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Ernest Walbourn: a coda

March 5th, 2021

This is the 7th and last post about the landscape painter Ernest Walbourn. 

We still haven’t visited Dinan to track down the remaining pictures from 1923 but we do sometimes get out the box of photos from the period. Inevitably, the ones you really want to see have faded back into history. Those that survive still give an impression of a comfortable bourgeois life between the wars – family holidays, boating, tennis parties, gardening, and formal family portraits. There are also shots of Ernest at work, often at the same easel Peter would use long after his death, and on which a large unfinished Ernest is now perched, conveniently hiding our tv. Here is the great man at work:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He was also a bit of a sportsman. We have a letter of March 1897 from the captain of a hockey team referring to his prowess as a goal keeper (with the added advantage of being able to sing and play the banjo). He was invited to join the Olympic shooting team; we have a letter from a committee member reassuring colleagues worried about letting in someone familiar with a gun who would rather paint pheasants than shoot them, that even though he was an artist he was a gentleman.

This is Ernest’s wife Eva, a successful artist in her own right, especially as a painter of flowers and gardens, patronised by no less than Queen Mary herself. She sometimes painted Ernest’s backgrounds for him, and the picture on her easel here looks more like one of his.

There’s a small family album with pictures of holidays and various sporting activities. There was lots of cricket and golf…

And plenty of tennis…

Eva (left), Peter (right) and next to him Gwen (Penny’s Mum)

…and inter-generational amateur dramatics:

L to R: Gwen, Peter, Eva, Peter’s elder brother Dick

The bottom right snap from the album above is Ernest’s house and studio backing onto Epping Forest. Peter inherited the Victorian statue on the plinth in the foreground and it stood in his garden for many years until it was vandalised, the lady only surviving from the waist upwards. Her remains now rest atop a salvaged piece of York Minster West window in our little courtyard:

The ornate pot in the shot of the family practicing putting in the garden has followed us from house to house, increasingly battered:

They loved boats and fishing, Peter becoming a keen fisherman as an adult and his brother Derek a world class sailor, returning to the land of his forefathers many times to take part in the Sydney-Hobart race.

This is Derek, Peter (with cap) and  Eva with Ernest wielding rod in one hand and a pipe in the other. We think this is around the time of the Brittany trip when Peter would have sat at the feet of his father, learning his craft. Fifteen years later the boy who drew trains, cars and views of the French countryside was called up as a war artist and sketched planes and pilots. We don’t know what happened to his official work (it included a portrait of General Smuts) but we have a folio of sketches of off-duty airmen listening to concerts, drinking copious amounts of tea or just lounging around enjoying the beautiful landscape in which he always seemed to be posted.

He had a good war, some of it in Cortina with his leg in plaster after a skiing accident, and with time to paint views of Venice and castles on the Austria-Italy border.  In the fifties he became a commercial artist (one of the models draped over the bonnet in a Hillman Minx ad is his daughter, now my wife) and finally a portrait painter. We have another folio of photos of his many paintings of judges, company chairmen, their wives, horses and dogs.

His greatest triumph was painting the Queen Mum for the Middle Temple. After a sitting he needed more time to get the detail of her jewellery right, so she suggested he take it home. Is it insured, Peter asked, somewhat alarmed. We couldn’t possibly afford to insure it, came her majesty’s reply. Penny’s mum slept with the Queen Mum’s brooch under her pillow to be on the safe side.

The spirits of Ernest and Peter are still with us. Our son Ned, Peter’s grandson and Ernest’s great grandson, was able to begin a conference in Capetown  by cross fading Ernest’s sketch (now on his wall) with a modern photo of the same view, and on a similar working trip to Sydney saw the site of the church in which his forebears got married more than two centuries ago. Peter worked at Ernest’s easel all his life, before passing it on to Penny:

and when we’re not watching tv we can watch an Ernest, still sitting on the easel and awaiting his attention.

