Inspiration-the story of a day – London, Walther, Beethoven, Dowland 7-11-13
It’s been a wet and windy day in London, and perhaps not one where I was expecting to be uplifted and inspired. But my colleagues, and the music which they invite me to explore with them, had other ideas, and I finished the evening enchanted.
It might seem all a little prosaic. After all, all that I had on the schedule were two rehearsals. But as I found my way to the first of them, there were signs that a journey of sorts was coming. I took the train to Peckham Rye, to walk to East Dulwich, where the harpsichordist Julian Perkins lives. It’s just 15 minutes from my home in Wapping, but as I walked along the high street in the rain, I was struck by the sheer richness and variety of the city where I live, a huge fishmongers, spilling out onto the pavement, a sign ‘boxes of cows’ feet’, a locksmith’s shop with a Halloween burglar mannequin in the window, pawnbrokers, a fantastic variety of middle eastern fast food, piles of white eggplant, which never seem to make it north of the river, all the while, the music which I was about to rehearse, Walther, Matteis, Dowland, on my mind.
Rehearsing with Julian Perkins always reminds me that the most honest way to work with any musical material is to inhabit it completely, so much so that every instinct to be free, to follow down more compositional, improvisational paths whilst rehearsing, simply must not be resisted. The work that we were rehearsing, building towards the project at the British Museum on the 13th December was Johann Jacob Walther’s ‘Hortulus Chelicus’ (or the ‘Violinist’s Pleasure Garden’), published in Mainz in 1688. This is full of musical imitation, of a ‘Choir of Violins’, of Bagpipes,’organo tremolante’, Hurdy-Gurdies, Trumpets, Drums, even something called, rather alarmingly, ‘Harpa smorzata’, ‘which stimulated a discussion of a ‘triple – harp’ wrapped in sheets, a la Cristo, or my more pessimistic translation/paraphrase, the ‘smothered harp’. This sequence of Capricci is book-ended by tumultuous ‘French-overture’ material, and as I had hoped, Julian found layer upon layer of possibility for ornamentation and aggrandisement in this terrific, Lully-esque thundering.
I confess that it was the notion of music as gardening that had first drawn me to the music, the 17th century pleasure gardens which Simon Schama evoked so powerfully in Landscape and Imagination which designed to surprise and drench, as well as enchant and divert. Julian reminded me that such music was written for people who had, quite literally, time to fill, to stave of boredom as well as melancholy. On the train down, I had been thinking about the Tudor-period Andrea Amati on my back, and found myself reading these lines in Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful History of England: Volume 2 ‘Tudors’:
‘An image of Elisabeth survives, dining to the sound of twelve trumpets and two kettledrums together with fifes cornets and side drums. Everybody sang in the streets or at their work, the ‘mason at his wall, the shipboy at his oar, and the tiler on the house top’. A lute was placed in many barber shops, for customers to while away the time.’
This harking back to the Tudors, to a century before the music which we were primarily rehearsing, was not as inappropriate as it might seem. The event at the British Museum will be taking place in the Enlightenment Gallery (Gallery 1), where I have worked a lot in the past. Encouraged by composer David Gorton, I am exploring how much of the enlightenment not only rediscovered the classical, the prehistorical, the mythical past, but how much of it was simply looking to find a way back to the ideas and ideals of the Renaissance, which had somehow got lost, obscured, in the fires of the Commonwealth and the Thirty Years War. This had also been on my mind on Tuesday, spending a few hours in the English Galleries at the V & A, feeling the ‘pull’ between the classical finery of the Music Room from Norfolk House, back, to the haunted charm of Elisabeth I’s exquisite virginals. David Gorton has found a way of articulating this, re-imagining Dowland’s Lachrymae as if revisited, re-cast, by a group of musicians from about 1700. Improvising and talking with Julian, this started to hinge on the void left in British music-making by the death of Henry Purcell in 1695. We talked (and of course played snippets of Purcell’s keyboard and string works to each other) at some length about what it was that Purcell had ‘distilled’- was it something of an idealised past, which, when it is right, feels so modern. I wanted to pull the musicians active in London at the turn of the 17th-18th Century into this, so a Nicola Matteis prelude went onto the desk, just piled up dissonance and resolution, oddly redolent of the Bach G Major Trio Sonata. Julian pulled down another volume to show me a version of Dowland which I had not considered, from Jacob can Eyck’s Der Fluyten Lust-hof (1648), which is exactly what David Gorton is evoking, a 17th century musician reaching back (It’s on my music desk to learn right now). As he opened the volume, a loose page of music fluttered to the floor. Serendipity had intervened, and there it was, Dowland’s Pavanne Lachrymae the very work which has started David Gorton’s explorations-of which more later.
