Savall's reputation as one of our pre-eminent exponents of Early Music
continues to grow with each new CD release. Credited with the revival of
the viola da gamba, Savall and his wife, the superb soprano Montserrat
Figueras, founded Hesperion XX in 1974. (They renamed it Hesperion XXI in
2000). The ensemble's goal was to explore Western European music, and
Spanish music in particular, written before the 19th century.
Since then, Savall and his three ensembles (discussed
below) have issued close to three-dozen recordings on a host of labels,
including their own, Alia Vox. Among Savall's award-winning recordings are
works for viola da gamba by Francois Couperin, Marin Marais, and Antoine
Forqueray. Savall's soundtrack for the 1992 movie, Tous les matins du
monde, that celebrated the life of
Marin Marais, has sold over 500,000 copies worldwide and helped inspire
renewed interest in the French baroque.
Last fall, when the 64-year old artist made one of
his frequent trips to Berkeley to perform with Cal Performances, we met
face-to-face for a long and rewarding interview.
Jason Victor Serinus:
You cancelled your U.S. tour a few years ago after the U.S. invaded Iraq.
What is it like to be back in the United States performing?
I think at a certain point you cannot always assume that the decisions on
the part of political institutions represent the will of the people. There
were many different reasons for the decision we made in 2003. It was a
very personal and strongly felt situation for us as musicians, and we
weren't in a position to comprehend what all the elements represented. But
it was not a criticism of the American people; it was a criticism of the
government, which is a different thing. A lot of people understand why we
did what we did.
The Spanish government also supports the war in Iraq,
but the majority of the Spanish people do not. I have played the viola da
gamba in the square in Barcelona for millions of people, performing one of
the most representative songs of Catalonia, The Song of Birds
that Pablo Casals also played, in response to the invasion.
JVS: I try
to imagine how to reach people in the United States, where most people
remain ignorant of the beauties of classical music, with the exquisite and
refined music that you do. In Europe in general, and Spain in particular,
are people increasingly ignorant about the beauties of classical music?
always a certain part of the youth population that, in reaction to their
parents and the older, established culture, doesn't care much for this
music. But actually, at our concerts, young people form an important part
of the audience.
Many years ago, when we did the music for the movie,
Tous les matins du monde, we made
the Top 10 along with Michael Jackson and Queen. We remained there for
months. In the same weekend that Madonna presented her album about music
and sex, we were selling more discs than she was. When you have the
possibility of reaching people with something new and interesting, I think
people will respond.
The difficulty is how to reach these people. They are
ready to discover things. But as space for this music becomes smaller and
smaller, there are less possibilities to reach the,. There's no space in
record stores, radio, and television, so people can't learn about it. The
society that doesn't offer possibilities to its young people is in a very
We were in Mexico last week, where the situation is
even more terrible than in the U.S. in some ways. Yet we did several
concerts, including Spanish music at the time of Cervantes, in the big
hall at the National University that holds 2000 people. It was full, full
of young people as well as people from all the levels of society.
After the concert, we spent 90 minutes signing
programs and CDs. The people were young, old, rich, poor, students,
professors, and immigrants. It's because the price of the concert was so
Also, two or three different radio stations promoted
the concert. We go there every few years, so people know us. In the
states, different radio stations do a very good job. This is very
classical stations are dying in the U.S. We're being ghettoized.
Nonetheless, when we performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New
York City last spring, all three concerts were sold out. The New York
Times and New Yorker
wrote big reviews. In Europe, it's very rare to get such big reviews. Here
there was a real interest. We played music of Monteverdi and Cervantes in
the great hall of the Dendur Temple. It was beautiful, with lots people.
We've also performed our family program in the
Medieval Court. We also performed a program of French music with Le
Concert National there. Every time, we had an interesting, very sensitive
audience with lots of people. People come because they want to hear the
music, not because they're seeking social prestige.
talk about the concert you just performed in the Bay Area. I know there
are lots of opportunities for improvisation in baroque music, but I have
no idea how much of what you play is improvised as opposed to being
orchestral concert we just performed was all from written music; there was
no improvisation. In the Fandango encore by Boccherini, I
played my own version for cellos and two pianos, adapted from his original
version for orchestral quintet. Boccherini also wrote a version for guitar
and strings, but we didn't work from that. Where the piece calls for
castanets, we used a variation of the instrument that doesn't require
someone to master castanet technique; it produces the same rhythm, but not
the same sound.
