Ancient and Modern

How old does music have to be before it’s ‘early’? The London music societies of the late 1700s were in no doubt. To qualify as ‘ancient’, they said, it had to be at least 20 years old. It would seem that the instant obsolescence of the modern pop world, where two decades does indeed represent an age of geological proportions, is nothing new.

Up to the last few years, any music up to about the time of Bach, say the early 1700s, was early. Recently, though, things have moved back a little. Though there’s no generally agreed single boundary, only something written before about 1600, never mind 1650, would be seen by most people as early. J S Bach (1685-1750)? A mere Johnny-come-lately. François Couperin (1668-1733)? Wouldn’t have made last orders. Corelli (1653-1713)? Probably on the night bus.

No, in these pages we’re interested in modern pieces inspired by really Jurassic music: by Dowland (1563-1626), Palestrina (c. 1525-94), Tallis (1505-85) and so on, all of whose major work was written when the Mayflower was still a tree. So that rules out Stravinsky’s borrowing of Pergolesi (1710-36) for his Pulcinella, or Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Haydn (1732-1809), any reworkings of Purcell (1659-95) by Britten or Maxwell Davies, and all other music that’s virtually on our doorstep.

Composers have always been interested in music of their distant predecessors – though it’s not always obvious from what they’ve written. Beethoven (1770-1827), for example, studied the vocal music of Palestrina, as well as Handel and Bach, while writing his choral masterpiece Missa Solemnis. But while a music student could point out certain stylistic influences there, such as the use of modes, it doesn’t sound early to the average listener.

Brahms (1833-97) was another fan of the past. He studied the music of Schütz (1585-1672) and Gabrieli (1557-1612) as well as Haydn, Handel and Bach, and presented such music at his concerts. But just about the only ancient footprint found in his output is in the obscure 13 canons for Women’s Voices. The last takes the final tune from Schubert’s Winterreise, and turns it into a double canon in the style of the thirteenth-century piece Sumer is icumen in. If that’s musical archaeology, the dust isn’t exactly blowing in your face.

On it goes. The title of Respighi’s (1879-1936) Concerto Gregoriano may refer to chanting monks, but the music doesn’t bring monasteries to mind. Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) doctorate was in the music of Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517) – but again, his works don’t sound like it. Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949), the German composer whose reputation suffered irreparable damage because of his Nazi connections, wrote a whole opera about a composer nearly 400 years older than him. Palestrina deals with the night in 1556 when the Italian master composed his most revolutionary work, Mass for Pope Marcellus. But, surprise surprise, the music in the opera is definitely all modern.

Possibly the most famous ‘ancient and modern’ piece, Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (1895-1982), isn’t musically ancient at all. The bawdy medieval Latin words are from 1220-50, when the ink had barely dried on the Magna Carta; but the music is as twentieth-century as the television sets which have used it so often for advertising jingles.

But some composers have managed to have one foot deep in the past and the other firmly in the present. And they’ve produced masterpieces that are genuinely both ancient and modern; music which would surely have surprised, amazed and delighted the composers and performers of the originals.

Here they are.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)

Based on: Third Mode Melody (setting of ‘Why fumeth in fight’) by Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-85) from Archbishop Parker’s metrical psalter of 1567
Gloucester Cathedral, 6 Sep 1910. The audience has come to hear Elgar’s great masterpiece Dream of Gerontius. Perhaps to their irritation, they first have to sit through a strange new 20-minute piece conducted by its composer, an unknown 39-year-old called Vaughan Williams. To most it’s a bizarre piece, with a 350-year-old theme by some chap called Tallis (in his original four-part harmonisation) woven in a modern sort of way in and out of a string orchestra and string quartet, the lines echoing eerily around the vast spaces of the cathedral. After it, VW sits down to total silence – applause wasn’t considered right in a cathedral in those days – but the perceptive members of the audience know that something important has happened. The young composers Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells are so excited by what they’ve heard they pace the streets of Gloucester all night, talking about the music over and over.

Ancient or modern? Perhaps both. With his knowledge of early English church music (he edited the English Hymnal in 1906) VW had managed to create something as timeless as the spirit of England which, for many people, this popular masterpiece so movingly evokes.

Peter Warlock (1894-1930)
Capriol Suite (1926, orch. 1928)

Based on: Orchésographie (1589), a collection of anonymous dance pieces published by Thoinot Arbeau (1520-95)
Mainly known as a musical writer and editor of early music, Peter Warlock the composer is best known for this modern orchestration of old dance music. There’s a dignified ‘Basse danse’ in which the feet are not raised, but glide over the floor; ‘Mattachins’, a lively sword-dance; and the beautifully dreamy ‘Pieds-en-l’air’, a theme written by Warlock. All in all it’s a charming little set of brief pieces.

But is there an obscure joke in the choice of source? It’s well-known that Peter Warlock was the pseudonym of Philip Heseltine; less well-known is that Thoinot Arbeau is also a pseudonym, of one Jehan Tabourot.

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)
Nocturnal for Guitar Op. 70 (1963)

Based on: ‘Come heauy sleepe’ (1597) from First Booke of Songes by John Dowland (1563-1626)
Britten’s strong interest in British early music and folk-song is well-known; this is only one of many pieces inspired by them. The melancholy curves of Dowland’s original appear cryptically at first in this 20-minute piece written for Julian Bream; only at the end does the theme reveal itself. As the piece depicts the moods of a night spent trying to get to sleep (wakeful musing, tossing and turning, dreams, half-sleep and nightmares etc.), the tranquil ending perfectly evokes the relief of sleep at last, just as dawn comes.

Henryk Mikolaj Górecki (1933-2010)
String Quartet No. 1 Already it is Dusk (1988)

Based on: Four-part song ‘Already it is Dusk’ by Waclaw z Szamotul (c. 1524-60)
Górecki shot to fame with his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, whose slow, spiritual character owes a lot to old Polish music. Many of his pieces do. In fact, his Op. 24 is called Old Polish Music; it uses a fourteenth-century Polish tune, as well as Already it is Dusk. Górecki liked the latter so much he used it again in his first quartet. Slow, mystical chords alternate with vigorously driving sections in a fervent prayer for deliverance from darkness and evil: a piece that will appeal to those who bought the symphony.

John Tavener (1944-2013)
The Protecting Veil (1987)

Based on: Byzantine rite (music of the Christian Roman Church based in Costantinople c. 400-1453).
Tavener believes that the music of the distant past contains spiritual keys that unock feelings in us in a way traditional Western music can’t. His Protecting Veil, a sort of cello concerto, is pretty strong evidence for his case. He called it ‘an ikon in music’. Lyrical, beautiful, joyful, and as full of light as a stained glass window, it’s no surprise the piece has proved a bestseller with audiences looking for modern music that communicates.

And finally…
The latest mix of old and new: ‘Officium’, a disc of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century vocal pieces sung by the Hilliard Ensemble, with jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek improvising on top.

What would the composers (De La Rue, Dufay, Pérotin and others) have thought? It may sound bizarre, but the vocal nature of the saxophone and the sympathetic, meditative lines played by Garbarek make for a unique sound that really does work. Ancient and modern, it seems, can still go hand in hand.

Rob Ainsley, Classic CD magazine, 1994

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