The Musicians reflect

The musicians reflect

On 1 September 2022, I organised an online conversation in which three of the project’s most prominent musicians – Vivien Ellis, Andy Watts and Steno Vitale – were invited to reflect on their experiences of performing and recording 100 seventeenth-century ballads (John Kirkpatrick also sent some thoughts by email). Clearly, this project would have been nothing without the musicians, and this section therefore presents a summary of their responses.

One of the topics covered in discussion was the experience of singing the ballads in the recording studio. John sometimes felt the pressure of being asked to stick to the original texts as closely as possible, largely because his background in the performance of ‘traditional folk songs’ encourages or allows a different approach. ‘If I come across a line that’s tricky to sing’, he commented, ‘I will often change the order of the words, or do some minimal re-writing to make it easier to sing and easier on the ear’. Singing the text exactly therefore ‘went against the grain of the looser approach I would normally take’ (this may also provide a useful insight into how some seventeenth-century singers engaged with the texts, though we cannot be sure). For Andy and Vivien, who are more familiar than John with the worlds of classical and ‘early’ music, adhering tightly to the texts was less of a strain, though it sometimes necessitated a flexible attitude to the music. According to Andy, the texts and their melodies could usually be woven together effectively, ‘as long as you don’t feel that the tune is fixed and set’. The skill of ‘bending the tune to fit the words’ was identified as an important one. Vivien and Andy both found the language of the ballads highly accessible and surprisingly ‘modern’, though the obscurity of the subject matter in many of the political ballads rendered them very difficult to understand for all of the singers (try, for example, THE Sale of Esau's Birth-right; OR, The New Buckingham Ballad). John preferred singing ballads that were ‘less tied down to precise events and places’, finding that these ‘can appeal more broadly and deliver on a more emotional level’. ‘In that respect’, he remarked, ‘some of the ballads I sang were quite beautiful’ (A most sweet Song of an English Merchant, borne at Chichester).

All participants noted that a number of the ballads were far longer than the modern four-minute pop song. John remarked, ‘I enjoyed the length of some of the pieces. It felt like a great triumph when the end was reached’ (A pretty Ballad of the Lord of Lorn, and the false Steward). In Vivien’s view, singing all of the verses of extremely long songs was simultaneously a ‘marathon’ and ‘an incredible luxury’ (A Lamentable Ballad of the Ladies Fall). ‘At the beginning’, added Andy, ‘I was concerned about how we do these long things and I tended to think of the detail and getting lots of variety. But as it went on, I think we got used to the longer time-span, settled into it... There wasn’t so much anxiety about making it interesting as you went along’.

Vivien had no difficulty in imagining that seventeenth-century singers might sometimes have performed long ballads in their entirety. She noted, ‘We’re talking about a real difference between the way we consume and understand these ballads now and in the seventeenth century where you’d have a context of reading aloud rather than reading privately’. Frequently, the people of the past would have consumed ballads in company ‘because they couldn’t afford to light and heat multiple rooms’. She also remarked that there were in the early-modern period many fewer alternatives for cultural consumption than there are today, ‘and I think we’re talking about attention – a difference in the way we give attention to things... and I think they probably would have done the whole thing’. Inevitably, Vivien added, the songs would have been reduced as they were committed to memory and then performed without the sheets but full-length rendition was, she felt, almost certainly one of the modes of early-modern performance.

On many of the recordings, the singers perform their ballads to instrumental accompaniment, and Andy recalled the preparatory research that he conducted while preparing the materials for dispatch to the musicians. For each ballad, he sought out early-modern notation for the melody, preferring harmonised versions wherever possible. In suggesting harmonic patterns to the instrumentalists, he  then based these on the historical models. He noted, ‘I realise there are problems with that because you’re back-tracking from a piece of art music to a piece of popular music... but nevertheless I feel that it did give it some connection with the seventeenth century. Then what the singers and the musicians did to that connected the seventeenth century to the present day’. This thread of connections ‘between the modern listener and the people who originally sang the ballads’ is, in Andy’s view, ‘all you can hope for’ in such an exercise (a similar process was followed for ballads that were to be recorded in harmony by more than one singer: see/hear, for example, The most Rare and Excellent History, Of the Dutchess of Suffolks Callamity).

The importance of the relationship between singers and instrumentalists formed an interesting thread of our discussion. Vivien remembered arriving at the recording sessions, ready to record one or other of her ballads either with Giles on fiddle or Steno on cittern (or both): ‘And even though you’ve practised it, you’ve looked at it, you’ve studied it, you’ve learned it, there’s something else. It’s a co-creation in the moment of recording, a sort of complicity, you might say’. Her feeling was that the project’s accompanists were always ‘at the service of the song and the singer’, allowing ‘the enhancement of the whole thing by the accompaniment’ (An Excellent Ballad, intituled, The Constancy of Susanna).

