Lutenist  Hopkinson  Smith
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Musical styles and tastes come and go.  Individual composers and entire genres swing in and out of fashion, but the performance of Early Music
— think pre-Bach — lay quite dormant for three centuries or more.  Yes, there were a few — very few — practitioners of these styles who kept the ideas alive during the Baroque through the Impressionist periods, but only since the mid-1970s or so have we had a renaissance of Renaissance music!  The end of the twentieth century saw (and heard!) a revival and the genuine interest in trying to replicate the authentic sounds and gestures that brought light to the world as it emerged from the dark ages. 

Hopkinson Smith is one of those who has pushed the expansion of these oldest sounds and has help to make us aware of these ideas and ideals.  Radical in their day, we now can appreciate once again the forward-looking advances that these player-composers gave society.  Many were attached to the courts, but some roamed the countryside bringing news and enjoyment to anyone and everyone.  At least we hope so with our all-inclusive egalitarian sensibilities of this electronic age.

Smith was in Evanston in 2003, giving a concert and master classes at Northwestern University, something he regularly does in his adopted home in Basle, Switzerland, and around the world.  He has made many recordings, so we all can learn and enjoy what he has discovered and implemented in his search.

Here is that conversation . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Do you like being a busy lutenist ?

Hopkinson Smith:    If busy means focusing my life on the music and the instruments, I love it.

BD:    Is that what you do, focus your life on the music and the instruments?

HS:    These days I certainly do, and the traveling doesn’t bother me because the traveling is all part of realizing something which is very close to my heart, which is the music I play.  Of course the instruments themselves have a very strong physical presence.  The lute being such a sensitive instrument, one is very intimately involved with the instrument physically, musically and emotionally.

BD:    When you play the instrument it’s in front of you, but are there times when it becomes a part of you?

HS:    I think in the best moments that happens with any instrument.  The music and the instrument seem to be one with the performer and the whole creative energy and spirit that’s behind it.

BD:    Is it at all odd to be living now in the twenty-first century and still be playing music from two, three, four and five centuries previous?

HS:    That’s a question that people ask sometimes.  It seems like a perfectly natural thing for me.  It may seem odd to somebody else, but it seems perfectly natural to me, because whatever you do as a musician, in the best moments it is a completely contemporary expression.  The music should have such an immediacy and clarity, and such a connection to the performer’s creativity and sincerity as an artist, that the question of the epoch in which the music was conceived becomes of secondary importance in terms of the basic message that is there.

BD:    Do you enhance this message at all, or do you bring exactly the message as it was put down on the paper?

smith HS:    What you try to do, always, is go beyond what you see on the paper to find the real spirit of the music which is behind any particular notation.  From the outside, it may seem that people who play early music on historical instruments, use historical technique, play music according to the rules set down in the Baroque or the Renaissance periods — all these different things which seem like a kind of rigorous set of postulates that one must follow are actually are just normally part of the language.  For instance, if you’re reading Shakespeare, does it bother you that the sentences fall into a certain rhythm?  Does it bother you that there are subjects and verbs in the sentences?  No.  These are things that are naturally part of the language, and his language is an eloquence and reflection that no one would actually use in this particular form today.  But it’s so intimately connected with the expression and the sort of nobility of reflection that he incorporates, that this is all one and the same.  In the best of moments, I think one should experience no limits at all in a certain instrument or a certain period, but rather find total freedom.  What we’re trying to do is find and communicate this total freedom, and at the same time liberate the spirit that is behind it.

BD:    How much is the music and the liberation, and how much is Hopkinson Smith?

HS:    Everybody has his own approach and every instrumentalist has his own sound, and every instrumentalist has an instrument through which his voice takes shape and becomes real.  I don’t think of it in terms of these categories
how much is the music and how much is me, for instance.  But I think there is certainly room for as much variety of personal approach in our days as there was in those days.  Just to elaborate a little bit on that point, there is a lute treatise from the seventeenth century, the Mary Burwell Lute Book.  Mary Burwell was an English woman who had lute lessons with someone who had studied with the legendary Vieux (Ennemond) Gaultier, who was the patron saint of all French lute players in the seventeenth century.  At one point in the book she lists the main players, apart from Gaultier, who were active at the time.  These were all composers and performers, and she gives a caricature of each one of these performers...  “This person should only have played at funerals and burials because his playing was so somber and morose; this person should have been an organist because he was so pedantic in the way he played; this person played too well because he added ornaments and tirades and what-all wherever he could, and the music was completely obscured; this player should have gone to the marketplace and accompanied the dancing bears because he made so much noise and such a racket,” etcetera, etcetera.

