Setting music and art in context
Visual art is invariably presented strongly rooted in its historical context. Being visual, of course, the medium is already half-way there (pre-abstract art anyway): John Singer Sargent's society subjects immediately look, through their attire and setting, of their time; so too Piero della Francesca's Italian nobles. Music, being abstract, is less so: we may feel we hear Edwardian England in Elgar, but that's arguably as much connotation as anything specifically in the score (discuss).
This can be particularly important in early music, far removed from our time, but also wrapped in a label that tends to blur inter-generational change into a catch-all term. Two early composers may be as divided both by time and style as, say, Elgar and Adès, but be thought by non-expert ears to be of the same style. I recently attended an event which sought to set both music and art firmly in their era. It was the first classical concert given in The Queen’s Gallery, adjacent to Buckingham palace. The subjects were Josquin and Leonardo da Vinci, two rightly admired and appreciated artists of their age operating in the world orbiting around the ducal domains of the Borgias, Sforzas and so on of 16th century Italy.
The evening began with an old-school style lecture about, firstly Josquin, then da Vinci, then Josquin and da Vinci. Did they meet? Almost certainly, thinks the senior curator of paintings Lucy Whitaker. We then walked through into the gallery currently housing da Vinci's remarkable anatomical drawings, owned by the Royal Collection. Here we heard six members of The Sixteen perform some exquisite Josquin with all the perfection and power we expect of conductor Harry Christophers and his singers. Behind them a display about the aorta (music for the heart?); up and to the right, a revolving projection of some of da Vinci's drawings on the wall, looking a little more Hirst than historic. And then, a chance to explore the exhibition itself.
Did it work? To have Josquin rooted so firmly in a specific and vibrant era of Italian courtly politics was useful for those of us who may, more usually, glance at the composer's dates momentarily and then sit back and listen to the music without giving them an awful lot of thought. And the other way too: da Vinci's drawings of the brain, organs and muscle structure were far ahead of his time, quite unlike anything that came before or was to follow for a very long time after. They were incredibly advanced for his day, and setting them alongside music we instinctively associate with being very old, emphasises that ten-fold.
I recently interviewed Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, for our My Music feature – you can read it in our November issue. She talked about an idea to have the music which those who lived in Kensington and Hampton Court Palaces would have played, restored to the rooms where they were once performed. Queen Victoria, Albert and many of their peers were quite skilled amateur players, the Queen and Consort finding time to play almost every day. Music-making generally was much more a part of everyday life in an age before recording. And so just as a reconstructed 1940s room in many a museum isn't complete without a replica wireless crackling in the corner, perhaps a truly authentic palace requires a string quartet or two? Just as, I felt, there was much to be gained in hearing Josquin's glorious music sung among the remarkable drawings of an almost exact contemporary.
Martin Cullingford is editor of Gramophone - brought up in Britten country on the Suffolk coast, when not practising the guitar he can often be found enjoying Evensong.