Friday, 16 December 2011

Unheard Music

"Shakin' all over!" a rock-and-roll voice strains on the radio and an electric guitar twangs a crude riff. If the same notes were played on an oboe or a bassoon, they would have a very different effect - repellent to many. Ergo, timbre is the most important of the musical elements though its case for inclusion was only granted late in the day. It is not one of those moulded into the decoration on the ornate walls of the former Royal College of Organists. Or is it? There are four spaces so perhaps it is although I am sure if it is, it is the least prominent after melody, harmony and rhythm which can exist without music being turned into sound. Cage pared music down to its elements but still told us it was pointless.

Tuesday 21st December  Bad news for Hairdressers
The BBC newsreader seemed to be sneering at the way her North Korean colleagues marked the death of their leader Kim Jong Il only with solemn music. Yet this is surely the appropriate response to such a momentous event. When words are inadequate, music takes over. I clearly recall the way the media ran out of words to express the shock of Diana's death that Sunday morning in 1997 and by 9am they were wheeling in representatives of the hairdressing profession to say what the tragedy meant to them. Music expresses emotion much better than words, especially over a sustained period. The superficial West, with its televisual fixation, has relegated sound to a secondary role. The centenary of John Cage in 2012 should change that.  


Sunday 18th December Nothing Like a Dane
It was foolish of Henry Prince of Wales, elder son of James I and VI of England and Scotland to take a swim in the Thames in 1612, as he caught typhoid and died soon after. Didn't anyone warn him? Perhaps he was showing off because swimming was a rare skill back then. However, the music which was written to commemorate this seismic national tragedy provided the Spitalfields Winter Festival with a deeply moving concert three hundred and ninety-nine years later on Thursday 15th December 2011 at Shoreditch Church. Indeed, the director of the choir Gallicantus, Gabriel Crouch, suggested some of the music might not have been performed since the period of mourning, especially those pieces whose missing parts scholars only recently had recreated.

The composers were not well known, perhaps because the death of their patron scuppered their later careers. Robert Ramsey doesn't deserve obscurity. His What Tears Dear Prince? hung limpid in the cool Shoreditch air from the dark, silk tone of tenor Christopher Watson and the gentle touch of lutenist Liz Kenny. It was an evangelist's gentle ushering to the start of a concert. Soloist gave way to ensemble and the choir then sang Ramsey's When David Heard, the two sopranos vying for most expression in the sorrowful words O My Son as they lobbed them to each other across the stage. Versions of the same text by Tomkins and Weelkes were highlights further down in the programme. That so many settings of these words date from this era is too coincidental not to be an analagous reference to the tragedy.

Italianate lute songs by John Coprario were shared out. The composer is supposed to have sung in Monteverdi's Orfeo, become an Italophile and changed his name from Cooper. The counter-tenor David Allsop sang his So Parted You with muscular tone and easy unstraining top notes. Soprano Amy Moore overdid a little O Poor Distracted World, compensating by emphasis perhaps for our ignorance of the politics of 'Christian-hating Thrace' and the business of 'the black league'. Crouch, a plaintive baritone, sang O Grief and Tis Now Dead Night with profound sympathy for the parents' despair, dedicated as these songs were to King James and Queen Anne of Denmark. Voice and lute resonated with sombre beauty. It was a shame Coprario's bass viol parts were not used, as the strong bass line lifts these melodically rich songs to another level.

James's marriage to the daughter of the dipsomaniac King Christian IV of Denmark suggests the newly united Kingdom and the land of Vikings were close during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. It's reflected in the setting of Hamlet at the palace of Elsinore and the fact that lutenist John Dowland found employment there when he failed to secure a post at either Elizabeth's or James' court. The melancholy which pervades his songs may have been an Elizabethan affectation, but it also epitomises the gloomy atmosphere of the cold, wet Scandinavian heartland. The mood resonates with the singing cellist who has taken to the songs of Dowland in her hospital cell (see below). She and her accompanist have made it a project to learn Dowland's fourth album of songs, The Pilgrim's Solace, and perform it in 2012, the 400th anniversary of its publication. In the echoing wards, she has mastered the solemn trilogy Nos 14-16 Thou Mighty God, When David's Life and The Poor Cripple which extol Patience and Hope as virtues in three Biblical stories. (The song about David has nothing to do with his love for his son Absalom, but praises his earlier refusal to begrudge Saul, who was trying to kill him. The tragedy of the King's son occurred in November 1612, several months after publication so the reference to David must have been coincidence.)

The Danes are gone now as Forbrydelsen, or The Killing, has ended. I was gripped for all twelve episodes although I wasn't always sure what was going on. A lot was due to Frans Bak's murky, rhythmic score. The newspaper said the ending was not a disappointment, but it was surely a weak conclusion to resurrect the shot hero and have her tiptoe up to the villain without his noticing. The BBC4 continuity announcer promised bad language 'from the start', but this was a cynical lie as there were only four 'shits' and one 'bastard' and they occurred well into the episode. Perhaps the Danish was full of filth. Not being a Danish speaker, I was unable to decide how faithful the subtitles were, although I did once hear 'wurst' and read 'cheese'. Still, it is now obvious that the offence warning is used much more as an enticement. It makes a programme seem grown up and dangerous if the broadcasters have to indemnify themselves in advance.