Friday, November 8, 2013

Orpheus' Lyre

Charles II

The next Catacoustic concert will continue a tour of 17th-century England that we began last spring.  You may remember the concert in Terrace Park of music by John Dowland, and how in peaceful 1607 he could comfortably compose music of gorgeous longing and transcendent melancholy.  But what happened next?  The Tudors gave way to the Stuarts, the Stuarts thoroughly alienated themselves from their people, and so began the English Civil War.  The appalling story of this catastrophic war which was fought between 1642 and 1651, but whose tensions began many years before and whose fallout lasted decades after, must be told elsewhere; for now let us reduce all the facts to this one: almost one million people died in England, Scotland, and Ireland, out of a population of 7.5 million.

Oliver Cromwell
 But the music didn’t stop.  We live in wartime ourselves—we know that the need for self-expression becomes greater, if anything, in times of stress.  England produced many great composers during these benighted decades, and it is their music we will hear December 7.  Our tour of this tragic century in England will conclude in April with a concert dedicated entirely to the music of William Lawes, the soldier-composer.  

If peacetime gave us beautiful melancholic music, what did wartime produce?  Adrenaline and the sense that each day could be one’s last gave the music energy and made the composers bold.  Born of turbulent times, the music was experimental, even avant-garde for the day.  Some of it was light-hearted and comic, to suit people seeking an hour’s relief from their distressing daily lives.  An example of this is The Twelve Wonders of the World, a set of satirical songs based on stock characters by John Maynard, c 1577-1633.  Maynard’s fluffy satires were nevertheless ahead of their time in their instrumental arrangements.  

Christopher Simpson
Christopher Simpson, 1602-1669, on the other hand, was a dedicated teacher, and wrote the most important instructional books for viol ever—they are still used by students today, 350 years after their publication.  But Simpson’s outwardly dull books, with titles like A Compendium of Practical Musick, were actually filled with virtuosic pieces, startling in their creativity.  John Jenkins, 1592-1678, was an industrious, religious man, who fled to the countryside during the war, where he taught and composed prolifically for the viol.  The Oxford Companion to Music has this to say about this sober,
conventional man: “The best of his music is distinguished by its lyrical invention, emotional intensity, and adventurous tonal schemes, and his first-hand knowledge of the viol allowed him to exploit its expressive and technical capabilities to the full.”

Some of these composers were pro-Parliament, some of them were Royalists. Some wrote light music, others more serious.  But what all
these men had in common was that they sojourned in cataclysm, and
tried to make sense of their experiences through vibrant,
ground-breaking music. 

Which brings us to the lyra viol.  This is an odd little off-shoot of the viol family, a chordal instrument in a family of melody-makers.  Part viol, part lirone, it is capable of playing both a tune and its accompanying chords.  Music for it is written not on the staff, but in tablature.  Strings are often retuned to create the harmonic combinations they were looking for.  (Remember Jenkins’ “adventurous tonal schemes”?)  The resulting sound is warm, complex, and rich beyond all expectation—an entire orchestra speaking in one voice.

Lyra Viol
Lyra viol was popular 300 years ago, especially in England. Perhaps an anomalous instrument was necessary to describe a world gone mad.  But very few people today have taken it up.  The music you will hear at this concert, therefore, is very rarely performed, and is far outside the mainstream of Baroque viol music. An ensemble of extraordinary musicians, viols, lutes, and voices, will assemble at the beautiful Indian Hill Church to take us to another place and time, not so  different from our own. 

7:30pm Saturday, December 7, 2013
Indian Hill Church, 6000 Drake Road, Cincinnati (Indian Hill), OH  45243
Ample parking is available in church parking lot.

Individual tickets are $25 general, $10 student. Children 12 and under are always free. Tickets are available at the door, in advance by calling 513.772.3242, or at