The Dark Lord’s Music

Martin Eastwell plays 17th-century lute music

The Lutebook of Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582-1648)
Martin Eastwell
Music & Media MMC117
Music by Batcheler, Cato, Despond, Dowland, Du Gast, Gauthier, Hely, Edward Lord Herbert, Johnson & Reys

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Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582-1648), brother of the poet George Herbert, was a significant figure in England in the early part of the 17th century, and was known as “The Dark Lord Herbert”. In his interesting and informative liner notes, Martin Eastwell describes Lord Herbert as diplomat, soldier, courtier, philosopher, poet, historian, musician and author of an entertaining autobiography. His lutebook was compiled over a number of years up to 1640 and contains music by the most important composers of that period: Robert Johnson, John Dowland, Daniel Batcheler, Diomedes Cato, Jakob Reys, and others. If Lord Herbert could get his hands round all the pieces in his book, he must have been a very accomplished lutenist.
The CD opens with a Prelude, the first of four pieces by Jakob Reys. The opening theme, which goes down a tone, up a minor third, and down a semitone, creates a mood of unease. After exploring various polyphonic options, the music breaks into a flurry of semiquavers and ends with a few solemn chords. Eastwell’s interpretation involves a fair amount of rhythmic freedom. In bar 30, using his musical common sense, he wisely plays quavers instead of the crotchets which appear in the manuscript and in Piotr Pozniak’s edition. Reys’ Sarabande (track 3) came as a pleasant surprise. The first section consists mainly of chords, including an unexpected flattened seventh chord in bar 2, and Eastwell strums them, as if playing a baroque guitar. Whether or not that was intended by the composer is a moot point, but I like it, since it effectively captures the spirit of the lively saraband, before it almost ground to a halt in the 18th century.
The only piece by John Dowland included here, is his galliard derived from Daniel Batcheler’s song “To plead my faith”. It displays a variety of techniques: broken chords, fast running quaver divisions now in the treble now in the bass, sequences of jerky dotted notes, and cadential trills. Eastwell adds a few tasteful ornaments of his own, and keeps a steady unhurried pace.
The longest track, at 9’ 49”, is one of five pieces by Daniel Batcheler – seven variations on “Une jeune fillette”, also known as La Monica. It is a most extraordinary piece of music, with considerable variety, and reflects the skill and imagination of one of England’s greatest lutenist-composers. Again, Eastwell chooses an unhurried speed, giving the listener a chance to savour his expressive playing. There are no ornaments in Herbert’s setting, but the ones Eastwell adds are spot on, enhancing the overall effect.
There are two tracks of music by Cuthbert Hely, whose music survives only in Lord Herbert’s manuscript. The first is a sombre Fantasia nominally in F minor, where much of the music is played on the lowest strings – not until bar 10 does it go above the fourth course. In the slow-moving polyphony, there seems to be a note missing in bar 72.
It may surprise some, but Eastwell has dispensed with the services of producers and recording engineers, and done the work himself. So often in my reviews, I have complained about microphones being too close to the lute, which can produce a sharp, unpleasant tone, and which does not reflect the soft, warm tone of a well-played lute. Eastwell has experimented with how best to record a lute, in particular where the microphone should be in relation to the lute, and the result is very impressive. Obtrusive string noise and heavy breathing are reduced.
Eastwell uses two 10-course lutes, one by Martin Haycock after Hans Frei, the other by Tony Johnson after Sixtus Rauwolf. Both lutes are strung in gut. Bass strings made of pure gut can sound rather dull, and modern wound strings have too much sustain. In his liner notes Eastwell explains that there is some evidence that bass strings at Herbert’s time were treated with metallic salts to increase density and improve the response. For the present CD, he uses such strings, which were made by Mimmo Peruffo, and the result is most satisfying.
Unlike so many of today’s “thumb-inside” players, Eastwell plays with his right thumb outside, which is appropriate for the period. In his notes, he refers to the manuscript of Johann Stobäus (a contemporary of Lord Herbert), who argues that playing with the thumb outside sounds purer, sharper, and brighter, whereas playing with the thumb inside sounds rotten and muffled. Thumb-outside certainly works better for lutes with many courses, and is more effective for music where the melody goes down to low strings.
The CD finishes with a Pavan composed by Lord Herbert himself. It is a gloomy piece in the unusual key of E flat minor. There are strange, unfamiliar chords with few open strings, and much of the time the music is played on low strings – in the first section there are only two notes to be played on the first course, and in the third section the last ten bars of 16 avoid the first course altogether. Dark music indeed for the Dark Lord.
Stewart McCoy