BD:    It sounds like these items should have appeared in the Daily Gazette!  [Both laugh]

HS:    Yes.  On the one side it shows that musicians spoke as badly of each other in those days as they do today, but more importantly it shows that the idea of a French school of interpretation, on a very individual level, is a complete fiction.  It shows that there were so many different approaches to something that we consider to be of one “French school” of the seventeenth century.

BD:    Are all these approaches right?

HS:    They’re all valid.  It’s also valid to say that not every one of these approaches will please you or me, so if you’re looking for right and wrong, this is not the place to do it.  There’s no room for a moral judgment here, but there’s plenty of room for openness of spirit and for trying to understand many different ways of doing things.

BD:    Have you discovered the way that you want to use and taken it, or have you created your own way?

HS:    I’m always looking.  People would say that I’ve created an approach, but I would never think of it as such.  I would think of it more as the way I think, the way I listen, the type of sounds I’m looking for.

BD:    Are you at an advantage or a disadvantage being able to look back at history and the music that you’re playing from a distance, rather than being in the midst of its creation?

HS:    I never thought of it as an advantage or disadvantage.  This is not an answer to your question, but one big advantage we have is that we have so many different instruments and different styles and different periods that fascinate us.  We can go from one to another and we have this variety that keeps everything fresh.  On the other hand, they often were experts in the one thing that they did.  Silvius Weiss played the music of Silvius Weiss; John Dowland played mainly the music of his period; Francesco da Milano played and improvised, above all, his own pieces.  So there’s an important difference.

BD:    Should you not be playing and improvising your own music, then?

HS:    I am improvising and playing my own music in different styles.

BD:    Is there much, if any, music for your instruments being written today by other composers?

HS:    There are contemporary composers who write for the lute and other early instruments, and actually there are some performers who specialize mainly in this.  I’m always interested to see what people are doing.  I have piles of compositions that composers have sent me at home, and I’ve played through them all.  Normally I’m in touch with the composers about how I feel about them, but my heart is more in the earlier repertoires, and that’s still how I basically nourish myself artistically.

BD:    Without mentioning any names, do any of these contemporary composers get it?

HS:    A good composer
one who knows the instrumentcertainly has something interesting to say.  I wouldn’t say they get it or they don’t get it.  I wouldn’t actually put it in a kind of black and white situation, but there are some interesting things happening. 

BD:    But mostly you continue to bring to life the old composers and keep them alive?

HS:    Yes.  The lute and the early plucked instruments in general have a vast repertoire for quite a few different instruments from about 1500 to the middle of the eighteenth century.  There is so much music that one could easily spend several lifetimes investigating historically.  Above all, something that takes much more time with the instrument in the hand is really finding the essence of a style, and a composer and individual pieces.  One could spend an enormous amount of time really bringing this to fruition.  A small part of the work that I do, actually, is bibliographical and historical, actually looking for sources here and there.  Much more of what I do is playing over and over certain pieces, certain phrases, trying to find the expression which really seems to come from the music itself.  This is something that just takes ages.  Dowland himself, in the introduction to his Variety of Lute Lessons, where he translates a section on how to study the lute, says that when you have a difficult piece you shouldn’t go over from the beginning to the end each time and play right through, but you should stick with it and work on it; go over and over the passages that are enigmatic, even if it’s a thousand times until “thou sees thyself prettily seen within it.”  That means until you find yourself really reflected in the passage you’re playing, or, in our way of expressing it, until I can identify with everything in the piece.  In our day and age where everything else is so automatic and so quick, and at the push of a button we have this information or that information, this is one aspect of studying music which has not changed in hundreds or thousands of years, and I don’t imagine will change in the future as well.

BD:    Is it ever possible to get any of these things completely right, or is this always an unattainable goal?

