Music from Norway: Rolf Lislevand–Baroque Artistry

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Program: #10-49   Air Date: Nov 29, 2010

Rolf Lislevand, continued--We continue tracking the brilliant Norwegian lutenist, this time looking at his work with Jordi Savall and his ensembles.

NOTE: All of the music on this program showcases Rolf Lislevand's work with Jordi Savall and his Hesperion XXI ensemble.

These programs are made possible in part by support from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C. For more information about Norwegian cultural events in the United States or for travel and tourist information, you may consult:

The Norwegian lutenist, Rolf Lislevand, studied the classical guitar at the Norwegian State Academy of Music from 1980 until 1984. In 1984, he entered the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland, which was then the most active early music centre in Europe. He studied there until 1987, under the guidance of Hopkinson Smith and Eugène Dombois. He was then asked by Jordi Savall to accompany him with groups such as Hespèrion XX, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and the Concert des Nations. Through Savall, he acquired first-hand knowledge of 17th century French viola da gamba music, just as Montserrat Figueras introduced him to 16th and 17th century Spanish vocal music.

Since 1987, Rolf Lislevand has been living in Verona, Italy, where he has been trying to reconstruct an authentic way of performing Italian music from the first half of the 17th century. Living in close contact with an old civilization which was always as attentive to modernism as tradition, he strives for a combination of intuition and research to guide him towards a comprehensive concept of style and aestethics of Baroque music.

In the past few years, Rolf Lislevand has expanded two aspects of his career : his work as a soloist and a teacher. At the Conservatoire National de Toulouse (France), he has been allowed to develop a didactic method for instruments of the lute family which were cut off from their tradition centuries ago. Since 1993, he is a professor at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Trossingen (Germany). Whereas the apprenticeship in musical academies is often based on teaching stemming from Romantic 19th century tradition, at Trossigen ideals are pursued which are more in accordance with the humanistic concept of man and the artist.
Rolf Lislevand's solo-recordings are released by the French label Auvidis/Astrée. His first CD of music by the Italian-born lutenist Hieronymus Kapsberger received, along with glowing reviews, the French 'Diapason d'Or de l'année 1994' award. The same year, the Kapsberger CD was voted the 'Best Record of Music before 1650' at the MIDEM international music industry fair in Cannes and, in 1995, 'Critic's choice' of Gramophone.

In 2000 The Santiago de Murcia CD was voted the 'Best Record of Music XVII-XVIII° century' at the MIDEM international music industry fair in Cannes and was awarded by the French 'Diapason d'Or de l'année 2000'.

I. Pièces de viole du Second Livre, 1701  Hommage à Mons. de Lully et Mons. de Sainte Colombe (Alia Vox CD AV9828)

Suite en mi mineur Prélude - Fantaisie - Allemande - Courante - Sarabande - Sarabande à l’Espagnole - Gigue - Gigue la Badine - Rondeau Champêtre - Passacaille - Gavotte - Menuet - Menuet - Tombeau pour Mr. de Sainte-Colombe Suite en si mineur Prélude - Petitte fantaisie - Allemande - Allemande - Courante - Sarabande - Sarabande - Gigue - Gigue - Menuet - Gavotte - Menuet - Tombeau pour Mr. de Lully 1701.

