Another lesson for baroque lute beginners this time, and a delightful Menuet by the great Sylvius Leopold Weiss. This is piece no.32 in the society’s ‘A Diverse Collection of Easy Pieces for Baroque Lute’, edited by Wilfred Foxe. One of the most wonderful things about the lute is that one can access music by the very best composers at a fairly early stage in the learning process!
One danger with multi-course instruments is that one worries so much about finding the right strings that all sense of line is lost, and pieces merely plod from beat to beat. To avoid this, it is a good idea to analyse a piece to understand its phrase structure and its harmony. Baroque dances almost always have a very clear phrase structure, the rhetoric of which needs to be conveyed to the listener. This piece has a two-part texture throughout, apart from doubled unisons at the section ends. Play the tune first and find the phrases. In the A section, for example, the initial 2 bar phrase is strong but quite static, moving only to an inversion of the opening chord; the following 2 bar phrase is a response, taking us to the dominant chord. Together, they form a 4-bar structure which is answered by a further 4-bar structure, then the final 2-bar phrase acts as a ‘last word’ or an ‘I told you so’ moment. Menuets are often paired and then played in the order 1-2-1, creating a ternary structure, but this menuet delivers that shape all by itself, so this first section (and eventually the whole piece) cadences here in the tonic. The second half opens with two sequential 2-bar phrases - they repeat the same phrase at different pitches, a very strong rhetorical device, which also delivers us to the key of F major. A couple of bars of tentative ostinato on the open top string lead to a stronger and more sustained ostinato with the f-e-f motif on the top two strings, leading in turn to a further cadence in F major. We then repeat the first section, which takes us back to D minor. We need to be sure to acknowledge the dominant harmony in bar 4, the return to D minor in bar 10, and the F major arrivals in bars 14 and 22.
With a consistent 2-part texture like this, it makes sense to leave the thumb in the low register throughout; the highest it needs to go is the 5th course. In such situations, right-hand fingering is often very compromised in that finger choices will follow the order of the strings more than the placement of the note in the bar. We would normally expect to play all off-beat or unaccented notes with the index finger, but this will often lead to awkward string crossings. The clearest example is bar 6, where a fingering according to accent would give 2-2-1-2, the 3rd note in the bar being played by the index finger. This doesn’t fall well under the hand, though, so I would finger the notes of this bar with right hand 2-1-2-1, matching the fingers to the position of the strings. While you are working out the right hand fingering for the tune, park the thumb on a convenient bass string, so it doesn’t wander around or destabilise your hand. When you are ready to integrate the thumb, make sure that it plays a good clean rest stroke on each note, coming to rest on the next course up. You should catch both strings of the course, and with good balance between the fundamental and octave notes. It is best to let the thumb simply drop through the course in a relaxed way, rather than driving it through, which will tend to make the strings rattle against each other. When the thumb needs to move to another course, move the thumb well in advance - if you wait until a bass note is due then make a frantic grab for it, you are very likely to miss. Move the thumb early, whenever you can, and the bass notes will be more secure because you have time to place the thumb well, and to correct it if it lands on the wrong string. This is particularly important in the 2nd section, where the bass is more active. Keep in mind the phrasing that you worked out with the tune alone, and aim to match your dynamics to the strength of the phrases. The 2nd and 3rd beats of each bar should be lighter than the downbeats, otherwise the piece will have a leaden tread, but the bigger phrases also need the dynamic shaping which will convey the rhetoric to your audience. It doesn’t matter if your audience is an imaginary one - you should try to convey the phrasing to them clearly.
The left hand’s job is relatively straightforward, since there are many open strings. The little comma ornaments eventually need to be short trills starting on the upper note, but to begin you can play them as 2 quavers, the first one being the note above the written note, the 2nd being the written note. When you are comfortable with that, try adding a couple of oscillations of these notes - you don’t need to hammer the string hard, but you do need to be precisely up to the frets for the ornaments to speak well. The unisons which close each half can be quite tricky in that the fretting finger can easily catch the adjacent open string and mute it; make sure that you have plenty of curve in the finger joints, so the finger tip is perpendicular to the string, not lying flat on it. As with all pieces, practise the piece slowly but metrically - keep a constant tempo throughout, and gradually increase this as you get more comfortable with finding your way around.