HS:    How I see it, the musical ideal that we are trying to approach always lies somewhat above and beyond the instrument.  Occasionally there will be moments when a kind of light of clarity shines in and illuminates a passage musically.  These are some of the most gratifying moments a musician can have.  But it is a very fleeting art, and I would never say that it was right or this is the right way, but rather that occasionally we have moments of clarity which are completely rewarding.

BD:    From your perspective of playing mostly the old pieces, what is the purpose of music?

HS:    I think I need a few years to answer this one!  [Both laugh]  Maybe in ten or fifteen years.  Once I read an interview with Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, and he was asked, “Why do you write?” and he said, “To raise the spirit.”  [Note:
Kundera was born in 1929 at Purkyňova ulice, 6 (6 Purkyňova Street) in Brno, Czechoslovakia, to a middle-class family. His father, Ludvík Kundera (1891–1971), once a pupil of the composer Leoš Janáček, was an important Czech musicologist and pianist who served as the head of the Janáček Music Academy in Brno from 1948 to 1961. Milan learned to play the piano from his father; he later studied musicology and musical composition. Musicological influences and references can be found throughout his work; he has even gone so far as to include musical notation in the text to make a point.]  I think there’s a lot of truth for anyone involved in the arts.  The specific way of raising the spirit that one has through dance or theater or music or composition or writing.  The angle will change a little bit, although I wouldn’t really be able to define it in detail.  There’s something about an intense and profound gratification that one can find with music that for me, at least, would be very hard to obtain any other way.  Of course, playing an instrument involves your human spirit.  It involves your mind; it involves the way you think and what you’re looking for; it involves your hands.  So it’s a physical, mental, emotional, and extremely spiritual activity, and these are all important factors involved in this endeavor that many of us are taken with.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you play primarily the lute, or do you play equally all of these early plucked instruments?

smith HS:    I have done quite a lot with different early instruments
plucked instrumentsdifferent types of Renaissance lutes, Renaissance guitar, vihuela, Baroque guitar, Baroque lute, theorbo, etcetera.  These are instruments almost exclusively with double strings.  Whereas the modern guitar has single strings, on the lute you will have two strings tuned to the same note, or in the case of the basses, a lower note and a note an octave higher.  So they’re all part of a shared esthetic, which has quite a lot of variety from country to country, from time period to time period, and in some cases even from one composer to another within the same geographical and chronological area.  But there are certain basic aspects of the general aesthetic which are shared by all these different instruments.  In the first case, it is lighter construction of the instruments themselves, and being lighter constructed, the strings themselves are finer.  They are thinner than on a modern instrument, which is heavier.  So being lighter and double-strung, the sound is more transparent, more suggestive, has more overtones and not as much fundamental.  Being lighter, they also have a more speaking quality, not in the sense of exact vowels and consonants — although these are elements which one can certainly use in early instruments — but also the level of sound production that an instrument has.  There is also the speaking-ness of following the rise and fall of the voice that one has when one uses the language in a natural way.  If we say in a natural way, Da-da-dum, ta-ta-tum, there’s even a gesture involved.  Da-da-dum, tandem, one can imagine that hand moving in a certain way, and it’s actually this type of gesture and this type of clarity of declamation which is intimately related to the language of these early plucked instruments.

BD:    I assume that it gives you a sense of variety to be able to play several of these instruments rather than always going to a violin or a bassoon?

HS:    Yes.  But actually, if one played a certain violin for the music of Fontana, you might use a different violin or different bow for Tartini and a different one for Geminiani and a different one for Mozart or for Beethoven.  Actually one could follow through the evolution of the instrument itself
how the bow has changed, how the instruments themselves evolvedaccording to the exigencies of the music, the requirements of the music in any given period.  Actually, what we’re doing with the lute is exactly what the violinist would do if he were to change according to the music he played.

BD:    Aren’t there large differences among lutes and vihuelas and theorbos, more than just early and late violins?

