BREMF 2018 Bookclub Week 2

How do you tell a story through sound?

How might we capture the divine, the sex, and the cold in Music and Silence?

This summer, while reading Music and Silence, I felt cold.

The damp and dark musicians’ room below the dining hall in Copenhagen, the icy silver mines, the bitter and cutting rain during the sea voyages are all images that accrue to create a world that shivers, where people are even drawn to the heat of candles.

Despite this we’ve found some bright optimistic works from Denmark in this time. As the painting below of Elsinore in Winter shows, winter in the north also contains a very special kind of light. These cheerful pieces are playful both musically and in their lyrics of cheeky shepherds and imports of the amorous Italian madrigal style. It is in Dowland’s songs that we find the musical expression of the isolation one feels when one is cold to your core, and perhaps brought down so much that one cannot bear the idea of light (as Dowland asks: “in darkness let me dwell.”)

We, Lux Musicae London, have been experimenting with how design a concert around Rose Tremain’s book. As we see it there are various ways to link the novel and the music:

  1. Literal – music that’s mentioned in the novel;
  2. Narrative – music that tells, or follows the same emotional path as events within the story;
  3. Atmospheric – music that evokes the atmosphere of sections of the novel;
  4. Historic – music that illustrates the broader world in which the narrative takes place;

Rose Tremain mentions so much music in the novel that it would probably be possible to create a program entirely from these. However, this wouldn’t create a coherent stand-alone performance. We slipped into thinking about it more as an adaptation of the novel than as a accompaniment.

One piece that serves both the literal and narrative purposes is the Pavan on Four Notes by Ferrabosco. Count Johnnie O’Fingal has one of the saddest threads in the narrative: In a dream he hears a piece so beautiful he cannot think of it other than as a direct gift to him from God. He exhausts himself bringing the music of heaven to earth, but the notes slip from his mind like water, neglecting his family and his estate for months and years. He is finally persuaded to distract himself by going into town and attends a performance where he hears the heavenly music – it is a piece, not directly from God, but by Ferrabosco. In the book, the piece is not specified, but we feel this piece, with the simple four note cantus line rising above the complexity of the other voices almost like the sun, is plausibly divine.

We experimented with the profane as well as the divine. Kirsten Munk, the wife of Christian IV also has a complex and anguished storyline including a sado-masochistic affair with a German count. In some ways it’s a very insightful way of exploring some of the contradictions in an an otherwise spoilt and jealous character, in others it struck me at least as a little funny. I think this was intentional and I was interested to see if this episode was simply hitting story elements we might expect from historical fiction of if there was music of the time that explored similar themes. I also saw it as a challenge: could a concert hold all these different emotions and effects in the same way as a novel?

I found series of very cheeky 5 part madrigals by Thomas Bateson, one of the first students to graduate from Trinity College Dublin. In, Have I Found Her the vocal line entreats a woman to “chain me” in their golden hair. In the already highly allusive madrigal tradition it seemed a perfect fit to illustrate this plot line and conjure the atmosphere from some of the more bawdy feasts. However, we experimented with performing the piece in some concerts in Ireland and felt it did not resonate with the audience. No one complained, but as part of a concert of more serious music it neither stood out as the light relief we intended it to be, nor did feel like it integrated with the rest of the programme.

Instead we have included madrigals by Danish composers Mogens Pederson and his mentor Melchior Borchgrevink. Both studied with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, where Gabrieli was intent on keeping up to the minute with compositional innovations and directing his students to study madrigals as well as more typical church polyphony. The focus of Italian composers of the time was on the music being drawn from the rhetorical and poetic properties of the Italian poems they set. Borchgrevink and Pederson were seemingly so influenced by this that they composed and published madrigals in Italian, despite working in Denmark. These lyrics are amorous, witty and almost over-earnest. To me they seemed to chart the developing relationship between Peter Claire and Emelia Tilsen – people from such different worlds that they struggle to communicate beyond sharing the clarity and strength of their feelings.

How much can you learn about a character from a piece of music? Tobias Hume’s The King of Denmark’s Health (probably a toast) has an affable, jovial quality. Hume may well have encountered Christian IV, but as a man known to be prone to exaggeration, we should perhaps take the title with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless it captures two things about the book that massively struck me. Firstly the way the king himself is at the centre of every interaction at court: It is as if everyone is in his orbit, constantly defined by their relation to the monarch. Secondly, and because his life is so essential, his body defines the rhythm of others lives: Peter Claire is woken in the middle of the night to soothe his sleep, and his health is in fact a constant concern to all. Hume’s piece, a little naive, charming and rather bouncy, for me captures Tremain’s impression of Christian IV and shows just how much of a real concern to musicians the lives and health of the patrons were.

