James Tyler, luntenist and master of early instruments, helped preserve music of ancient era

Washington Post
By Emma Brown

James Tyler, a maestro of the ancient lute who resuscitated centuries-old and largely forgotten European music through his work on recordings, concerts and television soundtracks, died Nov. 23 at a Los Angeles hospital of complications from heart disease. He was 70.

James Tyler
James Tyler playing the lute. He said rescuing old music manuscripts was like a treasure hunt that is “almost guaranteed to find treasure.” (Irene Fertik/university Of Southern Caifornia)

Mr. Tyler was a versatile musician who played at least a half-dozen early instruments, including the five-stringed baroque guitar, the baroque mandolin and the viola de gamba. He also mastered Americana and rag music with the banjo.

He was best known for his facility on the lute, a round-backed instrument with a history reaching back to Greek mythology.

He performed with leading early-music ensembles in the United States and Europe; arranged and recorded soundtracks for Shakespeare productions on BBC television; and – as much as it pained him – taught actress Glenda Jackson how to smash a lute for her role as Elizabeth I in the 1971 film “Mary, Queen of Scots.”

In 1984, reviewer Edward Schneider wrote in the New York Times that Mr. Tyler’s recordings of Italian Renaissance music lent “astonishing variety to the phrasing of even the most florid passages.” He called Mr. Tyler “one of our best lutenists.”

Mr. Tyler was at the forefront of a movement that began in the 1960s to dig up and revive music that had largely lain dormant for hundreds of years. In addition to touring widely, he made dozens of recordings of work by pre-classical composers including Monteverdi and Frescobaldi.

“Most people tend to forget,” Mr. Tyler once said, “that the music from the age of Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt was every bit as exciting and as masterful as the art.”

As much a detective as a virtuoso performer, Mr. Tyler traveled the world seeking manuscripts whose music had not been heard in ages. He transcribed hundreds of old works into modern musical notation, rescuing them from oblivion.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” he once said, “except that you’re almost guaranteed to find treasure.”

Mr. Tyler was a scholar with no college degree. At the University of Southern California, he started and directed master’s and doctoral degree programs in early-music performance. He wrote prolifically in academic journals about the history of early-music instruments and composers.

He was also the author of several acclaimed books – including “The Early Guitar” (1980) and, with Paul Sparks, “The Early Mandolin” (1989) – that traced instruments’ evolution and explained how to imitate the musical styles of centuries past.

“He pioneered the idea that the music that’s on the page is only the beginning – that the ink and paper only tells you so much,” said Keller Coker, a professor of music at Western Oregon University and former student of Mr. Tyler’s. “You have to learn about the musicians . . . to actually breathe life into music that is hundreds of years old.”

James Henry Tyler was born Aug. 3, 1940, in Hartford, Conn. He was a teenage banjo and mandolin player when he stumbled upon an ancient lute in a local museum.

Intrigued, he attended a recital by the virtuoso lutenist Joseph Iadone, a member of New York Pro Musica, whose work helped bring wider attention in America to early music.

Iadone took the young man on as a lute student, and Mr. Tyler was soon performing with New York Pro Musica and other early-music groups. As part of the Consort Players in 1963, he played before President John F. Kennedy and the visiting Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg for a program of Elizabethan music at the White House.

Mr. Tyler moved to London in the late 1960s and joined the Julian Bream Consort and the Early Music Consort of London, directed by the celebrated recorder player David Munrow.

In 1977, after Munrow’s death, Mr. Taylor founded his own ensemble, the London Early Music Group. He directed that group through the 1980s, by which time he had joined the faculty of the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. He retired in 2006.

Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Joyce Geller Tyler of Pasadena, Calif.

Early music is not “this dry and sort of academic stuff that you have to really study up for to appreciate,” Mr. Tyler told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.

Centuries ago, professional musicians were hired by royalty to entertain. “Music was absolutely designed to be listened to, to please the audience,” Mr. Tyler said. “If you didn’t, you were a failure.”

 

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