HS:    The shape of the vihuela and the shape of the lute are quite different.  The lute has a pear-shaped body, a neck that goes up and a peg box that goes back.  The vihuela has a guitar-shaped body and a straight peg box, but both have double strings.  They have the same tuning, and to a large extent they have the same technique, even though geographically they were separated.  In the sixteenth century, the vihuela was played above all in Spain and somewhat in Italy, while the lute was basically in the rest of northern Europe.   Although they look quite different and they’re from different families of instruments, the tuning, the technique and very much of the music are similar.   The theorbo, of course, is a different animal.  It is a bass lute with a very long neck, and with a whole octave of bass strings tuned diatonically going down.  It was used above all as an accompanying instrument, first in Italy and then in France and in the rest of Europe.  There’s a small but very interesting solo repertoire, especially from France and Italy, but it is an instrument above all for power accompaniment.  In the big orchestras there were several theorbos, or as they were also known, chitarrones.  However, in a chamber music situation the theorbo can have a much more intimate function and be like a solo instrument.  The possibilities of color and volume can adapt very well to a variety of chamber music situations.  It is an instrument of the lute family, but is quite a different animal, so to speak.

BD:    I assume that most of the instruments that you play on are reproductions?

HS:    It’s true.  I have a number of them.

BD:    Have you been able to play on a few original instruments?

HS:    I have, not so much recently, but the first two or three recordings I made were on historical instruments from the collection in the German National Museum in Nuremberg

BD:    Do the reproductions stack up well against the originals?

HS:    Not all of the original ones sound well, and we never know exactly if the way they sound now is the way they sounded then.  But a good historical instrument that is well-maintained or has been carefully restored, has qualities that I have never found in a modern instrument; qualities of individual depth and interest in each individual note of the instrument.  These qualities I mentioned before about
speaking are even more in evidence on a good historical instrument than on a good modern instrument.  There’s something of the depth of quality that is unique to earlier instruments.

BD:    But overall, are you pleased with the reproductions?

HS:    I have some very good, modern-made instruments, although the lute builder who’s made most of my instruments, Joel van Lennep, who lives in New Hampshire, would never say he really makes copies.

BD:    He is making his own things on the old pattern?

HS:    Exactly, the old pattern, and above all the esthetic of sound that he and I imagine the music to require.  Just as a player looks for certain qualities at the moment when his independence as a musician is clear and liberated, an instrument maker also is looking for certain sound qualities.  It’s important for an instrument maker to be very skilled as an artist with his hands, but the most important quality an instrument maker has are his ears.  He has to be looking for some sound; I don’t mean one single sound, but a sensitivity to sound and the possibilities of sound in all different registers of his instruments, according to the music that will be played on these instruments.  This is essential for a good maker.

BD:    There are, of course, recordings made by you and your immediate predecessors.  Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we do not have a recording of Dowland playing his own music?

HS:    Oh, it would be fascinating to hear the great personalities of the past!

BD:    Would it not remove some of the mystery?

HS:    It would still be a mystery and it would be fascinating to hear.  I must say, the recordings we have, for instance, from the first twenty years of the twentieth century are very different — even piano and violin where performers were playing mainly nineteenth century repertoire.  They are fascinating for us, and there is so much to learn about the aesthetic of sound and instrumental perfection that many of these earlier recordings show us.  So it would be great to hear Dowland and Silvius Weiss and all these virtuosi and incredible personalities of the past.  There’s still a lot to learn from these early recordings from the twentieth century, many of which, interestingly enough, in their aesthetic are much closer to the speaking intensity of sound production than performers doing the same repertoire at the end of the twentieth century.  So there are many more links to earlier ways of thinking and hearing and playing even in the twentieth century than one might imagine.

smith BD:    Does it please you that you have made a number of recordings, so that your legacy will not just be the concerts you have given, but also these recordings, which will presumably last?

HS:    I don’t think so much about a legacy in that respect, and I never listen to my own recordings!  It’s not as though I want to bathe in what I’ve done before.  My focus is almost always on what I’m doing right now and the future.  I’m glad that I have had the chance to make recordings.  Of course, a recording is always a moment.  You never really have a definitive version of a piece, but a recording gives you a chance to present your ideas under hopefully optimal recording conditions, in a way that is gratifying to the performer and is also interesting to other people.  I’m very glad that there has been some positive reception to these different projects that I’ve recorded over the years.

BD:    Do you play the same for the microphone as you do for a live audience?

HS:    In a concert, it’s very rare that you’ll have the quality of silence and focus and reflection that you can have in a recording.  There are so many factors involved in a concert itself, and actually the whole experience of performing in a concert is something quite different from the recording.  The concert is, for me, the moment of truth; it’s a moment of creativity, projection, communication.  Very often at the end of a concert, you can have a completely different feel than you had at the beginning.  Towards the end of the concert, one often has the feeling of getting to know each other a little bit.

