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Saturday morning quote 2.39: In pursuit of grace

February 16, 2013

readingIn a conference some years ago dedicated to exploring evidence describing vocal techniques and styles from the 14th to the 18th centuries, among an impressive and fascinating array of papers devoted to vocal ornamentation, vibrato, and expressive gesture, one particular voice spoke to us.

Anthony Rooley notes the extent to which the survival of a few instruments from Dowland’s day has enriched our research, then goes on to ponder – in the absence of a fragment of a 16th century larynx – how the 21st century singer is to adequately prepare himself to convey the music and poetry of another age.  He concludes:

It is nothing fundamentally to do with ‘larynx’, ‘tongue’, ‘palate’, ‘epiglottis’ – or any of the other bits of physical apparatus. It is entirely to do with the mind, and how the mind is composed, regulated and exercised. How has the ‘mind-space’ changed over these many centuries, and how has our relationship to this interior ‘mindscape’ changed? Do we access the mind in ways differing from our forbears? And how different are our expectations? When I listen to a singer, I hear not only beauty of tone, clarity of diction, appropriate passion, I hear the mind behind the voice – the intelligence, the alertness, the discrimination, the awareness, the understanding, the fantasy, the imagination. These features move me at least as much as the vocality. These same elements have fired the response of listeners to singers over many centuries – they are not new – they are the natural outcome of the allure of ‘beauty and intelligence of voice’.

–Anthony Rooley, A case for the pickled larynx,
Proceedings of the National Early Music Association International Conference, 2009

Anthony Rooley has had a profound influence on our approach to interpreting music of the 16th century.  A lutenist and performer who seems to have instantly kenned that vocal polyphony is the backbone of the lutenist’s art, he formed the Consort of Musicke circa 1969.  His recordings of solo lute repertory appear to have taken a back seat to the equally demanding task of directing vocal ensembles, but one only needs to listen objectively to his 1982 recording of the very well-known lute piece, “A Fantasie; Composed by the most Famous Gregorio Huwet of Antwerpe: Lutenist to the most high and mightie Henericus Julius, Duke of Brunswicke &c.”, which was published in Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610).

Rooley’s performance on the recording, Renaissance Fantasias (Hyperion CDA66089), stands alone among the many other available recordings in that he actually shapes the long string of sequences with intelligence and sensitivity informed by an understanding of how such a passage was conceived and composed in the context of vocal polyphony.

Most of today’s academics who are engaged in the business of training the musicologists and performers of tomorrow tend to focus on that which is more easily discerned and classified, thus more easily explained.  The surviving documentary evidence that includes technical information on historical voice production is mainly based on music from the 17th century and later, a time when music became more extrovert and public.  Descriptions of of vocal production from the 16th century and earlier invariably either admonish choristers who sing tastelessly or too loud, or else they paint fanciful images of a transporting subtlety in performance that moves the passions of the listener.  It’s no accident that most of today’s revivalists eschew music of the 16th century because training today’s performers in the subtleties of a historical repertory of intimate domestic music does very little to enhance the career of an academic.

We are happy to acknowledge our debt to those who’ve come before us, and those who continue to break new ground.  The work of Anthony Rooley, and of Jordi Savall, and of many others, provides inspiration along the path from Decoro, to Sprezzatura, and, we hope, to the occasional Grazia.

A song or instrumental piece will never succeed unless you try to express the beauty of the work, beauty which is inherent in respect for the composer and a faithful rendering, but tempered by a certain freedom on the part of the performer. And freedom is a sine qua non for music to live again. Of course, each era had its own style. But over and beyond beauty, as La Fontaine expressed it so well, there is grace. And it is in all humility that I search for grace. Defining it is no easy task, for grace is by its very essence indefinable. At best I could liken it to certain harmonies, to the sense of equilibrium that is obtained when space is correctly filled, to the proof you have when something is right and emotions ring true and everything falls into place. Grace defines itself. It cannot be sought (whereas beauty can!). Perhaps that is grace: beauty taken over by the power of the spirit.

–Jordi Savall, Naïve CD catalogue 2000

One Comment
  1. Dan permalink

    “…this divine Art, which at this time is by so great men followed ought to be vsed by thee with that great gracefulnesse which is fit for learned men to use, and with a kind of majestie: yea, so that thou have any skill in it be not ashamed at the request of honest friends to shew thy cunning: but if thou chancest to get an habit of perfection, profane not the Goddess, with making thy selfe cheape for a sleight gain.”

    J.B. Besard, 1610

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