Lex Eisenhardt: Italian Guitar Music of the Seventeenth Century

University of Rochester Press
266pp. £60
ISBN 978-1-58046-533-5.

James Tyler’s The Early Guitar (OUP, 1980) was the groundbreaking work which introduced the baroque guitar and its repertoire to musicologists and guitarists alike. The chapters on the baroque guitar in Tyler’s (and Paul Sparks’) later work The Guitar and its Music from the Renaissance to the Classical Era (OUP, 2002) are largely derived from The Early Guitar, and so the present work is the first major one on the subject since 1980 to be widely available. It is in every sense a worthy successor to The Early Guitar.

Its main focus is on the Italian repertoire but the author’s thorough approach means that earlier Spanish music is discussed (since the guitar came to Italy via Spain) as well as the later French school of guitar composers (initiated by the peripatetic Italian virtuosi of the later 17th century). As well as repertoire and players the book also examines the role of the guitar as a continuo instrument (very common in solo song, very rare in larger ensembles) and the variety of possible tunings in use.

Both of these subjects are contentious, particularly the latter, and all out of proportion to its actual importance – non specialists can get an idea by imagining heated controversy over the use of 4’ registration on the harpsichord – but such is Mr. Eisenhardt’s mastery of the varied source material that he is able to give all the information available in a very clear and concise manner. Where matters are ambiguous or the sources are contradictory he simply says so and, while his own opinions are always perfectly clear, he is very straightforward about urging players to make their own choices. This approach is as welcome as it is novel.

My only reservation about the book concerns the penultimate chapter which is largely devoted to the unusual harmonies found in the work of Francesco Corbetta, the greatest of the 17th-century guitarists. Particularly in his last two books, Corbetta enjoyed a very free and often dissonant harmonic palette with many chords saturated with 4ths. These are the chords which worry Mr. Eisenhardt and he has evolved a rather tortured explanation of why these notes (engraved in their hundreds, very clearly, in the tablatures) are meant to be fingered but not played. While this can’t be disproved, it requires significantly less effort to simply accept that Corbetta liked unusual harmonies and meant what he wrote. I would suggest that Corbetta himself alluded to the matter in the preface to his last work La Guitarre Royalle of 1674. This book is dedicated to Louis XIV and Corbetta writes ‘I had wanted to conform to the manner [of composition] most pleasing to your Majesty: The most chromatic, the most delicate and the least encumbered [by rules, i.e. rule bound]’. If we take this at face value then not only are these interesting harmonies (also found in the work of his Italian contemporaries Valdambrini and Kapsperger) explained, but we can also enjoy the refreshing image of Louis XIV as a connoisseur of chromatic harmony. The author’s theory may not convince all guitarists but he is, again, very respectful of the reader’s intelligence and urges each to make his own choice.

Mr. Eisenhardt has long been known as a skilful and sensitive performer on a wide variety of historical guitars and with the present work he has shown himself to be equally impressive as a scholar and writer. This book is not just valuable to players of the baroque guitar but also well worth the attention of anyone with an interest in the music of the 17th century.

William Carter