So after a few hours, I staggered to East Dulwich station, much to over-excited, and moved by the beauty of the music which we had been exploring, and aware that I needed to change tack and get ready for something completely different, or maybe not. Next week the Kreutzers play their last ‘Beethoven Begins’ concert at Wilton’s Music Hall. The series has focused on the six Opus 18 Quartets, paired up with works by Reicha, Boccherini, Mozart, and premieres by David Matthews, Edward Cowie, Jeremy Dale Roberts, Sadie Harrison, David Gorton and next week Michael Finnissy. One of the many themes that emerged as we explored these programmes, was how, upon arriving in Vienna in 1792, one could say that Beethoven had no choice but to lock horns with various pasts. Of course, the immediate past was all around him, in the presence of his teacher, Haydn, and the shade of Mozart, who had just left, as it were. However, encouraged by his other teachers, Albrechtsberger and Salieri, Beethoven looked back further, and in multiple directions, to the Italian vocal setting and part-writing of the early 18th Century, to the Counterpoint of Froberger and Bach, to the ‘Ancient’ music of Palestrina and Monteverdi.
However, I had never really quite understood how he found his way to the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ in the Op 132 A Major Quartet, which will bring the project to a close. However, ten years ago, I first had sight of his Op 118, Elegischer Gesang, and it seemed that there was a clue. Don’t be fooled by the late Opus number. This work was written in 1814, for the third anniversary of the death of the wife of Beethoven’s friend Johann Pasqualati. Perhaps it was the challenge of writing a chamber choral work (it is scored for four voices and quartet), perhaps the need to produced something appropriately solemn for an elegy. Whatever the reason, we are confronted, for the first time, with Beethoven’s total command of the quartet, brought to high watermark of technical accomplishment and economy with his F minor Op 95 Quartet, written two years earlier, and his deepening knowledge and appreciation of early Baroque choral writing. The result, as I was delighted to have confirmed this evening, rehearsing with the Kreutzers and four singers from the wonderful New London Chamber Choir, is the chamber music of the future, not only the Quartets of 1825-1827, but all the slow movements which would take up the ‘late Beethoven challenge’, from Berg to Brahms, Feldman to Finnissy, Matthews to Rochberg. This is where it starts. And for us a wonderful new challenge, to rehearse with four singers as an octet, discussing the fine-grained question of the dialectic between text-setting, and instrumental syntax. One thing that came up this evening, and perhaps I should have thought of it earlier, was that whilst we string players can do consonants like ‘d’, or ‘g’ or en ‘n’, ‘m’, or ‘nd’, it is not so easy for us to find an equivalent to the ‘tz’ at the end of ‘Schmerz’.
Sitting here at my table with the Kinsky-Halm Beethoven-Verzeichniss and Theodore Albrecht’s 3 volume Letters to Beethoven open beside me, I am struck by the notion that it was the publication history of Elegischer Gesang which may have been responsible for the late arrival of its ramifications for Beethoven’s quartet writing. The Op 132 Quartet, in which the Heiliger Dankgesang is to be found, was completed in 1825, part of the radical rethinking of the quartet medium which had begun with the E Flat Major Quartet Op 127. Three years before that, Beethoven starts to persuade various publishers to publish, the Elegischer Gesang, leading up to the first edition, by Tobias Haslinger, in 1826. In point of fact, the only account we have of a performance in the period, appears in the 10th edition of Whistlings Handbuch in 1827, the year that Beethoven died. I would like to suggest, just for this evening, that it was going back to this score, nearly a decade old, and readying it for publication, might have been a small integer in opening the door to the new quartet style.
But for me personally, a joyous evening, finding that this piece, which I have longed to play, is every bit as beautiful as I had dared hoped, and spending a second rehearsal exploring colour, form, and freedom with fantastic colleagues. Sometimes days just surprise you.
Wilton’s Music Hall-Tuesday 12th November 2013 730 pm LINK
British Museum-Friday 13th December 2013 630 pm LINK