Today’s lesson is drawn from a new lute society publication, ‘158 Early Cinquecento Preludes and Ricercars for Renaissance Lute’, in which it is piece no. 28. This substantial anthology is not aimed specifically at beginners, since much of the material is quite challenging, but there are many short and simple pieces. Also, since most preludes and ricercars can be played at any speed and often with considerable freedom, they offer wonderful practice material, so an introduction to the new volume seemed in order.
A ricercar / recercar is an exploratory piece - its name comes from the Italian verb recercare, to seek out or research. It can serve the practical functions of checking the tuning, warming up the fingers and getting listeners’ ears accustomed to the sound of the lute before one launches into a more structured piece, and many of the longer ones are fine, substantial pieces in their own right. The present example is short and straightforward, offering practice in single lines and simple two-part polyphony, interspersed with a few larger chords. I have added some left hand fingering, and also a lot of hold marks, which are essential to bring out the polyphony.
In the opening scalic sections, aim for as smooth and legato a sound as possible, with clear differentiation between the stronger thumb notes (these will be the notes on the beat) and the lighter index finger notes (those notes which are off the beat). If you are playing on a 6 course lute with octave stringing in the bass, pay careful attention to the balance of fundamental and octave on the lower courses, particularly between thumb and index notes: it is very common for the thumb to miss the upper octave, and for the index finger to catch only the upper octave, leading to a rather bizarre scale which proceeds in sevenths and ninths. It may be helpful to think of the two strings of a course as being like the edges of a fine ribbon: try to place the plucking finger or thumb in the middle of the ‘ribbon’, and then it is easy to pluck both strings. Another point which needs careful attention is the transition between unison and octave-strung courses, because the touch for the plucking hand is quite different. I like to emphasise the bass of the 4th course a bit more than its octave if I am moving up to a unison 3rd course, to smooth out the transition.
The passage beginning in bar 15 appears to trade stepwise movement for a bouncing line of big intervals, but if the hold marks are observed an exciting passage of two-part counterpoint is created, which is then smoothed out into the chordal section which follows. Articulation can be quite forceful in the contrapuntal bars, to highlight the chasing character of the lines, but when you get to the chordal section this works best if it is very legato. Chord changes will need to be extremely tidy and efficient, to achieve a good legato, so left hand fingerings need to be well controlled and tidy. The four-part chord in bar 24 comes as something of a surprise, and it can work well musically to linger on the chord and really let its full weight be felt, before moving on to the following phrase. The very plangent bass note in bar 28 must be played firmly and very cleanly - be careful to reach back far enough with your index finger to get a clean sound on this note.
Musically, ricercars can be quite challenging: try to find points of repetition or imitation to bring some structure, and be sure to clearly articulate the different sections marked by the significant changes in texture. The tiny phrase beginning in the middle of bar 8 is imitated in the middle of bar 10, and again in the middle of bar 12, and emphasising this little conversation can help a listener to get a grip on the piece. A similar tiny dialogue occurs in bars 24-8, which should also be articulated clearly, before the final drive to the closing cadence.