here are always signs and wonders: one believes that all preserved sources are known, that everything that still exists is essentially recorded – then a new manuscript appears! A few years ago, a manuscript was auctioned that turned out to be a chansonnier of the Burgundian era: a collection of polyphonic French songs from the Loire Valley of the late 15th century. In it: well-known classics of the great composers, but also surprising and unknown. The concert will feature a selection of songs by the Leuven chansonnier with singers and instruments, including some still “unheard” melodies.
Tessa Roos – discantus | Jacob Lawrence – tenor | Raitis Grigalis – contratenor bassus | Mara Winter – transverse flute | Elizabeth Rumsey – viola d’arco | Marc Lewon – lute; conductor
Raitis Grigalis – singer, assistant of Andreas Scholl at the Mozarteum in Salzburg
Thomas Christ (TC): Raitis Grigalis, the Basel audience has known you as a singer of baroque literature for several years. I suppose that singing has accompanied you since your early childhood, your hometown Riga is considered the Mecca of choral music. Do you come from a musical family?
Raitis Grigalis (RG): My parents are not professional musicians, but they met while making music. My mother is a doctor, my father an engineer; while both were still studying, they met in the mixed youth choir at the University in Riga. My mother sang soprano, my father sang bass.
I love this story, because that’s how I was practically “born in the choir”, grew up in and with choral music. My parents sent me to Emils Darzin’s Music School (Riga Cathedral Choir School), where I gained my first stage experience in the boys’ choir. Later I sang in the mixed choir, which was directed by my father’s brother. However, I was not born without musical genes: My grandfather was a respected choir director, violinist, organist and teacher in Latvia. During my studies at the Riga Academy of Music I participated in professional ensembles, including the Riga Radio Choir. At the same time I founded and directed the church choir of St. Peter’s Church in Riga. This is an amusing parallel, because at that time I also often performed in St. Peter’s Church in Basel.
TC: How did you find your way to Basel? Was the love of early music the only reason?
RG: My interest in early music was already awakened in high school. Later, at the Academy of Music, where I also trained in conducting, I discovered my high voice and decided to further develop singing in an academic setting. Initially, I looked in the direction of London – Latvia was not yet in the EU at that time. But my studies there would have been very expensive and thus almost impossible. By chance, I met my professor of music history one afternoon on the stairs of the college, who told me about Basel and the Schola Cantorum. I immediately went to the freshly set up computer room on the top floor and started researching. When I saw the photo with the beautiful courtyard of the Music Academy in Basel when I opened the website, it was clear to me – that’s where I want to go. However, it was already April and I was late with my registration. Then, the following year, everything worked out.
TC: In the world of classical music, especially in the opera repertoire of the great stages, baroque operas have gained enormous popularity in recent decades. Throughout Europe, professional baroque ensembles mushroomed on the musical landscape. In contrast, the rich literature of the Renaissance still leads a real shadowy existence. How do you explain this imbalance?
RG: That’s a more complex question and I don’t want to claim that I could answer it in a clear and profound way. There are many languages on earth, also every music or style speaks its own language, and thus we understand one better and the other rather not. The language of baroque music is easier for us to understand today because its dramatic effects are expressive, full of affect, rich in contrast and color, pompous, splendid, lyrical and at the same time intimate. This is even more true when it speaks to us on the opera stage, with all the trappings of a baroque or modern opera house, or at a mass with trumpets and timpani – hardly anyone remains untouched. Even in the Renaissance there are genres of secular music that are more easily absorbed, whereas the great richness of vocal polyphony may require some kind of ‘access code’, or a certain attention and willingness to engage, to delve, to enjoy the pleasure and linearity of the music – because the world that lies behind those closed doors is beautiful. I myself have sung a lot of polyphony in the last few years and I love it. It is to be hoped that the economic factors in the music world will remain positive so that Renaissance music will continue to flourish.
TC: You’ve lived in the Basel region for 20 years now. Do you find the time to devote to choral music here as well?
RG: Sure, if I already have a diploma in choral and orchestral conducting in my pocket, I use it. Choral culture in Switzerland, and especially in Basel, is very rich and has a long tradition.
I am always amazed at the many larger and smaller church choirs that put on one or two big concerts a year – with classical oratorios and cantatas, with orchestra and soloists. And this almost in every city in Switzerland. This makes the local choral culture different from that in Latvia, where everything is concentrated in the capital. A long tradition of church music does not exist, because due to the geopolitical situation on the Baltic Sea, the constant wars and changes of power, our traditions have been repeatedly broken or interrupted. The folk culture, and thus also the musical culture, has been suppressed again and again through the centuries and has rather developed and enriched itself in the individual, in the family circle, or even in the underground. The fund is huge, there would be about 2 million folk songs, namely one for almost every Latvian. This gave rise to a national identity at the beginning of the 20th century, and eventually to a professional musical culture that carried enormous resilience. This explains why in Latvia choirs are engaged in singing across generations, because often this was the only free expression that could be afforded. It is therefore hardly surprising that the singing festivals, which take place every five years, have grown into a unique cultural phenomenon. The festival lasts a whole week and ends with a competition in the auditorium of the University of Riga, where it is decided in each category who will be crowned the best choir in the country. This has a sporty effect and motivates especially young singers. The choral culture is thus taken very seriously and leads to high musical performances, which can be heard in the choral sound. I too am a child of that choral culture and at the same time a graduate of the Schola Cantorum in Basel: so I now try to bring together both cultural histories and traditions. I currently direct the English Seminar Choir at the University of Basel.
