On Pandolfo, Siblin and the In Nomine

December 24, 2009

Today, some random thoughts in and around gamba playing.

On blogging among amateur musicians

I’m still quite surprised not to find other amateur viol players talking about their music online. The net is of course first and foremost about selling products and services and not about discussing music.  I’ve noticed a lot of discussion lately about bows on the Yahoo! viola da gamba group site and the faltering nature of the epigrammatic email as a way of adding to confusion in communication rather than clarifying it. At the end of the discussion, everyone goes away discontented and with battered egos because of differing interpretations of key words like “weight” and “Baroque”. I guess we’re all in a hurry, as in viol consort sessions and in life in general, so messages get muffled and personal observations get more or less trampled on in the stampede. Writing about music is for me an important means of lighting up the way along the journey, like using a torch in the darkness. I guess my fellow amateurs are playing more than I am. I notice many of us are happy with our instruments and don’t feel the need to be constantly trading up in terms of gambas and bows, though I can understand why professionals are on this treadmill because a status instrument brings in more sponsorship dollars.

On the gamba and aristocracy

A lot is made of the connections between aristocracy and the baryton: the king of instruments and the instrument for kings. Eric Siblin’s book, The Cello Suites, about a rock music journalist’s discovery of the Bach ‘cello suites, makes several references too to the gamba and courtly life down the ages in the context of why the ‘cello wasn’t taken up by royalty and aristocrats. I’m still only in the first Suite, that is to say, still only around page 60 or 70 (Bach’s first wife has just died unexpectedly) but it’s already obvious to me that the German courts were simply following the trend set by Louis XIV: royalty and aristocracy supported the gamba because they imitated the fashion of the French court. The ‘cello was too “street-wise”, too “Italian”, too “republican” and too “democratic”. The ‘cello was all about the large hall and not about the small salon – we see that in Siblin’s description of Bach coming up some of the larger and grander court orchestras as compared to the smaller ones. These court orchestras might have been modelled on Louis’ 24 Violons du Roy but were already growing in size, to fill larger acoustic spaces, something that was already happening before Paris’ first public subscription concerts in 1725. I think this conservatism among royalty and aristocracy continued past Bach and his sons to Haydn’s day. I think we need a list of royalty who played gamba, which gamba players and composers they sponsored and cultivated and which compositions came out of that experience. Not to put royalty on a pedestal, but to shed light on the gamba as much as anything. For several different reasons at the moment, I’m looking at the Brandenburg Concerto VI and the very deliberate soundscape setting of the lower strings explored by Bach. As a group of concertos, I’m happy with the concept of the Brandenburg Concertos being a job application – put in a drawer and forgotten about like most unsuccessful CVs and resumes – essentially showing off his skill in writing for different groups of instruments and tessitura. Certainly in the sixth, the gamba parts seem to “support” the violas (is it not a concerto for two violas?) in the same way that Vivaldi used gambas in his concertos to support other instruments. Siblin mentions Abel Senior and there has been a lot of focus in recent years on resuscitating both Abel Junior (b.1723, Cothen) and Finger. The problem with years (and decades) of absorbing the biographical view of musical history is that one tends to see individual composers at great distances from each other. In fact of course, the net of relationships involving teachers, instrument makers and patrons, shortens these gaps considerably and ends up squeezing things together: hence the delicious synchronicity of J S Bach, his son in London meeting Mozart on tour; the idea of Scotland and Scottish music being the Other among Continental composers, Beethoven studying the Bach ’48 and Mozart hearing a Bach motet while on tour, as mentioned by Siblin, all of the tooing-and-froing between England and the Continent associated with the bayrton so absorbingly described by Gartrell in her monumental book on the baryton, filling out my ‘gamba’ knowledge of Brade and Dowland on the Continent. Davidson in her review of an Abel CD, mentions JC Bach working with Abel Jnr in London starting up a concert series in 1765 in London together and Gainsborough and Laurence Sterne being among their immediate circle. Wasn’t it Gainsborough who wanted to forsake batty London and retire with his bass viol to live in the countryside?

Siblin hasn’t given an explanation for why Bach didn’t write gamba music for his colleague Abel (not that he should), but I guess musical composition was all about churning the stuff out for masters and not for buddies. One assumes the Bach gamba sonatas were written with Abel Snr in mind. I think it’s only after Mozart that composers stop composing exclusively for their masters and write for themselves or for posterity or for each other. But the lack of technical difficulty associated with gamba music written for royalty and aristocrats is a common thread through gamba history, with Haydn’s Prince being probably the most technically proficient on the instrument compared to any others before him. If members of royalty or aristocracy after The Magnificent played gamba, I’m not sure I’m aware of any. It’s a curious thing that Louis XIV didn’t play gamba, or other instrument (?) but was of course first and foremost a dancer. Marais wrote music for the king to listen to rather than play himself, so there was no temptation to write simply parts for him in chamber music – besides, it simply wouldn’t have done for a King to sit alongside his servants as an ‘equal’. Do we know who played the bass viol continuo for Marais during performances of his viol music at Versailles? Given his long career at court, one imagines he must have been joined to the hip with one or more bass viol continuo players, so strong is the relationship between solo viol and bass continuo.

