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