Replanting an Ernest Walbourn poppy field…

February 26th, 2021

Re-tracing Ernest Walbourn’s 1923 visit to Brittany was hugely exciting but the paintings aren’t really typical of his output, most of which is decidely English. We know he took his paints to Australia when he went to sell the family property in 1902  as there’s a view of Table Mountain from when he stopped in Cape Town on the way, but there don’t appear to be any paintings from down under. Almost all of his subjects are home grown and typical of a certain sort of English art of the time. He may have appreciated Kandinsky, Picasso, Klee or  Matisse, but you can’t tell that from his paintings. His landscapes wouldn’t be out of place in a Hardy novel (we also have some sketches from the West country). There are some spectacular (and, nowadays, expensive) paintings of  poppy fields. The nearest we have to one of those is a sketch which does have poppies but also a blank space where he never got around to putting in a figure.  Even the artist’s art-school educated granddaughter wouldn’t normally attempt the extremely transgressive act of attempting to ‘improve’ an Ernest by painting a new figure, but Penny dared to think we could rescue the sketch by replanting part of the field. This is what it looked like:

The problem is that your eye is drawn immediately to the non-existent figure, rather than seeing what the artist actually saw. It’s a little frightening looking back at what she did…

and then this:

 

Help!

 

She reduced the width of the original, effectively contracting the view but not otherwise damaging it,  and used the offcut to make an insert matched to the shape of the hole. Surely this can’t possibly work…? Well, after a bit of touching up, it did:

Ernest Walbourn in Rochefort-en-Terre

February 19th, 2021

This is the fifth post about Ernest Walbourn’s painting trip to Brittany in 1923 and our attempts  to follow in his footsteps in 2005. 

We’d found almost all of the Walbourn oil sketches that we’d brought with us. We had more photocopies of some of the pencil sketches in 12 year old Peter’s little notebook but none of them seemed to correspond to any of the remaining Ernests. Reflecting on our experiences over the previous two days Penny convinced herself that two or more of the Ernests must be in Rochefort, which Peter had attributed to the Le Faouët paintings and which we had visited but just hadn’t been able to make fit. The next day, our last before setting off for my gig in Avignon, we made the long drive back from Lannion for a closer examination of Rochefort’s market. To our great joy we did indeed find what seemed to be the view: a market square, a grand house and a road sloping away into the distance. We took several pictures before realising that what didn’t quite fit without a lot of excuses (trying to account for missing chimneys, wrong gables and the like). But suddenly everything slotted perfectly into place if we pointed our camera at right-angles: there were all the same ingredients but no compromise was needed – it was clearly the Ernest view, the market long gone.

 

A few streets away the same thing happened with the house with the well. We found what seemed to be the house but the well seemed to have moved.

 

Again we changed our own perspective and magically the view appeared, almost identical to the painting, but with municipal plant pots for tourists rather than the 1920s local colour.

 

There was no sign of Peter’s knight on horseback or his and Ernest’s sketches of tightly packed half timbered houses. We’d only brought photocopies of Peter’s book  rather than risk losing it, which was a pity because if the drawings were all in the same place they would presumably be consecutive entries in the sketchbook.

Nevertheless, we’d been very lucky and resolved to come back again having done some more research, and perhaps even find the bend in the river at Lannion.

When we arrived home we found that all of the unidentified sketches by Peter were indeed together in the book. Penny also managed to make out the name on the statue’s plinth.

 

Peter’s pencil is barely visible, but multiple web searches eventually  revealed him to be  Bertrand Du Guesclin, the 14th century  Eagle of Brittany (or the Black Dog of Brocéliande, depending on your point of view) still standing in a square in Dinan. Google also has a modern photograph that must have been taken from the same spot that Peter had used. Dinan has (or had) lots of  half-timbered houses, and we resolved that the next year we would go to Dinan, a trip that we still haven’t got around to.

 

Ernest Walbourn in Lannion 1923

February 14th, 2021

This is the fourth post about Ernest Walbourn’s painting trip to Brittany in 1923 and our attempts  to follow in his footsteps in 2005. The  previous posts can be seen here,  here and here.

