Treasures from the Past: Chilesotti’s ‘Six Lute Pieces of the Renaissance’ (Guitar Transcription Included)

By John Patykula

During the revival of the classical guitar in the early 1900s, the forgotten music of the vihuela, lute and Baroque guitar began to be unearthed in Spain by composer Felipe Pedrell (1841–1922) and guitarist Emilio Pujol (1886–1980) and in Italy by musicologist Oscar Chilesotti (1848–1916). They resurrected these works by transcribing the various tablatures into modern notation for the classical guitar. The “excavating” of these works must have had the same effect of the Egyptologists opening the tombs of the pharoahs; in both cases, the treasures were numerous and impressive.

At the very beginning of his career, Andrés Segovia (1893–1987) included transcriptions of works by J.S. Bach in his recitals. It was not until much later that Segovia began to perform works from the Renaissance and the early Baroque. Little by little, selections originally composed for the vihuela by Luis Milán, Luis de Narváez, and Alonso Mudarra, along with works for the Baroque guitar by Gaspar Sanz and Robert de Visée, began to appear in his programs and on his recordings.

Segovia’s interest in Renaissance and early Baroque music was undoubtedly influenced by his friendship with the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876–1946) and Emilio Pujol. Beginning in 1927, Pujol began transcribing and publishing volumes of “early” music through the publishing house Max Eschig in Paris. These editions greatly enlarged the repertoire for the guitar and, according to Pujol, opened up “the possibility of hearing on the Spanish guitar works from the past which have stood the test of time and whose great value is now proven.” The music of the Renaissance vihuelistas and the Baroque guitarristas left a deep impression on Falla and was an inspiration for some of his own compositions.

However, even before Pujol’s scholarly activities, numerous lute pieces had already been transcribed into modern notation by Oscar Chilesotti. From Chilesotti’s numerous transcriptions, the Six Lute Pieces of the Renaissance emerged as standard repertoire for the modern-day guitarist. Guitar historian Graham Wade noted that “in the 1930s, the lute repertoire was practically unknown… Segovia found these pieces ideal for the opening of a recital.” How Segovia obtained the Chilesotti transcriptions is unknown. It is conceivable that Falla or Pujol, both of whom were familiar with Chilesotti’s work, made Segovia aware of the transcriptions.

Oscar Chilesotti

Each of the Six Lute Pieces of the Renaissance has a title in Italian. More often than not, guitarists do not know the meaning of these titles, and this lack of knowledge can affect the interpretation of the pieces.

The first piece is Vaghe belleze et bionde treccie d’oro vedi che per ti moro. This translates to “O vague, blonde beauty whose golden tresses I see, I would die for you”—quite a romantic, poetic title by an anonymous composer. One must remember that there was a close relationship between poetry and music in the Renaissance and that connection was meant to stir the emotions of the listener.

Bianco fiore (White flower), the second piece in the set, was composed by the Italian dance master and choreographer Cesare Negri (c.1535–c.1604). During his lifetime, Negri was a favorite of the nobility, including the French royal family. This lively, yet graceful piece is an excellent example of dance music composed for courtly entertainment. (See below for a transcription.)

The third and fourth pieces are dances by anonymous composers. Danza has the feel of a county dance with its energetic use of chords and folk-like melody. Country dances in the Renaissance were not only popular with the common folk, but also with the nobility. Often carefully choreographed pageants featuring court dances were followed by country dances that required no instruction—everyone knew the steps. Gagliarda (Galliard) is a courtly dance that is both spirited yet graceful. Social dancing was immensely popular in the 16th century, and the galliard, usually danced by couples, was one of the most fashionable dances of that era.

The set concludes with two contrasting pieces. Se io m’accorgo is the most introspective piece of the collection; the composer is anonymous. The title translates to: “If I might become aware.” This work evokes the true spirit of the Renaissance, which was a time of enlightenment and awareness, and seems to thoughtfully convey an eagerness to learn and explore. Saltarello, on the other hand, is a lively dance featuring a distinctive leaping step. The name of this dance is derived from the Italian verb saltare, which means “to leap or jump.” The saltarello was a very popular court dance throughout Europe during the Renaissance. This particular piece was composed by the celebrated lutenist and theorist Vincenzo Galilei (ca. 1525–1591), who was also the father of the astronomer Galileo Galilei.

Chilesotti, who played the lute and the guitar, faithfully transcribed these works from lute tablature to modern notation. Although he retained the original spirit and intent of the composers, his transcriptions were often not robust enough for the modern classical guitar and the concert stage. Because of this, Segovia made his own “versions,” highlighting the guitar’s poetic qualities, especially with the use of colors. Segovia recorded Se io m’accorgo (also known as Canzone) and Saltarello in 1949. He recorded all six pieces on his 1955 Decca LP The Art of Andrés Segovia.

After the Six Lute Pieces of the Renaissance began to appear in print in the 1960s, several well-known guitarists, including Rey de la Torre, Manuel Lopez Ramos, Narciso Yepes, and Jesús Silva, added these pieces to their recital programs. Like Segovia, these guitar virtuosi found the Six Lute Pieces of the Renaissance to be refined yet accessible music that transported the performer and the audience back to an era of great artists, grand nobility, and graceful elegance.

John Patykula is Assistant Chair and coordinator of the Guitar Program in the Department of Music at Virginia Commonwealth University.

A note on the Bianco fiore transcription below: In 2002, Editions Orphée published a comprehensive collection of Oscar Chilesotti’s transcripitons. The collection did not include Bianco fiore. Guitarist and lutenist David Toussaint was able to provide me with a facsimile of the original Bianco fiore tablature, which is the source for my transcription.

Bianco Fiore from six lute pieces for classical guitar, transcribed by John Patykula