BD:    You and the audience?

HS:    That’s right.  Once you’re on more intimate terms, one automatically plays differently.  There are certain pieces that you could play as an encore that would never have the same effect at the beginning of a concert!  So the recording and the concert are very different media.  In a recording, where there is no visual orientation to the gestures and the concentration that one can have on the stage, one has a whole different concept of sound, and a different type of intensity.

BD:    So recordings and concerts are two parallel lines?

HS:    Maybe they are parallel, I don’t know, but they’re certainly complementary while being two different approaches to something.

BD:    You’re pleased to be involved in both, I assume?

HS:    Yes, most of the time!  [Both laugh]  Always you’re involved so intimately with an instrument.  I think it was the Belgian violinist, Ysaÿe, who said that the violin was his intimate friend and enemy.  I think the same could be said for the lutes in my case, and probably the main instrument that anyone plays if one is devoted entirely to performing.  There are certain moments when one has to work through a difficulty or work through a blockage of some kind to make peace with the instrument, make friends with the instrument again.  This is just part of life.

BD:    Has your instrument become your lover?

HS:    I don’t think of it in that sense.  The instrument is my voice, my musical voice.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re here at Northwestern to give some master classes.  I assume that you have some regular students, and you go around the world seeing and hearing what younger lute players are doing.  Are you pleased with how they are coming along, as far as their technique and their musicianship?

HS:    I’m here in Chicago for the first time; I gave a concert yesterday and I will be teaching tonight.  It’s mainly guitar players who are here.  I don’t think there’s much lute activity here at Northwestern, but I will see tonight, and maybe there are some early music ensembles I will work with.  One basic direction that seems to repeat itself, when working with modern musicians on modern instruments, is the challenge to liberate their thinking and their musical spirits to find a natural expression on the instrument they play.  This is partly explaining certain characteristics of the music itself and certain characteristics of early instruments, and how the music and the instruments fit together in a way, and then trying to get them to understand this esthetically and do what they can with their instrument to give the music its due.  More often, however, it is trying to find a lyrical and natural expression with the instrument, such as they would do if they were to sing a line that they were playing.  For instance [softly sings a plaintive melodic line] YUM-da-da-DEE-dum-aww-dum-baa-lom, and you might have a modern instrumentalist who goes [sings] yum-BA-DA-dee, putting the accent on the short notes, whereas the short notes actually lead to the next longer note, [sings] YAA-dum-DEE-dum, in groups of two.  Then the guitar player might go [sings] yaa-DAA-dee-DAA; without realizing it, he would put the accent just out of place.  First of all, as a student you have to learn to listen the way the teacher listens; you have to hear what the teacher hears.  That’s the first step.  This also goes hand-in-hand with learning to be more objective about what one hears when one is playing.  Especially with such poetic instruments as the lute and the guitar, we’re so carried away with the tactile sense and the beauty of sound that we tend to lose the criteria of judgment that go into normal music making.  So if you ask your voice,
What do I want here for phrasing? ninety percent of the music students will give a credible phrasing for a series of notes like that.  However, they need six months to be able to do that on the instrument!  [Both laugh]  Very often, learning an instrument is not just learning to use the fingers this way or that way, or do more even scales or more even arpeggios, or make the loudest sound possible.  These things can all be important, but very often what we’re trying to do is to remove any blockages between the musical spirit and what comes out of the instrument; the individual spirit, the sense of music, the musicality of a person and what their instrument actually is doing.  Very often, the direction that one takes when working with students that you dont know in a master class situation is to try as much as you can to free this up through all different kinds of techniques; getting people to listen and to hear, and to try this and to try that.  I actually do teach regularly in Basel, Switzerland, in the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis.  There I have a group at the moment of seven pupils from seven different countries.  We work basically individually and sometimes in ensemble situations, going more into depth, more into detail on exactly this type of approach to music making.

BD:    Again, without mentioning names, are you successful at getting them to explore all of these things?

HS:    Well you know, you always keep trying!  [Both laugh]  If the pupils are quick and gifted, you can save them a lot of time because they would eventually come to some of these conclusions by themselves.  But they can profit from your experience, and get there in a quicker way than they would if they had to figure everything out by themselves.