With the death of Elizabeth I, Christian IV’s court became (arguably) the most musical court in Europe, yet Danish music from the early 17th century is rarely performed. After encountering some of this repertoire it’s difficult to see why. We’ve found agile dances imported from France; homegrown Danish madrigals written in an Italian style with Italian lyrics: devotional works with a searing honesty, one finds in art song; and more. For those who have read the book these might be the most compelling pieces in the programme: windows into the real world of the story. It quickly became a question of what we could fit into the programme! We’re very excited to include an excerpt from an anonymous Catholic mass that, curiously, was discovered in the (Protestant) king’s library with his personal seal…

More on that in the next post! Rose Tremain’s book is a triumph in terms of the world it evokes for the reader, so much so that when creating this programme I felt there were many more stories in Denmark waiting to be explored.

Harry Buckoke, Lux Musicae London

 

 

 

 

 

A #BREMF18 trainee’s busy morning with OAE TOTS

I woke up at 5:30am as my alarm rang without hitting snooze. It was my first event today as a trainee in Brighton Early Music Festival. I was feeling very excited to help out in our OAE Tots concert as I do love working with kids a lot! I took the train from London to Brighton, and it was my first time in Brighton. As soon as I got out of the train, I could already smell the sea. I ordered a coffee in a café to get myself ready for a consecutive 5-6 hours of work and off I go!

When I arrived the venue slightly before 9am, Cathy our director was already setting up the room while players from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gradually showed up. There wasn’t a lot of things to do before the music rehearsal, I had to scatter cushions of 3 different colours on the floor for the audience to sit on. A few other helpers came later, and we put on signposts and posters both inside and outside the venue. I was given the role to welcome everyone at the reception. Our first concert was a sold out one, a lot of children, families and carers arrived one after another. The library area which served as a buggy space was overcrowded as well!

Just before the concert began, I went into the room for another mission – to stop any children who ran towards the instruments. I was sitting in front of the players and facing the children. It was a very amusing view. They were all so concentrated during the performance. I could even see small sparkles in their little eyes when they heard the music played. There were also a lot of acting for them to do as well, feeling hot and cold, doing a rocket jump, and imitating the sounds of natural horns. Parents were also very engaged as well. It was a beautiful family event, but also very challenging because I always had to keep an eye on children who were more physically active. There was not one single moment that I could relax because it was always children, who looked calm and sat a bit far behind, who all of a sudden ran towards the players in lightspeed! I managed to catch a few of them coming from very different angles just in time.

After the performance, the audience could meet the players individually and learn about their instruments while I had the chance to walk around the room to give out little comment sheets for people to fill in. I had a small chat with most of the parents as well. They all told me how much they have enjoyed it and how delightful it was to see their children dancing and swinging with the music. It was very special for me to receive those genuine feedbacks in person. They also gave me the energy to immediately reset the room for the next perform which would start in half an hour.

I went back to the reception table and started again, new envelopes of tickets to be collected, a new list of bookings, etc. The foyer area was even busier this time as there were both new buggies coming in and old buggies going out at the same time! We had fewer people in the audience, so it was less stressful for me to be the guardian of the instruments. In fact, there was one little girl who kept coming forward and I had to slightly hold her hand to pull her back. We ended up building a special friendship when she shared with me the colours of her dress and names of her different body parts. She sat with me for the rest of the performance. It was very sweet of her. There were parents coming up to me after the performance and asked for future events both in the Festival and in OAE education programme. I was very glad that though the event had almost come to an end, the magic of music would still go on!

As we finished cleaning up the space, it was already 2:30pm! I actually didn’t realise time had passed that quickly. It was a busy morning but very satisfying! After saying goodbye to all helpers, I began my journey to the train station and had a wander around Brighton. It was when my stomach gave me a strong message that it’s really time for some food!

Chloe Lam, BREMF 2018 Trainee

BREMF 2018 Book Club Week 1

Why Music and Silence?