Le Concert de Nations has just recorded a version of
the whole original quintet with very beautiful castanet players from Spain
[released May 2006].
explain the differences between your three groups.
Hesperion XXI, which was called Hesperion XX in the last century, performs
music for mixed consort of viols from the medieval, Renaissance, and
baroque periods. Sometimes there's one solo singer, sometimes two, other
times a flute or oud.
La Capella Rèal is a vocal ensemble that performs
Monteverdi madrigals or villancicos or a mass or R\requiem. It includes an
orchestra that can perform in a small group such as in music by Couperin,
as well as a full orchestra for Boccherini or the Musica Notturna by
Mozart, which we've recorded as our contribution to the Mozart year [also
released May 2006].
In the new recording of La Folia [released fall
2005], only the melody is written out; the rest is improvisation. All
variations are improvisations. We also did a lot of improvisation in our
last recording from the family, Du temps & de l'instant.
JVS: Yes. I
love the disc and have reviewed it.
JS: Many of
the pieces are improvisations, including all the pieces my son sings. Each
of his performances is different. In general, we tend to conserve the
parts of the improvisation that work well, and then add more to it. It's
like life. When you're in a good frame of mind, you remember the good
things, and you quickly forget the bad things.
JVS: I loved
when you involved the audience in clapping to the music.
Audiences are often very passive; they simply look, listen, and enjoy. But
some pieces, such as Rameau's contradances, were originally composed as
popular music. Much of the music that people played in 19th
century salons in America is similar in rhythm. It's music that began as
popular dance. and is used to make a certain point. Having people join in
is very natural.
seemed to take a real delight in the musicianship of Philharmonia Baroque
Orchestra. I've always thought of you as very serious; it was lovely to
see you smiling and directing us.
JS: Yes, I
think this is part of the necessary adaptation to the music. It brings the
music closer to the audience without detracting from it. I think music in
the first line is pleasure.
JVS: Do you
often introduce pieces to people?
JS: Yes, in
all my concerts, especially when I play alone. I explain what I'm playing,
and talk about the instruments. This brings people much closer to the
music. It gives them more pleasure if they know why you pluck with the
fingers, why you percuss with the wood, andwhy the music is written as it
I have done this from the very beginning because the
viola da gamba was so special. For people to understand it, I had to
explain why you play with the bow in such strange position. I remember one
concert where a woman in the audience thought I had a malformity that
forced me to hold the bow in such a strange position. You have to
understand that these instruments were originally played on the knees,
with the bow held as I do.
JVS: In the
Musica Notturna by Boccherini, the instructions were to play
the cello on the lap as though you were strumming a guitar.
The instructions were to hold the cello as though it were a guitar and
play it with the nails to make a sharp arpeggio. The cellists of
Philharmonia Baroque didn't hold their instruments this way because they
would have had to change their positions quickly, but the violinists did.
JVS: I read
that Arriaga, whose music you performed, was dubbed the Spanish Mozart.
JS: This is
a bit of mythology. He was a great composer. If he had lived more than 20
years, he might have become a composer as great as Mendelssohn. He's only
compared to Mozart because Mozart died very young, and Arriaga died much
wasn't as struck by his greatness. I liked many things, but it didn't hold
my interest as much as the other music you played.
it's music you have to know a little more before you can fully take it in.
I think there are things you can understand from the first moment. But
other things you have to learn to enter into the music. The phenomenon is
probably similar to what happens the first time you listen to a
Mendelssohn symphony, in comparison to a Beethoven symphony.
Arriaga also wrote and studied in Paris during a
moment of transition. I have worked on his music many years and recorded
all his symphonies and overtures. The more I play the music, the more I
raises a valid question about how critics evaluate pieces they've heard
for the first time. We just had the premiere of Doctor Atomic
and I read . . .
. . very
JVS: Oh yes.
