Branle de Village
The subject of this lesson is piece no.8 in the Lute Society’s ’70 Easy to Intermediate Pieces’, taken from Jean-Baptiste Besard’s ‘Novus Partus’ of 1617. The most striking thing about this piece is its ostinato bass, oscillating back and forth between two notes a fifth apart. Over this is woven a fairly busy treble part, so there is quite a lot to get one’s fingers around.
The first stage is to get the bass part going: most, if not all of it, needs to be played by the thumb, which must move between the fourth and fifth courses quickly, accurately and with no wasted movements. Some bars such as bar 3 permit the possibility of playing the 4th course notes with the index finger: however, this pattern cannot be sustained because most bars have a busier treble which will involve this finger, so if you choose this option you will have to accept a constantly varying bass fingering. Personally I prefer to play the whole bass part with the thumb, using a free stroke throughout to keep the bass part fairly light. Take care not to hit every bass note equally hard, otherwise the result can be tedious and lumpy. Luckily it is easy to find long phrases in this piece as it mostly falls into paired phrases of 4 bars each: focus on these longer phrases and try to have a maximum of one stressed bass note per bar, with a couple of main bass stresses per phrase, so that you can convey the longer phrase structure successfully. You may find it helpful to get the bass part going before you add in the treble: it even works well to do a few bars of this in performance.
The melody will be shared between the middle and index fingers, with melody notes on strong beats falling to the middle finger, those on weak beats to the index finger. Some bars will require more detailed fingering than this; for example bar 9 needs the 2nd melody note to be taken by the middle finger, because the index finger needs to play the short note which follows. Any bar with these quicker notes will need the same approach. There are also bars where the melody notes are long, and I find it tempting to repeat the middle finger to project these well. The second complete bar is an example of this.
For the left hand there are a few issues to watch out for. I find that the 4th course bass note is best fretted by the index finger, to maximise reach and minimise shifting. However, watch out for the necessary change to the middle finger in bar 34, where the melody goes into the minor. Another danger point is that the index finger sits on the drone bass note for a long time with the left hand moving quite athletically around this anchor, so it is very easy to find oneself pressing very hard with the index finger. Keep its touch light and relaxed, and the rest of the hand will move more freely as a result.
Many bars in this piece benefit from momentary and partial barrés. This is a very useful technique where one can use the same finger for two notes on different courses without necessarily needing to apply the pressure of an actual barré because not all strings need to be stopped. For example, in bar 9 the obvious finger to play the first melody note is the third (ring) finger, leaving a potentially awkward reach with the 2nd finger to the 2nd melody note, and the rapid replacement of the 3rd finger on the 3rd note, again involving an awkward stretch. This passage is much easier if one drops in momentary barrés to catch the 2nd melody note, and also the last melody note in the bar. To do this, the index finger - whilst fretting its 4th course drone note - drops flat so that the middle joint stops the top string. Be careful that the contact between the finger tip and the bass note is not compromised during this manoeuvre, and that the pitch of the bass note is not ‘bent’ by the action. You may find it helpful to practice this sneaky manoeuvre out of context; get the drone bass going then alternate the open 1st course and the 2nd fret 1st course as half-bar melody notes, dropping the little barré in for the 2nd fret note and lifting it for the open string. When you can do that smoothly, put it back into the context of the piece.
Finally, this piece suffers more than most if there are imperfections in your tuning, especially if you have octave stringing on your bass courses. When the lute is well-tuned the fifths and octaves of this piece will be very sonorous, but it can sound dreadful if those intervals are not good. Most people can get their open strings acceptably in tune, (use a tuning app or a digital tuner if your ears need a little help) but many neglect the frets, and in this case the second fret must be positioned so that the fretted bass g on the 4th course gives a good octave with the open 1st string, and a good fifth with the open 5th course. Don’t be afraid to shuffle your frets to achieve a better intonation, especially if they are a bit loose and migrate of their own accord. (That, incidentally, is a sign that they need replacing.) They will leave a shiny line on your fingerboard when you move them, so getting them back to their original position is not difficult.