The story so far: in a pile of oil sketches by Penny’s grandfather Ernest Walbourn (who died in 1927) we discovered that some dated from a 1923 painting trip to Britanny. In 2005 we decided to track down the views he had painted and photograph them as they are now…

The discovery of the chapel in St Fiacre and the market hall in Le Faouët was incredibly exciting. We had two days left before we had to leave for my gig in Avignon, and several pictures still to identify.  Closer inspection of Peter’s sketch of a river with the squat tower suggested that the river was probably tidal. The only other name we had was Lannion, scribbled on the back of a field that could have been anywhere, but it is on the coast and the map showed a river running through it. It was all we had to go on, so we crossed our fingers and set off north to have a look.  As soon as we crossed the brow of the hill outside the town we recognised the two church towers, one a slim spire and other unmistakably flat-topped.  As we got closer we could see the river, with the trees miraculously the same size as in the painting from 82 years before.

Peter also sketched the same view:

We were also able to  solve the autumn tree riddle. We knew they  were there in the summer but the trees on one side of the river seemed autumnal. We could now see that the right bank was planted with horse chestnuts, which lose their leaves much earlier than the plane trees on the other side; and by coincidence we had arrived at a time when the next generation of replanted avenues exactly matched those in the picture.

Closer still, we found that the tide was out and there were stakes for a kayak slalom course, but we managed to find Ernest’s downstream view:

at some risk, as Ernest had obviously set up his easel in the middle of the road, and the original trees were grown so huge we had to resort to a bit of trick photography:

The family must have spent some time in Lannion as there are several sketches by Peter, his eye pretty amazing for a 12 year old:

We climbed the hill which Peter had sketched, looking for where he’d painted the church. There’s probably an Ernest of the same view out there somewhere.

After a lot of speculative position changing we finally found the exact place where he had been standing (like many of his father’s, in the middle of the road).

The old stone terraced cottages sadly now a car park:

We tried hard to make Lannion’s half-timbered houses and one grand square fit the sketches but again drew a blank. What of the field with its scribbled ident? That evening we looked again at the map and there was a bend in the river that might well produce the view we wanted, but we had one more day and thought we should have another go at Rochefort-en-Terre.

Ernest Walbourn at La Faouët 1923

January 30th, 2021

This is the third post about Ernest Walbourn’s painting trip to Brittany in 1923 and our attempts  to follow in his footsteps in 2005. The  previous posts can be seen here and here.

We drove on to La Faouët and were amazed to come across a huge timber-framed market hall very like the one in several of the pictures which Penny’s father Peter Walbourn had labelled Rochefort-en-Terre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s another lovely old town, slightly scruffy and also associated with artists of the twenties and thirties.  Many had painted similar scenes to ours, mostly of peasants at market. We scoured the town for matching views. Penny had already worked out that parts of what seemed to be the same building appeared in two of the photos tucked into the 12 year old Peter’s sketch book. These showed market stalls and traders apparently in the street; we quickly realised that these were taken from the far end of the market hall, and apart from the rather busy road not much had changed.

By mid-morning the market was teeming with people, just as it had been when Ernest painted the stalls in 1923.

 

We subsequently discovered that the market is only held twice a month, so we were very lucky to walk straight into a modern equivalent of the scenes in the paintings.

We also located the site of Ernest’s charming side view of the hall, which was now graced with a pissoir in the foreground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We couldn’t make all the Rochefort pictures fit La Faouët. We spent ages failing to find a Breton house with a well in front of it and went to bed exhausted but still very pleased with ourselves.

The next day we visited the Musée du Faouët, to find many pictures of the town painted by French, British and American artists of the 20s and 30s. One of them, Le Jour des Pauvres , painted in 1920 by Germaine David-Nillet showed the same view of the market square also with knots of people standing around apparently waiting for something. The museum assistant told us that in the late summer there used to be a day set aside for almsgiving: both David-Nillet and Ernest Walbourn had captured the same scene on the same day three years apart.

