Recorded at St Andrews Church, Toddington, UK 24 – 26 August 2001
Produced and Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Post Production by Julia Thomas
Photography by Amit Lennon
"The guitar is no more than a cowbell , so easy to play... that there isn't a stable boy who isn't a musician of the guitar” Sebastian de Covarrubias (1611)
"The exact contrary of what is generally believed is often the truth." Jean de la Bruyere (1645-1696)
Something interesting happened in the 1580's. The renaissance guitar (think of a ukulele, its direct descendant) was enlarged and given a 5th string. This new instrument was perfect for strumming and people just couldn't help themselves, they chucked the rules of polyphony out the window and started having fun on the guitar (Its first method book teaches you how to strum your way through a Palestrina mass!) A guitar craze started which spread through Europe and lasted over a century. The guitar was played by almost everyone, from Spanish stable boys to the crowned heads of Europe and by the middle of the 17th century there was a tremendous variety of music for it, from simple strummed chord patterns to some of the most complex and subtle music ever written for a plucked instrument. The apex of this pyramid of quality is occupied by the figure of Francisco Corbetta. In his music the guitar found a voice which allowed it to match in refinement and expressiveness the best solo music for the Viol, Harpsichord or Lute.
Corbetta's life as a wandering virtuoso was filled with incident and adventure and if the rough sketch we can reconstruct at this distance is anything to go by, the loss of his memoirs (mentioned by Adam Ebert in 1701) is a tragedy. He settled on the guitar early; his obituary in the Mercure Galant tells us ' From his youth he was so fond of this instrument that his parents, who had destined him for something different, used caresses and menaces in vain to detach him from it.' He published his first book of guitar music in 1639 [at about the age of 20] and then left Italy and headed north. After successes in Vienna, Hanover and Brussels, he travelled to Spain (where they were still talking about him 30 years later; Gaspar Sanz calls him El mejor de todos – “the best of all”). This was followed by an invitation to Versailles from the Cardinal Mazarin, where he not only taught the guitar to the young Louis XIV, but also had the honour of dancing alongside him in one of the Ballets de Court, the music to which was by another Italian guitar playing friend of Louis: Jean-Baptiste Lully.
He also moved in expatriate English circles and when Charles II returned to England, Corbetta came with him. This earned him some sour entries in Samuel Pepys' diary; Pepys preferred the music of the lute and found the guitar irritating:
August 5, 1667
“After done with the Duke of York, and coming out through his dressing room, I there spied Signor Francisco tuning his guitar, and Monsieur de Puy, with him who did make him play to me which he did most admirably- so well that I was mightily troubled that all that pains should have been taken upon so bad an instrument."
However, it didn't take Pepys long to fall under the guitar's spell and the Pepys library in Cambridge contains a substantial amount of guitar music, some of it by Pepys himself!
Corbetta lived in London for a few years as part of the King's “Private Music”, playing and teaching the royal brothers as well as other members of the nobility. I've got a feeling that the quick disappearance of the guitar from English musical life during the reign of William and Mary had to do with its association with James (who was a keen amateur of the guitar, whatever his motivations might have been) and Catholicism.
Corbetta also used his royal influence to set up a complicated confidence game called “The Catalan Lottery” and after swindling a number of people he left for Paris under a cloud. Although he was to return to London on several occasions (including a concert in the Whitehall Palace for Charles and the court just a few days before Charles' death), Paris became his main address until his own death in 1681.
It was in Paris that Corbetta published his last two books of music: 'La Guitarre Royalle' in 1671, and [rather confusingly] 'La Guitarre Royalle' in 1674. The first collection is his largest work and the source of most of the music on this recording. It's dedicated to Charles II and is filled with extended suites and complex character pieces, many of them dedicated to members of the English and French nobility. The second 'Guitarre Royalle' is dedicated to Louis XIV and includes some extraordinarily chromatic guitar duets and solos mostly in the strummed style. This was apparently Louis' favourite sort of music:
I had wanted to conform myself to the style of music most pleasing to your Majesty; The most delicate, the most chromatic and the least encumbered.
Louis was evidently a connoisseur of chromatic harmony as the exquisite miniatures in this collection are almost impressionist in their effect, with many strange and unresolved dissonances.
When Corbetta died in 1681 he was widely mourned, poems were published referring to him as 'The Amphion of our Times' and the Mercure Galant rather chauvinistically claimed him for the nation: He finally returned to France to signalize by his death the regret he felt at not having spent all his life there. Guitarists continued to play his music for another 70 years but, perhaps because his music survived only in tablature, the rest of the world forgot him quickly.