Sunday, February 16, 2014

My Journey with the Lirone


I commissioned my first lirone in 1997, well before YouTube videos of lirone players or a lirone community on Facebook. I was an undergraduate at the Early Music Institute at Indiana University’s School of Music when I researched the viola da gamba in the Mantuan court of Isabella d’Este, one of the leading women of the Italian Renaissance in politics, fashion, and the arts, who has been credited with commissioning the first lirone from Atalante Migliorotti in 1505.

I was a student of the viola da gamba at the time, but when I first heard the recordings of Erin Headley, who single-handedly brought about today’s rebirth of the lirone, I was transfixed. I particularly fell in love with the CD by the ensemble Circa 1500, Renaissance Music: from the Courts of Mantua and Ferrara, which features Headley on lirone. Completely smitten, I ordered a lirone from the North Carolina-based viol maker John Pringle.

When my 12-string lirone arrived, I had absolutely no idea what to do with it! It is not an instrument on which one can just take lessons at the local community music school – or even at a music conservatory anywhere in the US – even today!

So, I wrote a letter to Erin Headley in London seeking guidance. She generously replied with a lirone “starter kit,” which included some information on her recommended tuning system (there are numerous ways to tune a lirone) and a song by Giulio Caccini for my first piece. I practiced away in Indiana alone, with little contact and no encouragement. Little did I know that the lirone was an ensemble instrument that was used to accompany singers, and no solo repertoire exists.

My first breakthrough came when I travelled to a workshop where Erin Headley was teaching at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA, where she gave me some insight into the instrument and its music.
I learned that the secret to the lirone is not solely about the physical and technical aspects of playing the instrument, but about having an understanding of the music it is meant to accompany, heightening the text, and being a support for the singer. The lirone is basically a special effects instrument, adding texture and color, which is a complement to the sung text. To be effective, one needs to have a deeper appreciation of the music, as derived from text. This is very different than playing bass viol, which is as much about the physicality of mastering the instrument and its technique as it is about playing rhetorically and musically.

I have come to realize the potential of the lirone and its music with my ensemble, The Catacoustic Consort. I founded Catacoustic in 2001 to bring early music to Cincinnati, where I had recently moved. I wanted my playing experiences to be learning experiences, where the audience could hear music of the Renaissance and Baroque (especially 17th-century Italian music with the lirone) for the first time.

I scheduled my first lirone program in Catacoustic’s second season with a concert of Italian laments. A recording of that performance won a national competition, which resulted in the Naxos label releasing our CD.

Playing the lirone is about having the right continuo team who understands the direction and intention of the music. I have been lucky with Catacoustic Consort to have great musical partners over the years. Michael Leopold, who studied theorbo in Milan, will be joining us for the March 1st Candlelight Concert. I have learned an immense amount about 17th-century Italian music from him, and we have performed together often, exploring this exquisite music.

My new lirone(photo at top of blog of posting), the one you will hear in Catacoustic’s March 1 concert, is by Henner Harders, a German luthier. I commissioned this instrument at the urging of my now mentor, Erin Headley. It has a beautiful, sensitive sound and continues to improve with time. This particular lirone has fourteen strings, two more than my first lirone and is modeled after an instrument by Antonius Brensius from 1592. It is fretted and bowed underhand. The bridge is very flat, so I can play chords on three or four strings at a time when I accompany other musicians. The sound is ethereal – rather high in pitch and almost sounds like the right hand of an organ or a consort of viols. I love the experience of playing the lirone with its heavenly sound, but I love even more to be a partner with the singer and continuo team to make the music more effective and communicate in a more heightened manner the beautiful, passionate music of the Italian Baroque period.

As we continue in Catacoustic’s 13th season, it continues to be a powerful, moving experience to play this music and to delve into its poetic text. There is something about this music and the textures that creates a special and magical aura during the rehearsal periods and concerts. The musicians have made lasting, deep friendships, and the audience is also moved.

My first lirone by John Pringle (in photo above) is now owned by Anne Duranceau in Vancouver, who fell in love with the instrument upon first hearing it. She is chugging away at it, just like I did, and there are plenty of singers and continuo players who are eager to work with her! My new instrument and I are making friends, and I look forward to performing for you on March 1st at St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

--- Annalisa Pappano

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