Wee interview about counterpoint and postgraduate studies…

So like many of my friends and colleagues, I’ve not been up to much since the Newcastle gig in February. Other than a few church services, I’ve mainly been messing about with multi-tracking online, which I’m finding useful, but less than musically satisfactory. I’ve helped my coach get into online teaching (not easy: conversation with the IT peeps involved the following exchange, paraphrased slightly: “She’s not ever used email.”—“OK, we can email her instructions about how to get on the university email.”—“…?!?…”), and since then, it’s been both lovely (much time to work on myself, rather than students!), and frustrating (the coloratura is flying, but has nowhere to go!). At the beginning of this term, our Postgraduate Co-ordinator interviewed me about my research and practice, and about the importance of counterpoint, even in a general curriculum! So here we are. And after I finish this post, I’ll be multi-tracking Banchieri’s Contrapunto bestiale alla mente, trying to make all of the animals as silly as possible, to encourage my counterpoint students to take part and come up with their own animal motives to deploy against a cantus firmus!


Friends of Forgue! (Even people in Aberdeenshire don’t know where that is!)

There’s a tiny village in deepest, darkest Aberdeenshire (for certain, on a rainy November night!) that hosts a hidden gem of a church: Forgue Kirk, whose current building dates back to 1819. This 200th anniversary was commemorated this year, in a six-movement cantata newly commissioned to Old Testament texts by composer Robert Milne. Together with pianist Jeremy Coleman (on the church’s antique Bechstein upright), I gave the première performance on 2 November, as part of Sound Festival. Two beautiful songs by Roger B. Williams rounded out the second half of the programme.

The church has an especially interesting organ: built in 1872, it remains in its original state (see the beautifully-painted facade pipes on “Places of Worship in Scotland”), other than a shift of position to the side, and even retains its mechanical bellows (although it also has electrical blowers now, as the going rate for people to operate them has gone through the roof in the intervening century and a half). We featured this rare instrument in the first half of the concert, with four “Ein feste Burg” settings played by organist Jane Leatherbarrow, and five rarely-performed sacred songs by turn-of-the century chromatic contrapuntist, Max Reger. Those things are lush. It’s like Wagner ate a fugue for breakfast!

Here’s the third movement of Robert Milne’s cantata, recorded live on your common or garden-variety Zoom recorder, which was placed so inconspicuously that the gentlemen sitting practically on top of it took until near the end of the programme to comment (very audibly), “Oh! Is that a microphone?” I particularly like the dramatic sound painting of the tumbling walls and the cut-down sycamores!

Med-Ren 2019: “Chez Schedel: Nuremberg, 1466”

After our food-filled festivity at the Aberdeen University May Festival, I drew together the strands of my Nuremberg archival research to consider mainly the financial (and food, because food) context in which “Chez Schedel” might have happened. Prices of things and services then and now were related to units calculated in terms of well-bred horses (represented by my own Overhall Mary May in the images, of course!), which might seem a bit whimsical, but makes a surprising amount of sense: one way wealth was reckoned c. 1500 was in the number of war horses one was obligated to fund (Schedel was in the 1/4 to 1/2-horse range, which places him at the lower end of the really rich, by the time he was fully established). And strangely, the purchase price one might expect for an established sports horse suitable for an ambitious amateur these days is not far off, in terms of how it translates to other items, such as annual salaries or prices for musical instruments.

I managed to close an odd hole in terms of the city musicians for Nuremberg, where it seems that previous scholars considered either the early part of the period I was covering, or the late part, but not the two together, so that was very satisfying to my geeky side (maybe Keith Polk mentions this somewhere, but I’ve not stumbled across it yet)! Part of the point was to figure out who might have been playing at Schedel’s party, and what instruments they were on, so for the recital portion, we ended up with the crack team of Catalina Vicens on portative organ (the city paid a “portatifer” until the money ran out, probably in due to a wee war in the middle of the century, and then started paying one again a bit later), Vincent Kibildis on gothic harp (impersonating Sebald Schreyer), and Tore Denys on tenor, while I bobbed between singing superius and getting to play one of the Schola Cantorum’s 2 (TWO!!) clavicytheria (Do they need two? Will they notice if one goes missing?). I think I saw a wee thumbs-up from Reinhard Strohm!

