Like the chili in hot chocolate, the tense silence before the starting pistol in athletics, a goodnight kiss before going to sleep, such is the frill on a shirt: decorative and extreme. Unlike the Renaissance, Baroque music does not claim to be in a state of perfect balance, and this is what renders it human. The freedom typical of Baroque music is made manifest in improvisation, and in later periods slowly died out, to be replaced by rules of composition and performance. The four concerts in the Jabot Festival conjure up a world familiar yet full of secrets, which speaks not of gushing emotions, but of intimacy: of our very selves.
Some researchers have claimed that Baroque music is not only beautiful; it is useful. This is the music most suitable for reaching a state of mental, physical, and emotional concentration in which we can ingest more information than normal. Baroque music usually has a pace of 50-80 beats per minute, and the brain responds to it by taking up the electrical patterns characteristic of the relaxed state, which according to some researchers facilitates activities like studying and reading. Baroque music helps to turn the cogs of the mind, and makes us more creative. In other words, the Coffee Cantata is more efficient than coffee – Baroque music is the new energy drink. According to reports, school classes that were conducted to a background of Baroque music enjoyed lessons more and found exercises less difficult. Why, indeed, would we not listen to a music which has such a good effect on our general well-being and our intellectual performance?
The performance style of music from periods prior to the 19th century has seen enormous changes over recent decades. After the Second World War, it was common to disparage folk who put forward the “impossible” idea of performing Baroque music on authentic period instruments; now people get odd looks if they do otherwise. Since then our knowledge of contemporary performance practice has grown, giving greater freedom to musicians, and leading to more exciting, rousing, and – importantly – more courageous interpretations. It is not only the questions of instruments and technique that have benefited from research: another area of focus is that the performance be authentic in spirit.
Every era had its own oddities, and this goes for fashion too. The first thing that springs to mind with the Baroque is a powdered wig, but this was also the time the jabot became widespread. The word jabot is French in origin, and refers to the breast of a bird, and for sure, the jabot recalls the bulging chest of fine songbirds. A decoration intended for distinguished men, of lace throughout or merely on the hem, the wearer fixed it to his neck or the collar of his garment so that it hung over the shirt. This frill on the chest, partially peeping out from behind the waistcoat, was a symbol of elegance, and had the benefit of concealing buttons. Later it was emancipated into a decoration for women’s blouses, and today is mostly seen only at court. But we too aim to do justice to the jabot.
In its time, Baroque music was often misunderstood. People found it wild, and this is one of the characteristics that today’s audiences find so fascinating. Composers and musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries could “allow” themselves things that today, without credible sources, we can not reconstruct perfectly. But fortunately there are more and more early music ensembles who approach works with an awareness of the interpretative freedom enjoyed by Baroque performers. A visit to our Baroque “music shop”, the Jabot Festival, shows us how many forms this productive period brought forth. Alongside the imaginary hit-lists (members of the Bach and Couperin families, Byrd, Händel, Purcell, Telemann, and Vivaldi) we find the names of count- less other masters, less familiar to the public but important nevertheless: Buxtehude, Castello, Frescobaldi, Froberger, and Sammartini.
At the focus of the Jabot Festival is the repertoire of an unjustly neglected instrument, the recorder. The peculiar status of the former derives perhaps from its being an integral part of instruction in music schools, due to its simple construction, the ease with which it can be learned, and its register, which is close to that of the human voice. But in spite of the recent internet sensation of ear-splitting recorder-playing, we can hardly find an instrument with a more distinguished past, for in olden times it was played not by schoolchildren, but by kings, for whom the most famous composers wrote works for this very instrument. Though its descendant, the flute, is loved to this day, the time has come to give the recorder its due. Helping us to do so is the Dutch artist Anneke Boeke, known in Hungary for her masterclasses, who has mastered the Baroque recorder (or Blockflöte) and her amazing young compatriot, the 19-year-old Lucie Horsch, whose virtuoso playing has been compared by critics to birdsong. For two years, Horsch has been active in promoting her chosen instrument under the aegis of a leading record label.
“The early music movement spread its wings in the middle of the last century, and its exponents, Brüggen, Harnoncourt, and Leonhardt, did intensive research into Baroque works that were lost in oblivion, in the depths of libraries. Perhaps they didn’t even suspect that they were creating a new musical language, which has since become familiar, one of whose sources and centres was the country I was born in: the Netherlands. I too had an important role in promoting the language of my maestros, when in the 1980s I came to Hungary at the age of 20. This was an important juncture in my career. These days many people speak this historic musical language fluently, so emphasis has shifted from knowledge of the rules to the way it is delivered, to playing full of joy. This music is like love: it is able to regenerate for ever.”
The other irresistible instrument in the festival is the harpsichord. Though the piano has tried to overshadow it, the predecessor has not given way. In fact, it has proved its durability in songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The concert by Zsombor Tóth-Vajna and Gergely Tóth-Vajna undertakes no less than to provide a cross-section of music written for keyboard by European composers from Couperin to Haydn, with the aid of the fortepiano. And if you tire of these heavenly tones, hell is only a short ferry-ride away, for at the Jabot Festival the audience can expect Baroque music in the underworld too: Orpheus and his lyre, in other words the Belgian troupe La Cetra d’Orfeo, who have travelled several continents, launch the Jabot Festival on 7 April with their programme on the theme of love.
This article first appeared in BSF Magazine, published by Budapest Spring Festival. To view the magazine in full, please click here.