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"The Dubhlinn Gardens"

A Nocte Temporis

rec: June 2018, Leuven, Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe
Alpha - 447 (© 2019) (69'17")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

trad: Ah! The poor shepherd's mournful fate; Ailen Aroon An Irish Ballad Sung by Mrs Clive at ye Theatre Royal; An Buachaillín Bán / Donald Og; Anna, A Particular Favourite Irish Song; Eileanóir A Rún (Sean-Nós); Ellen A Roone; Hunt the Squirrel / A Reell for Jannie / Up wi't Ailey / D° for the German Flute / Chorus Jig; Jack Latine; Killiecrankie; Moggy Lawther; Mr Creagh's Irish Tune / The Hawk of Ballyshannon; My Nanny O; Teague, the Irish Troopera; The original Black Joke, sent from Dublin; The Red Jock; True Joak / White Joak / Blue Joak / Fancy's All; Will ye go to Flanders

Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor; Anne Besson, transverse flute, tierce flute, piccolo; Sarah Ridy, harp; Myriam Rignol, viola da gamba; Loris Barrucand, harpsichord
with: Doug Balliett, viola da gambaa; Koen Plaetinck, druma

Historical performance practice once confined itself to music from the pre-romantic period. Today it even includes music from the early 20th century. Another extension has taken place in the course of time. Representatives of historical performance practice once in a while turn to traditional music. Some time ago the French label Alpha had a series of discs with such music, which were released with a characteristic white cover, very different from the look of the usual releases. They included Scottish traditional music, music from German Switzerland and traditional music from France. The present disc could have been part of this series as it includes traditional Irish music of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Obviously it is not easy to perform such repertoire, as it was never written down, but handed over orally from one generation to the next. In cases where such music is still performed, one could turn to musicians from the folk music scene. However, it is very likely that the dances and songs that are performed by such musicians are considerably different from what was played and sung some centuries ago. That is one of the features of traditional music: it has no fixed form and changes with time.

Fortunately a part of the repertoire was notated during the 18th and 19th centuries. The 18th century saw the emergence of a lively interest in music that was characteristic of a particular country or region. It was the time of the Enlightenment, and part of its philosophy embraced a wish to increase knowledge and an emphasis on the importance of learning. This resulted in an investigation of unknown cultures, such as those of people from outside Europe. This explains the references to Turks, 'Indians' or Incas in French music of the 18th century. This went hand in hand with an increasing awareness of the cultural differences between the various peoples within Europe. Composers started to write music, in which they attempted to depict their character. Examples are some orchestral suites by Georg Philipp Telemann, but also a piece as André Campra's ballet L'Europe galante. Therefore it should not surprise us that the 18th century also saw the first attempts to write down the music which was typical for a specific culture.

The present disc is the result of a research project of Anna Besson, who at an early age became interested in traditional music. "I discovered traditional Irish music at the age of ten, and began to train with Irish flautists at festivals and in workshops based on essentially oral learning methods. A few years later, my affinity for the wooden flute drew me to the Baroque transverse flute and historical performance. The Dubhlinn Gardens is the outcome of this twofold musical practice, and results from extensive research into the most popular airs in eighteenth-century Ireland, from a time when traditional and 'art' music were in no way opposing concepts...".

For this project she could turn to 18th-century editions of traditional music. Such editions included not only Irish music, but also music from Scotland. In the book The Scottish Enlightenment and Literary Culture (Bucknell University Press, 2016), it is argued that traditional texts and melodies "fulfilled the contemporary aesthetic standard of neoclassical clarity and directness". There is an unmistakable connection here with the opera reform by Christoph Willibald von Gluck and the ideal of naturalness in instrumental music by the likes of Giuseppe Tartini. Representatives of the Enlightenment often idealized the 'natural' life at the countryside and were fascinated by the "noble savage".

Early editions of Irish music were published in 1724 and 1728, but it was at the end of the 18th century that it was given serious attention. An essential element was the interest in the harp: the first harp festival took place in Granard in 1784 and in 1792 the Belfast Harp Festival was held. The organist Edward Bunting (1773-1843) transcribed the melodies and the playing styles of harpers in The Ancient Music of Ireland.

In this programme a number of pieces are presented, often as a kind of suite, as the track-list shows. The songs are very different in content: from songs of a rather obscene character - which probably for moral reasons are not printed in full in the booklet - to love songs, and from songs about everyday life to political pieces. The latter is another parallel to Scottish traditional music: the interest in that music was party driven by the wish to emphasize the difference between Scottish culture and that of England. For instance, "Teague, the Irish Trooper (...) mocks the Irish defeat at the siege of Limerick in 1691 at the hands of the invading army of William of Orange." And "An Buachaillín Bán (...) conceals a revolutionary song: An Buachaillín Bán translates as 'The Fair-Haired Boy', a codename for 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' (Charles Edward Stuart, 1720-88), who for years after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden and enforced exile in 1746 remained for many Irish and Scots their chief hope of overthrowing the hated Hanoverian regime."

Some composers of the 18th century had a lively interest in traditional music. The best-known example is Telemann, who became impressed by Polish and Bohemian music. Interestingly, George Frideric Handel was impressed by Ailen Aroon. Having heard the song during his stay in Ireland (where he premiered his Messiah), he should have stated that "he would rather have composed this tune than anything he had written up to that time".

It is a bit of a shame that the liner-notes don't include some information about the decisions in regard to performance practice. That concerns the instrumentation as well as the choice of instruments. Sarah Ridy plays two harps, one of them an Irish harp, and Anna Besson plays three different instruments: a transverse flute, a tierce flute and a piccolo. One wonders what we know about the instruments used in traditional music in the 17th and 18th centuries.

However, the main thing is that this disc documents a part of Ireland's - and Europe's - cultural heritage that is largely unknown, except probably in Ireland itself. Lovers of traditional music will certainly welcome this disc and enjoy the playing and singing. However, others should also investigate it as it sheds light on an aspect of music history which for obvious reasons is not often part of concerts and recordings. One can only appreciate the efforts of Anna Besson to bring this music to the attention of a wider circle as only lovers of 'folk music'. Whether the performers do any justice to this repertoire is impossible to say if one does not know anything about this kind of repertoire and about Irish culture. However, there can be no doubt about the quality of music making here. Reinoud Van Mechelen is impressive in his account of the songs. The energetic and lively playing on the various instruments is also very enjoyable.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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