Jean Mercure

Jean Mercure (c1600-1660) was a French lutenist and composer who spent many years in England. He probably left England at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. By 1646 he was in Paris, where he gave the diarist John Evelyn lute lessons in 1647. His works are all in D minor tuning or in his own ‘ton Mercoeur’ and probably date from the 1640s and 50s. Ledbetter, in Grove Music, describes Mercure’s works as having originality and charm, suggesting that Keyboard versions, probably not made by him, preserve the lute’s wispy texture and brisé repeated notes, features taken over in original English keyboard works of this time. He was probably unrelated to another lutenist Mercure d’Orléans who flourished between about 1590 and 1620.

My interest in this composer arose from two pieces in the Elizabeth Rogers Virginal Book, an English manuscript common-place book in the British Museum which appears to date from 1656, entitled Mercury and Almaine Mercury both of which looked (from the range of notes and the voicing of the chords) as if they were keyboard transcriptions of lute pieces. I have not yet successfully arranged the Almaine but the four versions of the saraband, listed below illustrate some of the difficulties in arranging baroque lute music for other instruments. An MP3 file of the lutenist Thomas Berghan playing this piece on the lute can be found here. Berghan’s playing illustrates the delicate charm of French lute music from this period which is sometimes difficult to capture on the modern guitar [versions 3) and 4), which are both difficult to play effectively]. The lute original is found in two sources, the Ruthwen and the Balcarres manuscripts. 

The anonymous arranger of the keyboard version has made some changes to the harmony and added the semiquaver run in bar 15. This adds a flourish to the piece that is not in the original, but overall much of the character of the music is preserved. I have made two arrangements the keyboard version [versions 1) and 2)]. Version 2 is the closest I could get to a direct transcription of the work [changing the key from A minor to E minor necessitated putting some bass notes up an octave (two Ds and a G); and a correction made by Cofone in the Dover edition has been adopted (the D in bar 13 appears as if F# in the original)]. Version 1 is almost identical with Version 2 but imports some minor elements of the lute version and is the person I prefer to play. 

While working on The English Solo Lyra Viol  (described here) I came across another version of the same piece, this time in a suite for lyra viol by a composer known as Dietrich Steffkins (or Stöeffken - or various other spellings). This time is is referred to as a ‘Gig’. A transcription of the suite can be found here: (though it needs the tablature program Django, obtainable from to read it). 

Mercure and Steffkins would have known each other at the court of Charles I, though it is not clear whose version came first, nor indeed whether either composer was the originator of the piece. There are harmonic differences between the versions; the keyboard version is closer to the Mercure piece (as is suggested by its name) though there is nothing known of its origin.

1) Saraband (Mercury) [PDF] [MIDI] [XML] Anon Grade 05
(from the keyboard version)

2) Mercury (Saraband) [PDF] [MIDI] [XML] Anon Grade 05
(from the keyboard version)

3) Saraband (D minor) [PDF] [MIDI] [XML] Mercure Grade 07
(from the lute version)

4) Saraband (E minor) [PDF] [MIDI] [XML] Mercure Grade 06
(from the lute version)

5) Gig - the same piece by Steffkins [PDF] [MIDI] [XML] Steffkins Grade 05
(from the lyra viol)

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