John Butt discusses Dunedin’s recording of the 1742 ‘Dublin Version’ of Handel’s Messiah.
John Butt reflects once more on the subject matter of his 2002 book “Playing with History”, adding further thoughts and observations since his keynote speech on the topic for the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Historical Performance Institute for the “Historical Performance: Theory, Practice and Interdisciplinary” conference, May 2016.
On 11 September 2019, we return to the Albert Hall stage for ‘Bach Night’ at the BBC Proms, our first appearance since our Proms debut with Bach’s John Passion back in 2017. This time, it’s a wholly orchestral affair, as we perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s four orchestral suites (BWV 1066-69), alongside four new commissions from four of today’s foremost contemporary composers.
The idea springs from founder Henry Wood’s themed nights, which were an early feature in Proms programmes. From 1898, Monday was established as ‘Wagner Night’, and Fridays soon became Beethoven nights. As for ‘Bach Night’ — Henry Wood was one of the earliest champions of Bach’s music in England, and under his direction, all of Bach’s orchestral suites and Brandenburg concertos were heard in the Proms’ first decades. Made up of a series of eighteenth-century dances that explore a kaleidoscopic array of Baroque affects, Bach’s orchestral suites have long been favourites in Dunedin’s repertoire.
So why the new commissions too? When Henry Wood programmed his themed nights all those years ago, he typically included complementary works or his own arrangements alongside these stalwarts of the repertoire. It seems fitting, then, to pay tribute to Wood’s contemporary mindset by pairing Bach’s Suites with the music of today, a reminder of ongoing dialogue between historical and contemporary composers. Whether this is the first time you have heard the suites, or the thirty-first, we hope this will allow you to hear them with fresh ears, that you will hear things differently.
So, in association with the BBC Proms, we have co-commissioned four leading composers — Stuart MacRae, Nico Muhly, Ailie Robertson and Stevie Wishart — to respond to Bach’s suites and compose a new dance for each one ‘in any way they see fit’. In other words, don’t be too surprised if you hear a few modern techniques on these historical instruments. Part of the delight in commissioning these new works is finding out how modern composers explore and respond to period instruments. In fact, almost anything goes, only ‘Bachian pastiche’ was excluded from the brief!
Coming from a background in early music, Nico Muhly has written his Tambourin with allusions to one of Bach’s principal sources of inspiration – the French composer Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764). Rameau included the tambourin (originally a Provençal dance with an upbeat duple metre) in several of his operas, and Nico’s piece captures a similar essence with a palpable sense of energy.
The first half of the concert concludes with a tango – a dance form, yes, although not one that Bach would have known. Stevie Wishart’s piece was inspired by Bach’s first orchestral suite, and brings together the cool, laid-back phrasing of the tango with the precision of Bach’s instrumental writing. Stevie has also incorporated the singing of the Argentinian hooded grebe (Podiceps gallardoi), an astonishingly musical bird — currently at risk of extinction — whose movement resembles something of a ‘bird tango’.
Perhaps the most famous of Bach’s orchestral suites is the second in B minor, which concludes in the dazzling Badinerie (popularised some years back as Nokia ringtone), scored for flute and string orchestra. Ailie Robertson’s Chaconne has been written as a prelude to this suite, and draws together her background in both classical and Scottish traditional music. Ailie’s chaconne makes use of a repeated harmonic progression, just like eighteenth-century composers such as Bach did.
The last of the four commissions, Stuart MacRae’s Courante is based on a dance form that was developed in the courts of sixteenth-century Italy, before being adopted in in France, and, by Bach’s time, was popular across northern Europe. It involves a series of running and jumping steps, and Stuart’s piece (written as an introduction to Bach’s ebullient Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, which we will be performing last) explores this running in a slow triple metre, heard at a variety of tempi.
Dunedin Consort appears in Prom 71: Bach Night at the BBC Proms 2019 on Wednesday 11 September at 7:30pm
Can you remember your first experience of the Matthew Passion?
I well remember my introduction to parts of the Matthew Passion (in English!) as a choirboy at Canterbury Cathedral. I was especially taken by the aria ‘Jesu saviour, I am thine’ (Ich will dir mein Herze schenken).
Having been a cathedral chorister, do you feel your your background as a singer has informed your harpsichord playing and direction in any particular way?
The daily training at the choir school laid the foundation of my life’s work. The discipline of listening and reacting to other vocal parts and being aware of how all parts combine to the produce the whole work was instilled in me, and has been of enormous benefit as a conductor and soloist.
You’ve already performed the Matthew Passion a few times this year; it clearly doesn’t get boring for you! What do you think keeps the work fresh and appealing to contemporary audiences?
