours that are already there. Keeping Time is essential, for finding out the Humours.

The principle means of expressing changes in Humour is dynamic contrast.  A secondary means of expression is the Pause, in particular places.

Dfferent movements can have different tempi, even tempi that are unexpected for the dance-type that the piece seems to resemble, if the Humour demands it.

Fast pieces, and even some slow pieces, can have one or pauses before the end, but the conclusion ‘whirls away’ without rallentando.

I see no evidence at all for Rubato within a phrase or movement.  Mace’s Liberty of ‘fast and slow’ is between one movement and another, or between the standard tempo for a certain dance-type and the specific tempo for a piece in a particular humour. The only other Liberty in time-keeping that he mentions is the Pause.

All this is consistent with what we read in other sources of this period, whether English, Italian or French.

I give Thomas the last word:

Keep True Time

 

In modern English: Keep True Time, which you must be extremely careful to do, in everything you play (page 124).

 

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One thought on “The Best Practical Musick: Thomas Mace’s Rule of Time-Keeping

  1. Pingback: El Maestro on Tactus: Luys Milán’s renaissance instructions for well-measured Tempo | Andrew Lawrence-King

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