Who is Clavichord?

I was asked a strange question the other day – who is clavichord?. I thought perhaps I had misunderstood, and came out with the stock reply of “an instrument predating the piano – not a harpsichord, but something in between”. I could see this wasn’t good enough, and not just because my knowledge of non-standard instruments has definite holes in it, so I asked why he was asking. There was a poster with some pictures of instruments beside their names and composers beside their names. There were three composers – Brahms, Bach, and another gentleman, and four or five instruments with the one of the clavichord having a picture of a woman playing it. Clearly this woman was not named. Why would you need to name a woman – what do they do other than make the picture look appealing?

A work that has been going around my head since I heard it last Friday is Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’ Isola di Alcina. This, I believe, is the first opera known to be written by a woman (1625) and was performed for the annual Opera Briefs by the Royal Irish Academy of Music in association with The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin in association with Abbey Theatre. It is a fantastic piece and I have been asking myself why do I not know it already. My knowledge of baroque instruments might be sketchy, but this was an Italian opera composer who worked in the Medici Court – an area which I had surely studied in College and I had just not come across her.

And I was missing out on so much. The production on the Peacock Stage was thrilling. This was full of intrigue, mishaps, tragedy, sorrow but to the forefront really good fun -whether that was Vladimir Sima, excellent as Pastore, watering the people who have been magicked into plants, or was it the fantastic thunder sheets being played to evoke the fury of the scorned enchantress Alcina, (the commanding Clodagh Kinsella). Helene Montague as director enabled all of the singers to grab every opportunity to do something on stage to absolutely enhance the drama. Berus Komarschela as Astolfo was so miserable as the enchanted plant within the wheelbarrow, that his transformation into an exuberant young man dancing and singing was all the more powerful.

The music really was the star of the show, sung beautifully and with passion by all, and the playing of the baroque orchestra (conducted by David Adams from the Harpsichord) was exceptional. This did not feel like a student production but it was. The skills that all of these students will have learnt through their engagement with and performance of this unknown work will stand to them throughout their careers.

On Sunday I went to another concert of Baroque unknown works at a rare visit to the Hugh Lane Gallery for the Sundays at Noon series. This series has been running for over 40 years and programmes so many different types of music, now curated by Mary Barnecutt. The concert on Sunday was performed by Chant 21, a group founded by the tenor Jacek Wisłocki and lutenist Jerzy Żak, who specialise in performing rare masterworks of the Baroque era. This was my first time to hear the group and they were joined for this concert by recorder player Theresa Burton. There was a great understanding between Burton and Wisłocki, in this concert made up of solos, duos and trios I came to look forward to the great trios by Donati, Cima, Merula when I could relax and listen to this sublime music being played by three musicians who had taken such care to shape each line and had really collaborated in putting this music together. It was great to hear Jacek singing in his native Polish (three anonymous songs). Even without consulting the translation, I could understand the message in each of these, so well were they acted; Theresa’s performance of Taeggio’s works was stunning. Jerzy Żak, spoke at the start about the theme: that music has no borders. In the baroque era, musicians travelled everywhere, the concert was made up of music by Italian composers who had worked in Poland and also by Polish musicians who had worked in Italy. The virtuosity on display was a given but the communication and the artistry in performance was quite something to watch, and this was felt by all as there was a standing ovation to finish the concert.

Yet I keep coming back to that question “Who is Clavichord?”. Why did I not know anything of this wonderful opera by Caccini, why had I not heard of even one of these composers in the Sunday concert. It makes me realise that it is so so important to really notice where I get my thoughts and beliefs. How much of my “knowledge” is assumptions, how much is guesswork and how much just depends on what I have been exposed to. In this age of instant answers to questions (just google them) it is important to curate your own knowledge, to find new ways of engaging with material, to talk to different people, to find out what is important to others and so find out what is important to you, yourself.

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