Almost all of my essays in Medium are repeats from my daily blog. Quite a few, like this one, are about local happenings in my hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. And yet this one has lots of information of how period instruments are played and it is also about one of the best violinists in the world, Monica Huggett who is playing in Vancouver May 1 with her orchestra, the Portland Baroque Orchestra. In a global village what exactly is local content?
Below you will find a meandering essay on Antonio Vivaldi and his Four Seasons. You can skip most of it as all I want to stress is the unique experience of listening to Monica Huggett and her Portland Baroque Orchestra play them this Friday evening at the Chan. But there is lots of stuff ancillary to attending the concert that might help the adventurous reader to further enjoy the concert by looking forward to some of my “facts” seen and heard as reality.
I find it impossible to listen to any Vivaldi without equating (placing) his music in the city where he composed.
Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there.
Italian Hours — Henry James
Sometime in 1998 my companion and I entered the restaurant Villa del Lupo (now called Lupo) on Hamilton Street. As per usual in those Vancouver days of fine dining restaurants piped in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Other more hip eateries usually featured either the Gypsy Kings or Billie Holiday. I requested we be given a table far away from the Vivaldi Muzak. We were taken downstairs and ushered into a small dark wine cellar. The heavy door was slammed shut and we were suddenly in complete silence. I stared at my companion and I secretly observed he was a dead-ringer for the Red-Haired Priest. He ordered a Sancerre to accompany our ostrich (I don’t remember it if was stewed or roasted).
The host had explained that a few months before when Robert De Niro had been making a film in Vancouver he had developed a liking for the restaurant’s Italian food but had wanted privacy. He had told the staff that a specially shaped table could be made to fit the wine cellar. And so, it was done. Just a few months later I photographed the Canadian band Great Big Sea in the same place.
My companion was violinist Marc Destrubé the then Musical Director of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra. I was in one of my few and rare magazine assignments to write about music something I knew nothing about. The Georgia Straight loved my essay but in the end refused to foot the restaurant bill. Both Destrubé and I decided we both lived in a provincial backwater.
I asked Destrubé why the Pacific Baroque Orchestra was going to feature the Four Seasons. His answer (I don’t remember the exact words) was something like, “Because they are marvelous.”
Destrubé is an unconventional violinist, ready to play Bartók or Bach, Britten or Buxtehude, Brahms or Bieber, take your pick. In fact part of the PBO program involved two contemporary works based on the idea of the Four Seasons and placed between Spring and Summer, Fall and Winter. The former was ‘Bloom’, by Linda CaitlinSmith and the latter ‘Not a Single Stone’, by Peter Hannan (a compostion based on five haiku, one of which includes reference to a barking dog), Hannan’s was a humorous connection with Vivaldi’s second movement of Spring in which the viola mimics Venetian barking dogs.
This PBO performance was my first one in which the musicians played instruments of the period (17thand 18thcentury). They played standing up. I asked Destrubé why this was the case. “Rock guitarists and bassists do this. We do to. We connect better with our audience.”
Chloe Meyers, the principal violinist to the 2015 Pacific Baroque Orchestra run by harpsichordist Alexander Weimann told me just a few weeks ago that by playing standing up the fluidity of her playing is enhanced. Since as the principal violinist she does a lot of cuing (head movements and other body language) as a go-between the musical director and the rest of the orchestra she is able to do this with ease standing up. I asked Curtis Daily the bassist for the Portland Baroque Orchestra who would be standing up. The musicians of the orchestra (12 of them) are as follows:
Portland Baroque Orchestra
Carla Moore assistant leader (violin)
Rob Diggins principal 2nd violin
Robin VanDyke Dubay violin
Jolianne von Einem violin
Holly Stern violin
Victoria Gunn principal viola
Adam LaMotte viola
Tanya Tomkins principal violoncello
Michael Unterman violoncello
Curtis Daily contrabass
Ignacio Prego harpsichord
John Lenti theorbo and guitar
Daily told me that he, the two cellists, the harpsichord and the theorbo player (a very large, ungainly and long member of the lute family)will be sitting down.
The PBO’s Four Seasons was a revelation for me. My previous experience had been in the early 70s in Mexico City’s Bellas Artes where I had heard both I Musici and I Solistidi Zagreb play Vivaldi four concertos from his 12 concerto Opus 8 Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione. Like Bach’s Double Violin Concerto I soon relegated the Four Seasons to my record collection’s basement.
But even the most jaded will fine refuge (every time I hear it) to the second movement, the Largo of Winter. I love to listen to it in all of its variations as played by so many performers through the years, fast, slow, with little ornamentation or not. In fact any performance of the Four Seasons is worth attending just to find out how the soloist will play that Largo.
