Preludes & Vollenteries 1 – St Stephen Walbrook 14th September 2017

Posted on September 14th, 2017 by

LINK TO Preludes & Vollenteries 2

Peter Sheppard Skærved  – Violins (Girolamo Amati 1628, Maggini? 16??)

St Stephen Walbrook (Sir Christopher Wren 1672-80)

An inspiring start to this exploration of 17th Century music, architecture and instruments. There’s so much to discover, but what strikes me most of all, the morning after the event, is the shaping of space and time, that the music, the instruments and the building, in combination demands; and, perhaps most of all, how that  develops, deepens, when the space is a listening space-when we (performer and audience) listen to each other, listening to each other, listening to the space. Even in the very centre of London, there’s no limit to how quiet this listening can take the music. For me, a revelation.


… the diversity of pieces was phenomenal and the acoustics of the space superb, ’twas really interesting to hear you manipulate that space. (Joshua Beyer – Luthier, Pittsburgh USA 14-9-17)

Rehearsal-Photo Malene Skaerved

Nothing prepared me for the personal impact of bringing this music to the first of these spaces. And, most of all, the impact of this being witnessed, shared. Malene and I arrived in the afternoon, to set up, to experiment, so that I could ease the sound in to the space. There were a few people in the building; some of the artists who exhibit their work in the space were taking pictures down, a few people stayed around for my rehearsal, or had hoped for some peace and quiet, which I disturbed.

I was immediately struck by the particular quality of sound in the building. It’s not silent, how could it be, nestled between Cannon Street, the Mansion House Interchange and Lombard Street? But, the quality of quiet, which the building induced, and this is no metaphor, was striking. The noise from outside was, somehow, transformed into a soft, warm carpet, on which the most delicate gestures can rest, shining, in relief. I would later realise that I had never played so quiet for a whole concert.

This effect was enhanced, no, transformed, once I was joined, by my listeners, or, as I see them, collaborators. I have always failed to see an audience as passive recipients of a concert. A concert, as the word instructs, needs to be concerted, and it is my happy experience, that music does not happen, from my point of view has executant, until the instruction offered by the score, of the composer, of knowledge, historical and contextual, is joined by the actuality of the rendering, the performance in time, and how that is shaped by the space, and most of all, by the very real direction of shared listening. This building, enhances that, counterpoint.

Looking up from where I play in St Stephen Walbrook

Standing looking east, it struck me, that, though Wren never visited Italy, and would have had precious little chance, if any, to witness Roman building, his understanding of the function of a public space was, is, powerfully affected by the classical sense of the relationship between sound and architecture. Christopher Wren, who began work on this church in 1672, knew his Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Vitruvius’s The Ten Books of on Architecture, returns to music, again and again. As I stood there, the first thing that struck me, as I sounded my first notes (on the 1628 Amati) in the building, was that, I was experiencing the relationship which Vitruvius demanded, between the clear sound which an architect should seek to offer in a theatre, and the ‘perfection of clearness’ sought by instrument makers. They are one and the same; an instrument is not an instrument until it meets the space in which it is sounded, and nothing sounds until it is heard. Vitruvius was very aware that listeners experienced a performance with all their senses:

‘… the spectators, with their wives and children, sit through them spellbound, and their bodies, motionless from enjoyment, have the pores open, into which blowing winds find their way.’

At some point, comparatively recently, we forgot this, and confused performance with monstrance, a showing. Close contact with an intimate group of listeners, articulating such a classical space with their bodies, disposed in various ways, but each of which offered the model on which the classical orders are based, encourages, or rather urges the musician to remember, and to be alive to all that this offers.
So I began, with music that is almost not music, Nicola Matteis’ G major prelude. As I was preparing the programme in the week before, I had a moment of doubt (well, many), as I realised that I was going to be offering so many ‘preludes’ to the audience, and perhaps no actual material resulting from all this ‘pre-facing’. As so often, I found myself falling back on Phillips’ New World of English Words :

‘Prelude – A Proem or entrance into a discourse or subjects. Also in music it is taken for a voluntary or florishe on any instrument’ (Phillips ‘New world of English Works 1658)

