Thursday, December 31, 2009

Out With The Old...

In 1680, Austrian composer/violinist Johann Heinrich Schmelzer passed from this earth at the tender age of 60, taking with him a store of violin virtuosity not exceeded even in our own time. If not for his fame in his own day (he died five years before J.S. Bach was born) and the music publisher's excellent early craft, not to mention a few of those violin virtuosi today who are willing to dig deep into the history and literature of their instruments, Schmelzer's music would have vanished, probably beyond recovery. As things actually happened, I can sit in front of the stereo and listen to a virtuoso of our own day, Andrew Manze, on a 16-year-old CD, playing on a violin that... well, I can't find the details on the CD liner, but you may be certain it dates from Schmelzer's era, and has been skillfully retrofitted to something like its original configuration. ("This violin is too damned new. Get me something older!")

If old virtuosi never do in fact die, old musical ensembles meet their end even sooner. I was in one ensemble that lasted 10 years, in the same location and with more or less the same musicians; that was in my experience an extreme rarity. Romanesca, the ensemble on the abovementioned CD, was formed in 1988, and appears based on Amazon listings to have lasted until 2005... again, a healthy lifespan for a small ensemble of musicians who have lots of work. The other CD I listened to this evening, by the Palladian Ensemble with its virtuoso recorder player (don't you dare laugh) Pamela Thorby, hung on until about 2007, if I recall. Fortunately Ms. Thorby is still among us.

But if performers' lifespans are brief and ensembles are over in an instant, one's ability to play a given work or composer is downright microscopic. The music on those two CDs is upbeat, flashy and largely very cheerful, but I found myself with tears streaming from both eyes at the first sound... because my alleged 15 minutes of fame is long behind me. I can listen to that music. I can appreciate its internals probably better than I could a decade or three ago when I was in fact performing that sort of stuff. But it is quite literally no longer in my grasp.

Not everything is tragic, though. I'll write about the upside of all of this tomorrow, when we all have a whole new year in which to explore strange new cadences, to seek out new techniques and new performers, to boldly split infinitives...

I hope your New Year is a splendid one. Keep in touch!


  1. Happy New Year to you, Stella, and Sam.

  2. Thank you, Bryan. Stella wishes you a Happy New Year. I wish you a Happy New Year. Samantha wishes you would give her some hifalutin' wet food. :-)

  3. Go Samantha!

    And onward into 2010! May this year bring excellent adventures to all!

  4. (Posted on behalf of Anne... SB)

    As one who was privileged to take recorder lessons from you many years ago, Steve, and to have heard the music you and your ensemble gave to the world, I can assure you that the music you made lives on. Small comfort perhaps, in the overall scheme of things, but you made a difference in my life -- and now in the next generation.

    Best to you and Stella.



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