Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lachrimae Caravaggio

I'm not sure how my paws ended up on this remarkable little treasure, but I'm sure glad I have it. It is Lachrimae Caravaggio, by Jordi Savall. It's a new release and new music, based on old music, but also something completely unexpected. It is old style Spanish music from the Renaissance, redone and improvised for a contemporary purpose.

It seems that there was a massive exhibition of Caravaggio's work in Barcelona, and the museum needed music. Savall arrived with his inimitable style -- all those peculiar ancient, wooden, and painfully real sounds that somehow conjure up a living presence of an age we never knew and yet feel like we know once we hear it.

So here we have the full Savall ensemble in all its glory, painting musical pictures to illustrate Caravaggio's religious works. I'm not entirely sure how regular listeners will respond to this music but, to me, it illustrates a point that I've been thinking about for some time. It is this: we make a mistake in thinking of Renaissance music in Whiggish ways: that is, as a more primitive version of modern music -- that it somehow sounds like it does because the composers, as good as they were, lacked the musical tools to do more. We needed the god of Progress to fix it up and turn it into something more modern and advanced. In this view, early music is merely a stage that we study for historical purposes.

I really have begun to doubt this whole version of music history. We need to start thinking of early music as possessing its own internal integrity as a complete art form. What's nice about this recording is that it treats the earlier styles as if they had continued validity in our own time, which I believe they do. In some way, I've even wondered whether there was some retrogression that took place between the period of the renaissance and the "developments" over the next 200 years, but I'm not a musicologist so it is not for me to say. I can only say that I love this recording.

Obviously, it's not for liturgy. It is for home contemplation, and it comes with a wonderful booklet that allows you to look at the images that accompany the text.

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