Picture credits: Le Jour des Pauvres by Germaine David-Nillet: Henri Moreau (Wikimedia Commons)

all others John & Penny Potter

Ernest Walbourn in Brittany

January 20th, 2021

This is the second post about Edwardian landscape painter Ernest Walbourn. The earlier post can be found here.

In the summer of 2005 Penny and I set off for France with our copies of Ernest Walbourn’s 1923 oil sketches, hoping to track down the scenes that Penny’s grandfather had painted 82 years before. Intriguingly, with the collection of Ernest’s paintings there was a small notebook in which her father Peter, his talent already obvious at the age of 12, had made drawings of his own.

There are detailed drawings of trains and cars as you’d expect from a young boy, but also some portraits and several pictures that looked like same viewsErnest had painted on the same trip. For Peter and his two brothers it must have been an idyllic time, painting and fishing for the long summer months while their father faithfully recorded the Breton countryside and its inhabitants.

None of the oil sketches can have taken longer than a day to produce so the holiday perhaps yielded around a hundred roughs to be taken home for further work. Of the 12 that came down to us only one appears to be finished, but four of them have names scribbled in pencil on the back.

One of the paintings is of the interior of a church, and on the back Peter had written two names: Le Faouët and St Fiacre. We assumed that he couldn’t remember which of these it might be so had written both. Two townscapes were identified as Pont-Aven and Rochefort-en-Terre and there was a rather anonymous field marked Lannion on the back. The one signed picture is of a busy timber framed covered market with vegetable stalls and other products spilling out of it, and several others depict what might be the same market. We had no idea where any of these might be until we looked up St Fiacre on the web and read that it had a famous chapel with a unique carved rood screen and was close to Le Faouët which had an extraordinary 16th century covered market.  There was no screen in our church picture but the market hall sounded promising.

We didn’t have much to go on but we set off very optimistically for Rochefort-en-Terre, which we thought might lead us to the sites of at least two of Ernest’s paintings and several of Peter’s drawings.  It turned out to be a beautiful village, absolutely unspoiled and surely very like it was all those years ago, but there was nothing remotely like our Ernest views and we drew a complete blank.  The one hotel was full so we tried nearby Vannes, which had a large square with a mounted knight in it a bit like one of Peter’s sketches  but all their hotels were full too, and the knight’s arm was in the wrong place.  We eventually found somewhere to stay on the way to Pont-Aven, our next hope. This little town is also much as it must have been and here we had our first success. After thinking that Peter must have got it wrong about this town as well, Penny realised that we were looking at a bridge in one of the unidentified paintings. We even managed to photograph it with a heavy lorry approaching the same turning as a large covered wagon in the painting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buoyed up by all this we drove on to St Fiacre in a state of great excitement. The chapel is famous for its unique painted wooden screen dating from 1450 and featuring the seven deadly sins in minute and colourful detail.

There was nothing like that in our picture, which is a very impressionistic sketch of something vaguely church-like and largely covered in green mould. You can’t miss the riotously exuberant  screen as you enter the cold stone of the chapel, but Ernest had ignored it and for some reason ghosted an outline of a side isle. Or perhaps there’s a wonderfully detailed painting of the screen that he actually finished out there somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The view was almost identical, and although the walls were now pristine the floor showed unmistakable signs of green mould still growing between the slabs. By now we were getting quite emotional, having stood several times in the same places and recorded the same views as Penny’s grandfather eight decades ago.

We drove on to Quimperlé, which the map showed had a suitable river which might match one of the unidentified views and desperately tried to make it fit the sketches. The river was just right, complete with an avenue of trees on each side and a church in the background, and there were some lovely half timbered houses in the town.

 

Nothing quite matched up though, however much we tried to make things fit. We tried to persuade each other that this or that building must have been demolished or rebuilt, and even the local residents we asked thought that Quimperlé must be the place in the picture. Another puzzling feature of these paintings was that the view from one side of the bridge seemed to be autumnal, whereas we knew that Ernest had only been there in the summer. Nevertheless, we had high hopes of Le Faouët’s market hall, and the next day went to have a look.

