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THE CELTIC VIOL
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Reference: AVSA9865

  • Jordi Savall
  • Andrew Laurence-King

Music expresses and prolongs what words cannot say, and time acts as a filter, distilling these orally transmitted melodies and paring them down to the truly essential. And that is how all these pieces, in the majority of cases by anonymous authors, thanks to their vitality, beauty, emotion and charm, have become an indispensable part of the celebration of the most significant moments in the different stages of our daily life. Songs to dispel sadness or celebrate good news, dances to express moments of happiness and joy, laments to overcome the loss of a loved one or the memory of an unhappy event… All these wonderful yet fragile works represent the sensitive and most intimately personal contribution of often marginalized or persecuted cultures to the history of musical creation. They remain and will continue to remain in our hearts as the true voices and the essential spirit of a civilisation which has succeeded in staying alive, thanks to music – the memory and soul of its historical identity.

Description

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as the night,
And the affections dark as Erebus
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

William Shakespeare The Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene 1

If the face is the mirror of the soul, a people’s music is the reflection of the spirit of its identity, individual in origin but taking shape over time as the collective image of a cultural space which is unique and specific to that people. All music passed on and preserved by the oral tradition is the result of a felicitous survival following a long process of selection and synthesis. Unlike some Oriental cultures which have evolved chiefly within an oral tradition, in the West only those types of music commonly known as traditional, popular or folk music have been preserved thanks to unwritten means of transmission.

The invention of musical notation, a phenomenon very often linked to literary social circles, has allowed some cultures, such as those of China, Korea, Japan and Western Europe, to develop from ancient times many systems of notation which have been used in quite different situations. In other cultures, however, such as those of the Middle East (except Turkey) and South and South-West Asia, it is only in the last hundred years or so that such systems have evolved to any significant extent. In the “serious” music of Western Europe, musical communication based on the unwritten form survived until the end of the 17th century, but only in musical practices associated with improvisation and accompaniment on the bass continuo, and until somewhat later in music-making circles linked to the spiritual and temporal powers of the Church and the Court. It survived beyond the 17th century in England and especially during the 19th century in Germany, mainly in bourgeois circles. The phenomenon of written music has allowed a formidable development of musical forms and instruments, but at the same time it has contributed to the neglect and relegation to a second-class category of all those forms of living music which have traditionally accompanied the daily lives of the vast majority: in other words, popular music.

That is why Celtic music for the fiddle in Scotland and Ireland (as well as the music of the communities who emigrated from those countries and settled in North America) constitutes a unique exception in Western Europe and is one of the richest and most beautiful legacies of all the living musical traditions of our time. The thousands of Airs, Pastorals, Laments, Hornpipes, Reels, Rants, Jigs, etc., which have been preserved by the various oral traditions, lovingly and perseveringly passed on from parents to their children, from one generation to the next, are true musical survivors, music which has had the privilege and, as far as we are concerned, the good luck to survive the inevitable and constant cultural amnesia, as well as the globalising folly, of humanity.

Just as I was charmed and fascinated in 1965 by the forgotten voice of the viola da gamba, we decided, back in 1975, from our very first concerts and recordings with Montserrat Figueras and Hespèrion XX, to include alongside the repertoire of Court and Church music the wonderful music of the Spanish Jews (brutally expelled in 1492), which for more than five centuries has been preserved by the oral traditions of the various Sephardic communities who settled around the Mediterranean. It should be remembered that, barring a few exceptions (Falla, Bartók, Villa-Lobos, Kodaly, etc.), the misguided underestimation of this so-called “popular” or “folk” music has inevitably confined it to its own separate world, where it has had little communication with and, above all, little respect from the world of so-called “classical “ music. Moreover, the terrible amnesia caused by our loss of knowledge of ancient musical practice has often prevented us from appreciating the true worth of this music, even in the case of works by such renowned musicians as O’Carolan and others, of which only the melodic line has survived. Thus, the major Dictionaries of Music say of O’Carolan’s compositions that “unfortunately most are only in single line form, so that it is not definitely known how he harmonized or accompanied his melodies”. Of course, it is a pity that we do not know exactly how the accompaniment for any given piece was played, but it should also be remembered that, in many of these pieces, such is the beauty and emotion of the melody that nothing else is required. Moreover, in the case of pieces requiring accompaniment, enough is now known about the practice of improvised accompaniment in the 17th and 18th centuries to be able to reconstitute artistically satisfying versions. Similar reasoning led to J. S. Bach’s six Suites for unaccompanied cello being “completed” during the 19th century with a piano accompaniment, the work remaining neglected by performers as music fit for the concert hall for more than two hundred years. It was not until the end of the 19th century that they were rediscovered –in 1890!– by a young Pau Casals who, some ten years later, around 1900, began to introduce them to concert-goers all over the world.

