‘By Season Season’d’: Time, Season and Change

 

British Clavichord Society AGM Recital at the Art Workers Guild, London, Saturday, 30 June 2018

 

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750):  Toccata in E minor, BWV 914

Adriano Banchieri (1568–1634):  Suonata Quarta, Fuga Cromatica (L’Organo Suonarino, Op. 13, 1605)

William Byrd (c. 1540–1623):  O Mistris myne

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643):  Ancidetemi pur d’Archadelt, passagiato (Il Secondo Libro di Toccate …, 1627)

Johann Caspar Kerll (1627–1693):  Capriccio sopra’il Cucu

François Couperin (1668–1733):  Le Rossignol-en-Amour (Quatorzième Ordre) 

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788) (attrib.):  Chorale Prelude on Aus der Tiefen rufe ich

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach:  Suite in E minor, Wq. 62/12 (Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Menuets I–III – Gigue)

Joseph Haydn (1732–1809):  Andante and Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII/6 (‘Un piccolo divertimento’) 

 

Programme Notes by Adrian Lenthall

The final act of The Merchant of Venice contains profound lines (many of them familiar to musicians and music-lovers through the famous setting by Vaughan Williams in his Serenade to Music) concerning the vulnerability of light, sweetness and harmony to their context – to being obscured by the ‘muddy vesture of decay’, ‘a naughty world’, or the noise of day-time ‘when euery Goose is cackling’. And yet, set free by the silence or darkness proper to the time, the ‘little candell’ can shine like ‘a good deed’, and the nightingale’s song reveals her to be the musician she is:  ‘How many things by season, season’d are / To their right praise, and true perfection’.

Shakespeare’s characters surely have in their ears the ancient wisdom literature of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, still well-known today:

‘To euery thing there is a season, and a time to euery purpose under the heauen. A time to be borne, and a time to die: a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted … A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.’

The clavichord’s special place among musical instruments is inseparable from its own vulnerability to noise and dazzle. In this it tells, or sings, of ourselves, and its songs – if they can be properly attended – include accumulated wisdom about the rolling of the seasons and the ages of human life. In this recital we shall hear early works and works of old age, the homage of successive generations to those that went before, inspiration from the times and seasons of nature, and above all musical languages which hold up a mirror more honest than any other to our own nature as inhabitants of time.

J.S. Bach’s seven toccatas have been seen as the culmination of his early development as a composer for keyboard: so in this Toccata in E minor we hear some of the first results of a lifelong process of seasoning in Bach’s music. Like the early baroque toccatas of Frescobaldi and Froberger, this is a piece in defined sections, four in this case; each ends in the tonic major, so that three times the piece arrives and is turned back as if a doubt remains to be dealt with, by means now rigorous, now discursive. There is a pervasive restlessness, never quite settling into regular phrases or syntax, despite frequent use of sequences (which are here tamed and civilized more than in some of the other toccatas). The culminating fugue, with its unbroken flow of semiquaver rhythm, obsesses, and then, in the toccata’s final major ending, pierces and deflates the restlessness and arrives at an unconventional rightness.

Anniversaries are one of the ways in which composers come into season in our contemporary performance culture. Adriano Banchieri’s tightly-wrought little fugue honours my namesake, clears the air after Bach’s very different example on the same keynote (which functions here as a Phrygian final), and introduces the contrasting sound and personality – and higher pitch – of the triple-fretted clavichord.

Byrd’s ‘O Mistris myne’ survives in a single source, the ‘Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’, which was probably compiled in the second decade of the seventeenth century. Although this collection contains several much earlier pieces by Byrd, O Mistris myne is likely to be ‘late’ Byrd, especially if there is any connection with the clown Feste’s song of the same name in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (whose first known performance took place in February 1602).

