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Black Cow: Lute Music by Valentin Bakfark and Matthäus Waissel

Audio Samples


Waissel (circa 1535/40-1602)
1. Polish dance
2. Polish dance

Bakfark (circa 1526/30-1576)
3. Un gay bergier (intabulation of a chanson by Thomas Crecquillion)
4. Si grand è la pietá (intabulation of a madrigal by Jacques Arcadelt)

5. Polish dance
6. Polish dance

7. Erravi sicut ovis, prima pars (intabulation of a the first part of a motet by Clemens non Papa)
8. Fantasia (5)

9. Polish dance
10. Polish dance
11. Polish dance

12. Qui habitat in adjutorio, prima pars
13. Non accedat ad te malum, secunda pars (intabulation of a motet in two sections by Josquin Desprez)

14. Polish dance
15. Polish dance
16. Polish dance

17. Fantasia (9)
18. Czarna krowa [Black cow] (intabulation of a Polish song)
19. Je prens en gre (intabulation of a chanson by Clemens non Papa)

20. Polish dance
21. Polish dance


Biographical sketches of Bakfark and Waissel

Matthäus Waissel, from Bartenstein in East Prussia, was a schoolmaster, priest and publisher of lute music. Probably born shortly before 1540, he matriculated in 1553 at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder and in 1560 at Königsberg where he studied theology. Waissel claimed in the preface to his 1573 lute book that he was taught to play the lute by various artists in Italy and in Germany. There is no evidence, though, that Waissel ever worked as a professional lutenist. He was active in the vicinity of Bartenstein, from c.1570 to 1573 as a schoolmaster at Schippenbeil and between 1574 and 1587 as a priest at Langheim. Later, it seems, he settled in Königsberg, where he probably died in 1602.

Waissel published three books of solo lute music: Tabulatura... (1573), Tabulatura... (1591, reissued 1592) and Lautenbuch... (1592), as well as a collection of lute duets: Tabulatura... (1592), all printed by Eichorn in Frankfurt an der Oder. The Lautenbuch... also includes important lute playing instructions. Pieces from Waissel's lute books, especially from that of 1573, occur in several contemporary lute manuscripts. This demonstrates that his publications were widespread and quite popular in Germanic lands and in other eastern and central European countries. His output obviously suited the taste of his contemporaries.

Two non-musical works by Waissel are also known: a biblical history in verses, Summa doctrinae sacrae (Königsberg 1596), and a collection of ancient local stories, Chronica alter preusischer ... Historien (Königsberg 1599).

Although we still lack a detailed study of Waissel's musical output, it is clear that he should be considered primarily as a collector, arranger and publisher of lute music rather than a composer. In the 1573 lute book he acknowledges taking some pieces from other sources, and notating only some himself. Indeed, his lute books lean heavily on previous publications like Drusina's Hans Newsiedler's and several of Phalèse's; also many of the popular pieces evidently derive from circulating contemporary lute manuscripts.

The Polish dances recorded here, from Waissel's 1591 and 1592 prints, represent popular music from around 1600. Some of them can also be found in other contemporary manuscript and printed collections of lute and ensemble music.

Valentin Bakfark was a Hungarian lutenist-composer; after 1565 he called himself Greff Bakfark or Greff alias Bakfark. According to recent research he was born c. 1526/1530 in Kronstadt in the eastern part of Hungary called Transylvania (today part of Rumania). Bakfark's family was of German origin, and they were musicians, mostly lutenists. On account of his musical talent he became a musical apprentice at the Hungarian royal court as a young boy (c. 1536). Typical characteristics of his later works suggest an Italian teacher. In 1549, Bakfark left the court (which had resided in Transylvania since 1542), and went to Poland, where he became lutenist to the King, who was a brother of the Hungarian Queen. Bakfark was to spend sixteen years in Polish service. Soon he also found an influential longtime patron in the person of the Duke of Prussia, Albrecht of Brandenburg, nephew of the king. However, he did not act as Albrecht's agent, as some modern studies have assumed. Bakfark left the Polish court in 1552, and after an abortive first attempt to travel to Italy via Germany, he went to France. While in Lyon he published his first lute book, Intabulatura... (1553). According to a letter (1554), Bakfark also appeared at the French court as well as in Rome at the Papal court. Royal accounts and other documents prove that from May 1554 he stayed at the Polish court continuously, leaving it for short periods only. From this time on Bakfark became the most highly regarded Polish court musician and one of the best paid, repeatedly receiving salary increases as well as gifts. He was even given property by the king. His social status, fame and popularity also increased immensely. While in Poland (1552-1556) Joannes Sigismund, son of the Hungarian King, ennobled Bakfark and probably his brother, too. In 1566 the first printing of the Polish proverb concerning those who "take up the lute after [or in other versions: in presence of] Bakfark" surfaces. In Polish literature, he appears increasingly as a legendary figure, being mentioned into the late 17th century. Foreigners praised him too, calling him “excellent” (1561), “an enchanting musician” (1552), or “a marvellous and unique master of his art” (1566). The last echoes remarkably Herzog Albrecht's statement (1559): “one rarely finds someone similar in his art, and hardly a king has such a musician”.

Bakfark's actual service in Poland lasted until May/June 1565, when he travelled to Vienna to request a privilege for his second lute book from Emperor Maximilian II. Although he dedicated this work, Harmoniarum Musicarum . . ., to the Polish king, he apparently did not present it to him. Bakfark then remained in Cracow, where his second lute book appeared. About the end of 1565, he decided to transfer into the service of Maximilian. His motive for the sudden change is not known. (No evidence or hint exists of his political activity, as is suggested by some scholars.) He left Poland in June 1566.