BD:    Then they can progress even farther?

HS:    Exactly, exactly, and with the less gifted students, one does one’s best.

BD:    This is advice that you have for performers. What advice do you have, if any, for audiences that will come to hear your performance, or others

HS:    I feel that the more one is informed about a repertoire and about an instrument, the intricacies of the language of an instrument or a period or style, the more one can appreciate a performance.  But on any instrument of any period, the basic message
which is the one which one understands intuitively, that one absorbs from the heart, so to speakshould always be clear by itself.  This sounds like different compartments, different aspects of the same thing, and they’re all also intimately related to each other.  But the basic artistic integrity of a performerthe focus on what he’s doing, the sense of gesture and clarity of movement — all these things should be aimed at the highest artistic level.  This is the most important aspect, I would say, in terms of contact with an audience.  Then the education of an audience can go on ad infinitum because there’s always more to learn, always more interesting aspects to explore.  Sometimes I explain pieces in a concert, and I have to be careful I don’t talk too much because there are so many interesting things to say and so many interesting historical and musical angles that one can bring in.  One tends to do all these things to enliven a performance.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to be sure to ask about the transcriptions of works by J.S. Bach.

smith HS:    I made a recording which came out at the beginning of the Bach Year 2000 of my lute versions of The Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Bach.  I prefer not to use the words ‘lute transcriptions of the originals for violin.’  I prefer to circumvent the issue by saying
lute versions of pieces based on the violin versions, because the violin versions themselves are so often not born on the instrument themselves, but come from some musical ideal above and beyond any instrument.  In Bach’s lifetime, some of these works were adapted for other instruments by Bach himself, and by instrumentalists in his circle including his son and son-in-law.  So it seems a natural extension of these works themselves to try them on the lute.  There’s an interesting anecdote, related by a contemporary of Bach, that often in the evenings he would sit down at the clavichord and play the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, extemporizing the voices and harmonies which are impossible on the violin.  It’s no mystery to a lute player why he would choose the clavichord, because of all the keyboard instruments, this is the one with the musical language closest to the lute in terms of touch, dynamics and intimacy.  The work I did with the Sonatas and Partitas took me several years, and I played them all in concert before I recorded them.  It was an extremely creative and gratifying project because when one is playing so much Bach, one sort of lives artisticallyand I think a little bit in some other wayon a different plane of existence.  As Stravinsky said, Bach is our greatest European composer, and I think almost anyone would agree.  There are so many instances in the Sonatas and Partitas, especially in contrapuntal passages, where the music seems to be almost not for the violin, but against the violin.  Often the violinist is reduced to an awkwardness of bowing, trying to play different voices at the same time with a bow primarily intended for playing a single line on single string.  Although there are other examples of polyphonic playing on the violin from Germany in the generation before Bach, the demands of the Sonatas and Partitas really seem to go beyond the instrument in several cases.  Anyway, I think it’s worth listening to the more peaceful approach, the more non-violent approach that the lute can bring to these works.

BD:    Didn’t Bach write some works for the lute?

HS:    Except for one little piece, all of the Lute Suites by Bach are adaptations in one form or another of pieces which were conceived for another medium, such as the unaccompanied violin or cello.  Other pieces are in mainly keyboard collections, and so forth.  The Fifth Cello Suite, for instance, is very different from all the others, and so it’s very interesting to study.  It’s essential to study what Bach has done, but it won’t give you necessarily specific solutions for the other cello suites.

BD:    Would it give you an idea of what path to take, perhaps?

HS:    Yes.  It can stimulate your creativity, it’s true.  About the Fifth Cello Suite, cellists will often say, “Oh yes, this is the one that’s got a different tuning; it’s a different style of composing.”  They might even think he conceived it for the lute and then adapted it for the cello, but we know that the cello suites were conceived in the early 1720’s, and although we don’t have a score of the Cello Suites in Bach’s hand, we know the dating.  The score we have of his adaptation of the C Minor Suite for the Lute in G minor is actually in Bach’s hand, and it looks like the rough copy that he used to write it out the first time.  The watermark on the paper was from the period 1727 to 1731, so the paper, at least, was later than the cello version.  It’s of course possible that both pieces were originally based on another model which hasn’t survived, but at least for the cello/lute question, it seems to be fairly clear that the cello version was there before the lute version was.