This year I have performed the Matthew Passion at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa where I was Music Director many years ago, and at the Royal Academy of Music. These were strongly contrasting performances. The first was with the combined choirs totalling 80 singers, and the second with singers specially chosen to make two choirs of 12. Solos were shared between the choir members.
Now there is an even greater contrast as I lead the Dunedin Consort’s established way of performing the Passion with single voices and instruments. I feel honoured to be asked to do this as I am a great admirer of John Butt and his ensemble. This is an exciting challenge for me. People may wonder how I can feel happy to do such contrasted performances? The answer is simple — the substance of the work and the consequent emotions it portrays are constant but our mode of transport is different. The St Matthew Passion embodies deep truth which is felt by those of Christian belief and those of none. It is a welcome stabiliser and inspiration in our unsettled age.
Have you worked with any of our singers before?
At the Royal Academy of Music, Lina Dambrauskaite sang in chorus 1 and sang the aria ‘Aus Liebe’. On the basis of this, I invited her to join the consort for our performance. I have also worked with Miriam Allan, who was my soprano soloist in performances of Messiah in Canada with Les Violins du Roi. Hugo Hymas came to London to sing to me recently and we had an enjoyable few hours of Evangelist. I am very much looking forward to meeting the other singers.
What are you most looking forward to, coming to Scotland to work with Dunedin Consort for the first time?
I have always enjoyed working in Scotland whether with orchestra, in chamber ensembles or as a soloist. It will be a pleasure to perform at The Queen’s Hall, where I have not played since the 1980s — and I am very much looking forward to enjoying the newly renovated Music Hall in Aberdeen.
Away from the harpsichord and your conducting activities, how do you spend your time these days?
I love to spend family time with my grandson who is nearly three years old. There is so much to learn from the little people.
Dunedin Consort performs Bach’s Matthew Passion twice next week:
Music Hall, Aberdeen — Thursday 18 April, 7:00pm
The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh — Friday 19 April, 7:00pm
Ahead of this week’s Armonico Tributo performances, we caught up with violinist Matthew Truscott to hear more about his insights into the music we’ll be performing, and to find out what he enjoys most about working with Dunedin Consort.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started playing the violin, and how did you become interested in historically informed performance?
As a child, I was taken from quite early on by the sound of the violin on my parents’ LPs, and eventually started lessons locally when I was 6. It was at music college that I discovered historical performance properly. Its principles of engagement, investigation and curiosity coincided with a dawning sense I had of the importance of the notes themselves, of the need primarily for musical tools to give purpose to the various violinistic ones I was being plied with.
In this programme, we explore music from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries by composers including Biber, Schmelzer and Muffat. What makes their string writing so distinctive?
While the powerhouses of the era were probably Italy and France, these composers were of a generation in Germany and Austria which absorbed influences from around Europe and then forged a style very much their own: singing ballads, potent dance movements, pictorial representation and lavish virtuosity. There is also a particular density to the five-part string writing which gives it a lovely expressive intensity.
Although you’re now one of today’s foremost Baroque violinists, you’ve always remained active as a ‘modern’ performer. Are you aware of this having had any effect on your reading of this repertoire—perhaps in Biber’s Sonata Representativa, which still sounds incredibly daring even to our twenty-first-century ears!
All of this repertoire has a freshness and vitality which I think it’s our duty as performers to render as effectively and honestly as possible. While perhaps more explicitly an aspiration of the historical performance faculty, this is the case whatever equipment you happen to be using, and among performers of both disciplines. Violinistically, the Sonata Representativa is just good fun, and very satisfying.
The composers represented in this programme are united by their respective familiarity with different regional and national styles, acquired by the journeys their professional lives compelled them to make. How might we hear this in their music?
Muffat, in particular, is very important in this respect, having spent time in both France and Italy, immersing himself with reverence and diligence in their respective musical communities. His response to this exposure is quite unique: very personal, very expressive and with the nods in either direction seeming only to enhance his own idiosyncratic style. There are beautifully restrained, elegant dance movements, rich harmonies, gorgeous Corellian walking bass lines and sequences and moments of startling beauty. A perfect example of synthesis in these divided times!
As a familiar face to Dunedin audiences in Scotland, what do you enjoy most about working with the group, and what keeps you bringing back to Scotland?
It’s always such a treat to come and play with Dunedin. It’s a special, very welcoming group of players, it’s always interesting repertoire—and John himself is obviously a huge draw! He’s very trusting, and has very particular, irresistible and revelatory ways of thinking and communicating about music.
You can hear Dunedin Consort perform Armonico Tributo at
– Kendal Town Hall on Wednesday 17 October at 1:00pm
– St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh on Friday 19 October at 7:30pm
– St Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen on Saturday 20 October at 7:30pm
– Glasgow Cathedral Festival on Sunday 21 October at 7:30pm