Lully had been dead for fourteen years when Marin Marais published his Second Book of Viol Pieces, in which he included Tombeau pour Monsieur de Lully. Let us pause for a moment to consider the expression “pour monsieur...” In its hurried brevity, this old-fashioned turn of phrase is more suggestive of a gift sent to a still living recipient than of a tribute to a dead man. Whether reliving his memories of Lully, whose pieces he rehearsed as a member of the famous orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music, or singing the great debt his viol owes to Sainte Colombe, Marin Marais erects not a sarcophagus, that devourer of human flesh, but rather a space waiting to welcome for all eternity the life perpetuated by the instrumentalist. A musical score is like a tulip bulb: wrapped in its protective layers, it awaits only the warmth of the sun to burgeon into renewed life. The musical tomb contains the essence of the departed composer, while the musician who performs it allows the former to speak to us across the deathly silence of the centuries. And the souls reincarnated in the flowers about to bloom again here are no ordinary souls... Yet, when the news of Lully’s death, on the evening of 22 March, 1687, became common knowledge, all the musicians in the kingdom had preferred him dead rather than alive.  At that time, his tomb was their delight. At last they were rid of the tyrant who had slashed to one quarter their presence in all the theatres of the realm, except his own, and a few provincial theatres (such as that of Marseilles) which were obliged to purchase from him, Louis XIV’s Surintendant de la Musique du Roi.,  the right to stage operas, paying very considerable sums for the privilege. Many a glass was raised to his passing, and no doubt Lully, ever a libertine and lover of good food and wine, would gladly have joined in their carousing.  But in the spring of 1687, no musician could forget that he had forced them all into the wings, reserving centre-stage for his operas alone. Perhaps the term “eclipsed” would be more appropriate, since Lully’s career was inseparable from first the rising and then the zenithal star of King Louis XIV. When he was still an adolescent, Lully, the ill-favoured, quick-tempered offspring of a Florentine miller, won favour with both Mazarin and his godson, the king. Let us recall, in passing, that only six years separated Jean-Baptiste Lully, the elder of the two, and Louis Dieudonnée de Bourbon. They were at an age when laughter still came easily: a solid foundation for the staunch friendship without which Lully would never have risen so high. As a foreigner, imported on a princely whim to a rabidly xenophobic France, Lully incessantly found his path obstructed by the minstrelsies and musical confraternities of the day. Nevertheless, Lully became indispensable to the pleasures of a young king whose love of elegance and court entertainments was equal to that of his grandfather, Henry IV. Lully instructed the young king in dance and pantomime. He touched him with his music and glorified him in the ballet scenes that he created specially for the monarch from 1654 onward. Their relationship was anything but superficial. Indeed, they were bound at every turn both by their passion for music and their shared creativity, on which no expense was ever spared. Together with Molière, Benserade and the lavish theatrical designer Torelli, Lully was the very essence of Louis XIV’s cour galante (1661-1673), that true golden age of France’s Grand Siècle, the heyday of royal mistresses and exquisite favourites, such as Marie Mancini, Louise de la Vallière and the like. Sparkling bright amid the giddy whirl of Baroque works was the memory of the week-long entertainments of the Plaisirs de l’Ile Enchantée and the Grand Divertissement. At the end of his career as an opportunistic entrepreneur, the adjective “opportunistic” being understood in its original sea-faring sense of a captain able to gauge the most favourable wind for reaching harbour, Lully bequeathed to his heirs a considerable fortune and an enduring commercial formula: the opera. This somewhat buccaneering, rather tyrannical Florentine had hit upon the brilliant idea of selling to the bourgeoisie what he created for the Court. In view of the time-honoured human fascination with fashion and “celebrities”, which in a way is what French tragédie lyrique was all about, with each of its exemplary verses encoding a “who’s who” of the échelons of power, we can see how astute that formula was, and how someone with the necessary acumen could use it to build himself a fortune. Lully was the opera, and he was to remain so at least until the death of Rameau. Traces of his influence are to be found in Glück, and even, at an unconscious level, in Wagner, that other great favourite of a royal (although, in his case, altogether more bourgeois) patron... Hated at the time of his death, Lully would not have left such a lasting memory if he had been without talent. Such was his talent, in fact, that for another fifty years his music was praised to the skies. The sonatas of François Couperin, Anglebert’s harpsichord pieces and Robert de Visée’s compositions for the theorbo would long continue to echo Lully’s airs and moods.  And how Lully, inveterate libertine that he was, would have relished hearing the passages inciting to the pleasures of love taken from his opera Galatée transformed into the devout chaconne entitled Le Monument which was recently unearthed in a collection of pious music at the Ursuline convent in New Orleans! A man endowed both with a talent for synthesis and an innate flair for dance, Lully was ever attentive to his times, always refashioning whatever melodies he heard. Such was the origin of his dance suites, wrought out of courtly and provincial French dances, which Bach would so felicitously recall in his own compositions. Lully enlarged on the existing forms to accommodate his grand, unprecedented symphonic scenes. He subtly fused together the Italian ciaccona and the English ground. Under his genius, ostinato, the founding rhythm of the Baroque period, gave rise to those majestically dancing orchestral pieces, lasting some fifteen minutes (tantamount to a century’s worth of musical emotions!), which crowned each of his mature operas. There is no question that Marin Marais’s Folies d’Espagne and Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève du Mont, both of which are driven by the same obsessive frenzy, contain echoes of those rapturous passages by Lully. Lully is identified, above all, with the orchestra. He founded the first orchestra in Europe to be composed of a permanent, large body of musicians, at a time when everywhere else members of orchestras came and went on a temporary – not to say shiftless – basis.  