Welcome to Brighton Early Music Festival’s book club. This year the book is Music and Silence by Rose Tremain. The book is one of the finest examples of historical fiction and follows a lute player, Peter Claire, who, in 1629 begins to work in the court of Christian IV of Denmark.

A concert of music from and inspired by Music and Silence takes place on 4 November at 4pm by Lux Musicae London. Though the concert is inspired by the book you won’t have to have read the book or these blog posts for the concert to make sense.

I’m Harry, I play viol in Lux Musicae, and at (Artistic Director of BREMF) Deborah Robert’s suggestion of a book club, we decided to write a blog about creating a concert around the book. This first post discusses what in the book appealed to us as performers of early music and the many things that make this such fascinating book on which to base a concert.

This book is brimming with music. Musical performance drives the narrative, provokes the characters emotions and reveals the depths of the characters. This music, as well as many of the events are of course historical events around which the narrative is shaped. This grounding in both fiction and reality means we can construct the concert from music we know was being performed in 17th century Denmark and Ireland, and use this music to explore the emotions and events within the book.

In our approach, the key composer we have used to find this balance between the narrative and the history is John Dowland. Perhaps the world’s most important lute player, Dowland worked for some time in Denmark but his relationship with the country was fraught. Dowland is portrayed by Tremain as a puzzle to the characters who wonder how someone who composed such beautiful music could have such a dark and harsh personality? Cleverly we only encounter him in recollections, and when Peter Claire arrives in Copenhagen, he does so inevitably in Dowland’s shadow.

The more I read the book thinking about programming, the more I began to believe Tremain designed Peter Claire not only as a character in Dowland’s shadow but one born of his songs:

He is beautiful, so beautiful in fact Claire’s sister prays that her face is switched with his and his thoughtful reserved manner means King Christian compares him to an angel. This sense of distance and beauty are perhaps some of the most often remarked upon characteristics of Dowland’s compositions. Far from the contrast between the music and the person embodied by Dowland himself, there is little separating Peter Claire from his music.

His loves, are simple – almost innocent – yet thwarted by fate or their respective traditions in society. Without giving away too much, Claire’s relationship with the passionate yet stifled Francesca, Countess of Fingal, and the fair and compassionate handmaiden Emilia, shape the book. The constraints of society, the futility of unrequited feeling and the pain of distance are shared with the characters and their journeys in Dowland’s lute songs.

This quality means Peter Claire’s narrative is fascinating to explore through music. It feels as if one can get under his skin through the music he plays within the book. We’ve included Dowland of course, but also some Danish lute songs and works directly linked to events in the Irish part of his narrative.

Irish music in the 17th century is fascinating, rare, and rarely performed. For us, and particularly Aileen Henry, our Irish harpist, it has been a particularly rewarding repertoire to pursue – there is dance music, folk tunes which travelled all over Europe, and fragments from virtuosi whose influence shaped music in other countries. John Dowland is recorded to have brought a Irish harpist to bolster the music at the Danish court so it is music we know has a place at the heart of these spaces.

The majority of the performances we give as a group are in churches or concert halls. There are good reasons for this, both economic and acoustic. The fact remains though, that with the exception of some of the religious music we play, little of our repertoire would have been performed in either setting not least because public concert halls had not been established. Music and Silence introduces the reader to a musical world of dark rooms, banqueting halls and private chambers. It’s rare to hear live music in these spaces now, and the intimacy described is utterly compelling to us as performers. In a modern performance setting this is tricky to achieve but through narrative in the concert we hope to invoke some of this intimacy and have a couple of tricks up our sleeves as well!

It’s also a world without recorded music; a world where a king could summon a lute player to help him fall asleep but also a world where a farmer has never heard music on a lute before and is struck so much by its beauty he hears no emotions in the music. Though this is less the case with a BREMF audience, it’s unsurprising that contemporary concertgoers are often in a similar situation. If one has not heard heard a lute or renaissance recorder live, the timbre of the instrument creates a huge first impression. For us this is a double-edged sword, on the one hand, we have this beautiful sound, something that is part of what has drawn us to this music in the first place, and on the other we must work to avoid the luxury of this sound covering up the musical expression. We’re hoping that by immersing the audience in Tremain’s world we’ll be able to create a performance where this music feels alive, vital and communicative.

Next week’s blog will discuss the pieces we chose, how we matched them to the narrative and comparisons between the structure of a concert and that of a novel.

Harry Buckoke, Lux Musicae London