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:
- Literal – music that’s mentioned in the novel;
- Narrative – music that tells, or follows the same emotional path as events within the story;
- Atmospheric – music that evokes the atmosphere of sections of the novel;
- 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