The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 52

The Spanish Pavan

  • Lesson 52 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce
  • Piece no.34 in the lute society’s ’58 Very Easy Pieces’
  • Full copies of the playing editions from which the lessons are taken can be ordered in our catalogue

Beginners’ lesson: The Spanish Pavan

The subject of this lesson is piece no.34 in the lute society’s ’58 Very Easy Pieces’ anthology. The tune, and its supporting harmonic sequence, is a common one in the renaissance lute repertory, so it is useful to get to know an easy version like this early on in one’s playing career. The source, a manuscript now in Trinity College, Dublin, has intermittent right-hand fingering, limited to a few index finger dots: I have added some supplementary right-hand fingering.

The piece is mostly in two parts, a melody plus bass notes, but there are also several 3-part chords. Let us first address the 2-part texture. The thumb will always take the bass note in the chords, but in passages such as bars 1, 3, 4, etc, one has to decide whether to bring up the thumb to play the single note on the second beat of the bar, or to take these notes with the middle finger. The source dates from approximately 1600, so right on the cusp of a historical change in technique, from predominantly thumb-inside to thumb-outside. My personal preference is to use the thumb as much as possible for early repertory, and since this is an old tune, I do the same here and take those single notes . This has the advantage of training the right-hand thumb to move swiftly and accurately across several courses, and it helps to produce a clean, strong sound on the melody line. It is important to get really good contact on the bass courses, because most of the bass notes need to last for a whole bar. This is not about playing the bass loudly, it is about producing a firm and clear tone, which will enable the notes to sustain. Start by playing the bass notes alone, make sure that you have plenty of thumb in contact with the string, and allow the thumb to simply drop through the course. This will produce a single clean note, sounding both strings of the course. If you artificially impel the thumb through the course, and/or flex its middle joint to pluck the strings, you are likely to hear two notes, from the individual strings of the course. Be sure to activate both strings; this is easy to hear if your bass courses have octave strings, but a bit harder if they are in unison. You can watch in a mirror to see if both strings move, if you find it hard to hear both strings. When this technique is working well, add the simultaneous treble note. Use the middle finger to play a chord together with the thumb; this leaves the index finger free to sound the following offbeat note, in situations such as bars 1, 3, 4, etc. Note that the notes should be absolutely simultaneous. It is hard to make a 2-note chord sound good with a slight spread; it simply sounds like an accident, so go for a clean, simultaneous sound. After playing the chord, the thumb should continue moving towards the higher strings, in order to sound the notes on the half bars. There are a few bars with a different rhythm, and in bar 10 you need to ‘retake’ the thumb, so it will sound the 3rd AND the 4th notes in the bar, because both notes are the accented note in their respective subdivisions. The index finger, meanwhile, is playing the light, offbeat notes, and it needs to be very relaxed, and impelled past its string by the action of the arm returning to perform another thumb note. Again, try to avoid an obvious plucking motion with the finger itself. With thumb-inside technique most of the action is created by a tiny movement of the entire forearm; it should feel a bit like you are playing with a plectrum, but the plectrum has been taken away. Its ‘downstroke’ is taken by the thumb, and its ‘upstroke’ by the index finger.

The 3-part chords will involve the thumb, index and middle fingers, and since many of these chords lie on adjacent courses, it can be hard to cleanly sound all 3 notes. Start by spreading the chord slowly and listen to the constituent notes. This is to help you identify any missing or underpowered note when you play the chord in context. It is good training to learn to play the chords without any spread; you may subsequently choose to spread some of them, but this should be a musical decision, not the result of a technical shortcoming. Be sure to have enough clearance between thumb and fingers; one can legitimately play the lute thumb-inside or thumb-outside, but ‘thumb opposite’ does not work! The arm, of course, cannot impel the thumb and fingers when they have to movein opposite directions simultaneously, so finally we have to perform a real plucking action. Again, be sure to have plenty of contact with the strings - both strings of each course - and the pluck is achieved by a slight ‘pincer’ movement bringing the thumb and fingers towards each other. It is a very small movement, and very efficient. There is no need for extravagant movement, and in fact it only slows down the technique. If you master this, you will be well on the way to producing a beautiful clean, strong sound on your lute. The next step is to ensure that your beautiful notes are legato, and that you have a melody line with no gaps in it. This is achieved by moving your left-hand fingers very efficiently, making sure that you know which finger will play each note, where each finger will go next, and moving them at the last possible moment. Make sure that each finger is right up to its fret, and is pressing with only the bare minimum amount of pressure to sound a clean note.

Finally, a pavan is a stately dance involving mostly walking steps, so a steady pace works well even if you are capable of playing the piece more quickly. The rhythm should be absolutely steady. Be careful not to rush easier bars or slow down in the harder ones, and take care that the dotted rhythms are accurate. There are many sets of elaborate variation sets written on this basic sequence, and a beautiful treble-and-ground duet by Alfonso Ferrabosco, all of which rely on the ability to maintain a steady rhythm, so this is an excellent training piece for that.

Lynda Sayce