26 March 2016

Music in 17th Century Lithuania

Something I have personally been keen to investigate is what on earth was happening in Lithuania before it gained independence from the Russian empire around the beginning of the 20th Century. Most history books discussing composers from Lithuanian and other Baltic composers never explore music before the 20th Century, with the exception of the nations folk heritage. The grand narrative of music throughout Europe, would give the sensation that Baltic music was merely primitive music in comparison to Western European nations like Austria, France, Germany and so on. For a long time I have had many issues with this kind of narrative, especially when large empires throughout history would have had their own elegant cultures; take art in the Ottoman empire as an example, it doesn't fit the European narrative, but is by no means primitive.

For those who aren't aware of Eastern European history, from 1569 to 1795 Lithuania was in a social and political union with Poland. During this time, the size of the joint Duchy became one of the largest nations in Europe. A victorious and expanding nation will of course enjoy rich culture, mostly to spread it across its lands to bring the new members into their ideals. So what on earth was this culture?

Finding this out is easier said than done. Due to constant seismic shifts in regions across Eastern Europe over the past 250 years, many materials are lost, destroyed or merely misplaced. Because of these shifts manuscripts from Lithuania's history are all over the place. Many of these manuscripts ended up in Poland, Russia, and Italy. For those reading, I can imagine Lithuanian manuscripts ending up in Italy quite surprising, but due to Lithuania's longstanding Catholicism, many manuscripts ended up in the ancient archives. This instability really shows how luxurious British history has been, having not been invaded successfully since 1066, protecting manuscripts has been pretty straightforward, with the exception of Henry VIII's little paddy with the Catholics.

All this being said, there are still some wonderful discoveries. Two manuscripts that I have recently got to know lightly is the Sapieha Book and the Kraziai Organist's notebook. Both of these manuscripts give a very small insight into the musical landscape around the 17th Century. Admittedly most of my knowledge on this has come from a wonderful recording of excerpts from these two books.

The Sapieha Book written circa 1626 is named after the noble family Sapiehas, and the manuscripts bare the coat-of-arms of the family. The music in the book show the musical landscape, in the nobility, had similar characteristics and concerns as the rest of Europe at the time. But one wonderful curiosity is noticeable. Despite the featuring of a few names like Girolamo Frescobaldi, and a mysterious F.L., there is a significant number of anonymous works which give a hint of the perception of composer in the region during this time. Namely the idea that the composer's name isn't important. It is believed that, particularly with religious works, composers in the region at the time believed the work to be more important than the composer, which is a wonderful debate that has only been opened up in Western Europe by Cage and Scelsi. The Kraziai Organist's notebook is a book which teaches musicians to gain professional mastery. The work is full of experiments and ideals apparent across Europe, like basso continuo, ornamentation, and the art of improvisation. The notebook is also full of little exercises with harmony and other similar tasks.

These two books are a rare wonderful gem in discovering the effects of Catholicism on Lithuania as well as the interaction between the Grand Duchy and the rest of the world. The wonderful recording by Schola Gregoriana Vilnensis is a wonderful discovery. Hopefully I will see the manuscripts soon.

Enjoy these gems from the CD:

No comments:

Post a Comment