My first acquaintance with Celtic music goes back to 1977-78, when we visited Kilkenny to give a concert with Hespèrion XX. During the Festival the streets, squares and pubs were teeming with all kinds of musicians (fiddlers, flute-players…) performing non-stop solo or accompanied (on a guitar or a small harp). What incredible vitality! And it was magical to see so many musicians living their music with that degree of intensity and emotion! I also got to know the music by listening to historic recordings from the 1920s, including those by the brilliant James Schott Skinner and Joe MacLean, as well as concerts by groups such as The Chieftains and others.

Over the last thirty years I have also been absolutely fascinated by the British repertory for the viol, and I have studied, performed and recorded many works for solo viol and viol consort by composers from Christopher Tye to Henry Purcell, including Tobias Hume, Alfonso Ferrabosco, William Corkine, William Brade, John Dowland, William Byrd, Thomas Ford, Orlando Gibbons, John Jenkins, William Lawes, John Playford and Matthew Locke, as well as anonymous Elizabethan and Jacobean composers. But it was the discovery of manuscripts such as the Manchester Gamba Book, containing more than 30 different tunings or scordatura tunings for the viol, and in particular the bagpipe tunings, which made me realize that the viol also had a very real connection with an ancient Celtic tradition which had been forgotten, just as the very existence of the instrument had sunk into oblivion after the death of the last violists such as K. F. Abel, who in his lifetime astonished audiences with the beauty and expressiveness of his improvisations on the viola da gamba. Charles Burney writes of him as follows: “I have heard him modulate in private on his six-stringed base with such practical readiness and depth of science, as astonished the late Lord Kelly and Bach, as much as myself.”

In recent years, I first set about studying the 17th century collections containing Scottish and Irish music, and then I discovered the extraordinary richness of the principal collections of Celtic music, such as George Farquhar Graham’s The Songs of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1848); George Petrie’s Complete Irish Music (London, 1852, re-edited in 1902-1905); William Bradbury Ryan’s Mammoth Collection (Boston, 1883); O’Neill Music Of Ireland (New York, 1903) et The Dance Music Of Ireland (New York, 1907); P.W. Joyce’s Old Irish Folk Music and Songs (London, 1909); James Hunter’s The Fiddle Music of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1979); Alastair J. Hardie’s The Caledonian Companion (Edinburgh, 1981), and Aloys Fleischmann’s Sources of Irish Traditional Music, c. 1600-1855 (New York and London, 1997), among others.

I was immediately surprised to find that there was such an abundance of documented historical material. Altogether, these collections contain more than 10,000 pieces, all of great artistic quality! I was also very interested to discover that certain Celtic melodies contained figures, or background phrases, very similar to those occurring in old Catalan songs, for example, those we find in “El testament d’Amèlia” and “Màiri Bhàn Òg”. The most difficult task has been to limit the selection of music on this album to about thirty of the most representative pieces of different origins and periods, as well as to choose the various tunings adapted to each type of music. So I decided to begin with the repertory that could be played on the treble viol, using three different instruments: a 16th century vielle for the oldest pieces, and two treble viols by Nicholas Chappuy, a 5-string instrument dating from 1730, and a 6-string instrument dating from 1750 tuned to a different scordatura. This recording presents a selection totalling 29 pieces, of which 12 are played on the solo viol and 17 are accompanied on the Irish harp and the psaltery of Andrew Lawrence-King, who improvises all the accompaniments, basing his performance on information from the period and traditional practice. We take a deliberately sober approach in order to show that the music, through the force and magic of its musical discourse, contains within itself all the essential ingredients. I am also very aware of the possibly huge distance between the playing of a musician who was born to this kind of music and another who has had to spend several years learning it and knows that he still has much to learn. I only hope that my experience with Renaissance and Baroque music has enabled me to offer an interpretation which is different from the interpretations heard in the modern traditions. Finally, this recording is above all a fervent tribute to the art of transmission, to the talent of all the musicians who have created this wonderful legacy, and also to all those who, no less importantly, have passed it on from generation to generation and so kept it vibrantly alive.

Music expresses and prolongs what words cannot say, and time acts as a filter, distilling these orally transmitted melodies and paring them down to the truly essential. And that is how all these pieces, in the majority of cases by anonymous authors, thanks to their vitality, beauty, emotion and charm, have become an indispensable part of the celebration of the most significant moments in the different stages of our daily life. Songs to dispel sadness or celebrate good news, dances to express moments of happiness and joy, laments to overcome the loss of a loved one or the memory of an unhappy event… All these wonderful yet fragile works represent the sensitive and most intimately personal contribution of often marginalized or persecuted cultures to the history of musical creation. They remain and will continue to remain in our hearts as the true voices and the essential spirit of a civilisation which has succeeded in staying alive, thanks to music – the memory and soul of its historical identity.

JORDI SAVALL
Bellaterra, 20th February, 2009
Translated by Jacqueline Minett