This, however, has been matter for debate; scholarship tends to separate the melody used here by Byrd from Feste’s song in the play (and rightly points out the formal difficulties thrown up when they are brought together); but many theatrical productions have doggedly made the attempt to combine them, and Shakespeare’s text is so incomparably the best of the available candidates from a literary point of view that I confess to joining this side as I imagine the hinterland of Byrd’s piece. 

Here, then, are the two stanzas from Twelfth Night, Act 2, scene 2 (in the spelling used in the ‘First Folio’ edition, of 1623): 

Clowne sings:  O Mistris mine where are you roming: / O stay and heare, your true loues coming, / That can sing both high and low. / Trip no further prettie sweeting. / Iourneys end in louers meeting, / Euery wise mans sonne doth know.

What is loue, tis not hereafter, / Present mirth, hath present laughter: / What’s to come, is still vnsure. / In delay there lies no plenty, / Then come kisse me sweet and twentie: / Youths a stuffe will not endure.

The melody here varied by Byrd, with its unusual, somewhat irregular plan (seven two-bar phrases), and its relaxed, extempore manner, seems similarly amphibious: cognizant of the passing of the present, while philosophical, even detached (as, after all, a clown must be) in relation to its urgencies. There can be a peculiar melancholy when desire and transience are held in mind together like this. By the time Byrd composed these variations he may have possessed a keen awareness that ‘Youths a stuffe will not endure’; and his own working, responding also perhaps to the melody’s avoidance of the squarely inevitable, is exploratory and thoughtful, even ruminative, rather than technically cumulative. 

Jacob Arcadelt (c. 1505–1568) is another of this year’s anniversary composers, and although he is known entirely as a composer of vocal music, several later composers made keyboard intabulations of works by him. Ancidetemi pur is one such arrangement – elaboration might be a better word, and more in keeping with Frescobaldi’s term passagiato – of a madrigal by Arcadelt of 1539.

By 1627 this was very old music, and yet it was still current (and was indeed reprinted in Rome in that very year). It sings of the death-wish – ‘kill me utterly, grievous suffering’ – of one displaced in love by a rival: a theme which may have helped it to outlive the passing of the years. Frescobaldi places his elaboration immediately after the eleventh toccata in his Second Book of Toccatas, that is to say, in the same place as the twelfth and final toccata in his First Book of Toccatas. It is as if this piece is the final, unnamed toccata in the second, and, as it turned out, final, book; and it is to be noted that Frescobaldi takes pains in his Preface to this collection to liken the ideal performance style of his Toccatas to that of ‘modern madrigals’.

The piece we have is, then, simultaneously both old and new, a homage to the past and a calling-card of novelty, a treasure of antiquity so thoroughly ‘modernized’ by Frescobaldi’s originality and skill that it can stand in the ultimate place in his sequence of cutting-edge toccatas.

Arcadelt’s cuckold may have been sensitive to the association between his plight and the laying habits of the cuckoo, an association which the English language makes plain, and which Shakespeare was to exploit, along with the cuckoo’s pre-eminence among spring arrivals:

When Shepheards pipe on Oaten strawes, / And merrie Larkes are Ploughmens clockes: / When Turtles tread, and Rookes and Dawes, / And Maidens bleach their summer smockes: / The Cuckow then on euerie tree / Mockes married men; for thus sings he, / Cuckow. / Cuckow, Cuckow: O word of feare, / Vnpleasing to a married eare.

                (Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 5, scene 2, First Folio version)

The composer of our ‘cuckoo’ piece, J. C. Kerll, has not been well served by the vicissitudes of history. The version of his Capriccio sopra’il Cucu which I’m playing was reproduced in Adolf Sandberger’s edition of 1901, since when the manuscript has been lost; and this is but a recent example of losses which had already accounted for at least eleven operas and much church music.