Chez Schedel, phase 3! “Celebrate Chez Schedel” at the May Festival, 23 May

After 4 concerts exploring the repertoire surrounding the Schedel Songbook in 2015, we finally returned to Nuremberg in 1466, this time focussing on recreating the social context of Hartmann Schedel’s graduation party! We were in St Mary’s Chapel, which is a 15th-century addition to St Nicholas Kirk in Aberdeen. The event was generously funded by the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Early Modern Studies.

The chapel is partially underground, and was built primarily to support the extension of the main church above. Currently a bit of a building site, as it’s gradually being restored, the chapel is nevertheless a wonderfully athmospheric, intimate venue, with period wooden panelling on the walls and a lovely acoustic. We set the context by introducing the “party guests”, all people who are either known to have been connected with Schedel at the time, or where a connection seems very likely: co-students at Leipzig and Padua universities, who shared similar interests and life trajectories. A huge card catalogue, held in the Nuremberg city archive, of Nuremberg students attending universities between 1300 and 1600, was very helpful here!

Another major feature was the food, and its production and pricing. An audience with an appetite attacked the buffet: only a few meatballs, some shreds of pike, and the back-up “ugly” crab tartlets survived the onslaught (probably only because the “ugly” tartlets were still in a container)! Tara D. Power came up from York to reconstruct the historical recipes, mostly drawn from the “Küchenmeisterei” published in Nuremberg in 1485. Assisting her in the week of preparations was extremely interesting, and showed me why such events seem to have been outsourced to caterers in the period: I soon gave up on grating Lebkuchen by hand, and stuffed it into a modern food processor!

For music, we chose a slightly different direction this time. I had available a small Italian harpsichord, on which I played some intabulations of German Tenorlieder, as well as a basse danse setting of “Ma doulce amour”. An audience member kindly served as a willing experimental subject to learn a few dance steps. Two of my student singers, Lewis Thorn (tenor) and Sebastian Lim-Seet (contratenor) joined me in singing some of the Tenorlieder from the Schedel Songbook, and also tried their hand at a little bit of simple improvised polyphony. This configuration somehow gave a very different feel to the vocal ensemble: more casual, believable as a group of people at a social gathering, who are singing and exploring these songs for their own enjoyment.

There was a very nice review of the event by journalist Marka Rifat, to be found here: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/music/news/13087/  I especially like her use of “Gesamtkunstwerk”; it’s exactly what we were aiming for!

The next iteration of this project will be in a lecture recital at the Med-Ren conference in Basel, on 6 July.

I am especially proud of this fish:

(It’s a pike, prepared “three ways”: baked, jellied, and fried, surrounded by stuffed freshwater eel.) And here are the singers:

We also had Schedel there himself, in Marzipan form (based on the illustration in his World Chronicle, which may very well not be him at all, but which has become associated with his image):

“The Passionate Marquise”: AEMC welcomes Ensemble Marquise

On 7 February, members of the AEMC joined forces with members of Ensemble Marquise from Hungary, in a fun programme of baroque hit parade numbers! A group of high-baroque Italian arias and cantatas was framed by light-hearted sets from the early 17th century. I had a chance to revisit Scarlatti’s “Augellin vago e canoro”, this time without one of the recorders suddenly falling apart during the performance, and I loved dancing a Folie d’Espagne (Feuillet) to the harpsichord improvisations of David Smith. Wee photo op after the gig:

First Amazon review of “Prigionero d’Amor”

Rather a nice review to encounter, by Stephen Midgley:

There are two surprises in this recording – firstly, the obscure but impressive talents of the Italian baroque composer Giovanni Ruggieri (c.1669-1714); and secondly, the stylish and engaging musicality of the Aberdeen Early Music Collective. This combination, in the form of a selection of Ruggieri’s vocal and instrumental music, is delightful. I haven’t come across the above-named ensemble before but the booklet notes tell us that, in spite of their name, the musicians hail from much further afield – namely Aberdeen, Basel and Manchester.