 

Ernest Walbourn: Edwardian artist

January 11th, 2021

So what’s next, now that Brexit and Covid have reduced normal life to a standstill?  Well, there will be gardening…and generally adjusting to a slower, less frantic pace. It’s hard to imagine what the future might hold but there’s writing to do and the past to be mined, so here’s a first post about my wife Penny’s grandfather, landscape artist Ernest Walbourn.

Ernest died in 1927 at the age of 55 and we have a number of his paintings, mostly unfinished oil sketches, and this is their back story. It begins in 1783, when James Waldbourn, a young and not very accomplished pickpocket from Philadelphia, was arrested  in London for stealing a handkerchief. He then must have spent four years in a prison hulk before being sentenced to transportation in 1787.

 

That same year one Sophia Lewis, a maidservant, was sentenced to the same fate for a much more enterprising felony, not only nicking two handkerchiefs but also her master’s coat, penknife, and a silk purse full of coins.

Perhaps she flashed her eyes at the judge, or maybe he was instinctively inclined to mercy – if you add up the value of the goods the total is a lot more than the 39 shillings of the guilty verdict. Had it been 40 shillings she would have been hanged.

They were among the first convicts, known as the First Fleeters, sent to Australia,  he on the Scarborough and she on the Lady Penrhyn. We don’t know if they knew each other in London, but in March 1788, two months after they set foot in the new country on January 26, they were among the first Europeans to marry there.

It may have been a pragmatic arrangement rather than a love match; James and Sophia had a troubled relationship and eventually parted, each given the custody of one of their children. Their descendants prospered however, and a century later were reaping the benefits of owning the property allotted to their felonious forebears. It was the income from this that enabled the young Ernest Walbourn to devote his life to painting rather than architecture as his parents would have preferred. The crimes of James and Sophia paid off in the end.

Ernest’s middle son Peter, Penny’s father, in turn became a war artist and then a portrait painter (ironically, his painting of the Queen Mum hangs in the Middle Temple not far from where his ancestors’ story began). When Peter died Penny inherited a pile of Ernest’s oil sketches and an old wooden box bursting with faded snapshots of comfortable middle class life between the wars, confident young men sporting blazers or more languid family groups with not a care in the world.

Most of our sketches are on fragile pieces of card, sometimes used on both sides, on which Ernest had quickly roughed out landscapes during summer field trips which he made with his wife Eva (also a painter in her own right) and three sons. His usual practice was to work up the sketches during the winter months, often adding peasant figures (usually modelled by Eva or the family’s gypsy maid Phoebe) and turning them into the rather sentimentalised romantic landscapes for which there was a ready market both in London galleries and in the more lucrative Europe-wide business of coloured prints. You can still find them on greetings cards, chocolate boxes and the like. The sketches have an immediacy and freshness which sometimes didn’t survive into the finished work. He was particularly good at water, trees and vegetables. A cunning critic at a Royal Academy Exhibition in the twenties once satirised him in Punch as ‘Mr Walbourn, earnestly painting cabbages’.

 

Most of his work is quintessentially English, and his summer painting excursions took him all over the country from Devon and Cornwall to Wales and Scotland. In 1902 he travelled to Australia to sell the family’s Tasmanian property and stopped off in Capetown, where he sketched Table Mountain. The First Fleet had put in there 114 years earlier on its voyage into the unknown

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In Penny’s pile of old cardboard were several almost-finished oils of French market scenes dating from a visit to Brittany in 1923. There is a family story that Ernest was once painting a Breton woman sitting outside her cottage, spinning; invited inside, he discovered that her few possessions included a print of one of his own pictures, which hung on the otherwise bare walls.

We’d often wondered where these very French scenes might be, and what they might be like now. Then in 2005 my ensemble Red Byrd was booked for a concert in Poitiers, so Penny and I decided to drive down and stop off in Brittany on the way. We took copies of Ernest’s sketches with us, hoping to track down the places painted and photograph each one from the same spot. It turned out to be an extraordinary trip, which I’ll attempt to chronicle in a future post…

Where now…when now…?

