The Catalonian musician Jordi Savall has been a major force in the promotion of early music for some forty years now and has been the key figure in bringing some ancient instruments out of the museum and back to the stage, particularly the viola da gamba. One of the star performers of this year’s Prague Spring International Music Festival, Mr Savall and his three ensembles have recorded well over a hundred records and scored a number of films, including the acclaimed 1995 film All the Mornings of the World, which won him a César award, the French national film prize. I spoke with the maestro in a magnificent rehearsal room in Prague’s Rudolfinum concert hall where he recalled his memories of another Prague Spring – that of 1968.
A beautiful moment in my life that remains in my memory was spring of 1968. My wife and I had only been married for six months at that time, we had left Spain because of Franco and we started studying in Basil in Switzerland in the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and I remember after 2 weeks there we we’re listening to the radio and we listened to the start of the revolution against communism in Prague. And it was a fantastic moment, that spring, it was extraordinary. And for me it was especially fantastic because it was the first year of my marriage to my wife away from this terrible dictator Franco in Spain, in a very free country like Switzerland, in a new school and this in relation to the Prague Spring was a very beautiful thing for me.
Your music has attracted a huge amount of young people, and I’d like to know what it is about your approach to early music that attracts young listeners.
Well the first important thing about early music is that it’s music from different periods: Baroque, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, and in these periods it was important to have improvisation, ornamentation, a lot of rhythmic features, there was a mix of popular and court music. The music is very attractive because it sounds very fresh today and surprisingly very modern. And I think what attracts people to this music is also that it is not conventional. There is always a lot of fantasy and a lot of different things, and it’s a very nice way to travel in time, you know?
And I believe the film All the Mornings of the World made a great impact.
The film was very popular around the world. From one day to the next millions of people around the world discovered the viola da gamba, they discovered baroque music. Before this many people had probably never listened to baroque music. And the result was three months later in the Top 10 of recorded music was Michael Jackson, Tous les matins du monde [All the Mornings of the World], then Queen and so on. For the young people it was a real discovery. And I remember young people decided to study baroque music and the viola da gamba, and there was demand in all the conservatories with students saying ‘Oh I would love to study the viola da gamba”. But this was not only in France it was everywhere. Some years later I was in Hong Kong and Taipei, and young musicians who played romantic music on the violin were all demanding autographs because they had seen the film.
Your work is very much based on improvisation and it makes me think that perhaps what’s most interesting about early music for you is the fact that it allows you to improvise more than later music, is that true?
Well this is one of the interesting aspects of early music, and not only this. Because I think what is interesting about early music is that you are forced to be very creative. You also have to be very bold in the way you do research, to understand what is happening historically, stylistically, what the type of ornamentation is, the way to play, to make the sound, to make the articulation. But once you know all these aspects, technical and historical, then the music demands a lot of creativity. Because this music was played in early times by great musicians who had played their own music their whole lives, most of the time they were composers and musicians, and virtuosos. And this always demands a lot of creativity and fantasy and imagination. And this is very attractive to us as performers because it allows us to create and to develop.
You are from Catalonia and the bulk of your work is European, but as you say you have a lot of experience working with other cultures and other types of music. How difficult is it for you to get into the mentality of completely removed types of music, say, early Japanese music.
Well you know with music it’s not so difficult because music is a language that touches your heart immediately. And even with very far-away different cultures like the Japanese, even if sometimes you don’t understand any word of the language, when you listen to a flutist playing the Shakuhachi or these beautiful bamboo flutes… It’s really very impressive.
The listener is taken into the music but when you’re playing it you are the person drawing them in. I assume you must study the, you know, ins and outs of the music before you can play it to your own satisfaction.
No, this happens during the experience. You cannot learn the music beforehand, you have to do it with the music. Music needs to be played and sung. That is the only way to understand it. I think sometimes we think we can explain music with words. That’s impossible. The only way to understand music is through the music. It demands that you go with the music and take the time to let it touch you. When I first started playing the viola da gamba in 1965, the music I played was like Japanese for me in a way. But I played every day for many, many hours and slowly I began to understand the language. When we work with musicians from Israel, from Morocco, from Turkey and so on, everyone brings their own style. And we try to understand each other, and the only way to understand is to respect the other and let the other be the way he is.
With the film All the Mornings of the World you had a great success. Is it a success you’re trying to repeat?
You cannot repeat a success. This is something very special. What we have
been doing in the last years has been to keep presenting different
projects, projects involving different types of repertoires. We have music
involving 45 musicians including Israelis, Palestinians, Armenians,
Turkish, Syrians, Afghans, Moroccans, Greeks, and all the Europeans.
a very they have very different ways of believing in god or a superior
dimension, but they all have the same language with the music. Even
regarding the way of singing David’s psalms, or the celebrations of
Allah, or Christian songs. We have differences, we have things we do
differently, but we talk, we’ve found a solution, we’ve found a way to
be in harmony. And this is I think the principle thing we can do with
music: we can demonstrate that having musicians from 12 different
nationalities or three or four religious in a concert hall, and having all
these people in harmony, and happy, is not a utopia, it’s a reality. And
I think this is what we try to do with music.
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