As we can see from Ruggieri’s dates, this Venetian composer falls between the better-known mid-baroque composers such as Stradella, Steffani, Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, and the late-baroque generation of Bach’s contemporaries Vivaldi, Albinoni and company. The entire period was a highly productive period of music, producing numerous intriguing masters both minor and major, and so it proves in the case of Ruggieri. The musicians have organised a well-judged programme of two instrumental sonatas ‘da chiesa’ and four cantatas for solo soprano or alto voice. All the works consist of attractive, beautifully crafted and often affecting music, and the performances are first-class. The cantatas are composed to amorous texts, as was fashionable in the baroque era, generally expressing the mixed delights and torments of love – the programme’s title referring both to this ethos and to the composer’s familiarity with the Venetian prison system resulting from lower-level offences such as debt and embezzlement.

Returning to the music, the first cantata ‘Lidio, non ho più core’, opens with a cheerful instrumental sinfonia leading into a fine cantata sung by the beautifully pure and expressive alto voice of Dina König. The first aria, ‘Caro, che fai languir’, has a wistful instrumental ritornello and a very touching melody. The singing, and playing by the ensemble of three violins and continuo group of five, is lovely throughout. The musicians milk all appropriate feeling from the music’s inherent sentimentality, with effective results. The following Sonata in G minor is equally enjoyable, with an especially lively fugal second movement.

The next cantata, ‘Da due pupille’, this time taken by soprano Frauke Jürgensen, is equally fine, and again very nicely performed including inventive contributions from Ralph Steltzenmüller at the harpsichord. The following cantata ‘Io seguo e adoro’, again allotted to alto Dina König, is especially lovely, ending in a hauntingly beautiful aria ‘Il sol della mia vita’. The Sonata in A major brings enjoyable fugal passages in dance metre, with the continuo line often engagingly reinforced by bassoon. The programme ends in another attractive soprano cantata.

Recorded sound, from a college chapel in Aberdeen, is vivid and agreeable; booklet notes on composer and music are interesting and informative, and texts and translations are all included. Altogether, Ruggieri’s music turns out to be an excellent and highly attractive example of Venetian mid-baroque – not only fine and enjoyable fare but an extremely interesting and unfamiliar discovery. Moreover it receives the best possible advocacy here, in performances which have a strong individual flavour and are in themselves a delight to the ear. This is an extremely enterprising project and I would recommend it to all baroque fans, especially those of a certain curiosity. I also very much hope we will hear more, both of the composer and from this excellent ensemble.

“Der kleine Tod” in Canada, with Ralph Stelzenmüller

On Friday, 11 January, Ralph and I revisited one of my favourite programmes, “Der kleine Tod”. Berg: 4 Gesänge, Op. 2, Strauss: 4 Lieder, Op. 27, Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder, WWV91. I’ve put our programme note below: it’s a physically and psychologically challenging programme for both singer and pianist, where the particular ordering of the sets from latest to earliest brings out unifying features that serve to create an entirely new cycle, spanning all three sets. It was great to come back to the university where I first encountered some of this music and the analytical approaches used to make sense of it, and to see again many old friends and teachers.

Alban Berg’s Vier Gesänge Op. 2 are often regarded as a turning point. The first song is composed in a highly-chromatic but still recognisably tonal harmonic language, and describes the speaker’s escape from pain, by wrapping himself in the restfulness of sleep. The vestiges of tonality are further obscured in the second and third songs: although they have conventional key signatures and can be interpreted as a dominant-tonic pair, every single note is given an accidental, and the second song is often analysed in terms of alternating whole-tone scales. These two songs are thematically linked, evoking a dramatically eventful dream world and the image of returning home to an intense sense of alienation. Of the last song, Schönberg said that he thought the principles underlying its musical language would be discovered by future musicologists: it was featured in a volume of essays dedicated to the topic of the pitch-class set genera theories of Western’s own Richard Parks, and Allen Forte (1998). Though frequently the subject of analytical exercises (Frauke’s first encounter with “Schlafend trägt man mich” was in third-year theory at Western with Alan Heard), this very dark and beautiful cycle is not performed nearly as often as it deserves.