January 1st, 2021

Where now, when now?

I know it’s Beckett, but I have Ward Swingle’s voice in my head. No one could deliver the spoken text of Berio’s Sinfonia like he could. I could go on…

…Call that going, call that on?

But wait, it’s barely moving now…

Well, it’s day one of the rest of our careers. Or maybe we should use the French – restes – remains (oh the irony), leftovers (post-Christmas), ruins, wreck…

The financial wreck is survivable for most musicians of my generation. We can’t work in some European countries anymore because we don’t reach the income threshold, but we have pensions. It’s incredibly sad that some of my European friends won’t be able to play here because they won’t reach our income threshold either, but they have 27 countries to work in. The real damage is to the soul. For forty years we’ve developed partnerships centred on our mutual history, moving freely between countries, expanding our horizons with every step. We revelled in each other’s uniqueness and celebrated what we had in common. We became Europeans. Making music is a microcosm of the European project: you can’t do it by yourself (even solo instrumentalists need an audience). I could go on…but Twitter and The Guardian have mourned for all of us. It just remains (that word again) for me to say thank you: to all the promoters from Bergen to Bratislava, Paris to Palermo, Aarhus to Athens, Dublin to Gdansk… Regensburg to Radovljica who supported the Hilliard Ensemble, Red Byrd, the Dowland Project, Conductus, Being Dufay, Alternative History and all the many other European projects that have sustained me for four decades; thanks to all the wonderful European friends we made along the way, musicians, audiences and students. I hope that one day our grandchildren will be welcomed back into one of the most civilised (and civilising) projects the world has ever seen.

 

Josquin journeys

December 16th, 2020

Art of the Netherlands

The Art of the Netherlands (EMI 1976)

Early Music Consort

My first encounter with the most significant composer of the late 15th/early 16th century was in 1976. They were heady times: I’d been grappling with scat and Berio for two years with the Swingles when out of the blue came an invitation to sing on what would be David Munrow’s last two recording projects, the Art of the Gothic and the Art of the Netherlands. Everyone who sang on those seminal albums had come up through the English choral tradition – which only went back as far as Tallis and Byrd (or Tavener if you were especially esoteric), so they were as revelatory as Berio in their way.  I sang on four Josquin tracks and was also introduced to Brumel and Mouton’s Nesciens Mater. The Brumel Et Ecce Terrae Motus Gloria included a stonking countertenor line-up consisting of David James, James Bowman and Charles Brett, and four of the five tenors who would later sing in the Hilliard Ensemble, all of us driven along by DM’s energetic conducting. It was in Abbey Road, and if the earth didn’t move it wasn’t for want of trying. Inviolata and Josquin’s mass movements would reappear decades later in a process that would mirror the historical life of the piece, morphing from liturgical polyphony to domestic performance based on lute intabulations. Actually, Nesciens wasn’t yet by Mouton; here’s it’s anon, the authorial limbo that claimed many pieces originally attributed to Josquin. Whoever wrote it, it’s one of those pieces that is so moving that it can be almost impossible to sing unless you’re completely in the zone.

 

Josquin Desprez - Motets and Chansons

Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae (EMI 1989)

Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliards had already made one Josquin recording before I joined them. By this time Jozza was beginning to shed more of his attributions (Mouton had gained Nesciens and Lugebat Absalon had fallen to Gombert). We took part in a famous Josquin conference at which several academics who should have known better walked out during a performance by the American ensemble Chanticleer (one of the first groups to challenge the comfortable euphony of the Oxbridge sound). Although more than a decade after the Munrow recording, on our 1989 album (like the Munrow albums, re-released and anthologised many times since) we were still singing like soloists reining ourselves in; for the mass propers we added additional voices, giving it a choral feel that we would later abandon. The last track is Tu Solus Qui Facis Mirabilia, sublime in its stillness and simplicity, but not quite yet the instinctively blended, perfectly tuned performance we would later achieve live. Over the years we would perform plenty more Josquin, but only one motet found its way onto disc: Ave Maria is the final track on the 1993 Codex Specialnik album.

