Viols and Rackett
A few weeks ago I attended a concert by the great Jordi Savall, the viola da gamba virtuoso, early music conductor, and musicologist.
Maestro Savall, at age 74, plays over 100 recitals a year, directs world-class instrumental and choral groups, issues half a dozen exceptionally varied recordings every year on his own record label (Alia Vox), teaches at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland, carries out musicological research, and is probably able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
One no longer speaks of an Early Music Revival, inasmuch as Early Music is already about as revived as it could possibly get, due to the indefatiguable work of people like Maestro Savall. Once, long ago, I mailed a picture of some Medieval/Renaissance musical instruments to a noted paleobiologist I knew, and asked if he thought that a meteor might have been responsible for making the instruments go extinct. But they are all back with us now, the viol, the theorbo, the zink, the krummhorn, the cornamuse, the bladder-pipe, and all the rest, like the resurrected dinosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park. I have played one of these instruments myself, at an outdoor funeral celebration, where I tried to see if I could wake the dead. This musical Jurassic Park is everywhere, in performances and in recordings, and the noisiest of the instruments, like the bombarde, the schalmei, and the aptly named rackett, are affectionately called "buzzies" by their many admirers. The musicians who play any of the old instruments are called HIPsters - - - HIP standing for Historically Informed Performance.HIP's existence goes back to well before Maestro Savall, but some of his influential predecessors are not so well known. Three of them, of whom you probably never heard, were Americans, and rather unusual characters: William Devan of Memphis, Tennessee; Safford Cape of Denver, Colorado; and Jack Skurnick of New York City.
William Devan was born in 1906 in Memphis, not exactly a hotbed of high culture. He went to college at Princeton (from which we can deduce that his family had money), and from there went right over to Europe to study early music. Devan specialized in medieval church music, and in 1935 he formed a vocal ensemble to perform it, called les Paraphonistes de Saint-Jean des Matines. He also changed his name to Guillaume de Van, and spent the rest of his life in France. His group's public performances and recordings, starting in the 1930s, became famous for reviving such works as the Notre Dame Mass by Guillaume de Machaut, a late medieval composer who is credited with inventing the motet, the quarter note, and the key of D.
Unfortunately, Willy/Guillaume, accepted an official position from the Nazi administration in 1942, thus becoming a collaborateur. I know nothing about his politics, but I like to think that he was not actually a Nazi sympathizer, but just an idiot: presumably a medieval music nerd so unworldly that he didn't notice that there was no longer a President of the French Republic in the Élysée Palace, but rather a German commandant of Paris issuing orders from his headquarters in the Hôtel Meurice on the rue de Rivoli. In any case, Willy/Guillaume was fired from this official position the minute Paris was liberated in August 1944, and he was officially ostracized thereafter.
In this, he joined the company of such other collabos as the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the film director Henri-Georges Clouzot, and the actress Arletty, all ostracized for their war-time associations (intimate in Arletty's case) with the Nazis. Clouzot was barred from making films for two years, but then he returned to work and directed a couple of classics. Arletty, who was reputed to have said "My heart is French but my ass is international," served a prison term (according to legend in a chateau) but later appeared in many more movies. But poor Willy/Guillaume never again worked in an official musical capacity.Next, turn your mind to Denver, Colorado, in the early 20th century. It is not a place and time about which the term "high culture" readily comes to mind. All I know about that milieu is an early scene in Citizen Kane, in which the Colorado boy Charles Foster Kane has a sled called "Rosebud," but has to leave it behind when he inherits a goldmine. Safford Cape was an American boy born in 1906, the same year as William Devan, who grew up in Denver. He didn't inherit a goldmine, as far as I know, but somehow in Denver he developed an unlikely obsession with musicology and left at age 18, to pursue his obsession in Europe. In Brussells, he studied under the distinguished early music scholar Professor Charles Van den Borren.