Richard Strauss’s Vier Lieder, Op. 27 were dedicated to his wife. The cycle contains several of his most famous songs, including “Morgen”. The deceptively light-hearted poems of the two middle songs are raised to contemplative transcendence by the framing songs, which resemble recitative in their surface simplicity. The first song pushes the extreme boundaries of late-Romantic chromaticism, beginning with sonorities very similar to Berg’s conclusion, followed by a long turbulent journey to a clear, sunny C major, as the troubled soul (just as in Berg’s “Dem Schmerz sein Recht”) sinks into the oblivion of rest. The second song addresses the absent lover, suggesting that both rest and ecstatic understanding of life are found in togetherness, and this theme is continued in the third song, an altogether more direct invitation to leave a party and disappear into a rose-scented night garden. In the sunny morning of the fourth song, the united lovers descend to the beach, and gaze at each other in blissful silence. This bliss is reached via a Neapolitan chord, carrying fateful harmonic implications: whether these imply transcendence of the turbulence of the first song, or something altogether darker, is left open, as the blissful silence dissolves in delicate G major arpeggios.

Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder are perhaps more familiar in their orchestral versions. However, the cycle was initially composed for female voice and piano, and Wagner himself orchestrated only two of the songs. Beginning tonally and gesturally where Strauss’s cycle finishes, they paint the clandestine love affair of Wagner (thinly disguised as a rescuing angel to a suffering soul in the first song) and the poet Mathilde Wesendonck. Compared with Strauss’s Op. 27, which was composed about 30 years later, these songs appear startlingly modern in their harmonic language and vocal line, while other aspects such as the treatment of the piano are more reminiscent of Wagner’s close contemporaries, such as Schumann. In the second song, two souls fuse to transcend the material world, and dissolve together in the harmony of the spheres, which is reached through an astonishing chromatic journey from C minor to C major. The central song, “Im Treibhaus”, uses the metaphor of hot-house plants displaced from their home-land to express Wesendonck’s unhappiness with her marriage situation. The slithering harmonies and lack of satisfaction produced by constant plagal cadences link this song most closely back to the first of Berg’s Op. 2, as the speaker wraps herself in the darkness of silence.  Both in Wagner’s increasingly-unstable harmonic language and in the poetic metaphors of dreaming, dying, and home-coming, we come full circle to the beginning of this programme in the last two songs.

Link to the concert series: https://music.uwo.ca/events/fridays.html

CD launch of “Prigionero d’Amor” first recording of Giovanni Maria Ruggieri

So THESE have become available on Amazon and other outlets…the first-ever recording of chamber works of Giovanni Maria Ruggieri! Our official launch event was held on Wednesday, 3rd October 2018, at 6:30 pm in the Old Senate Room at the University of Aberdeen. There were bubbles, some tasty things to eat, and just “a few words”. Jasmin Cameron entertained us with a few Details of Dodgy Dealings as perpetrated by the “prisoner” in question, but principally, we celebrated giving form to an interesting, unique voice that has been silent for over 300 years.

“…beautifully planned and brilliantly executed…”

I was very very pleased to read Roger B. Williams’s review of last November’s “Unidentified Edges” concert!

“The vocal part was something of a tour de force, using the full range of expression and register a singer can command. […] Both performers excelled today in a performance that had the audience wrapt in total concentration. […] Although this was by no means easy listening, the silence of the audience throughout suggested that they were actively engaged in this beautifully planned and brilliantly executed concert.”

The full review can be found on the website of the  Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums concert series. Scroll down to November and click on the link below the concert listing.

“Unidentified Edges”: Geoff Palmer

Thursday, 2 November, at 12:45pm, at the Salvation Army Citadel, Aberdeen

Sound Festival in collaboration with Aberdeen Art Gallery Lunchbreaks

A programme that is very special to me: Geoff Palmer’s new song cycle, “Unidentified Edges”, on poems by Anne Cluysenaar (for voice and cello, played by Claire Babington). Her texts evoke the ancient ideas of the Universal Music, using modern imagery from physics and astronomy, such as the Higgs boson and the Kepler space telescope. We pair them with a collection of John Dowland, including some of his most philosophical lute songs. To finish with “…into the world of light”, by Geoff on a text of 17th-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan, composed as an elegy to Anne Cluysenaar.