While Henry James makes no mention of Vivaldi since the composer was virtually unknown by the late 19thcentury I found interesting references in my Vidal In Venice by Gore Vidal:
Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà, which was behind today’s Pietà Church, was not a hospital, but a hostel for orphaned girls. (In other cities, these church-run institutions, sponsored by the government, were also called conservatori which meant poorhouse or orphanage, and which gave us the term ‘music conservatory’.) It was there that Vivaldi tried out his new compositions on his captive choir. Since one of his several hundred works is today, if not a jukebox hit, at least a standard Muzak favourite — The Four Seasons — it seems appropriate that probably the first audience to hear it in rehearsal was that of the young orphan girls.
Charles de Brosses, who was president of the Burgundy Parliament, visited Venice in 1739. His description of the Pietà orphanage is dated two years before Vivaldi’s death:
The girls are educated and maintained at the expense of the State and their sole training is to excel in music. Thus they sing like angels, and play the violin, flute, organ, oboe, violoncello, and bassoon — in fact, there is no instrument so big as to intimidate them. They are cloistered like nuns. They perform without outside help, and at each concert forty girls take part. I swear there is nothing prettier in the world than to see a young and charming nun, dressed in white, with a spray of pomegranate flowers over her ear, conduct the orchestra and give the beat with all the exactness imaginable.
Some thirty-five years later, the English musician Charles Burney, having seen such a successful organization, tried to do the same with the Foundling Hospital in London. It was not a feasible idea. Whether this was due to the natural English lack of a musical ear or to the absence of pomegranate flowers in England we do not know.
My first experience with baroque music played with period instruments happened in 1963 when a friend in Mexico City told me to listen to Handel’s Water Music played the “old-fashioned” way. To me it sounded off-key and slow as if it were tape wow on his reel to reel.
Christina Hutten, a local keyboardist who specialized on organs and harpsichords explained it this way when I asked her if the idea that when music was played in churches the pitch of orchestras was regulated by the pitch of that local church organ since it was difficult to change the pitch of such instruments.
The short answer to your question is yes you can change the pitch or temperament of an organ, but only by cutting or adding onto pipes (obviously an expensive and laborious process).The relationship between organ pitch and pitch used in salons and concert halls, however, is by no means straightforward.
For those who may be slightly confused there is a rule that is far away from being a rule that the pitch of a modern symphony orchestra and that of a baroque orchestra differ.
For about the last century, the standard pitch level has been A-440, meaning that, wherever you go in the world, Western classical music is likely to be played at a pitch level in which the note A in the middle of the treble staff is tuned to 440 hz. For baroque orchestras the pitch is higher at 415 hz but not always I have been told by Hutten.
This is known by simply measuring the pitch of organs in old European churches:
In the Baroque Era, pitch levels as high as A-465 (17th century Venice) and as low as A-392 (18th century France) are known to have existed. A few generalizations can be made:
pitch was high in North Germany and lower in South Germany
pitch was low in Rome but high in Venice
pitch in France depended on whether you were playing chamber music, opera or something else.
The above would suggest that my listening of that Handel Water Music in 1963 involved a low pitch orchestra.
For me all that is really mumbo jumbo. I know that particularly in the 17thcentury many string instruments were de or un tuned in a process called scordatura so that the musicians could play stuff beyond the normal compostions of the time. Many of these scordatura notes sound like listening to Thelonius Monk for the first time. They are odd.They seem to be the wrong notes. After some extended listening the wrong notes become refreshing right notes. Vivaldi wrote many compositions with scordatura.
One of my fave experts on Vivaldi was James Goodfriend the editor of Stereo Review in the 70s. I have kept his June 1972 feature on Vivaldi. He begins it with:
Antonio Vivaldi has been praised as the man who wrote six hundred concertos, and as often disparaged as the man who wrote one concerto six hundred times [attributed to Stravinsky]. Both estimates are wrong. In the first place, Vivaldi’s true responsibility extends, at last count, to 455 concertos, not six hundred, although additional manuscripts recently uncovered in Germany and Scandinavia may add to that total. He also wrote a good many sonatas and sinfonias, ninety four (by his own count) operas and a quantity of liturgical music. And in the second place Vivaldi was no formula-ridden hack, but an ingenious and inventive composer whose music, highly valued by his contemporaries, including Bach, exemplifies much of the best of the high Baroque Style.
As I am writing this, today Monday, I have in my immediate memory my visit to the Arts Umbrella Dance Company studios on Granville Island yesterday. I watched Sabra Perry rehearse a work by John Alleyne, The Four Seasons with Vivaldi’s music. I asked her what version she was playing on the CD player. She admitted she did not know and to me it could have been any cookie cutter version still played in the fine dining establishments of our city. Besides that first virsion I heard played by the Pacific Baroque Orchestra I remember these.
The Italian group, Il Giardino Armonico, plays Vivaldi and other Baroque music with a loud banging (my opinion) that would make your fine Sancerre turn into vinegar quickly. But they have thrown a wrench into the idea that Baroque music can only be played one way. I particularly love their Merula chiaconna.
