Letter from Luxembourg. Image: DBI Studio / Alamy

Across time and borders

However we interpret old music, one thing is clear: Britain and continental Europe are cultural bedfellows
November 1, 2023

Over the past half century, the way we listen to classical music has been transformed. Call it what you will—“authenticity”, “period performance” or “original instrument”—the result has been that music from the 17th to the 19th centuries has been dusted down and cleaned up. A semi-scholarly endeavour—trying to find out how things might have sounded when they were written—joined hands with a new technology, the compact disc (now disappearing in the face of streaming), to create a different sound world in concert halls and homes.

It hardly matters that the “movement” was riven with philosophical and practical conundrums, the most basic of which being that we cannot know how things sounded in the past. We can make an educated guess as to how people played and sang, but we can’t recover the sensibilities of audiences who heard, say, Beethoven’s Fifth for the first time. Our ears are not innocent.

The original-instrument movement introduced new sounds and timbres, new ways of making a musical phrase, to composers and traditions both familiar and forgotten. It was as much about projecting something bracing or unfamiliar as it was about time travel. The great musicologist Richard Taruskin—a performer as well as a scholar—spotted that the new clean lines spoke more of modernism than of the antiquarian.

I’ve been singing professionally for about 30 years now, and the early music ethic—jokingly referred to as “vegetarianism”—has been a dominant force in a lot of what I’ve done with English orchestras such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the English Concert and the Academy of Ancient Music. The old familiars—Handel, Haydn, Bach—sound freshly minted. 

Across the Channel, the recovery and refurbishment of French baroque music—the likes of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Jean-Philippe Rameau—has been equally remarkable. This music is almost as much a totem of French stately gloire as it was in the age of Louis Quatorze, though its particular Sun King was the American emigré and harpsichordist William Christie. His group Les Arts Florissants spawned numerous offspring: Les Musiciens du Louvre, Le Concert d’Astrée, Les Talens Lyriques. All were founded by musicians who had worked with Bill (or “Beel” as the French call him). We went to his extraordinary gardens in the depths of the Vendée in western France this summer, albeit to hear not Lully’s Armide or Charpentier’s Médée but Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, staged in association with hip-hop choreographer Mourad Merzouki. Great stuff.

The musical cultures of Britain and continental Europe, like their political cultures, have been forever intertwined. The music of Purcell, so often lauded as England’s greatest composer before Elgar/Vaughan Williams/Britten (delete as appropriate) was all of a piece with the continental scene in the late 17th century—with the French air de cour (court song) or with the Italian lamenting ground bass that underpins his most famous piece, Dido’s Lament

The musical cultures of Britain and continental Europe, like their political cultures, have been forever intertwined

I recently went to Paris to rehearse a new programme with Les Talens Lyriques—the songs reflected this pan-European culture, a mixture of Frenchness, Englishness and italianità. We started with airs de cours by Louis XIV’s court composer, Michel Lambert, with their fiendishly tricky agogic decorations (listen to the peerlessly inventive jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant sing one of them, “Un feu secret”, on her latest album, Mélusine, and you’ll know what I mean). Moving on to Purcell, another court composer, it was clear that the cultural magnetism of the French court on either side of the Glorious Revolution of 1689 was not only a matter of gardens and larger-than-life wigs. Then we ended with a secular Italian cantata by Handel, “Clori, mia bella Clori”. Born in Hanover, a star in Italy, an institution in Hanoverian Britain, Handel embodies more than any other composer the embeddedness of British culture in Europe.

We took this melodic endorsement of European togetherness to Luxembourg, bugbear of the Brexiteers. What could be more irritating to Eurosceptic sentiment than the home of the European Court of Justice, the birthplace of Jean-Claude Juncker?

Wandering around the small town of Echternach, the oldest in Luxembourg and on the border with Germany, I was struck by the destruction that war had brought to the tiny Grand Duchy, but also by the sense of a common European culture in which this town—this country—has participated. The Abbey Church was massively damaged during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944-1945 and rebuilt in the 1950s with beautiful stained glass. It was founded in the 7th century by Willibrord, patron saint of Luxembourg. Saint Willibrord was born in Northumbria, strange to say.