Safford - - - or Teddy, as his closest friends called him - - - must have been a whiz. He joined Professor Van den Borren in publishing monographs on early music, and married the professor's daughter Marianne. Teddy started off as a composer, and in the 20s there were public performances of a few of his chamber compositions, but we can be sure that nobody who heard them is alive today. In 1933, his interest in early music led him to found the Pro Musica Antiqua of Brussels, a vocal and instrumental ensemble. The Pro Musica followed stringent HIP standards, concertized widely in Europe, and made some of the earliest recordings of late Medieval and early Renaissance music, in the European Anthologie Sonore series, and on HMV.Teddy returned to visit in the US occasionally, and when in New York, he liked to drop in at the Elaine Music Shop on 44th St in Manhattan. This record store was, I gather, something like a coffee-shop for music-lovers and culturati in the 1940s. It was owned by Max Skurnick, born in Poland in about 1890, and his wife Anna. Their son Jack liked to hang about in the store, where he helped out and chatted with the customers. In my imagination, I picture Max and Anna, wringing their hands about their ne'er-do-well son Jack, who was always hobnobbing with the record-shop customers when he should have been studying to go to medical school and become a doctor.
Jack, who never went to medical school, was an all-around culture nerd: he was a film buff who wrote unperformed movie scripts, he played the violin (not too well, I suspect), put out his own record review magazine, and dreamed of starting his own record company. In 1949 he made his dream come true, founding a little company called EMS (after his parents' record store) Records. I would guess that the major investors in EMS Records were Max and Anna, and maybe also some of their shop's regulars.
Jack proved to be an expert producer and sound engineer, and EMS Records won prizes for recording quality. It issued very esoteric stuff, a sign of the sophistication of the Elaine Music Shop crowd. One series of EMS LPs was devoted to art song. Another notorious EMS LP, #401, comprised Integrales, Density 21.5, Ionization and Octandre by the ultra-modernist Edgard Varèse. Varèse lived on-and-off in New York City for much of his life, and it may be that he and Jack met at the Elaine Music Shop. [The Varèse record absolutely mesmerized a youngster in El Cajon, CA named Frank Zappa, but that is another story.]
A third series, planned to eventually include 41 LPs, was of late Medieval and early Renaissance music performed by Safford Cape's Pro Music Antiqua of Brussels. The ones that were made before Jack's premature death are exquisite, among the best performances of early music on record. Only five of the projected 41 records were released on EMS, although later the DGG (Archiv), Period, and Vanguard (Bach Guild) labels released other LPs by the Pro Musica, some possibly from tapes that had been originally made for EMS.Another New Yorker who knew Safford Cape was a younger musician named Noah Greenberg. In 1952, Greenberg formed his own vocal/instrumental ensemble to perform early music, inspired by Cape's example. Greenberg called it the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, thus filching the name from the Brussels outfit which was its inspiration. The Brussels group limited its instruments to the softer lute, viols, and recorders. To these, the New York Pro Musica gradually added the biting sound of a few buzzies, replicas of which were beginning to be available. The New York group went on to popularize early music through innumerable recitals, notably their annual performance, starting in 1958, of a Medieval mystery play at the Cloisters in Manhattan, and through 28 recordings. It could be argued that Jack Skurnick's records of the Brussels Pro Musica Antiqua, together with the live performances and recordings by its New York counterpart, is what lit the fire of the Early Music Revival in the USA in the 1950s.
The Early Music Revival was a story of spectacular artistic successes, but there seemed to be a curse on these early pioneers that condemed them to short lives. Willy/Guillaume De Van died in 1949, at only 43, still under the cloud of his perhaps unwitting collaboration with the Nazis in occupied France. Jack Skurnick, an unsung hero of the dissemination of early music on record, suffered a fatal heart attack in 1952, at only 42 years of age. Most of the series of 41 LPs by the Brussels Pro Musica Antiqua that he had planned to issue on EMS went unreleased after his death. The genial Safford "Teddy" Cape had health problems which led him to retire in 1967 at the youngish age of 61, and he died before reaching his 67th birthday. Noah Greenberg, founder and leader of the New York Pro Musica, died in 1966 of a premature heart attack at age 46.
But Teddy's father-in-law, Professor Charles Van den Borren, who served quietly as advisor to the Brussels Pro Musica Antiqua, lived to the venerable age of 91. Perhaps the academic life is less stressful than conducting or recording a bunch of singers and HIPsters playing lutes, viols, recorders, zinks, and racketts.
As for Max and Anna Skurnick, who could perhaps qualify as grandparents of the Early Music Revival in the USA, I have been unable to find out anything more about them. The last time I visited mid-town Manhattan, which was years ago, the Elaine Music Shop wasn't there anymore, its fate lost in the mists of history. Could it be mere coincidence that EMS also stands for European Macroseismic Scale, used to measure the intensity of earthquakes?--- Dr. Phage