In our often fractured or cubbyholed arts community those who are fans of the Vancouuver Symphony Orchestra might think twice about spending an evening with the Turning Point Ensemble. Those who might love Early Music Vancouver presentation’s like this Friday’s Four Seasons might not be caught dead at the Orpheum listening to a modern symphony’s version of the Four Seasons. I might not either of the latter but I will go to the VSO’s playing of any Shostakovich symphony or a concert dedicated to composers of film music. Part of the problem may be the starched shirt look of a modern symphony.”They are up there sitting, we are down here sitting.” sort of thing. Then you add the concermaster walking in, bowing and then helping tune the orchestra. When a soloist finishes he will bow and shake hands with the musical director and then with the concertmaster. There seems to be too much pomp and circumstance. But then we must understand that before heads were severed from bodies during the French Revolution, composers were paid by the nobility and performed for nobility. We even know that the nobility could treat musicians like indentured servants and Haydn had to compose his Symphony number 45 (Surprise) where musicians would, one by one, walk out of the stage, so as to convey to their reigning lord that they needed a vacation at home. The French Revolution pretty well helped end musical subsidies for composers and musicians. Church music with all those Reformations had also dwindled. The new audience was to be found in larger halls, and opera houses where instruments had to be louder (no longer a king’s chamber) needed to be modified so they could be loud. This brings us to the explanation that I must make here (and remember I am not a musician or music critic). Those wonderful Amatis, Guarnieris and Stradivari of the 17th and 18th century had to be beefed up in the 19th century to allow for the added tension of strings that were made tighter for volume. In order to get more of a handle (leverage) on that violin or viola Louis Spohr a composer contemporary to Beethoved invented the chin rest. Curiously only a few days ago Chloe Meyers told me that the clamping of the chin rest to the violin was a detriment to the sound of the instrument. Curtis Daily, the bassist of the Portland Baroque Orchestra was supposed to weigh in here with information on the makeup of string instrument strings as he has a side business and sells them. So I will have to simplify and tell you that period instruments of the string variety used gut strings while modern instruments used a combination with metal. And here is the final crux to all the above. Those 17th century string instruments are now (the very good ones) new or modern instruments in that they have been modified to the standards of the 19th and 20th century. Few old instruments survived without modification. What this means is that these musicians who play period sring instruments have two choices. The ones with money buy good old ones that have been modernized and modify them backwards. The ones with less money buy brand new or near brand new instruments that have been built to the standards of the Baroque. What kind of violin will Monica Huggett play on Friday? Her instrument is a Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi, Milan, 1753 The punctilious Curtis Daily has added: It’s a Landolfi and it was in modern setup when she got it. I know she had a new neck, bridge and tailpiece installed, I’m not sure what else. The modern violins and their Baroque counterparts are really very different although to the amateur eye the might look the same. I asked Destrubé what he would if he showed up at one of his Microcosmos String Quartet concerts to play some Bartók and found he had packed his French Baroque violin. His answer was startling to me, “I would drive back home to get the other one.” To this while lecturing at the Cecil Green Coach House at UBC, Destrubé revealed to us that the bows of string instruments are made from male horses (stallion strings they are called). Why? It seems that mares when they urinate they do it backwards (not forwards) and the urine affects the quality of the horse hair. And if you expect Carla Moore to tune the Portland Baroque Orchestra on Friday, that is not going to happen:
Curtis Daily explains:
It is much easier for a small group to hear the A from the cello. We always tune the bass section firsts, string by string, and then the cello passed the A to the violins. It’s a good system.
As for Stravinsky’s remarks on Vivaldi, the Red Priest gets the last word in Alejo Carpentier y Valmont’s lovely magic realism (Carpentier invented the term) little novella, Concierto Barroco (both versions, in Spanish and in English have the same title) set during the Venetian Christmas carnival in 1709. Carpentier, was music critic who discovered that Handel, Vivaldi and Domenica Scarlatti had met then. The threesome plus a Mexican silver potentate and his black servant have a picnic in Venice’s cemetery:
…as the Venetian, savoring a slice of boar’s head marinated in vinigar with marjoram and paprikm took stespe a few closer to a grave hard by which he had already been studying for a time, because it bore the unusual sonorousness for those climes.
“I-GOR STRA-VIN-SKY, “ he said, separating the syllables.
“That’s he, all right, “ said the Saxon [Handel] following suit. “He wanted to lie in this cemetery.
“Good musician, “ said Antonio, “ but at times, very traditional in his approach. He draws on the same antiquated subjects: Apollo, Orpheus, Persephone…when will it end?”
“I know his Oediupus Rex, “ said the Saxon. “Some say that towards the end of the first act — Gloria, gloria, gloria, Oedipus uxor! — it sounds like my music.”
“But…where did he get the outlandish idea of writing a profane cantata on Latin text?” said Antonio.
“They also played his Canticum sacrum at Saint Mark’s, “ said George Frideric. “It’s full of medieval-type embelishments that we stopped using long ago.”
“The thing is that these so-called ‘modern’ maestros are very concerned with what musicians of the past did — and sometimes they even try to rejuvenate their styles. We are more advances as far as that goes. I don’t give a damn what the operas or concerts of hundred years ago were like. I write the way I have to write and that’s it.”
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.