TC: I heard that you are also a composer. Is that also about choral works? Can you tell us something about that?
RC: That’s right, I’ve studied composition on and off as a minor, and in fact the majority of it is about music for choir and voice, because that’s the stuff I know best, where I feel like a fish in water. These are smaller sacred choral pieces, psalm settings, but also pieces with texts by Rilke and some movements for masses. I would by no means consider myself an avant-garde composer, rather my music is based on practical, functional and harmonic guidelines, so that the complexity, remains accessible to the non-professional ensemble.
A few years ago, I was commissioned by the Catholic Church in Therwil to write a Christmas oratorio with a text by Jacqueline Keune, a freelance theologian from Lucerne. It is conceived it from the point of view of an old woman and reflects the rather gloomy, helpless and grayer aspects of the Christmas story. And just these weeks, together with two friends from Basel, we have finished the fairy tale opera “Snow White”, a work which again uses a different mode of expression, instrumentation and stylistic devices and is intended as a stage work with appropriate means of performance.
TC: Thank you
“I’m in … ” by David Fallows on “Unheard of from the Loire Valley,” July 2020.
We have all dreamed of suddenly making an unexpected musical discovery in a hidden castle in Spain’s mountains. And indeed, some 40 years ago, one such story made the rounds about the discovery of Monteverdi’s Arianna; another of its kind reported at about the same time the discovery of Dufay’s mass for the dedication of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.
Neither one nor the other occurred. And in fact, the surprises all come from the great national libraries that we thought were fully cataloged: the unique print of a Portuguese keyboard tablature cataloged in the Royal Library of Spain as a book on arithmetic; the magnificent French chansonnier that turned up when someone ordered microfilms of the widely known music manuscripts 76b, 76c, and 76d from the Uppsala University Library and unceremoniously decided to order 76a as well while he was at it; the precious music prints of Egenolff, which had been stored in the Swiss National Library since the 1890s, but had not made it into any of the international cataloging projects because their music holdings were predominantly modern.
But the discovery of the Leuven chansonnier was a discovery in the truest sense of the word! It was bought as part of a collector’s item – together with an illuminated Visitation scene and a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary – for €3600 by a Brussels dealer who, about a year later, thought to call in a music historian to assess whether it might be of special interest. Professor David Burn of the University of Leuven immediately recognized that this was a classic French song collection from around 1470, like the long-famous chansonniers of Wolfenbüttel, Dijon, and Copenhagen, but of smaller format (120 x 85 mm) and more uniformly written and decorated. As in the aforementioned manuscripts, the contents of the Leuven Chansonniers consisted primarily of familiar songs, but 12 of the 50 entries were new; and among the familiar songs, there were some fascinating new readings to boot.
My favorite is the opening piece, Walter Frye’s Ave regina celorum. I have recently published an edition of the piece from the 23 known sources from all over Europe to date. At two points there were musical impossibilities that could only be solved by consulting deviously marginal sources: the results were not particularly elegant, but they worked. The Leuven Chansonnier offered a setting both unique and thoroughly elegant for both jobs. A comparison with the story of the “prodigal son” is an understatement: be most kindly welcomed, Leuven Chansonnier!
(Translation: Marc Lewon)
1st Ave Regina celorum – Walter Frye (†1475)
2nd L’omme banny (instrumental, rondeau) – Barbingant (active c1445/60) / Johannes Fedé (c1415-1477)
3. quant j’ay au cueur (rondeau) – Antoine Busnoys (c1430-1492)
4. tout a par moy (rondeau) – Walter Frye / Gilles de Bins, dit Binchois (c1400-1460)
5. ma maistressse (instrumental, Virelai) – Johannes Okeghem (c1410-1497)
6. donnez l’aumosne (Virelai) – Antoine Busnoys? (Unicum)
LC 31, fol.47v-50r
7. est il mercy (instrumental, rondeau) – Antoine Busnoys
8. vraiz amans (rondeau) – anonymous (Unicum)
9. cent mil escuz (rondeau) – Firminus Caron (active c1460/75) / Antoine Busnoys
10. si vous voullez (Virelai) – Alexander Agricola? (1445/6-1506, Unicum)
11 Au travail suis (Rondeau) – Barbingant / Johannes Okeghem
12. Henri Phlippet (instrumental, rondeau) – anonymous (Unicum)
13 Oublie, oublie (Rondeau) – anonymous (Unicum)
Source: Leuven Chansonnier (LC; Loire Valley, ca.1470), Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, s.s.
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