What is your reaction when a critic absolutely trashes a full-length work
like Doctor Atomic based one hearing? I know one critic who
opined that, save for one aria, the writing is absolutely atrocious for
the voice? History is filled with critics who have condemned Mahler and
Brahms and their mother. How do you react to their absolute judgments?
very hard sometimes to understand the situation. As a performer, we work
with the music a long time. In a concert, it's one instant in our
continuing relationship, but for the critic, it's the only instant. This
makes for a difficult balance between the instant of the concert and the
evolution of the interpretation.
Music is always something very subjective. It's
equally subjective for the interpretation and the way you listen to it. In
an audience of 2000, there are 2000 ways to understand the music, and 2000
ways to feel the music. Everybody reacts with their own sensibility to the
situation of the moment.
If people were only willing to say 'my reaction is' as opposed to, 'this
writing is terrible.' It would require a certain amount of humility.
This is the point. There is not one truth. There are many truths, and many
JVS: If I
were going to review a world premiere, I would try to attend a dress
rehearsal so that I had greater familiarity with the music.
course. The music is the music, and papers and critics are another thing.
I think the biggest responsibility a critic has is to provide a minimum of
objectivity about the real situation of the performers and the music. The
impression of the audience is as important as the impression on the
readers, because the music is to be listened to.
JVS: And the
audience gave you a prolonged ovation.
You were a guest conductor. How many rehearsals did
first concert was on Friday, and we started rehearsal Wednesday. I didn't
distribute copies of scores that I had already marked up, but some of the
parts included the composer's original bowing indications. Otherwise, we
worked it all out during rehearsals.
We worked hard, and at the last moment I asked for
more time. I was actually ready to rehearse on Tuesday, but it wasn't
possible because of organizational considerations. I prefer to rehearse
more. The PBO musicians are very disciplined and very accustomed to
working hard together. People pick up things very quickly.
much of what you wanted to realize in those performances did you actually
achieve? Were you happy with what you heard?
difficult to say, because the ideal situation is impossible to achieve.
Some of the things you think are possible when you listen to the score in
your head are not possible to achieve in reality.
I think in the concert we realized a good amount of
what I wanted to achieve. We had exceptional flexibility in interpretation
and phrasing, which is very difficult to achieve with a large orchestra.
It's much easier to do this in chamber music. That's why I wanted more
time; the freedom to create something special needs time.
I think a conductor also has to know how to breathe.
With instrumental music, you need to take breaks, much as you do with a
singer. The phrasing needs to breathe. Music demands this.
always think of your music in terms of air, space, refinement and
elegance. To what extent do your interpretations reflect how the music was
actually performed during the period in which it was written? How much do
we know about original performance practice?
JS: It is
very different depending upon the period. The more ancient the music, the
less we know about concrete things.
Of music from the time of Couperin, Rameau, Lully,
Marais we know a lot. We know a lot about how to do ornaments, phrasing,
technique, bowing, articulation, and tempo – the technical things. There's
strong documentation from the period.
We know that the 'bowing on the air' creates a
different kind of music. The way to produce vibrato is also known. But
with older music, we know the style of the instruments from paintings, but
we don't know how they sounded or how they should be played.
There is an exception. We do know that many of the
instruments used in the 12th-14th centuries are
still used in the Arabic countries. The oud, several flutes, percussion,
and other instruments currently in use in the Mediterranean date back to
medieval times. In such cases, we learn how these monadic style
instruments that play only the melody are played today, study the
notation, and then improvise from it.
Medieval music is written without harmonies. Every
instrumentalist either improvises or ornaments the music in a certain way.
This changed in the Renaissance.
JVS: When we
listen to Hildegaard von Bingen, how much do we know about how the music
JS: We know
the melody and we know the ornamentation.
JVS: In the
first decade of early music performance and recording, tempi tended to be
very fast and strict. The give and take - the rubato - that
distinguished earlier, historically uninformed renditions and recordings
was absent. To what extent did the original interpreters of early music
employ rubato, vibrato, tempo changes, dynamics, etc?
was a lot of freedom in the baroque era. What I think you're describing
was the reaction in the initial period of authentic instrument performance
against taking extreme liberties. But nothing is freer than the baroque
interpretation of the time, because the musicians were all great
improvisers and soloists and had sufficient rehearsal time to work things
Even Beethoven, who is so strict with the tempo, and
included metronome markings in his scores, expected liberties. Take his
song "Aus dem Suden." He indicates metronome markings at the beginning of
the piece, but then, in the middle of the piece, asks the performers to
change tempo. We must recall the great phrase from Stravinsky, whosaid,
"Don't interpret my music; just play it." I think you have to understand
what this means.
