Never too late for Early Music

Working with early music is a combination of being a musician and an archaeologist. This is an excellent description of lutenist Rolf Lislevand, one of the best performers in the world on his chosen instrument and a man who finds inspiration digging through musical archives.

As a musician, Rolf Lislevand is creative and zany, as a researcher original and precise. He is amazingly young to be a professor. He lives in northern Italy, works in southern Germany, and is exotically Norwegian.

As a musical archaeologist, his job is to dig out tablatures and source materials concerning musicians and the period in which they were active. On the basis of incomplete information, he must try to discover what music sounded like in the period between the 15th and 17th centuries. Rolf Lislevand finds uncertainty and doubt challenging and the lack of information inspiring. If too much background material were available, he would feel restricted, almost imprisoned.

The written music from the period in question (late Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque) is imprecise, allowing the performer a great deal of freedom and opportunity for interpretation within the stylistic limits. Lislevand sees clear parallels with today’s rock and jazz musicians, who freely interpret the written score and like to be thought of as innovative and modern. They were modern then, too.

He has even been a jazz musician himself, on both electric and acoustic guitar during his student days at the Norwegian State Academy of Music in Oslo. When he moved to Basle to continue his studies, he was hand-picked for the early music orchestra Hesperion XX under conductor Jordi Savall. The orchestra has recorded about 20 CDs, the most popular of which, the film music for Tous les matins du monde (1992), sold almost 500,000 copies.

In the film, Gérard Depardieu plays Marin Marais, pupil of the composer Sainte Colombe. The composer lives only for music and refuses a flattering offer of being appointed court composer. The pupil, far less gifted than his teacher, succumbs to the temptation. The film’s narrator is a penitent sinner who made the wrong choice when faced with the artist’s age-old dilemma of having to choose between God and Mammon.

In autumn 1993, Lislevand signed a contract with the French recording company Auvidis for one CD a year. Each CD is devoted to a composer from the period between 1400 and 1750. The first consisted of music by the German-Italian composer Girolamo Kapsberger. The most recent contains music by 17th century Spanish composers Gaspar Sanz and Antonio de Santa Cruz. The choice and diversity are incredible. More music was written before 1750 than since, and there are more compositions in existence for string instruments in the lute family alone than for the piano. Lislevand has no reason to fear unemployment.

But how did they play, and what did the music sound like? The professor’s primary requirement is that music must speak to body and soul. For example, from early descriptions we know that Kapsberger’s toccatas were full of technical inventions that made a great impression on his audiences. Other composers cultivated esoteric, sectarian music bordering on the religious-philosophical. Lislevand combines the intuition of the modern musician with all his knowledge of historical style. If he sits on the platform and plays a correct reconstruction according to the sources and no-one is moved by it, he considers he has failed.

In this neurotic age, we have a different conception of what is quick or slow than our predecessors did. When you play, the tempo must produce an almost physical sensation of excitement and interest. The values of the almost non-existent Italian tempo notations have certainly changed significantly since then. Today, the word “allegro” says more about freshness and joy than about a particular speed of playing. There is plenty of room for manoeuvre in terms of pulsation, the problems relating to the time and tempo of the music. Lislevand does not accept that there is an objective way of measuring tempi. The music is from a period before the age of the metronome. The tempo is determined by the instrument itself and by the technical prowess of the performer.

Lislevand finds it easier to play for Latins than for North Europeans. Further south, everything unusual has its own value. Latins are spontaneously open to anything that is beautiful and capable of evoking a new mood. He has also chosen to live surrounded by natural beauty. Being able to cycle through what is essentially a renaissance museum on the way to the grocer’s is important to him. And this Norwegian is perhaps more under Italy’s skin than many Italians are. The country is closer to its own 17th century roots than other countries because it never breaks with traditions but modifies them gradually.

Everything is connected; Rolf Lislevand’s knowledge of music and instruments encouraged him to study other aspects of art and the entire spirit of the time. As a scientist, he finds it interesting to be on “sacred” ground, where the cataloguing and systematising of music began in the 17th and 18th centuries. He is not far from the place where his music used to live at the courts of Venice, Padua, Verona and Monza. In fact it is still very much alive when the professor puts his hypotheses into practice with resounding success!

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.6 - 1998 No. 1
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