Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Catacoustic by Candlelight: Lachrimae

We’re all pretty familiar with styles of drama popular in Elizabethan England—how many ways can you spell Shakespeare?  And most people can quote a bit of Elizabethan-era prose (“Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”) But what about their music?  What did they sit up late playing?  What did they hum as they went about their business?  What were the big hits of the day, in England and across the Continent?

We’ll find out at the next Catacoustic concert.  Bring a hankie.  

Humans are a contrary bunch.  When times are tough, we try to cheer ourselves up, we seek out comedy, we look on the bright side.  But when things are going well, sometimes we wallow in invented sorrows; we imagine the worst as though that were preparation for it.  During the decades between roughly 1560 and 1620, life in England became stable and prosperous.  Business started doing pretty well.  Money began to pour in from the new American colonies. Peace and progress became the norm. So naturally the fashion in music was Melancholy.  

And nobody did melancholy better than John Dowland.  One of the most brilliant lutenists of his day—with a college degree in music to prove it! — Dowland hoped for a brilliant performance career.  But he failed to get a place at court.  He took a job instead with the English ambassador to France, and from there spent much of his adult life in Europe.  He worked for years in Denmark and Germany, and travelled in Italy.  All of this matters to us because it was his composing, not his performing, that made his fortune, and his travels facilitated the dissemination of his music.  His published books of lute songs, starting in 1597, were very well known and widely used across the continent. And although his contemporaries considered him a fun-loving, pleasant companion, his songs simply drip with melancholy.

One of his most popular was called “Flow my Tears”: 

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled forever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their lost fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light.
 Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.

It was such a huge hit that he re-worked it in 1604 into a more elaborate piece for five viols and lute, with each movement using the original tune.  A bigger piece needs a fancier name, so he put it in Latin, “Lachrimae” (“tears”).  The gorgeous melody is put through its paces, somber sections alternating with lighter movements.  It became the “Yesterday” of the early 1600s:  played by everyone, copied, arranged for different instruments, parodied, “improved” upon, played again, and again; an instantly recognizable theme no matter where you went. 

We must be glad the people of Europe had one generation of peace.  Terrible times were ahead of them.  Some historians call the later decades of that century the real first world war, or a time of general crisis. Our Elizabethans’ futures, and their children’s futures, saw horrific wars of religion, the final excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, civil wars, constant fighting in the colonies, pirates, plague.  And a mini ice age to boot.  We, the People of Hindsight, must leave them in ignorance of that future. We will let them play for now at being sad, let them romantically imagine themselves collapsing from sorrow.  When real tragedy knocks at their doors, they will find no leisure for collapse. They will be too busy trying to survive, or throwing each other out of windows, or burying their dead. 

But all that lies ahead. For now, let the tears flow across silver notes and aching melodies.  Let the dissonances suspend and then resolve, let the variations mount up through despair and transform into joy, let the music transcend the melancholy.  As Dowland said, “Though the title doth promise tears, unfit guests in these joyful times, yet no doubt pleasant are the tears which Music weeps, neither are tears shed always in sorrow, but sometime in joy and gladness.”

A true consort of viols will perform:  Annalisa Pappano (Artistic Director), James Lambert, Julie Jeffrey, Larry Lipnik, and Gail Ann Schroeder.  They will be joined by David Walker, lute, and a member of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company reading poetry of the period.  The sanctuary, itself over 100 years old, will be lit only by candlelight, the sound amplified only by stone.  Silence your phone, slip away from the clamor of the 21st century, and enter into the dreams of the 17th

 7:30pm, Saturday, April 20, 2013
 St. Thomas Episcopal Church
100 Miami Avenue, Terrace Park, OH 45174

Tickets: $20 general, $5 student. Children 12 and under are always free. Tickets are available at the
door or in advance by calling 513.772.3242 or at www.catacoustic.com .

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Concert Preview: "A Common Thread," March 17 & 18

This month will see a new venture for Catacoustic.  After many successful collaborations with institutions around the city, Catacoustic will for the first time collaborate with another well-known music group in town.  Concert:nova is an innovative chamber group specializing in the unexpected aspects of contemporary chamber music.  Since the unexpected is part of Catacoustic’s mission as well, the partnership seems a natural fit.  Local audiences who are up for a challenge or are looking for a new experience have found that both these groups fit the bill.  

To marry the Renaissance to the modern world, a universal is required, and one has been found:  the works of William Shakespeare.  For 400 years Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets have inspired artists in every creative field, and composers are no exception.  This concert will explore music based on the work with pieces written during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and pieces written as recently as 2004.  

Shakespeare filled his plays with music and songs, some well known to the Elizabethan audience, some written by himself. The clowns sang comic songs, the mad sang perceptive nonsense, the amorous sang of love, the cynical sang satire. Today we see these songs as words on the page, but at the time these would all have been sung on stage, probably with instrumental accompaniment.  The tunes were composed by Shakespeare’s own contemporaries, men like Thomas Morley, Anthony Holborne, and of course the adaptable and accomplished Anonymous. Viols and lutes were well-known to the Bard—he mentions both many times. Catacoustic performers Annalisa Pappano and David Morris on viol, and David Walker and Brian Kay on lute, will re-create not just the tunes Shakespeare would have known, but the soundscape he would have recognized.  

Shakespeare doesn’t belong only to the Elizabethans, though.  Each generation throughout the centuries has offered its own take on the themes and characters that populate his familiar world.  Concert:nova will play some of the more contemporary expressions his work has inspired.  Here’s a sample:  Amy Beach, 1867-1944, was an American pianist and composer.  Best remembered for her songs, she composed music for several of Shakespeare’s lyrics.  Ned Rorem, born in 1923, has frequently written with Shakespeare in mind.  The cello suite After Reading Shakespeare was composed in 1980. Erich Korngold is best remembered for his film scores, but before there were movies there was incidental music for plays:  his Much Ado About Nothing was composed in 1919. Igor Stravinsky loved to compose for unusual combinations of instruments, and Songs from William Shakespeare, 1953, was written for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, and viola.  Performing for concert:nova are Ted Nelson, cello, Minyoung Baik, violin, Heidi Yenney, viola, Randy Bowman, flute, Ixi Chen, clarinet, and Avedis Manoogian, piano.

Singing with both groups will be acclaimed soprano Youngmi Kim.

There is also a third participant in this collaboration.  Jennifer Joplin, a member of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, will be on hand, reading from the plays and sonnets, knitting together the two worlds separated by 400 years of changing fashions in music but united by the greatest wordsmith in history. A highlight of the program will be a condensed, one-woman version of The Tempest, as illuminated by two composers at either end of the spectrum.  Robert Johnson, 1583-1634, is the only person we can say with certainty composed for the original stage productions of the plays—in other words, he was an actual collaborator with the playwright himself.  And Paul Morevec, a composer working on Long Island, NY, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his Tempest Fantasy.  So we have the very first composer to set Shakespeare to music, and perhaps the most recent. 

The Mercantile Library will play host to "A Common Thread."  With luck, the sunlight will stream through the tall windows and the wood will glow.  The playwright, the composers, the musicians, and the actor will all conspire, and here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears.  And by that music let us all embrace.

Sunday, March 17, 3:00pm, and Monday, Marcy 18, 7:00pm, at the Mercantile Library, 414 Walnut St. #1100 45202.  $25/advance | $30/door | $10/students w ID.  For tickets go to http://cncatacoustic.eventbrite.com/