The role of Steno as an accompanist was a crucial one, and he can be heard on almost fifty of the recordings. Steno is primarily a guitarist by training but, for this project, he took on the exciting challenge of teaching himself to play the cittern (a small, wire-strung instrument, frequently strummed and plucked in the accompaniment of early-modern singing). Initially, he was a little reluctant to add cittern-playing to his repertoire but, over time, a close relationship between musician and instrument began to develop. The breakthrough came when he decided to dispense with the chord-chart that had been given to him when he bought the cittern. After this, says Steno, ‘I just started finding my way around it, and I found some really nice chords, and it really started to appeal to me. So I just spent a few hours playing it, and warmed to it... Once that happened, it totally won me over, and off we went really... It was much more versatile than I thought, and the tuning lends itself to really interesting chords which surprised me on a little four-course thing’ (the interest lies particularly in the fact that the bass string is actually situated in between two higher strings, giving every chord that is played a different feel from that found when strumming a guitar). Clearly, Steno has put his initial suspicions of the cittern far behind him: ‘It’s a lovely sounding thing, the tone is so lovely, so responsive, very cheerful and optimistic-sounding... It’s a beautifully made instrument [thanks to Paul Hathway]. It’s actually a joy to play’.

Steno also spoke about his experience of accompanying the singers and developing his playing style:

‘When I first started doing the project, I thought the way forward would be to vary the accompaniment and also perhaps [introduce] little fills and vary these between verses. But as it wore on, I found that actually that wasn’t what was required. That actually made the ballad longer, it pulled your attention to a different kind of atmosphere. But if you keep the accompaniment pretty constant, and you let the rhythm kind of hypnotise, then all the focus goes on to the narrative. The narrative, especially given the quality of the singers that were involved, would just pick you up and off you’d go. The trick was not to intrude on the narrative, rather than to embellish, which is quite an interesting revelation’ (Ile never Love thee more, being a true Love Song between a young Man and a Maid).

Steno talked further about the necessity of following the singer very closely, watching their breathing and their bodily movements constantly in order to ‘stay with them’. Apparently, this was easiest when accompanying John Kirkpatrick because of his habit of moving from foot to foot as he sings, with an incredibly regular rhythm. Andy described him as ‘a human metronome’, and Steno remarked, ‘Essentially, he danced his way through the songs, really. All you had to do was watch his feet’ (THE Rare Vertue of an Orange; Or, Popery purged and expelled out of the Nation). Lucie Skeaping, in contrast, varied the tempo of her performances considerably, and Steno remembers that ‘you had to be on your toes’. He clearly managed this, and Andy remembers how Lucie, at one point, looked over at Steno and asked, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ (An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwel an Apprentice in London, who was undone by a Strumpet).

I asked Steno if it was more difficult to play with singers whom he had not encountered before. He replied,

‘No, not at all, it’s really fun. You look at them and you know they want to do this ballad and do the best they can. All my focus is on how they’re taking it, where they’re taking it, how I can emphasise what they’re doing and try and create an atmosphere with them that works... For all music, the first thing it has to have is an atmosphere, it has to put you in a place, make you feel like the scene is set and off you go...’

Steno’s cittern-playing may perhaps seem unusual to ‘early music’ experts because of the manner in which he has taught himself through experimentation. We should note, however, that this was probably how many early-modern instrumentalists learned to play, rather than from private tutors or printed manuals. At one point in the discussion, Andy said to Steno, ‘The cittern playing that I’d heard [before] – other than ‘arty’ stuff like the Holborne Cittharn Schoole – was a simple chordal thrash, whereas you were playing little fills and lines and rhythms and really making interesting accompaniments. And to me that was a revelation. I’ve not heard anybody play like that’ (The Dead Mans Song, Whose dwelling was neere unto Bassings Hall in London).

The musicians were also asked about their experience of recording more than one song to the same tune, and their responses were varied and interesting. It emerged that Andy had tended to distribute the ballads so that individual singers did not regularly come across the same tunes repeatedly – this in itself may indicate a modern aesthetic suspicion of such melodic recycling – but Vivien and John had nevertheless both experienced the re-appearance of tunes that were already familiar. Vivien, who is thoroughly immersed in broadside ballad culture beyond the project, remarked, ‘We don’t have that now but it’s a very interesting thing... [As singers,] we may ourselves begin to bring our understanding of previous songs we’ve sung to that melody..., and the atmosphere of that’. She mentioned many examples of ‘tunes that have their own life and their own themes’, explaining that ‘Pretty much every kind of genre has its own “go to” tunes, whether it’s beggars or executions or tragic love or whatever’. John’s response was much shorter but equally interesting: ‘the same tunes coming up again was quite comforting’. This may bring us close to the early-modern feeling that there was something reassuring about a familiar melody, particularly when attached to an unfamiliar text. It not only hinted at thematic content while aiding singing and memory but also established a comforting connection with the world as it was already known. Steno, perhaps because his role on the project is primarily that of an accompanist rather than a singer, said that, in contrast to Vivien, he tended to experience each song as a fresh creation, even if it was sung to a familiar tune. His focus was instead on responding to the lyrics as performed by the singer, though he did also draw our attention to the Bob Dylan song, ‘With God on our side’, that uses the tune of an old Irish song called ‘The patriot game’ (there are clearly resonances that connect the two texts, and it therefore appears that the early-modern recycling habit is not quite dead, after all).

