Time Travellers

Posted on 12th November 2014 by Svend McEwan-Brown

ENF is not generally big on themes. I like to make connections and savour intriguing juxtapositions, but themes… they can get a little heavy. This year is a bit of an exception and a thread of concerts called ‘Time Travellers’ runs through the programme. The concerts have two things in common – they are all about stringed instruments and they are all about today’s musicians and composers engaging with the distant past creatively. These preoccupations came to me from two directions.

Lately, I visited a huge musical instrument museum: whole floors of keyboards of every kind including a Broadwood piano from Glasgow ending its days in faraway Hamamatsu, Japan: it still bore the advertising plate of its Buchanan Street shop. There was case upon case of violins, clarinets, tubas and horns. I always find such museums poignant places when, like this one was, they are so quiet. Instruments are noisy things, made to be touched and played. Putting them behind glass or with ‘do not touch’ signs on them reduces them into caged animals, denying their true nature.

This museum was in Japan so all of the labels and documentation were in Japanese: my imagination was left to fill in the gaps and this set me thinking about those old instruments that are still out in the wild making noises. They are powerful time travellers, especially stringed instruments, since these are rare among instruments as they actually improve with age. It is commonplace to encounter a violinist or cellist holding wood 3 centuries old in their hands. Many of them will tell you the story behind their instrument and who the previous owners were, sometimes you encounter one that was played at a famous premiere or for a great composer; the gulf of centuries disappears and you are but a touch away from their presence.

My museum visit chimed with a fascination I have with a dramatic development in the way people write music: the increasing awareness of the past that composers have been showing since around the late 19th century. It is not so long ago – maybe 150 years? – that a concert featuring music by a dead composer would be the exception rather than the rule. Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart even, were known by a handful of works at best, and whole repertoires lay silent in their libraries. During the second half of the 19th century something changed. People like Saint-Saëns and Brahms started to investigate ancient music and it started to be published. Rameau, Couperin, Isaac, Josquin, all became more than just names in books as their music lived once more. This antiquarian passion spread like wildfire and in our time the availability of digital archives and cheap access to recording means that there are relatively few composers of the past millennium who are not available to us to hear. The irony is that they have, to a large extent, edged out the living composers; we mostly listen to ‘dead’ music now.

However, there is a wonderful cross-fertilisation between contemporary and historic music in the fascination composers right across the globe have shown with the past. For more than a century they have been creating works that relate to earlier composers or periods of music. Neo-classicism is the most obvious manifestation: when Stravinsky recomposed Pergolesi for his ballet Pulcinella he cleverly played on the ‘period’ quality of the original to suit his rococo harlequinade subject, but he also transformed it and made it utterly his own, utterly 20th century. This was not piracy or plagiarism, it was reinvention. Others were equally quick to grasp the evocative power of referencing past times in telling their own musical stories. Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia is perhaps the most stirring example. His treatment of Tallis’ psalm tune is ancient without being nostalgic. Sibelius drew on his knowledge of Monteverdi and Palestrina and it is impossible to listen to his 6th Symphony without being aware of this. As the 20th century progressed, more and more diverse uses were made of the past, and now you could pretty much programme a rich and full annual festival featuring nothing but living composers in dialogue with their forebears. This year’s ENF gives a flavour of what that might be like. We have a strong emphasis on string instruments as time travellers and we feature Auerbach reflecting on Pergolesi, Desyatnikov on Schubert, Golijov on Couperin and many more threaded through the week. This barely scrapes the surface of the repertoire and ideas out there. I suspect that this idea is not going to go away…

Svend Brown