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Lute Salute

Paul O’Dette, Lute, The Da Camera Society, Greystone Mansion —

In virtually every Hollywood movie depicting Renaissance Lives of the Rich and Famous, there is a cliched banquet scene: servants replenish goblets with wine, ale or mead; courtiers, when not otherwise engaged in manhandling available wenches, stuff themselves with roasted meats and fresh fruit; then the royal host makes his routine announcement: “Let there be music, dancing and much merriment!” Whereupon the 17th Century is further evoked by the spirited playing of a harpsichord, a wooden cornetto and a recorder. Later, in private chambers, the mood of the mandatory love scene is always enhanced by the dulcet, romantic sound of a lute.

Merriam-Webster defines “lute” as “a stringed instrument having a large, pear-shaped body, a vaulted back, a fretted fingerboard, and a head with tuning pegs which is often angled backward from the neck.” While flat-backed guitars usually have six, sometimes eight strings, 16th Century lutes had eleven strings divided into six “courses”–groups or rows of strings tuned in unison or octaves. A century later, lutes had as many as eighteen strings. To paraphrase Mark Twain, a lute is a guitar with a college education.

Paul O’Dette, the greatest living practitioner of the lute, is “the clearest case of genius ever to touch his instrument” according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. Born in Pittsburgh in 1954 and raised in Columbus, Ohio, he played guitar in a rock band. To improve his fingering, O’Dette began to play lute transcriptions and soon switched to the ancient instrument full-time. At 22, he started teaching at the Eastman School of Music where he is still Professor of Lute and Director of Early Music. During the past four decades, O’Dette has made more than 140 recordings. He’s been nominated for seven Grammy Awards and has won two.

At the end of October, O’Dette gave three one-hour, solo lute concerts in a single afternoon. The event was produced by The Da Camera Society which, for nearly fifty years, has fostered chamber music in Los Angeles, usually in intimate salon settings. The location for O’Dette’s performance was considerably more lavish: Greystone, the extraordinary, 55-room, former Doheny mansion above Beverly Hills.

Seventy-five attendees sat on comfortable chairs in the almost empty living room. We faced a very small, portable stage in front of a white marble fireplace. Above us was a carved-wood balcony that had been designed to hold musicians at long-ago parties. Doors on the far wall were open, allowing glimpses of the terraced gardens and a welcome breeze on the balmy Sunday afternoon.

Paul O’Dette entered from the interior hallway, walked briskly to the mini-stage, bowed to the applause and settled down in front of his music stand. Friendly and smiling, very informative whenever he spoke, he is the kind of person one would want for a teacher. He has a full beard, a helmet of grey hair and is a bit portly. If he were dressed in period costume, he could easily pass as a gentle Friar Tuck. He described what we were about to hear as “art music that was played at a conversational level” and “dances for the wealthy” and then he began to play.

What a rare pleasure to hear an expertly-played lute, its rich sound filling the high-ceilinged room. The number of strings and O’Dette’s skill at playing them made it seem as if another lute or two, perhaps in the balcony, were simultaneously being plucked. The first selections were anonymous tunes with such story-minded titles as “I cannot keep my wife at home” and “John come kiss me now”. Adroit fingering is required to play such sweet melodies on this instrument and O’Dette has mastered the art of counterpoint. He played with apparent ease until his sometimes audible breathing reminded listeners of the strenuous, focused effort needed to play a lute.

Much of the ancient lute repertoire, even some by well-known composers, was not written; instead, it was passed down from teacher to student. O’Dette has reconstructed some timing, fingering and note-spacing from bits of manuscripts so the music can be correctly played today. He performed selections by well-born Englishman, Daniel Bachelar (1572-1618), nephew of the first Queen Elizabeth’s court lutenist. The breath-taking, lyrical “Monsieur’s Almaine” had endless variations of modern-sounding, almost jazz-like improvisations. For another Bachelar piece, “The Gypsies’ Lilt”, O’Dette warned us that the “shocking dissonances were intentional”.

The afternoon’s highlights were surely the ten selections by John Dowland, the era’s most famous soloist and composer of lute music. Born in England in 1563 and widely popular, he failed to secure a position in the court of Elizabeth I, likely because he was a Catholic. As a result, he traveled to cities in Germany and Italy and enjoyed great success. He spent five years and earned a great deal of money entertaining King Christian of Denmark. In 1612, Dowland finally landed the job he desired with England’s King James I. He lived for another fourteen years in his home country but never attained the huge celebrity he had enjoyed in Europe.

In his spoken introduction, O’Dette said: “Dowland didn’t publish his music for fear it might be stolen. But students made notations of the lyrical tunes and those have come down to us today”. In the program notes, O’Dette wrote: “Dowland’s doleful works are justly famous, but his lively pieces—galliards, almaines and jigs—evoke a humor and wit unmatched by any of his contemporaries. His works range from light-hearted dances, to soulful pavans to virtuoso galliards, to sophisticated, contrapuntal fantasias.”

When O’Dette plays, he keeps one foot on a small stool in order to rest his lute comfortably on his knee. He bends over, slightly, and the roundness of his head, the curve of his back and the shape of his lute combine into a contained ball of energy. From its center comes the quiet, complicated, soothing sounds of John Dowland’s delightful tunes. Played by O’Dette’s talented hands, the music easily transports the listener to the privileged, royal gatherings of four centuries ago.

A memorable Dowland piece O’Dette performed was the plaintive “Lachrimae” which expressed the feeling of “lost love” and was apparently the most popular lute song of its time. Another one, “Farewell”, was astonishing in its complexity. Quoting again from O’Dette’s notes, this miniature masterpiece, with its “eerie, ascending chromatic line and gripping dissonances” was no doubt “Dowland’s contrapuntal tour-de-force.” His music, despite its beauty, was too difficult for most Renaissance musicians who began to favor the easier-to-play guitar. Fifty years after Dowland’s death, the lute was already sliding into semi-obscurity. J.S. Bach and others still composed occasional pieces, but the prevalence of pianos by 1800 marked the end of the lute’s popularity.

Today, thanks to CDs, there are essential recordings available of the finest lute songs by some of history’s most notable composers.  No serious music library should lack at least a sampling of John Dowland’s works. Hearing Paul O’Dette play in person would be even better.  Close your eyes and be instantly transported back to Merry Olde England but you’ll have to bring your own mead.


  1. john burke says:

    try Benjamin Britten’s “Lacrimae,” a set of variations on Dowland’s tune, for viola and piano. Unlike a lot of variation zets it doesn’t state the theme–the Dowland melody–until the end, when the last variation seques into it without a break. I’ve played it (the piano part) and it’s a remarkable experience to find oneself smoothly transported to the 17th century after about twelve minutes in the 20th. Lovely piece.

  2. Kathryn King says:

    Thank you for this terrific evocation of what sounds like the perfect afternoon, wish I could have been there! I’m now running out to buy a Paul O’Dette record. Dying to experience Greystone sometime too. You made the whole experience come alive.

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