Galilei: The Well-Tempered Lute

Žak Ozmo
Hyperion CDA68017

Vincenzo Galilei (c.1520-1591), father of the famous astronomer, was a remarkable musician. As a member of the Florentine Camerata, he contributed to the evolution of opera, and to the transition from renaissance polyphonic compositions to the new baroque style with elaborate melodies supported by simple chords. He was also one of the first to advocate a system of equal temperament. His Libro d’Intavolatura di Liuto  is a manuscript dated 1584, which was intended for publication, but was never published. It is kept at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, as Fondo Anteriori a Galileo 6. A facsimile edition has been published by SPES. The first part of the book contains passamezzi antichi, romanesche and saltarelli, in all twelve minor keys; the second part has passamezzi moderni and romanesche pairs in all twelve major keys, with cross references to saltarelli in the first part. Galilei is clearly making a theoretical point about equal temperament, but in practice there seems little sense playing in keys like F# major, which cause considerable difficulty for the player, with awkward barré chords, hardly any open strings at all, and consequently a difficulty in sustaining notes for uninterrupted melodic lines.

Žak Ozmo begins with a passamezzo antico, romanesca antica, and saltarello in G minor, followed by a passamezzo moderno and romanesca moderna in G major. These are followed by similar pieces in G#/A flat, A, and A#/B flat – four suites in all, and each with the same basic chord sequences. Ozmo’s aim is presumably to show how Galilei has used these five grounds in different keys, and Ozmo does what he can to overcome the lack of variety: he plays the minor pieces with some rhythmic freedom, and the major ones in a stricter tempo. He has chosen not to include any of the gagliarde or other pieces from the third part of the manuscript, which might at least have added some harmonic variety for easier listening.

Ozmo plays nicely with a pleasing tone, but he does not always play exactly what is in the manuscript. For example, alterations to Passamezzo Primo, the first piece in the book, include: bar 5, a full chord of F major (f a c’ f’) is reduced to an octave (f f’); bar 18, he omits two passing notes which look as if the scribe had added them later as an afterthought; bar 22 he omits the note e’ (fret 2 on 2nd course), leaving the suspension unresolved; bars 43 and 50 he omits g (2 on 4) losing the 4 of a 4-3 suspension; bars 51 and 52 he omits the middle note of the last chord of the bar. Galilei’s music can be frustratingly difficult to play, but one wonders if Ozmo’s constant tweaking to make it easier can be justified. At the start of bar 74 of Saltarello Primo there is an awkward chord of C major (3 on 3, 2 on 4, 4 on 5, 5 on 6) amongst a running passage of quavers. All four left-hand fingers are needed for that chord, so it is impossible to sustain it (ideally to the end of the bar), because two of those fingers are also needed for the following notes (2 on 2, and 4 on 2). Ozmo’s solution is to replace the lowest three notes of the chord with an open string (0 on 5), which is much easier to play, and allows the bass c to ring on to the end of the bar.

After so much G minor, it is a pleasant relief to hear Passamezzo moderno in G major. (For this, think Quadro Pavan.) Ozmo chooses the second set of variations (pp. 135-7), playing three out of four of them. Perhaps unhappy with the prosaic ending to the third variation, he replaces its last four bars with the last four bars of the fourth variation, but why not play all four variations complete?

The start of Track 6 comes as a shock: A flat minor after so much G minor and G major, and bizarre chords in bars 44 and 76. In bar 111 Ozmo overlooks a quaver rhythm sign, and so plays 16 quavers as crotchets. In Track 6 he omits quavers in bars 18 and 38, and crotchets in bars 45 and 46.

In spite of my criticisms, Ozmo is to be congratulated on bringing this important manuscript to life, and finding ways to make the music attractive. There is much to enjoy, for example Passamezzo moderno in A, which bounces along gently with well-shaped phrases.

Stewart McCoy