 

Master of Musicians - Songs & instrumental music by Josquin des Pres, his pupils & contemporaries /Musica Antiqua of London

Master of Musicians (Signum 2000)

Musica Antiqua of London

I’ve tried to avoid Josquin’s songs wherever possible but couldn’t resist agreeing to taking part in this Musica Antique recording. I grew out of Scaramella, el grillo and La tricotee quite quickly and have tried not to look back. This album of secular music by Josquin and his contemporaries is very much of its time: an excellent instrumental band getting in a bunch of singers who had never sung with each other before, and presenting the same song in several different versions (a bizarre obsession of early music programme planners at the time). Another distinctive feature is the booklet, which is so strangely laid out that it can take a whole track to discover who’s performing (by which time you’re on to the next one).

 

Romaria

In flagellis; Tu solus qui facis (ECM 2006)

Dowland Project

Jacob Heringman’s 2000 DGM album of Josquin intabulations made a huge impression, not least because it opened my eyes to the colourful history of Josquin performance normally overlooked by scholars. It confirmed that the Dowland Project (which Jake would later join) was on the right track, and the two performances on this album take the process further still. We’ve come a long way from the intensive head-banging rehearsal days of a quarter of a century before. These are first or second takes and have the freshness (and sometimes panic) of the moment.

 

Secret History: Sacred Music By Josquin And Victoria

Secret History (ECM 2011)

This is in one respect the most important recording I did in the second decade of the 21st century: it gave birth to the Alternative History ensemble (the name came later). It was conceived as two CDs, one of which would celebrate the Victoria centenary; it ended up six years later as a single album and has become our contribution to the Josquin centenary. After the Dowland Project’s de-constructions it was great to connect with Ariel Abramovich who was deeply into Josquin intabulations. He proposed an album with two singers and two lutes, having collaborated in the past with Lee Santana. It brings together many of my favourite Josquin motets, and we hoped it would help to revolutionise Josquin performance, showing the longer performance history of the pieces. It wasn’t easy and we didn’t get it all done, eventually combining it with the proposed Victoria album. Together they make a slightly different point, that intabulations of both composers sit side by side in later manuscripts all over Europe. We’ve done many performances since of both composers, and I’ve done similar tab programmes with Jake and Ariel separately here in England as well as Spain and South America, so it generated some great music making.

 

Tu solus qui facis (Armonia Concertada, 2017)

My most recent recording is as a guest (with Jacob Heringman, who also has a magnificent new Josquin album) on Imaginario, a sumptuous recording by Maria Cristina Kiehr and Ariel Abramovich of an imaginary vihuela songbook. Unusually, it was recorded in England, in a tiny church on one of the coldest days of the year. It didn’t get down to the minus 12 that the Sound & Fury once had to cope with in Mauerbach, but it was so cold that Jake and I could barely function. It does, though, show something of what might have been done with the homophonic Josquin pieces. One of the joys of this motet is that it can take you by surprise as you continually seek to renew it. Jake and I are now so attuned to each other‘s idea of Josquin that on our first run we found ourselves sometimes doing the same spontaneous and quite complex ornamental flourishes simultaneously. You never know where the music’s going to take you. Jake and Ariel duet on this album, and they have a duo album of their own called Cifras Imaginarias. Their duo is the other great result of the Alternative History project.

  Cifras Imaginarias - Musica Para Taner A Dos Vihuelas      Josquin Des Prez: Inviolata [Jacob Heringman] [Resonus Classics: INV1004]   Fantasia sobre el madrigal "Anchor che col partire"

Modern performances of a cappella Josquin can be ravishing to listen to, and they have a rich history from the nineteen seventies onwards. I relished being inside the texture of the Hilliard and Sound & Fury Franco-Flemish polyphony but I love the way my experience of  this music has evolved in much the same way as would have happened in the 16th/17th centuries, beginning with a cappella polyphony based on the composer’s manuscript, then nearly half a century later still cannibalising it for whatever forces are available. It’s what Josquin and his contemporaries would have expected, and it puts us in touch not only with him, but those who kept his music alive for generations after his death. If you want to get close to Josquin the living breathing musician, reach for your lute or reach out to your lutenist friends.