At Maximilian's court he enjoyed an exceptional position similar to the one he had had in Poland. During his service he followed the Habsburg Emperor's retinue to Hungary and Bohemia. In 1569 he stayed for some months in Padua, too. Bakfark's service at Maximilan's court ended after he was arrested for a short time in October 1569, on account of his contact with a Hungarian Bishop who had rebelled against Maximilian. Early in 1570, Bakfark entered into the service of Joannes Sigismund, Prince of Transylvania, who rewarded the lutenist immediately with the estate of a whole village. About autumn of 1571, after the death of the Prince, Bakfark returned to Padua where his second wife and his children had stayed since 1569. He settled close to the university and probably had pupils among the foreign students; his contact with them is well documented. The whole Bakfark family died during the plague of late summer 1576.

Bakfark's extant works--all from his Polish years--comprise, according to recent research, nine (or possibly eight) lute ricercares / fantasies, and 32 (or 33) lute intabulations of motets, chansons and madrigals by famous masters of the age. In addition to authentic works, some pieces of questionable attribution also appear in 16th-century lute tablatures.

Bakfark's ricercars and fantasies show typical characteristics of the style of the post-Josquin generation: tightly constructed three- or four-part motet-like compositions, making consistent use of strict counterpoint. There is a clear stylistic difference from similar works by lutenists of the previous generation, such as Francesco da Milano, Alberto da Ripa, Luis de Narv‡ez or Alonso Mudarra. Bakfark was obviously influenced by the vocal works of Gombert, Clemens non Papa and Willaert, and probably even more by the instrumental ensemble recercars which appeared in Italy during the 1530-40s. Bakfark's 1553 Lyon lute book is one of the first presentations of such compositions for solo lute.

Bakfark's intabulations are unusually faithful to the original vocal composition. He ornamented his intabulations but also his ricercars and fantasies with remarkable taste and variety. All his works are of great technical difficulty.

Peter Kiraly
(C) 2000

Nie bierz po Bekfarku lutniej
(Polish proverb: Don't play the lute after Bakfark)

note from the lute player

Apart from the pioneering recordings of Bakfark by Dániel Benkö on Hungaroton, Bakfark's music has not been recorded in any significant quantity until now. Likewise, most of the pieces by Waissel on this disc have almost certainly never been recorded. Some of the Bakfark pieces may not have been performed in public at all since Bakfark's time, since he seems to have been something of a unique virtuoso, writing music that was best suited to his apparently exceptional talents (special techniques, such as “splitting” unison pairs of strings, and stopping one but not the other, are required in Bakfark's music, as well as other ingenious left-hand fingerings). Other lutenists, then and now, are hard pressed to emulate him. However, his reputation in his own lifetime (and beyond) was great, and his marvellous music deserves an airing today as much as does the music by more frequently performed lutenist/composers such as John Dowland or Francesco da Milano. So this is my attempt. The pieces by Bakfark are interspersed with Polish dances by his contemporary, Waissel, as a foil to the seriousness of Bakfark's writing. Waissel's dances (arrangements of pre-existing music) are sketched in plain and unadorned settings. Lutenists would have been expected to improvise embellishments and variations, a practice which I follow on this recording. The disc's title, Black Cow, is an English translation of the Polish title of track 18: Czarna krowa.

To give the modern listener some idea of the lute's importance in the mid-sixteenth century, the best parallel I can draw is to say that the lute then was like the piano in the nineteenth century: the instrument for solo music and for accompanying the voice, both in an amateur (domestic) context, and at court (in the case of the lute) or in the concert hall (in the case of the piano). Or, if you prefer, the lute then was in some ways like the electric guitar now: played by amateurs as well as ultra-famous professionals with legendary reputations and skills, and the principal instrumental medium of domestic music. Furthermore, like professional guitarists of today, professional lutenists spent a great deal of their time improvising, and, without exception, lute music was composed by practicing players of the instrument.


Three main categories of lute music existed in the sixteenth century: intabulations (arrangements of sacred or secular vocal music), dances, and fantasias (and other freely composed forms). This CD consists mostly of intabulations, the most heavily represented of the three categories in the original sources, but also the least performed and recorded today. It is the first in a series of CDs for DGM which will concentrate mainly on intabulations in an attempt to redress this imbalance and to show that the best of them are fine and powerful instrumental works in their own right, and not simply weaker derivations of vocal works, composed as academic exercises or purely for the amusement of the player. One interesting aspect of intabulations is that they were, in a sense, the renaissance equivalent of the radio and hifi. The lute was a domestic instrument, and arranging vocal “hits” both sacred and secular (it must be remembered that sacred music was a vital part of everyday life in those days) for solo lute was a way of taking this music into people's homes and allowing it to be heard there in a domestic rendition. The same is true of Waissel's (and others') solo lute arrangements of dance music.

Thanks to
Peter Kiraly, author of the biographical sketches, for generously sharing his expertise, and for providing the Polish proverb printed above, quoted in Krzysztof Falibogowski: Discurs marnotrawstwa i zbytku Korony polskiej (1625) and elsewhere.

John Robinson, who provided me with copies of the original tablatures, from which I prepared the performing editions for this disc

Lynda Sayce, for useful ideas

The whole DGM team for their confidence and belief

Lewis Jones, for instilling a love of the undeservedly neglected

Leo Stevenson, for invaluable help with bovine iconography

Suzanne Hackel, for generous artwork

Zan, for being there

Lute made in New York in 1997 by Andrew Rutherford, after Gerle (c1580).

recorded 15-16 December 1998 in Wiltshire, UK
recorded by David Singleton and Alex Mundy
post-production by Adrian Hunter

this recording is for Lucy

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