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 . . . . . . .
Do you like being a busy lutenist ?
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?
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
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?
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
music and the liberation, and how much is Hopkinson Smith?
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
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,
BD: It sounds
like these items should
have appeared in the Daily Gazette!
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?
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?
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
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
you not be playing and improvising your own
HS: I am
improvising and playing my own music in
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.
mentioning any names, do any of
these contemporary composers get it?
HS: A good
composer — one who knows the
instrument — certainly 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.
mostly you continue to bring to
life the old composers and keep them alive?
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
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
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.
your perspective of playing mostly the old pieces, what is the purpose
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
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
writing. The angle will change a little bit, although I wouldn’t
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?
HS: I have done
quite a lot with different early
instruments — plucked instruments — different
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
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
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?
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
instruments themselves evolved — according 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
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
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
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
BD: I assume
that most of the instruments that
you play on are reproductions?
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.
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.
overall, are you pleased with the
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
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
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
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
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
recordings we have, for instance, from the first twenty years of the
twentieth century are very different — even piano and violin where
playing mainly nineteenth century repertoire. They are
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.
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
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
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.
recordings and concerts are two parallel
they are parallel, I don’t
know, but they’re certainly complementary while being two different
approaches to something.
pleased to be involved in both, I
HS: Yes, most
of the time! [Both laugh] Always you’re involved so
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
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]
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
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 don’t know in a master class
situation is to try as much as you can to free this up through all
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.
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?
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
speak — should always be clear by itself.
sounds like different compartments, different aspects of the
same thing, and they’re all also intimately related to each
But the basic artistic integrity of a performer — the
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
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
enliven a performance.
I want to be sure to ask about the transcriptions of works by J.S. Bach.
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 artistically — and
think a little bit in some other way — on a
different plane of existence. As Stravinsky said, “Bach
is our greatest
European composer,” and I think almost anyone
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.
Bach write some works for the lute?
for one little piece, all of the Lute
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
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?
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
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
HS: The more
he or she knows about the
instrument — not just a tuning chart and some
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
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of old music?
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.
One last question. Are you pleased with where you are at this
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
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
© 2003 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Evanston, IL, on April 16,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNUR soon thereafter. This
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.
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
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.