History’s pruning shears are aggressively pragmatic, trimming away that which is not tremendously noteworthy, revolutionary, famous or infamous. Music history is no kinder to its members, the pantheon of perpetual fame reserved for those select few on whom we bestow the title of “genius.” In the movie Amadeus, which, by the way, is screening with live orchestra at the Sony Centre February 21 and 22, court composer Antonio Salieri “speak[s] for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.” He fully expects to be expunged from the record books because of his lack of prodigious talent, surpassed in every way by the young and inexplicably, divinely gifted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Almost as well-known as Amadeus itself is the understanding that (spoiler alert!) the vast majority of the drama in the film is entirely fictitious. Salieri did, in fact, achieve great success during his career, not only dominating Italian-language Viennese opera, but also becoming one of the most important and sought-after teachers of his generation, with such pupils as Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, and Ludwig van Beethoven… not too bad for the “patron saint of mediocrities.” But while this particular instance of historical pruning may be false, there are many other examples of how time can act as an eraser, gradually wiping away traces of people, places, and events.
Let us consider, for example, the idea of national “schools” of music, which ebb and flow depending on the time period and corresponding socio-political circumstances of each country. Throughout the history of music there are three countries which consistently contributed to the development of European music from the medieval era to the 20th century: Germany, France and Italy; these nations produced some of the great composers of the past, including Bach and Beethoven, Couperin and Debussy, and Vivaldi and Puccini, respectively, as well as virtuoso interpreters. England has made valid contributions throughout history as well, particularly in the Renaissance and Baroque, with the Tudors and later composers such as Purcell, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through Parry, Elgar, Howells, Britten and others.
Europe, however, is an expansive continent and currently contains 50 separate countries – what are the musical histories of these other nations, the ones that have not received the legacies of Mozarts and Salieris? Who are their “patron saints of mediocrities”? This month’s listings are full of explorations of these lesser-known composers and their works; here are some of the highlights:
Poland in the 16th Century
On February 21, Gallery 345 presents harpsichordist Corina Marti, playing keyboard music from 16th-century Poland. Poland’s influence on classical music cannot be underestimated, with world-famous composers such as Frédéric Chopin, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Karol Szymanowski and Henryk Górecki, and renowned pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Krystian Zimerman counted amongst its artistic elite. While these composers and performers are largely from the 19th and 20th centuries, Poland has had a national musical identity since the 13th century, from which manuscripts have been found containing polyphonic compositions related to the Parisian Notre Dame School. During the 16th century, two musical ensembles led a rapid development in Polish music – both were based in Kraków and belonged to the King and Archbishop of Wawel. Music does not exist in a vacuum, however, and a number of Italian musicians were guests at the royal courts in the early 17th century, included Luca Marenzio, Giovanni Francesco Anerio, and Marco Scacchi. During the 17th century, Polish composers from this period focused on Baroque religious music and concertos for voices, instruments and basso continuo, a tradition that continued into the 18th century.
This concert is certainly worth exploring, in part because it provides more questions than answers: what will this Renaissance-era music from Eastern Europe sound like? Will it resemble the Tudor school and the pavanes and galliards of Byrd and Gibbons, or perhaps the more fantastical style of Frescobaldi? There is only one way to find out!
Another country that has not received significant recognition for its musical contributions is Spain where, particularly in the renaissance, creativity and experimentation abounded. The Toronto Chamber Choir delves into repertoire from mediaeval and renaissance Spain with their concert “Convivencia: Music Across Three Faiths” on March 2. Featuring Sephardic folk songs, classical Arabic melodies, and Spanish polyphony, this performance captures the cross-pollination that took place in a country with an unusually rich and complex musical and political history.
