Sound Histories – An Enlightening Score for the British Museum

Sound Histories is the latest and largest yet in the RNCM’s series of site-specific installations created to animate iconic public spaces with music. 200 musicians will perform 120 pieces to bring artefacts and different areas of the British Museum to life on the 5 July.

This week we heard from Professor Richard Wistreich, RNCM Dean of Research and Enterprise, who told us more about the programme he has created for the Museum's Enlightenment Gallery…

  • So, can you give us an idea of the composers whose music we will hear in the gallery on the night? 

Among the composers there are plenty of well-known names – Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Mendelssohn – but, perhaps surprisingly, there is not a single truly ‘British’ one among them. But with the exception of Beethoven (whose music was, nevertheless already widely known and admired in Britain during his lifetime) all of them spent significant periods of their lives here and their music was ubiquitous on concert programmes, at the opera and, perhaps most importantly, in the everyday lives of cultured ‘amateurs’ – the same kinds of people who also travelled, collected, studied archaeology, ancient art and laid the foundations of modern natural history and anthropology and whose tastes and treasures form the contents of the Gallery.

  • And how has the collection influenced the final programme?

Our choice of individual pieces of music is designed to reflect this inter-connectivity. The Gallery itself is typical of the way that collections were displayed when the British Museum was inaugurated – a kind of ‘cabinet of curiosities’ containing statues, books, pictures, fragments of exotic rocks and fossils, and ‘curios’. In our programme we have likewise highlighted what we today call ‘chamber’ music, although the modern sense in which this means only musical ‘miniatures’, or a set of genres quite distinct from the ‘grander’ forms of opera, symphony and oratorio, would not have been recognised in the salons of London and other cultured towns in the 18th century.

Rather, audiences of connoisseurs would have found nothing strange about hearing an aria from Haydn’s Creation performed in a private room with piano rather than orchestra or a miniature opera such as Handel’s Apollo and Dafne cantata performed in a salon. We have chosen the Handel as a complement to the statue of Apollo in the Gallery and to the general passionate revival of interest in Classical culture and its mythology in the 18th century, reawakened in England by those who were able to make the ‘Grand Tour’ and see for themselves the ruins and artefacts of the Greek and Roman worlds.

Handel’s cantata taps into this nascent Romantic view of the classic world, telling the mythical story of a god who falls in love with a human beauty. The choice of Haydn’s Creation was inspired by the Gallery’s collection of the earliest fossils found in England and their part in ensuing debates about the origins of the earth. In a nod to the huge impact of Italy on the Northern cultural imagination, we’ll hear a movement from one of the beautiful sonatas by one of the greatest violinists of the 18th century, Francesco Geminiani, pupil of the famous Corelli. Like Handel, he spent a significant portion of his life in London and later in Paris and Dublin and is credited with revolutionising violin playing, particularly through teaching. Mozart may only have visited London as a child prodigy, but his music was known and appreciated here from the beginning.

We include several movements from one of the Serenades which he wrote for the elite Imperial wind band in Vienna – known to many people today because of the seminal role the piece plays in Peter Schaffer’s play (and later the film) Amadeus – listen out for the moment the dying Salieri recalled as his first encounter with Mozart’s sublime music!

  • How would those who founded this Gallery have experienced this music back in 1828?

Among the ideas we are hoping to highlight in the programme is the fact that some of the most sophisticated music-making in London around the late 18th and early 19th centuries was not to be heard in private salons rather than concert halls, but was played by what today would be called ‘amateurs’ – often very highly trained musicians who, because of class or gender would never have considered the becoming professional performers.

Much chamber music by those we now revere as the ‘great composers’ was, in fact, written for such skilled amateurs – string quartets (we have a movement from one by Queen Victoria’s favourite composer and piano duet partner, Mendelssohn), pianists and singers – who were serviced by the torrent of music that poured off the presses of the huge commercial operation that was the British music-printing industry.

The craze for all things Scottish and Romantic in the early years of the 19th century (as in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, for example) was picked up as just such an opportunity by the Edinburgh publisher, George Thomson, who commissioned arrangements of Scottish folksongs by, among others, Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven. We’ll hear three by Beethoven performed here, as they might have been heard in a private house around 1828.

  • Is what we will hear in a few weeks' time close to how this music would have sounded then?

We are hoping to convey the musical style, the sounds (you will hear, for example, harpsichord and fortepiano) and above all, the intimate feel of how this music might have been experienced around the time the Museum was being conceived.

Stay tuned for more on the blog about the Sound Histories project in the run-up to the event…

(Image courtesy of the British Museum) 

11 June 2013