The maestro's lament: An interview with Jordi Savall

by Ian Dando / 28 February, 2013
Womad-bound early music champion Jordi Savall challenges the classical world’s rejection of the oral tradition.
Jordi Savall, photo/David Ignaszewski

Womad’s high-flyer for its 2013 festival is Catalan Jordi Savall. On the phone to Barcelona, I ask him which honour is closest to his heart – from his ambassador-of-peace citations from Unesco, Europe and Germany, honorary university doctorates and numerous prizes and Grammies for his Alia Vox label of over 170 CDs.

“Gaining the 2012 Léonie Sonning Music Prize,” he says. “This is the musician’s Nobel equivalent. Stravinsky was the first winner in 1959, followed by other composers such as Lutoslawski, Messiaen, Boulez, Ligeti, and performers such as Barenboim and Fischer-Dieskau.”

Not that Savall is an award-chaser. His softly spoken humility – whether he is speaking English or Spanish – bears the stamp of greatness, quietly underpinned by a formidable scholarship. Challenge his erudition at your peril. If you err, he will correct you, but with utmost courtesy.

At his recital of Celtic music for Womad, Savall will play a 1743 model of a treble viol and a bass viol. A colleague will play an 18th-century copy of an Irish harp and a psaltery. For the faster jigs and reels, one of his team will play the pitched Irish hand drum (bodhrán).

What does he want listeners to come away with after this recital? “[To have heard] the intimate sensitivity and honesty of this music, even when played by only one instrument,” says Savall.

“In the 30s and 40s, Celtic music was fiddles playing popular reels and jigs in Irish pubs. You will get a few of those, but  my emphasis is on the incredible melodic beauty of the laments and airs.”

In his album The Celtic Viol, covering the 18th-20th centuries, one track depicts a condemned prisoner playing a lament on a fiddle on the eve of his execution in 1700. In another, a man mourns that his second wife has predeceased him.

In the past 30 years, Savall’s love of British music has led him to research every nook and cranny of Celtic music and the role the viol da gamba has played in it. One of his most fertile sources was The Manchester Gamba Book. It showed the viol’s numerous tunings as well.

What are the problems in preserving ethnic music today, I ask. Savall speaks out against crossover polluting a country’s folkloric music identity. Celtic folklore has had “the good luck to survive the inevitable and constant cultural amnesia as well as the globalising folly of humanity”, he says.

Basically, there are two types of music: the occidental tradition disseminated by written manuscript and the folkloric disseminated orally. One of my hobby horses is the way “classical” music snubs the oral tradition. Savall’s “Estoy de acuerdo” (I agree) reassures me. “The occident needs to conquer things,” he quips. There speaks an iconoclast totally sure of his ground.

“By the middle of the 20th century, the classical and traditional folkloric music had separated almost completely. Improvisation had all but lost its place in the learning of classical music,” says Savall.

“All music passed on by oral tradition is the result of a felicitous survival following a long process of selection and synthesis. It has little communication with, and above all little respect from, the world of so-called ‘classical’ music.”

Georgia is another example. Research since 2003 indicates Georgia’s polyphonic tradition dates back 3000 years, which prompted leading ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax to claim “Georgia is the capital of the world’s folk music”. Their music had developed into a sophisticated three-voice polyphony a few hundred years before Christ and 1500 years before the occident finally got to written polyphony via Leonin and Pérotin in the 12th century AD, the so-called Notre Dame school.

Yet classicists maintain the Leonin/Pérotin development is superior purely because its tradition is written. The world’s leading ethnomusicologists working for Unesco’s new research centre on traditional polyphony at Tbilisi in Georgia consider the past belief in the occident’s superiority in polyphony to be “outdated”.

Now Unesco has finished compiling Georgia’s huge legacy into scores, its ethnomusicologists are extending their research into other countries – Africa, for example, where certain pygmy tribes’ eight-voice polyphony is said to have influenced some of Ligeti’s late-period études for piano. Savall considers Unesco’s work there to be “very important”. Perhaps Unesco can teach Westerners a few things and give a broader base to their music-history texts.

Folkloric music is just one of the multifaceted Savall’s areas of interest. He and his wife, singer Montserrat Figueras, who died in 2011, founded the performing groups Hespérion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations, specifically for performing repertoire mostly from medieval to baroque. More importantly, the groups discovered and made recordings of treasures of those eras that had fallen into oblivion.

As he owns the Alia Vox label, Savall does not compromise perfection. His sleeve notes are virtually books, often in several languages, with sufficient polemic to keep the reader on his toes. Their meaty content is a class apart from all other CD booklets I have encountered.

His recent large and innovative CD books – such as Dinastia Borgia and The Forgotten Kingdom – are examples of his pioneering innovations. The latter book exposes some of the worst corruption of the Catholic Church between 970 and 1463, when members of rival Christian denominations were being burnt at the stake.

Savall’s annual schedule embraces 140 concerts, six recording projects, viol-playing, research and teaching. Does he ever sleep?

His next projects include “writing a book on the philosopher Erasmus and a recording of Balkan folkloric music. At 71, I now want to do nice things for the younger generation and give them inspiration.”

Bienvenido a Nueva Zelanda, Maestro Savall.

WOMAD, TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth, March 15-17; THE CELTIC VIOL, Jordi Savall and Andrew Lawrence-King (Alia Vox).
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