His rich, powerful sound consisted of twenty-four violins, as well as oboes, flutes and brass instruments, not forgetting the percussion section and a continuo including several harpsichords, theorboes and other guitar-like instruments. What a revolution in orchestral form, when we compare it with the instrumentation to be found in the operas of Cavalli and Monteverdi, which preceded the first triumphs of French lyric tragedy by only forty years... It was this orchestra, which was to become the model for all those European countries receptive to the political and aesthetic model of Versailles, that the young Marais joined at the end of the 1670s. Marais, the son of a shoemaker, was just twenty when he was summoned to the closed circle of Court musicians. There he became acquainted with the great musical families of the day: Louis, Colin, Jean, Jeannot and Nicolas Hotteterre, all of them famous flautists, as well as the crumhorn players of the Philidor dynasty. In the world of the opera, he was to meet other figures destined for the same glory: the Monteclairs, the Desmarets, the Gervais and the Rebels, all of whom at one time or another passed through Lully’s establishment and were to produce a number of operas in the style of the master. The statue of such a great Commander is not so easily torn down... In 1701 Marin Marais was forty-five years old. What remained of Lully then? A now almost forgotten tomb in Notre-Dame des Victoires (1), where Lully the libertine turns his back on the altar; some grudges, too, and already a good many legends, most of which were spiteful, the vast majority of them unsubstantiated and none of them based on first-hand experience. And far too much of the cold marble in which the Grand Siècle was so fond of immortalising its great men. In this context, the Tombeau that Marais erected to the memory of Lully is all the more fascinating in that it impresses us almost as a direct account of the “Surintendant”. Marin, as a répétiteur and a violist at the Opera under Lully’s reign, had had daily experience of his fits of rage, his excesses and his genius. Marais’s music is an admirable evocation of his deceased master.  Is it merely by chance that this tombeau is used to crown the suite in B minor, that bitter-sweet composition in what Mattheson describes as a “bizarre, morose and melancholy” key? The flamboyant Lully was also steeped in exactly that kind of chiaroscuro; indeed, works such as his could hardly have been conceived without. it! Listen to the way in which the viol opens this funereal composition. From the very first bars, we hear what could be the voice of one of Lully’s heroines. Echoes of Andromède pouring out her heart to Mérope, or of Armide, smitten with Renaud’s eyes, or yet again, of the nymph Galatée, mad with love and the desires of the flesh, threatened by a lovesick cyclops... All these echoes blend in the generous declamatory expression which is so characteristic of Lully’s recitatives, built on soaring flights, painful descents, ambiguous diminutions and sensual ritornelloes... Suddenly, the deep, dark note of a bourdon is cast into the middle bass of the fading viol. Could this dissonant drone be an echo of the muffled drums from the funeral music in Alceste? Listen: no idle words are needed here to express the emotions of pain and regret. Marais recreates for us that veiled joy which is the unmistakable essence of Lully’s harmonic signature. The expression of the viol is a tribute to the art of Lully’s theatre, on which Marin Marais himself was to draw so productively, as is demonstrated in his admirable Alcyone. Entirely different is the expression found in his Tombeau pour monsieur de Sainte Colombe. If Lully was Marin Marais’s master in worldly matters, the austere Sainte Colombe was his Zen master. The work explores the unpredictability of genius, which in this case produces an acutely sensitive, irritable and care-worn spirit. Here we are presented with the image of the tormented musician, like Richelieu’s famous manic-depressive violist André Maugars, the model for all musicians of the Grand Siècle – including Sainte Colombe, who was gradually consumed by melancholy. The tears that are wept inwardly are often the most corrosive, as Marais well knew. His expression in this piece is no longer that of the fashionable world of the theatre; rather, it is the haunting expression of a more intimate world. It is a testimony to his late master, who seems still as palpably present in Marin’s memory as the rapture of the secret fire that he had begged Sainte Colombe to impart to him. Ah, that seventh string on the viol, that playing technique so insistently sought after by too young a pupil from too severe a master! It is impossible not to sense the open wound of an offence or a betrayal in those broken chords which lead into the lament and reveal the abject sorrow beneath the mask of respectability. The viol, initially expressing a gentle half-smile in the sweet song of a high tenor, now deepens into a baritone and finally breaks into a series of fragmented arpeggios... Around the tomb of the master, however, the scene darkens and grows dim. The viola da gamba was soon to be no more, its flame flickering and then fading in the early years of the 18th century. The secret of its manufacture and its painstaking craftmanship were soon to be lost, like a memory lingering only in the minds of a few ageing custodians of the art. The weight of what was too grand a century weighed heavily on an instrument which had been the favourite of both chamber and popular music and had attended the birth of many a poem and courtly love song. It would soon succumb to the advances of the violin, another colourful Italian import like Lully himself. The restrained courtesy of the viol, that erstwhile confidant of human sorrows, became a thing of the past, its song outmoded and its soulful lyricism forgotten. None of its qualities would survive the exigencies of the extroverted, brilliant, and – dare one say it – exterminatingly new tastes in music. And yet, the viol’s “human” voice, extinguished because of its excessive love of solitude at the dawn of that most sociable of centuries, speaks to us again. Over the last thirty years, the viol has won its way back into our public and private spaces. Could it perhaps be because it resembles us, human beings of the twenty-first century, who are more Baroque than ever in our world of simultaneous light and dark, of the spirit and the flesh, of the one and the diverse? Fracture, elation, emptiness and rapture: the innermost texture of Marin Marais’s music is born out of a humanity shot through with lightning. Every time the bow touches the string, in memory of Marais’s dead masters, a little more life is restored to our own contradictory natures.


II.Anthony Holborne The Teares of the Muses, 1599. Elizabethan Consort Music, volume 2 Hespèrion XXI (Alia Vox CD AV9813)  

VI [Pavan :] Paradizo [Galliard :] The Sighes [Almaine :] The Honie-suckle [Galliard :] The Fairie-round VII [Pavan :] The Funerals Galliard [Almaine :] The fruit of love [Galliard :] As it fell on a holie Eve

Composer Info

Marin Marais, Lully, Sainte Colombe, Anthony Holborne

CD Info

Alia Vox CD AV9813, Alia Vox CD AV9828

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