This piece is a good example of what survives: a beguiling approachability conceals exquisite judge-ment, especially, here, in the use of modulation and tonal space. (It may not be surprising that Handel was one of Kerll’s admirers, and drew, in one of several ‘borrowings’ from him, on the opening of this very capriccio in the organ concerto known as The Cuckoo and the Nightingale.) Such seeming artlessness, coupled with a relaxation of the kinds of formal convention that are generally used to shape a sense of forward progression, suggest the illusion of a direct representation of nature.

Just before the lines from The Merchant of Venice from which I’ve taken the title of this recital, Portia speaks of the Nightingale, which needs the quiet ambience of night to be properly heard. In Le Rossignol-en-amour (‘The Nightingale in Love’) our last anniversarian, François Couperin, sets up a delicate mapping of the nightingale’s trilling and chirruping onto the agréments of refined harpsichord playing, but here, rather than any direct suggestion of nature, what we hear is distinctly cultural: a representation of love, of a particularly sophisticated and self-conscious kind – in neat binary form, in fact, and complete with a Petite Reprise.

Long attributed to J. S. Bach, and still the subject of debate as to who might have composed it, the Chorale Prelude on Aus der Tiefen rufe ich (‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee’) became associated with Bach fils relatively recently when its similarities with the Allemande from the second of C. P. E. Bach’s two suites in E minor were noticed. These affinities are especially striking in the oldest of the surviving sources, which presents the piece in two versions, one for organ with pedals and the other – played today – for keyboard (suggesting domestic, probably devotional, use). It remains unknown whether the chorale prelude was composed before the suite, or vice versa.

The chorale-based piece seems to invite a recitativo style of performance, making it both reminiscent of the third section of
J. S. Bach’s E minor Toccata heard earlier, and a foretaste of C.P.E.’s own free fantasia style. Better known in the English-speaking world as the Lenten hymn-tune ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’, the chorale melody can perhaps remind us that seasons of fasting and leanness are not only part of a natural rhythm, but are indeed ultimately times of hopefulness. 

C.P.E. Bach’s second Suite in E minor was composed in 1751, the year after his father’s death. Unlike his earlier essay in the form (his only other one, and in the same key), this one includes the standard movements of the French baroque suite, by now a gesture towards a past set of manners. The world of J. S. Bach’s French Suites in particular – which is also that of C.P.E.’s childhood – is thus revisited, but also made fully galant, and fully personal, by a son whose own mature personality was by now well established (the sets of ‘Prussian’ and ‘Württemberg’ Sonatas had appeared in the preceding decade, and the soon-to-be-famous Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, which was to appear in print in 1753, must have been much on his mind). I can’t help hearing this suite as filial homage, and indeed (in the chromatic descending fourth near the start of the Allemande, and throughout the Sarabande) as an expression of mourning. It is as if the suite, like certain of Froberger’s, begins with a Lamento, in which case it might not be too grand a claim to see it as C.P.E. Bach’s Tombeau for his late father.

Composed in 1793, Haydn’s Andante and Variations in F minor stands among his last (though not very last) music. Two themes alternate (a form Haydn made very much his own), the first in F minor and the second in F major – perhaps recalling the alternation between tonic minor and major in the opening Toccata of this programme. Each theme is varied just twice, and in a mainly decorative way; originally the piece ended after that, with a short coda in F major. No-one has been able to discover why it was extended, although the composer and pianist John McCabe suggested that it may have had something to do with Haydn’s being deeply affected by the death of his friend, the pianist Marianne von Genzinger, in January 1793. It is what happens in the extended F minor coda that has made this piece so famous.  In this final form, the whole work so perfectly embodies ‘the motions of [our] spirit’ (to quote further from the final act of The Merchant of Venice) that it takes on an existential frame of reference. Its questions are our questions, and its answers confront us like headline news.

 

The Clavichords

Peter Bavington in 2015 after unfretted instruments by J. H. Silbermann

Richard Taylor in 2014 after an anonymous triple-fretted clavichord, c. 1620 (formerly in the Mirrey Collection, now in the Musical Instrument Museums, Edinburgh)