Over the course of its history, Spain has had more than 2,000 years of internal and external influences and developments that have combined to produce a large number of unique musical traditions, closely related to changing political climates. In the two centuries before the Christian era, Roman rule brought with it the music and ideas of Ancient Greece. Early Christians, who had their own differing versions of church music, arrived during the height of the Roman Empire, while the Visigoths, a Romanized Germanic people, took control of the peninsula following the fall of the Roman Empire. The rule of Moors and Jews in the Middle Ages added another influence to the musical climate, and the style of Spanish popular songs of the time is presumed to have been heavily influenced by the music of the Moors.
By the early 16th century, the polyphonic vocal style that developed in Spain was closely related to that of the Franco-Flemish composers. Composers from the North of Europe visited Spain, and native Spaniards travelled within the Holy Roman Empire, which extended to the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. Tomás Luis de Victoria, for example, spent a significant portion of his career in Rome, developing a technique that was said to have reached a level of polyphonic perfection and expressive intensity equal, or even superior, to Palestrina and Lassus.
By blending Sephardic, Arabic and Spanish musics, the Toronto Chamber Choir’s Convivencia will provide an artistic reflection of the real-world exchanges that took place between the world’s three great monotheistic religions in a country whose history is punctuated by fascinating and wide-reaching influences. Featuring Lucas Harris as conductor and lutenist, as well as guest singers, guitars, oud, ney and percussion, this concert is ideal for those who wish to broaden their knowledge of classical music and get a big-picture look at what influenced the music we hear and perform today.
While on the topic of big-picture performances, Tafelmusik will remount their successful multimedia production “Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House” from February 21 to 24. Conceived, scripted and programmed by Alison Mackay, this musical exploration of the links between 18th-century Saxony and Syria became one of the most talked-about projects in Tafelmusik’s history when it was first seen in 2016. Celebrating the rich musical traditions of East and West, and the renewed dialogue between those traditions in contemporary, multicultural Toronto, Tales blurs musical boundaries and alters our perspectives on musical history.
In terms of artistry, this concert brings an all-star roster to the Koerner Hall stage, featuring the Tafelmusik orchestra led by Elisa Citterio and Opera Atelier’s Marshall Pynkoski as stage director. The Tafelmusik team will be joined on stage by Maryem Tollar, vocalist and co-narrator, Alon Nashman, co-narrator, Naghmeh Farahmand, percussion, and Demetri Petsalakis, oud. In case you missed it in 2016, the musical selections are stellar, and include canonic works by Bach, Handel, Telemann and more, as well as traditional Arabic song and klezmer fiddle music.
If last year’s Safe Haven was your first exposure to Mackay’s multimedia prowess, don’t miss this opportunity to see Tales which is sure to impress, both through the superb skill of the performers and the surprising, captivating connections drawn between the “then” of centuries ago and our very present “now.”
While this month’s concerts might be slightly more outside the box than usual with regards to programming and presentation, the opportunity for cross-cultural exploration is one that shouldn’t be missed. At a time of xenophobic mania, and as the drawing of lines between “us and them” becomes increasingly aggressive, these performances provide an essential and contextual reminder that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Have questions about these or any other early music concerts in this month’s WholeNote? Get in touch at email@example.com.
EARLY MUSIC QUICK PICKS
FEB 3, 2PM: Rezonance Baroque Ensemble. “Italian Celebration.” St. Barnabas Anglican Church, 361 Danforth Ave. Old and new come together as folk music and compositions by Neapolitan Baroque composers are performed alongside works by Toronto composer Romina di Gasbarro.
FEB 15, 8PM: St. Basil’s Church, University of St. Michael’s College. “Litanies de la Vièrge.” St. Basil’s Church, 50 St. Joseph St. Glorious music from the pinnacle of the French Baroque, with choir and organ music by Charpentier, de Grigny and Couperin.
FEB 16, 7:30PM: St. George’s Cathedral. “Te Deum Laudamus.” St. George’s Cathedral, 270 King St. E, Kingston. A survey of music from England and anthems from the 17th to 20th centuries, including Handel’s Te Deum in D and Stanford’s stunning Te Deum in B-flat.
Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.