The 17th century prelude can be, crudely, sorted into two categories; the ideal and the human. In as much as the most ‘ideal’ prelude is always to be played by a human, with human foibles, and the most ‘human’ is by its nature, unable to escape from the classical bonds which sprung and continue to spring from the nature and action of our very frail bodies, there is never a clear divide between the two, and most of the time, they offer a ‘gyre’-like interrelationship, the one so loved by Yeats:

‘What is the explanation of it all? /What does it look like to the learned man?/Nothing in nothings whirled, or when he will./From nowhere unto nowhere nothings run.’

Matteis’ many preludes come down on both ends of the divide, but this G major prelude is all Vitruvian order:

‘Order gives due measure to the members of a work considered separately, and symmetrical agreement to the proportions of the whole. It is an adjustment according to quantity.’

Setting pitch, harmony and tessitura aside, this simple explores the division of the whole by integers of two, four, eight, and so on, and the re-bonding of various of those models into larger sub-groups, such as coupled/slurred pairs of quavers/eighth-notes, or the grouping of those 8th notes (which actually make up 1/16th of the division of the work into four-beat measures of minims/halfnotes) into bundles of 4, tied together with ‘ligatures’ (the surgical/corporeal imagery is inescapable). I will return to harmony later, but, as this most fragile series of ‘broken’ chords found their way into the space, the relationship to the building was inescapable. Look at it like this: Wren divided up the space with 16 columns. They mark out a Greek cross, with eight of the columns supporting a dome in the centure. Thus, a cross (four arms) is laid out on a square (a whole/one) exclude ng four corners, and made up of five spaces, and effectively dividing the ground plan into 9 units. Just like the music; the harder your try to confine your activities to mutiples of two and the results, the ‘perfect’ numbers, 6 (it being the product of 1:2:3) and 5, the Greek cross has five segments, implying the quincunx, emerge and dominate. It’s only the intervention of human activity, or imperfection, if you like, which can move us from this squarecirclesquared….

Nicola Matteis (fl. 1670 – after 1713) –  Prelude G Major

Henry Moore’s astonishing altar, 20 tonnes of Travertine offers illumination on the dialogue between past and present

Giuseppe Torelli (1658 – 1709) – Preludes E minor

Some of the Italian influence that found its way to the Square Mile was less distinguished. In 1672, an equestrian sculpture was erected in the Stocks Market, which stood under the north wall of the new church, now dominated by George Dance’s Mansion House, and Whichcord junr.’s 1 Victoria Street, the magistrates court. It seems to have been imported from Italy, with the head unfinished, and the sculptor Jasper Latham carved the King’s head onto the blank face. The mounted figure is crushing a turbaned figure, a Turk, and as early as 1734, James Ralph had, bizarrely identified, the trampled Ottoman, as Oliver Cromwell. Jasper Latham was one of Wren’s senior stone carvers; his work can be seen all over St Paul’s Cathedral and many of the other City Churches. In fact, I was standing looking at his beautiful marble-work-the monument to the Lilburne Family, crowned by a disturbing image of Death with a young woman. He was a sculptor of profound gifts, but was not able to rescue the Stocks Market statue from mediocrity. Since 1883, the piece has stood at Newby Hall. Time has not endowed it with any other quality, save curiosity.
Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632 – 1692) ‘Barabano’

It’s a real treat to hear 17th century music in the exquisite Wren church of St Stephen Walbrook in the heart of the City, tucked behind the Mansion House.

