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Touring Music

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War and travel are enemies. Music has thrived in and on war, be this music the sound Lakota dances or the imperial strains of the Coldstream Guards Band, not to mention Beethoven’s depiction of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo and countless other glorifications of death and destruction by other classic masters. But music is also held up as a universal language of humankind, something uniquely able to bring people and peoples together. In the age of the YouTube Orchestra connecting with diverse and distant musicians can supposedly be done over the ether. But travel is the traditional means of meeting performers and composers and reaching other audiences, exploring other musical traditions while getting different perspectives on your own.

Musical travelers of today’s world might well pause before heading out to their next destination. Indeed, they are unlikely to be quite so blithe about jumping into the airplane and heading out on the next tour. Aside from the bodily intrusions of security checkpoints and the inconveniences of clogged skies, never mind the all-too-mild ethical discomforts that come with contributing tons of carbon to the atmosphere, there are as of late the threats of terror from the Islamic State and the menace of Ebola.

A good friend of mine had a long-time gig playing harpsichord for operas in the Roman amphitheater in Palmyra in central Syria. It was no easy task keeping sensitive keyboards more used to the temperate salons of Europe in tune in the searing desert dryness. But accompanying Dido’s lament in against such a sublime ancient backdrop—not just scenery, but history itself—was well worth the effort. Needless to say, the Syrian Civil War put an end to such performances. With the Islamic State recently in control of the gas fields near Palmyra, the immediate future of opera in the amphitheater doesn’t exactly look rosy. One might rather imagine something more apocalyptic than Purcell; Wagner’s Götterdämmerung would be fitting monument to the demise of polytheism against the scourge of the One True God.

We might think of 2014 and beyond as particularly resistant to international musical exchange. But the first great age of cosmopolitan travel, the eighteenth century, was one of continual wars interrupted by varying stretches of uneasy peace. During the heyday of the Grand Tour, well-heeled travellers either had to sidestep conflicts or stay home until they were over. These hostilities in Europe and on its periphery are too numerous to list here, but between the overlapping Northern War and the War of the Spanish Succession that consumed the first two decades of the century and the French Revolutionary Wars at century’s close came the first truly world war: Seven Years War (1756-1763), fought in North American amongst the colonial powers and their native surrogates as the French and Indian War. When these hostilities—in no small measure set in motion and sustained, it must be said, by the epoch’s most musical monarch, Frederick the Great—finally came to a close, the floodgates of travel were again flung open and the great British travelers and, more importantly, travel writers set out for the continent in large numbers. It was after the 1763 Treaty of Paris that the master of irony, observation, and digression Laurence Sterne pursued his Sentimental Journey and the dyspeptic Tobias Smollett could accumulate bookloads of complaints against the curious and contemptible ways of the continent. There would be a quarter century of relative peace before the turmoil of the French Revolution again restricted travel.

The greatest musical figure in these golden decades of touring was the Englishman Charles Burney, who travelled to France and Italy in 1769 and then undertook a second tour to Germany (including Austria) and The Netherlands in 1772. Burney made these journeys to do research for his planned history of music, which aimed to be the first such work in the English language; the first of the four volumes of the history duly appeared in 1776. More famous now, however, is Burney’s three-volume diary of his travels. In them, Burney meets the great musicians of the day, from the most famous opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck in Vienna, to the megastar castrato Farinelli in retirement at his villa outside of Bologna, to the transcendental clavichord player C. P. E. Bach performing for hours after dinner in his Hamburg home. The shuddering coach rides over the Alps and harrowing raft trips down the Danube impart a powerful sense to the modern reader of the rigors of eighteenth-century travel: thus the diaries present an unforgettable mix of civilized refinement, vividly captured personalities, unapologetic prejudice, and the sometimes punishing commitment required of tourists.

Aside from the luminous varnish of his prose portraits of musicians, Burney’s diaries often remind me on my periodic return to them of the difference between travel and transport. Indeed, moving between cities and across oceans by airplane seems to me hardly to count as travel in any meaningful way. The movement past people and over geography is too fast and superficial to result in any sense of progression: one departs and then arrives, and there is little in between.

This counts not only for airports but also for autobahns, and I was thinking of Burney as I loaded up a copy of a late-eighteenth-century piano into a Chrysler Town & Country van to drive from Ithaca, New York to Boston for a concert 
of keyboard duets with Annette Richards at Tufts University last weekend. The arduous all night journeys, the lurking highwaymen, the challenging ragouts deplored by Smollett, and the embarrassing customs questions endured by Burney give way this kind of modern trip to the efficiencies of the EZ Pass and the human caloric and automotive octane intakes of a Mass Pike or New York State Thruway service area.

As I noted in this space a couple of months back, this region eastern New York and western Massachusetts was visited by war at just the time that Burney was writing his history of music and hobnobbing with a friendship circle in London that included the likes of Samuel Johnson, Thomas Boswell, Alexander Pope, and Joshua Reynolds. In 2014, however, all is calm in the golden red auctumnal forest cleaved by the wide highways.

Burney was a great fan of duets, indeed claimed to have written the first such pieces for a single harpsichord or piano as a way to allow two students living in one house to play at the same time—and perhaps also to exchange chaste caresses in the close quarters of the fife-octave keyboards of his day. Duets for two keyboards were also an important part of Burney’s popular winter concerts. As Annette and I tried to suggest in last weekend’s concert at Tufts, Burney’s international fare was a way for him, too, to relive his journeys.

But rather than let the music speak for itself (whatever that means) we had the good fortune to be able to collaborate with the brilliant Austin video artist Bug Davidson and the Hyphen Collective. Davidson’s evocative images included nearly abstract close-ups of grass and weeds along a Texas roadside; slow searching shots of tires and motors; long fluttering hair; and a motorcycle rider moving through Texas woodlands and swamps. Titles announcing each musical piece along Burney’s tour were created by Tufts undergraduate Emma Turner; her art mixed photographs of eighteenth-century textiles in digital collage with her own often humorous, and always arresting paintings of Burney and his world. Following these titles, Davidson’s moving pictures worked in both unanticipated synchronicity with, and revelatory juxtaposition to, the pleasing and effortless galant music so beloved by Burney. Davidson’s video encouraged, even demanded, different ways of seeing and hearing our own travels through the natural and musical world, as if to caution and encourage us that there is no going back to Burney’s world, only forward into the unfolding present uncertainty.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

 

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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