Scordatura, A Lion, Two Marks, a Violinist & a HarpsichordistSaturday, October 01, 2016
|Christina Hutten, left, Chloe Meyers right - my mother's rosary|
Scordatura [skordaˈtuːra] (literally Italian for "mistuning"), is a tuning of a stringed instrument different from the normal, standard tuning. It typically attempts to allow special effects or unusual chords or timbre, or to make certain passages easier to play. It is common to notate the finger position as if played in regular tuning, while the actual pitch resulting is altered (scordatura notation).
On Saturday September 24th, 2016 my 14 year-old granddaughter Lauren and I enjoyed an intimate early baroque concert in one of Vancouver’s newest venues, a very old house on West 7th Avenue called Hodson Manor. I wrote about it here.
Incredibly that exceptional concert was followed by another one this last Friday in the same location. It was a concert by two composers that may not be household names for everyone. Both are from the early baroque period of the 17th century sometimes called the Fantastic. One is German, Johann Jakob Froberger (baptized 19 May 1616 – 7 May 1667) and the other Bohemian/Austrian Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (12 August 1644 (baptized) – 3 May 1704).
The evening began with a chat by Early Music Vancouver Executive Director and Artistic Director Matthew White and UBC Green College President Dr. Mark Vessey. Both spoke about a collaboration/project with the tentative name of Early Modern Conversion that will be part of EMV's 2017 season and will extend the 2015/2016 theme of Bach.
|pen and wash on squared paper. Charles le Brun|
Now, these two men have a prodigious talent White in programming and production and Dr. Vessey in running a unique college at the University of British Columbia, Green College that promotes the arts. Both excel in finding funds and grants for their projects. In fact I will go as far as calling the pair two modern-day alchemists who convert base metal into greenbacks.
As the two talked before violinist Chloe Meyers and keyboardist (harpsichord and organ) Christina Hutten performed the work by Biber the Fourth Rosary Sonata The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple and Hutten played Froberger’s Capriccio III in E. I looked at their faces. As a retired magazine photographer I look for resemblances (conversion?). Dr. Vessey resembled David Letterman, not the present one who has grown a bushy beard.
Matthew White with his new bushy beard was for me one of the evangelists. Particularly after seeing a projection (perhaps an inspiration for the Conversion Project of French painter and art theorist Charles Le Brun, 24 February 1619 – 22 February 1690) startling three lion-like heads, 1671, pen and wash on squared paper.
Since I had a high school Roman Catholic education my memory (a scratchy and fading one these days) told me that the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John had winged symbols to represent them. Seeing that now perhaps retired countertenor (also called altos) Matthew White began his singing education at St. Matthew’s Men and Boys Choir in Ottawa and he might resemble any of the apostles with his beard and hair (and minus glasses), for me he was a dead ringer for St. Matthew and that lion, But it is St. Mark who is the winged lion, St. John the eagle, St. Luke the winged ox and St Matthew is the winged man or angel.
So my association hit a wall there. Furthermore since the evangelist, a tenor, in Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, Matthew White would have never sung that part even though he has an intimate knowledge of Bach’s work. As a notable countertenor we can at the very least say that White, like his namesake the winged-angel sang like one.
But the fact that St. Mark is the lion takes me to an interesting segue into that difficult definition and understanding of what scordatura is. The first ever definition that I have ever begun to understand came from Marc (he writes his name in French) Destrubé (a roaring lion of a virtuoso violinist). His answer came back rather quickly after I sent him this:
I still cannot comprehend scordatura re the fourth Rosary Sonata that Chloe Meyers played on Friday with Christina Hutten. In the end she plays what is written and ignores where she places her fingers or does she ignore the sound?
Yes it is confusing! But indeed the notation indicates where to place the fingers, not the actual sounding pitches. And so yes, in that sense one ‘ignores’ the sound. Some editions will give two versions in parallel staves, one with the above version and one with the sounding pitches. But, strangely enough, it is quite easy to read the ’tablature’ version, and almost impossible to read the ’sounding’ version, strange as that may be (I find it strange!). I suppose it would be a little like typing on a keyboard in your own language and it coming out in a different one. Hearing a different result than one is ‘feeling’ doesn’t seem to play the kind of havoc on one’s instincts that one might expect.
A possibly important point here (although taken into a different realm) is one that I share with my students, as it is a linguistic problem. In English we use the same word, ‘Music’, to refer to both the printed pages and to the music itself, ephemeral as it may be. I think this causes some confusion, as we (interpreters) then forget that the printed page of music is simply the composers’ best effort at getting their musical vision down on paper to transmit to the interpreter, it isn’t the music itself. Other languages do better: German has ‘die Noten’ as distinct from ‘die Musik’. ‘The Notation is Not the Music’ is the title of a book by early music pioneer Bart Kuijken.
Enough rambling, will make another attempt at jet-lagged sleep before a day of rehearsal in Amsterdam.
All the above brings me finally to my short description of the wonderful concert. Ignatz von Biber was a virtuoso violin pioneer of the 17 century. Those who admired his talent would not have known to use the more modern term of avant-garde to describe his technique and compositions that included perhaps the first piece for violin solo.
I can almost ascertain with 100% certainty that no violinist of our local symphony and very few of the ones who specialize in the baroque violin (a gut string instrument with a sound that is more mellow and less loud of that of a modern violin) could have played that Fourth Sonata I heard (with my friend Graham Walker) on Friday. We were able to listen to it because the calibre of musicians that now come and live in Vancouver like Chloe Meyers and Marc Destrubé has brought our city into an axis (promoted by White) with baroque orchestras in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Montreal. He has been tapping the best talent around from these places but at the same time we can be smug about our very own ChloeMeyers and Christina Hutten who has wowed me with her organ playing at downtown St. Andrew’s Wesley’s two organs. I hope one day soon to hear her play the very large organ, a 1969 Casavant Frères tracker at the Roy Barnett Recital Hall at the UBC School of Music.
When Hutten played, most elegantly, Froberger’s Capriccio I noticed she did not have to re-tune her harpsichord. This meant that I finally understand that scordatura only is possible with stringed instruments (even the guitar). Thus I learned while Meyers’ violin was tuned especially Hutten could play with her harpsichord as is.
But not before Hutten explained to me that two of the toughest instruments to tune, the harpsichord and the harp are first cousins. One is plucked by hands and the other, the harpsichord by mechanical pluckers or pincers.
For anybody who might wonder why it is that if there are 15 Rosary Sonatas in the religious ritual that is the rosary but there is an additional 16th composed by Biber? You will find out that the 16th is dedicated to the winged guardian angel or we might surmise to that St. Mathew who sings like an angel but looks like a lion! And of course we cannot forget the other Mark, the grant and fund grabber Dr. Mark Vessey.
White is pushing our city to finally renovate Hodson Manor so expect more stellar concerts there soon.
As for me, 74 years old and a 122 year-old house heard for the first time live this Rosary Sonata. I calculate that if Chloe Meyers would play all 16 in one sitting she would need 15 violins. One to play the first and the last that do no require scordatura tuning and the other 14 for the rest of them.
Rosary Sonata n. 16 - The Guardian Angel, Passacaglia (c105) Le Bizzarrie Armoniche