Why Ars Musicae, why St Botolphs?
Fugitive thoughts by Timothy Roberts
from the concert programme for 10 July
Why St Botolph's? Perhaps eccentrically, I see Domenico Scarlatti as the presiding genius at tonight's event, even though we are not playing any of his music in its original form...
18th-century London was a famously cosmopolitan place, culturally as well as commercially. Later historians might bemoan the triumph of Continental music, and the inability of native composers to compete, but at the time British composers from Purcell to Storace seem to have been happy to collaborate with immigrant colleagues, and to write in international styles – whether adopting a French accent, a Scots or Irish one, or (most often) the all-conquering Italian manner.
Here in this modest church, unromantically sited by a main road and overshadowed by the architecture of international finance, I am confident we can recapture something of this cosmopolitan spirit as we welcome our Mallorcan visitors. (St Botolph, by the way, was a patron saint of travellers.) The architecture is Mediterranean, if built of London brick. Its white interior recalls the south, and the organ's vibrant colours are rooted in the sounds of the French High Baroque (its builder was a Roman Catholic). John Worgan played this organ for over 45 years, and after he retired from his more worldly post at Vauxhall in 1773, admirers had to, and did, come here to Aldgate to hear his relaxed, effortless virtuosity, praised by none other than Handel himself ("Mr. Worgan shall sit by me; he plays my music very well at Vauxhall.")
Worgan's music may not be deep, but it is entertaining and eclectic. He drew on Handel, the Scots style, Arne, later the galant manner of J. C. Bach; and above all, the music of Scarlatti. The abundance of music available in London did not suffice: Worgan wanted more of Scarlatti's "lessons", and wrote to the composer in Madrid to get them. Eventually he was able to publish 24 new sonatas in London, in two volumes each entitled XII Sonatas Modernas para Clavicordio.
Scarlatti's style particularly appealed to the English, perhaps because a kind of learned eccentricity was becoming the in thing here. An enduring wonder of Scarlatti's own story is the way that, arriving in Portugal at the age of 33 (and moving on to Madrid 15 years later), he could so thoroughly reinvent himself, both personally and artistically. From that point he adopted a style quite free of inhibitions – the "ingenious jesting with art" for which he would mock-apologise in 1738. Scarlatti's mature art is hard to pin down: very southern Italian, very Iberian, personal, unique, inimitable. Perhaps a single noun sums it up: freedom.
Why Ars Musicae? Now, I am obviously no Scarlatti, and 21st-century Mallorca is far from resembling the 18th-century Iberian courts. But in my small way, I too have felt a special pleasure making music in (for me) remote and exotic Mallorca, and to have at hand a friendly Baroque string orchestra there is certainly – to quote the Diario de Mallorca – "a luxury".
This orchestra is a special group of friends, of whom I cannot write objectively. We have given many concerts together on their beautiful island, a place that is at once so cultured and international, yet still so off-the-beaten-track. That this co-operative band has continued to exist for 13 years, through good times and bad, seems to me a small miracle. When I first knew them they met weekly, without a harpsichord, in a neon-lit Palma schoolroom with a horrible acoustic. The violin section seemed to be made up entirely of Bernat Cabot's young violin students, whom he had persuaded to obtain Baroque instruments. (Bernat is a persuasive person – in a benign way – ) The viola and continuo sections were more or less as you see them tonight, except for the absence of Raimon Boix, who sadly died in September 2009.
The group, pooling its resources as always, was later able to buy a small Michael Johnson Italian harpsichord (restored by Mark Ransom), and nowadays they meet in a lovely room in the rectory of the small town of Bunyola – or in the 18th-century church during the summer. The orchestra has grown, but most of the founder members remain, and apart from family holiday times they meet every Wednesday evening, normally playing for three hours without a break.
Some of the members are professionals in other areas of music (rock, folk, choral or solo singing), some are students, others have non-musical jobs. Most of them only "play Baroque" when they are with Ars Musicae, and alongside the fact that the band is democratically run, this results in a distinctive tone of voice: to quote Diario de Mallorca again, "in tune and taking a middle path between purism and Classicism, with honesty as its reference".
A Swedish jazz musician friend, who had made a study of rhythm in various parts of Europe, heard an Ars Musicae concert, and was delighted. "They're hot!" Yes, they can be hot; they can be subtle; they can be folky or naive. Above all, they are interesting. As a group of people they are always open to ideas and ready to be spontaneous. That word again: freedom.
A Mediterranean thing – the Scarlatti factor? Or an Ars Musicae thing – the Mallorca factor?
Ars Musicae can be heard of YouTube, e.g. at
Purcell: Chaconne from Fairy Queen
Sammartini: Recorder Concerto
Ars Musicae rehearses in Bunyola, summer 2007