This church isn’t solemn, it’s joyful. Its dome and pillars have some of the richest decorative plasterwork in the country. The preludes resonate in the enormous space, calling to us from the time of Pepys, Hook and Newton. Peter’s commentary and delicate solos lead us to reflect on the characters who built this place and inhabited it, and the great treasure they have left us. (Louise Vale – Poet)

I have not yet had a chance to say to him, that I felt the opposite, that the space ‘manipulated me’. By the end of the Matteis, the building, the instruments, the listeners, had taken over. I started to think about Italy, as I moved from an Neapolitan-born composer/violinist, Giuseppe Torelli, who hailed from Verona. His E minor Prelude, published in London, by Walsh, in 1700, offers something very different, very human. Intimacy, perhaps. Milton came to mind, so I read:

By the rushy-fringed bank, /Where grows the Willow and the Osier dank, /My sliding Chariot stayes, /Thick set with Agat, and the azurn sheen /Of Turkis blew, and Emrauld green /That in the channell strayes, /Whilst from off the waters fleet /Thus I set my printless feet /O’re the Cowslips Velvet head, /That bends not as I tread, /Gentle swain at thy request /I am here. (John Milton)

Milton was born five minutes walk from Walbrook, on Bread Street.

John Milton (1608- 1674)- ‘To Sabrina’ & Thomas Baltzar (1630 – 1663) – G minor Allemande & Variation, Corante, Sarabande

My explorations of the music of the period has been guided as much by the tastes of Londoners of the time; chief amongst these, of course, John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. I had read John Evelyn’s words on the playing of Lubeck-born Thomas Baltzar (1630 – 1663) long before I came to play his music:

This night I was invited by Mr. Rog: L’Estrange to heare the incomperable Lubicer on the Violin, his variety upon a few notes & plaine ground with that wonderfull dexterity, as was admirable, & though a very young man, yet so perfect & skillful as there was nothing so crosse & perplext, which being by our Artists, brought to him, which he did not at first sight, with ravishing sweetenesse & improvements, play off, to the astonishment of our best Masters: In Summ, he plaid on that single Instrument a full Consort, so as the rest, flung-downe their Instruments, as acknowledging a victory.

I won’t go into this in detail, save to observe what is going on this description. Evelyn describes Baltzar’s ability to play variations, or divisions, both on ‘a few notes’, presumably given to him by the listeners, and ‘upon a plaine ground’, that is on a bass line. This of course, documents the first test of the virtuoso, until the twentieth century, that of extemporisation. The other, in many ways the most treacherous test for the great soloist that of ‘sightreading’. No complexity, however ‘crosse & perplext’ fazed him, and ‘to the astonishment of our best Masters’, he played prima vista’

Tomaso Antonio Vitali (1663 -1745) –D minor Prelude

Peter Sheppard Skærved – ‘ …voil qe’m digaz cals mais vos plaz’ (Lombarda of Toulouse 1217–1262)

My piece is a setting of words by the great troubador, Lombarda, and is linked to the work that I am doing with the composer Evis Sammoutis, based in the great French gothic architecture of the Lusignan period in Cyprus. Here’s a verson recorded and filmed in Nicosia this year.

Thomas Strong=Font Cover 1679

Nicola Matteis (fl. 1670 – after 1713) –  D minor Prelude & Biagio Marini (1594  – 1663) – Capriccio per sonare Il violin a modo di Lira

East end of Wren’s Masterpiece

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644 – 1704) -& D major Prelude & Johann Joseph Vilsmayr (1663 – 1722) –  A Major Partita à Violino Solo Con Basso bellè imitate (Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera)

This tiny Biber prelude, is to my knowledge, the only piece of his published in the early 18th Century in London. It’s a perfect upbeat for the Vilsmayr-from teacher to pupil.

Giovanni Bassano (1561 – 1617) – G major Ricercare

The work of Bassano is so important to me. There is, of course, a City link, as there’s a family grave nearby, in All Hallows by the Tower, where I will play in April. This commemorates the Bassanos who came to the court of Henry VIII as recorder players and, this is important, makers. For the Bassano ‘Ricercars’ are pieces about the very making of music, in the realest sense. pieces which explore, research. the possibilities of the what a violin might do. Later in the series, I will return to the form, in the ‘ricercars’ written in the late 1600s by Domenico Gabrielli (1659- 1690). To here the Bassano in another context follow the link scroll down the page! LINK

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644 – 1704) – ‘Mystery Sonata XVI  ‘Guardian Angel, Companion of Mankind’ (Chaconne)

Wren’s playful lantern tower and dome 14 9 17