Andy expressed strong views on ‘Chevy Chase’ (or ‘Flying fame’), the melody that was nominated more often than any other for the singing of our 120 super-songs. He said,

‘I don’t enjoy that tune... I find it a miserable little tune. But I think it possibly has a sort of neutral quality about it. It’s not found as used by any of the virginal composers as far as I know so it obviously doesn’t appeal in that way, to an instrumentalist. It’s not susceptible to being embellished and varied and expanded. It’s a very neutral, very small thing and therefore maybe a very appropriate one for telling what is essentially a narrative. You know, you almost disregard the tune, it’s got such a narrow range... You know it doesn’t go anywhere. But maybe that’s what’s needed for those songs’.

In response to this, I remarked that I actually like this tune. It may indeed sound neutral when considered in isolation but, to the ears of thousands of early-modern people, it came to resonate – by association – with the themes of adventure, heroism and history. I also suggested that it is a restless tune, ending on the fourth note of its scale, rather than the first, as is more normal; this drives the singer and listener forward from each verse to the next, so that the melody seems to go round in circles, perhaps with a hypnotising quality. It certainly seems to have mesmerised our ancestors – sophisticated virginalists excepted - and the fact that we may nowadays struggle to feel the appeal demonstrates, once again, the challenge that we face in trying to engage with the listeners of the past (I should add, however, that my youngest daughter learned the tune on her recorder at the age of ten and played it over and over again for days). Ballads sung to this tune on the website include A Memorable Song on the unhappy hunting in Chevy-ChaseThe Shepherd and the King and A Lamentable Ballad of Fair Rosamond, King Henry the Second’s Concubine.

Vivien, Andy and Steno all participated in a series of concerts that were staged as part of the project, and I therefore took the opportunity to ask them about the differences between performing the ballads in public and recording them in the studio. They commented on the need to edit the songs extensively for the concerts because modern audiences could not be expected to sit quietly through the 98 verses of An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwel.  Andy and Vivien also noted the need to avoid presenting concert audiences with songs that were either obscure because of their detailed political references or offensive in other ways. In planning the concerts, Andy steered clear of songs from the project that ‘reveal the sort of complete prejudice and awful attitudes of the time: anti-Black, anti-Jew, anti-women’ (try, for example, A Lamentable ballad of the tragical end of a Gallant Lord, and a Vertuous LadyThe Wandring Jew, OR, The Shoo-maker of JerusalemA good Wife, or none and, for an anti-Catholic number, A New Song of Lulla By, OR, Father Peter's Policy Discovered). The musicians agreed that the result of such decision-making may well be to distort the early-modern ballad repertoire as it is offered up to modern audiences, creating a somewhat sanitised impression of life in the seventeenth century. Vivien commented, ‘I guess what you’re doing with the 100 Ballads project is not creating a distorted view’.

On the performance experience itself, there was general agreement that the live concerts were particularly exciting. Steno remembers the ‘great adrenalin and energy’ that were involved. He recalled one performance in particular:

‘We did Titus Andronicus once. And Vivien – you know the way she puts that across. I mean, it’s chilling. You’re just in the thing, and it’s her leading it, then you’re just ‘off you go’ and wow! It’s like it’s fantastic, you don’t exist any more, it’s just the ballad. And I love it’.

In Vivien’s words, ‘there’s an added excitement because you have the audience there, and you also want to keep them, you want to kind of grab them’. In contrast, the recording sessions felt ‘much more kind of internal... because you’re concentrating on accuracy all the time – things you wouldn’t be thinking about in a live performance... You’re concentrating on these things while trying to tell the story. But maybe... you’re allowing the text, the narrative, to be strong enough, without having to ‘perform’ it – because ‘performing it’ in the recording studio in a certain way would be too much because you have the microphone right there, so you don’t want to be delivering it in the same way you would in a concert hall’. In the concert setting, she concluded, ‘They’re enormously enjoyable to perform, these narratives’ (The Norfolke Gentleman his last Will and Testament).

The musicians were asked, finally, if they had found it easy to understand why the ballads selected for the project had been so successful during the seventeenth century. Andy voiced surprise that a serious ballad such as The wandring Prince of Troy should have topped the chart, while a humorous and engaging number like The Nightingales Song achieved a much lower rating. He speculated that funny songs may have tended to age more quickly than sober and serious fare, making it difficult for the lighter ballads to penetrate the chart. Vivien commented on the need to ‘look outside the ballad’ for clues to commercial success, locating each song within the seventeenth-century zeitgeist. The song about Titus Andronicus, she argued, was clearly linked in some way to Shakespeare’s play. Did people buy the ballad as a souvenir of the play, or perhaps because they had not seen the play but wanted to catch up by purchasing a concise version of the story? According to Vivien, ‘Looking at the song... on its own merits doesn’t always tell you why it was popular’.

Overall, the musicians were highly positive about their experiences on the 100 Ballads project. Vivien said, ‘It was a very happy experience... It was great to have this project that we could go back to over a period of time and work on musically..., learning as we went about how we could best work with these ballads’. Steno agreed, commenting ‘I felt like it was a real kind of journey, a real experience. And I treasure it’.

Christopher Marsh

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