A really good performer lets the music flow freely.
They let it sing and breathe, they let it live. Interpretation is where
you try to manipulate, and make your ideas stronger than the music.
Compare the Bach cello suites from Casals with the
cello suites from Rostropovich. Casals is playing with gut strings. He had
practiced the music for ten years before playing it in concert. Casals
plays with the freedom of a romantic player, but his vantage point is the
essential elements of Bach's music. His music is just free enough, but not
as extremely free as Rostropovich's, which is really as far removed from
Bach as from Casals.
you first met your wife Montserrat Figueras, were you first attracted by
her beauty or by her singing? She's such a beautiful woman, it would be
hard not to be attracted to her. She's gorgeous. But she also has an
extraordinary, unforgettable instrument. I remember when she stood in the
balcony of Berkeley's First Congregational Church, and began a concert by
singing behind and above us at the front of the orchestra. The way her
voice cut through the air was amazing.
Did you initially meet through music?
JS; We met in cello class, when we were both studying
cello around the age of 22 or 23. My teacher was not very comfortable with
the way I played Bach. Montserrat would remain behind, listening from the
hallway. When I'd leave the class, she'd always say to me very softly,
"Don't worry. You play very well." [laughing] This was a fantastic feeling
that lasted the whole day.
I decided at a certain point, after finishing my
studies and playing a lot of music written for the viola da gamba on the
cello, to explore the viola da gamba. After completing a summer course, I
decided to look at it.
I arrived in Barcelona, and received a call from Ars
Musica, a group that played ancient music in which Montserrat sang. They
told me that they had a viola da gamba for me if I wanted to play it
[chuckling]. I was interested and said yes.
As it turned out, the director of the group called
after he had asked Montserrat if she knew a young musician interested in
playing viola da gamba. She replied, "I don't know, but Jordi Savall is a
good cellist. Maybe he would like to play it." The group had planned some
recordings with Victoria de los Angeles for the following year and needed
a viola da gambist. When the recordings were eventually made, both me and
Montserrat performed with the group.
I first heard Montserrat sing when I was in the
group. She was so great. She has a very natural voice, so special, and so
sensitive. This was the beginning of everything [chuckling].
returning to Berkeley in March, 2006. What will you do?
JS: We have
two programs prepared, but I don't know which one we'll do. One is about
the music from Spain that traveled from the Old World to the New World,
and the music from the New World that traveled back to Spain. We'll play a
chaconne by Juan Aranjez from 1620 =-- he's on our record of Villancicos
Criollos. Cervantes said about the chaccone that it was Indian mulatto
music that originated with America's Indians. Cervantes knew that the
chacconna was the mix of Spanish and American Indian cultures.
This is very interesting. Many new dances - the
chaccona, the seguidilla, and all these new dance forms - appeared in
Spain in the second half of the 16th century, 50 years after
Columbus discovered the New World and brought the first Indians back to
Barcelona. We don't know how they appeared. Maybe some of them are a
result of the mixture of cultures. Some of the dances may have come from
Africa, because the Negro slaves did all the heavy work in the boats.
These were perhaps the first Negro spirituals. At the end of the 16th
century, many villancicos were called villancicos de Negro because they
were first sung by African people.
The Canary Islands were one of the principal places
ships stopped as they traveled from Africa to Spain and the New World. In
the churches of the Canary Islands there are Villancicos de Linguas,
Language Villancicos, that are written in all languages, including
African, Spanish, and Polish, that the sailors spoke. This represents a
new development in the history of music.
Another program we may do is comprised of the music
by Don Quichotte that was described in the book, Don Quixote de la
Mancha. By the start of 2006, we'll
issue a book and two records that contain all this music.
you for devoting so much time to this interview. It was a joy to speak