The Siblin book is a rediscovery in words that recalls the Yo-Yo Ma films, a rediscovery in film, and is topical given the Pandolfo recording of them on gamba and the publication of Claas Harders’ transposition of Suite No.1 from G to C major. Perhaps Siblin will enlighten me on the nature of the Kellner manuscript.

On the In Nomine

Last weekend’s brief playing of the Byrd In Nomines a4 was certainly topical too, given the focus on the In Nomine in the latest Traynor competition for contemporary viol music and a fellow Australian being among the winners. Obviously I’m hoping to get to know these latest ones all a lot better, adding them to the crop of other recently composed In Nomines. Even for the treble destined to play the King’s Part, there is usefulness in consciously working on full-length bow strokes on each of the long notes. From a marketing perspective, I can see why the In Nomine is an important tool of differentiation: it belongs to the gamba canon like no other instrument.

On Paolo Pandolfo

It is of course wonderful to know that Mr Pandolfo is coming to Australia next year. ABC Radio is already playing his Bach ‘cello suites in anticipation. I shan’t be able to hear him play in person, though I hope to soon add his interpretation of the Bach ‘cello suites to my recordings of his (very fast) Tobias Hume. I think his own composition Albanese is just the most exquisite piece, as much for its gamba writing as for its hard-hitting lyrics. I was reading in the Dec 09 edition of VdGSA News from America about protest songs in Elizabethan England the other day – in particular, Byrd’s setting of a poem about the purpose of pen-and-ink in an era when publishing your thoughts could cost you your life (as with Chinese dissidents and others today) – and thought of music arising from the phenomenon and plight of refugees seeking asylum in other country. For Australians, it is the latest incarnation of the Yellow Peril and the White Australia Policy, which I understand was instrumental in helping unite the colonies to form the Federation. As one who works every day with Vietnamese refugees of the ’70s (and their curious take on modern China), I live and breathe this stuff. Ironically they vote Liberal though they are Catholic and are themselves boat people. The Tampa incident came up in a tv game show last night (such is its drift from current affairs to popular culture, the popular imagination and Australian history), not long after the latest news from Christmas Island. Curiously, for politics on the right, refugees represents the ‘local’ while the government tackles the ‘global’ in Copenhagen. And regardless of the approchement of the Anglian Church in England and Rome, sectarianism is alive and well here in Australia. Perhaps I’m becoming overwrought with the hegemony of Church, State and Family at yuletide, the seasonal gripping around my throat and a rising gorge when everyone around me becomes completely self-absorbed, clinging and needy. My customers at work are never more demanding and lacking compassion than at Christmas time. But Christmas is deeply rooted in the maelstrom of the subconscious, our deepest most savage urges, based as it is on the reversal of social status (Saturnalia), punishment of children (use of fear to condition and control the next generation), blackamoors invading Amsterdam and Barcelona (Europe and Orientalism), La Befana and boosting sales of Coca-Cola in mid-Winter.

But I digress. I would love to join my gamba colleagues on the idyllic South Coast of NSW at Easter, to hear Pandolfo with sand between my toes (not that I’m likely to hear a live performance of Albanese), but I have the very convenient excuse of a univ residential school which I must attend a week later: too much travel criss-crossing the State. I have always associated the national gamba gathering as competitive and anxiety-inducing. Outwardly democratic and ground for reconciling professionals and amateurs, but inwardly a fight to the death. Playing with other Serious Insects in such a pressure-cooker environment fills me with dread. Unfortunately, there is nothing relaxed about these kill-0r-be-killed events. A wrong note or a string slightly out of tune results in banishment and exile. But certainly the saving grace of viol school is the performance of gamba music by top-quality international tutors; these memories win out over the anguish.

Leaning towards my upcoming uni study of Medieval & Renaissance music, I note a (new?) recording devoted to the music of the Albergensian Crusade from Jordi Savall.


Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites: J S Bach, Pablo Casals and the search for a baroque masterpiece. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2009.

William Byrd, Three Consort Songs (incl. Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?) Ed. by David Skinner. A Waynflete Music publication, distributed by Fretwork Editions WM7, c2007. ISBN 978-1-898131-96-0.

Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, Gamba Nova. Alba. Contemporary gamba music.

Mr. Abel’s Fine Airs: Music of Carl Friedrich Abel for solo viola da gamba. Susanne Heinrich. CD, CDA67628. London: Hyperion, 2007. 

Christophe Coin and others, published proceedings of a conference devoted to the Italian gamba.

Roy Whelden and American Baroque, Galax. CD. Contemporary gamba music.

Jenny Ericksson and the Marais Project, most recent CD of Marais suites and a contemporary gamba piece. 

Daniel Yeadon, Bach Gamba Sonatas. CD.

Loeb, Asian madrigaletti for two bass viols. PDF and Midi files online of Japanese folk songs used by Puccini as the basis for Madama Butterfly.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Midnight Mass based on eleven carols. At least one of which is very close to La Jeune Fillette of Tous les matins du monde fame!


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