BD:    We talked about advice for the performer and the audience.  What about the composer who would like to write for your instruments?

HS:    The more he or she knows about the instrument
not just a tuning chart and some basic technical data about the instrument — the more that the composer intimately knows what is possible, this can help.  Occasionally you will have a composer who demands the impossible.  Just look at history, for instance the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  When it was first composed it was considered impossible to play, and now everyone who’s an up and coming violinist has to know this piece.  Sometimes you will have new stimuli that a composer will come upon, and which it takes some time to evolve into the natural language of the instrument.  This can also be quite interesting.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of old music?

HS:    I’m optimistic about most things.  I think the future is in the past with old music.  I’m absolutely convinced that the intimacy and naturalness of expression that one finds in early instruments is something that is more and more essential to the human being in the general direction towards impersonality that our modern world envelopes us with.  It’s very important to conserve and communicate the special qualities that early instruments have in our day and age.

BD:    One last question.  Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

HS:    I’m glad to be doing the things I do, but I don’t have time to stop and think if I’m pleased with this or that!  I’m pleased that I’m always pursuing things of great interest, and that are very rewarding and gratifying for me.

BD:    Thank you for being such an eloquent spokesman for these composers and these instruments.

HS:    [With a big smile as we shake hands]  Good.

The American lutenist, Hopkinson Smith, began as a teenager he began to study the classical guitar and in his early 20's, he became acquainted with the lute which he started to learn by himself. He majored in musicology at Harvard and graduated with honors in 1972.

In 1973, Hopkinson Smith came to Europe to devote himself to the lute in earnest. He worked in Catalonia with Emilio Pujol, a profound pedagogue in the 19th century tradition who instilled in him a sense for higher artistic values, and in Switzerland with Eugen Dombois whose sense of happy organic unity between performer, instrument and historic period has had a lasting effect on him. From the mid 1970's, he was involved in various ensemble projects including the founding of the ensemble Hesperion XX and a ten-year collaboration with Jordi Savall. This collaboration led to important experiences in chamber music which were a creative complement to his work as a soloist.

Since the mid 1980's, Hopkinson Smith has focused principally on solo music for early plucked instruments. These include the vihuela, Renaissance lute, theorbo, Renaissance and Baroque guitars and the Baroque lute. In so doing has delved ever deeper into rediscovering the legendary powers of persuasion of the lute in former times: its noble eloquence and rhetorical clarity arising not only from great beauty and purity of sound, but above all from an infinite variety of nuances of touch and color of tone that gives its voice the immediacy of the spoken word. Smith's playing is frequently noted by reviewers for its tastefulness and expertise, while also being warm and always consciously expressive no matter what type of piece he is playing.

With his recitals and a series of over 20 solo recordings, Hopkinson Smith continues to rediscover and bring to life works that are among the most expressive and intimate in the entire domain of early music. These include Renaissance fantasies, variations and dances of the vihuela and lute repertoires (Milan, Narváez, Mudarra, de Rippe), the avant garde contrasts of early Baroque Toccatas (Kapsberger), the super-refined 17th century French lutenists (Denis Gaultier, Vieux Gaultier, Mouton, Dufaut, Gallot, de Visée), Spanish music for S-course guitar rising directly from the popular tradition (Sanz) and from court circles (Guerau) and the flowering of the lute in central Europe in the high baroque both as a solo instrument (Sylvius Weiss), and in concertos with string accompaniment (Johann Friedrich Fasch, Hagen, Haydn, and Kohaut). Projects involving the music of J.S. Bach have been a recurring theme for Hopkinson Smith. His recording of the official lute works has been complemented by his own lute arrangements of the cello Suites (1992) and of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (1999). The latter recording has been called 'arguably the best you can buy of these works - on any instrument' by Gramophone magazine.

Internationally recognized as a leading personality in the field of early music and one of the world's great lutenists, Hopkinson Smith gives concerts and master-classes throughout Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, Australia and North and South America. He currently lives in Basel, Switzerland, where he teaches at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis.

© 2003 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Evanston, IL, on April 16, 2003.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNUR soon thereafter.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.