Charming exhibit of Renaissance music instruction

How did one learn to play the vihuela or cittern?

Arts

Museums / Literature

June 16, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

You say you want to learn to play the piano? No problem! Find dozens of qualified instructors right in the phone book.

How about flute -- or guitar, or clarinet, or bass fiddle or accordion? No problem! Somewhere, somebody is teaching just about any instrument you can name.

And that's not even mentioning all the specialty shops that sell everything from sheet music to self-help manuals, guitar picks to drumsticks, saxophones to sousaphones.

Now put yourself back 500 years or so to the High Renaissance, when every knight and swain yearned to woo his lady with soulful riffs on the lute. Who was around back then to teach them the notes?

How music was taught in that bygone era -- an age that also saw the birth of our modern world -- is the subject of a delightful little exhibition at the George Peabody Library at Peabody Institute.

Titled Art, Science, Spirit, Soul: Mastering Music in the Renaissance, the show brings together authentic and reproduction 16th-century musical instruments, music manuals and engraved illustrations that offer a charming window onto the musical education of Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo's contemporaries.

Leonardo, in addition to being one of the great painters of his age, was renowned for his mastery of the lute and for his sweet singing voice.

Perhaps he had read Milanese music theorist Franchino Gafurio's three-volume tome Theoria, Practica and Harmonia Instrumentorum, which purported to offer a complete musical education from ancient to modern times, up to and including instruction in plainchant.

Or he may have been acquainted with the widely reprinted 14th-century music primer Flores Musicae, by the German schoolmaster Hugo van Reutlingen, which taught readers to name the notes from a chart shaped like a human hand. Both these beautifully illustrated works are in the Peabody show.

Other texts on view suggest that musical literacy was, if not common, at least widely dispersed among the period's political and social elite. Music was one of the seven "liberal arts" that educated men (and some aristocratic women) were expected to study, along with grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.

There are also splendid examples of period instruments like the recorder, the vihuela (an early form of the guitar) and the cittern, a stringed instrument resembling a guitar with a flat pear-shaped body (the lute, by far the most popular Renaissance instrument, is inexplicably absent from this show).

The exhibition was organized to coincide with a recent conference sponsored by Peabody and the Johns Hopkins University on Renaissance musical education. It will remain on view through July 31 in the Peabody Library at 17 E. Mount Vernon Place. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Call 410-569-8197.

For more art events, see Page 43.

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