 

 

 

Eastern adventures

November 25th, 2020

There is real optimism in the air at last, and with the prospect of a vaccine some of us may soon be able to chart a way back to performing reality. Alternative History has invitations on the stocks to perform Polish and other music from central Europe, so I’ve been re-visiting repertoires that I haven’t sung since Hilliard days. Our forays into the old East began when Graham Dixon asked us to take part in a short series for Radio Three. Along with Jacob Heringman (one of the first times we played together) and aided by Peter Hellyer at the British Library, we recorded our first Polish music (in Latin, needless to say). We subsequently did memorable concerts in Bratislava, Krakow and Prague, and these were literally labours of love as we were paid in local currency which wasn’t convertible. The last person to see us off at the airport usually got to go home with whatever we hadn’t been able to spend, and we took off with armfuls of music, local produce and (in my case) ice skates, glove puppets and once even a complete sledge. On one trip we went by hire car from Austria to Hungary and had an exciting moment on the border when the Hungarian guard asked us to get out of the car and open the bonnet, which initially we declined to do since he was already outside and could easily do it himself. There was a brief moment when we realised no one had ever refused this request and a gun poked through the window, after which we changed our minds.

The first recording we did for ECM after we left EMI was of music by the almost unknown and rarely performed Walter Frye. It was a hugely significant moment, when we realised that Manfred Eicher wanted only the music that we wanted to record, regardless of how saleable the composer might be. It cemented our artistic collaboration which went from strength to strength and would eventually include a million selling album. Walter still hasn’t come into profit decades later – though it’s getting close and a few Christmas purchases might finally push it over the line.  It also cemented our relationship with legendary Tonmeister Peter Laenger from Tritonus, who went on to engineer Officium and albums by the Dowland Project, Trio Mediaeval and Alternative History.

It was his ‘Ave Regina’ that first put us on to Frye. This exquisite motet appears in manuscripts all over Europe (and even on the ceiling of a French chateau). One of the sources was the mysterious Codex Speciálník, and on one of our music-buying trips to Prague I’d picked up a copy of an edition of some of the motets, and another volume of Czech medieval music which also included older pieces from Spec. After the success of Officium we wanted to do something completely different yet distinctively Hilliard, and the mixture of medieval and early renaissance music from all over Europe in a single source was perfect. It not only had Josquin and Agricola as well as Frye and fellow Englishman John Plummer, but the extraordinary Petrus de Grudencz (he of the acrostic clues to his authorship). We tracked down Jaromir Czerny at the Charles University, and with input from Charles Brewer,  Graham Melville-Mason and Peter Hellyer ended up with more music than we could get on to one album. Codex Speciálník is still one of my favourite Hilliard recordings. I also love Barbara Wojirsch’s elegantly minimal design, the cover printed on matt paper and the booklet pages almost transparent. It just has the three things you need to know printed on a white background: artists (in black), music (in red) – and ECM New Series (smaller but even blacker).

Many of the Hilliard albums were recorded at the monastery of St Gerold in the Austrian Alps. For much of that time we were hosted by its one remaining monk, Pater Nathanael. He was a person whose deep spirituality never obscured his genial hospitality and encyclopaedic knowledge of Austrian wines. A friendly smile was never far away, and nor was a corkscrew. We loved him. He retired to the mother house of St Einsiedeln, and last week died of the cancer that he could no longer fight.  St Gerold was a kind of spiritual and musical home for us,  and for those of us privileged to know him Pater Nathanael was its heart.

Gordon Jones   JP   Manfred Eicher   Pater Nathanael

photo Peter Laenger