An Hommage to David Rizzio.

Updated: May 15, 2020

It is not uncommon to find intabluations of Scottish and English airs amongst the pages of the Balcarres Lute Book. The provenance of such airs in the case of Balcarres most often remains unknown. Its intabluations commonly saw their first publication during the 18th century, however it is widely known the works were written many years prior. In the case of traditional Scottish music it is my belief that by the time of publication the origins of the works poetry, and integrity of the melody are possibly lost, or subject to musical interpretation brought on by the aural tradition of learning music. From the time of composition or improvisation, to the first printed publication, I often will see some musical development from original manuscript sources (if present), but inevitably we will never see the full spectrum of discrepancies or concordances in the music’s evolution.

During my recent endeavor into the music of the Balcarres Lute Book an interesting discovery prompted me to present this study. The piece in hand today is number two in the manuscript, The Lasse of Petties Mill, Mr. Becks way, a widely known and quite popular air during the 18th century. The air received its first publication in Orpheus Caledonias, (1725) and found its way into many publication thereafter. Although the work received many accreditations and attributions over time, James Oswald’s Caledonian Companion, (1743) presents a most interesting provenance for a lute player like myself. The Lass of Petties Mill is attributed here to David Rizzio (c1533-1566), court musician and personal secretary to Mary Queen of Scots during the 16th century. The fact that 1) David Rizzio did in fact play the lute during his time at the Scottish court, and 2) that no Scottish lute manuscript sources exist from this time period, make this attribution quite interesting. What brought this to my attention was Matthew Spring’s writings on Scottish Lute iconography presented in The Lute in Britain, A History of the Instrument and its Music.

“The lute represented in engraved copies of a 1564 painting of David Rizzio, may be an example of the “treble lute” referred to by Morley and many others. Rizzio was described by James Melville as an Italian musician from Piedmont in the company of the ambassador of Savoy. Many myths surround his activities and death at the Scottish court. It is certain that through his music he became familiar with Mary Queen of Scots, rising to become her secretary for French correspondence in 1565. By July, 1565 it was rumored that Rizzio was Mary’s lover. Having roused the jealousy of her young husband Lord Darnley, Rizzio was attacked in the queen’s presence by a gang of disaffected Protestant Rebels, and horribly slaughtered outside her chambers in 1566. (Spring 452-454)

It is clear to me that the publication of this work in James Oswald’s Caledonian Companion unquestionably represents a developed interpretation from what may have been played by David Rizzio on a treble lute (a small bodied lute pitched higher than the common “g” lute of the time) nearly 175 years prior. However, a scholar such as Oswald is most likely correct in his attribution. The earliest representation of this work that I know of is the Balcarres Lute Book intabluation by Mr. Beck c1700, nearly 25 years prior to its first publication. The Balcarres Lute Book represents a pivotal point in which the tradition of hand written manuscript was replaced by printed music. It is unquestionable that at the turn of the 18th century Scottish traditional music suffered in respect to its origins. It was during this time that musicians began adapting traditional music, and composing music calculated to sell to the British public, often straying away from common tendencies of earlier manuscript sources. Balcarres may be the last representation of the earlier style, which leads me to ask myself, is Mr. Becks intabulation steeped in tradition? Does this discovery give me any further insight into the sound of the Scottish lute in during the 16th century? With this in mind I have taken the work from the Balcarres Lute Book, arranged for 11 course baroque lute in D-Minor Tuning, and arranged it for my 6 course treble lute in Renaissance Tuning. Some may claim this a feeble attempt at authenticity, and a far cry for Scottish Lute music of the 16th century, yes, but a connection is present, and unquestionably worth mention, performance, and hommage to David Rizzio.

Peace, love, and music - Neal.

Spring, Matthew. The Lute in Britain: a History of the Instrument and Its Music. Oxford University Press, 2004.


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