'It’s all a case of how to make the old new once again…'

'It’s all a case of how to make the old new once again…'

With his Hogwood Fellowship term under way, Sandy Burnett checks in with some of the highlights of his tenure thus far.

What I really like about working with the Academy of Ancient Music is that it’s made up of brilliant musicians who bring their brains to rehearsal.
Thinking hard about the music is just as important as playing it, and while modern instrument orchestras are now adopting many important early music discoveries of the last few decades – and that’s something to be welcomed – it remains true that AAM’s performances continue to discover what’s possible, and to push back boundaries to make the old new once again.

Take Nicola Boud for example, and more precisely the instrument that she brought on her visit to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with us in November.  We’ve known for a while that Mozart had the deeper-toned basset clarinet in mind for the solo role here, but exactly what the original looked like only emerged in the last few years when a sketch of the instrument that Mozart’s favourite clarinettist Anton Stadler played was unearthed in the Latvian Fundamental Library in Riga (a long story).  Nicola Boud plays a recent copy by the Paris-based instrument maker Agnès Guéroult which takes her much closer to what Mozart had in mind.  Listening in rehearsal, I was struck by the sound of her instrument which was more woody and mellow than we’re used to.  Although thorny questions remain:  does the bell on the instrument really point backwards rather than forwards, as per the sketch of 1794, or was it just twisted round that way to save space on the poster? I’ll leave it to the clarinetterati to continue discussing that one in the bar…


Pictured: Riga Clarinet 


As well as fresh insights into eighteenth-century repertoire we also brought unjustly neglected music back into the limelight with the star turn of the season:  Handel’s Brockes-Passion, performed on Good Friday at the Barbican, 300 years after what we think was its very first performance in Hamburg in 1719.  For me this was a work I’d known about for ages but never heard in performance, but thanks to some top AAM teamwork – the tireless advocacy of Richard Egarr, a new performing edition from Leo Duarte, contextual insights from Dr Ruth Smith and a new translation from Moritz von Grimm – the astonishing vigour of the score came unflinchingly to life.

As I explained in a TV interview for London Live and in a blog for Gramophone, I reckon it’s the unflinching reality of the text and the drama that’s stood in the way of Handel’s Brockes Passion being accepted for so many years; this is music and text that wouldn’t have sat comfortably in an Edwardian drawing room.  Working alongside Moritz on the translation certainly brought this home to me. In the Brockes text, the word “blood” appears twenty-two times and “death” nineteen. The experience pushed my knowledge of German vocabulary to the limits. Pus – “der Eiter” and bowels  – “die Eingeweide” – are two words I never thought I’d have to use in a musical context , but there you are:  life is full of surprises.


Pictured: Westminster Abbey Library. Credit: Sandy Burnett 


Another AAM surprise was to find myself up in the music library of Westminster Abbey after a chance encounter with my old friend Paul Baumann, AAM board member and now the Abbey’s Receiver-General.  He invited me to have a look at the music in their collection that was assembled for the use of the original Academy of Ancient Music in the 1720s, the group of music lovers from which we take our name. AAM mark 1 was a music club that counted aristocratic amateurs and top-flight professionals amongst their number. Their get-togethers might have been low-key – they met in a pub, the Crown and Anchor on the Strand – but their aims were high-brow:  to revive the “ancient” music of the past, drawing heavily on sacred music by Italian composers, and to get music taken seriously again as one of the seven liberal arts. Amen to that! In fact it was the first musical organisation anywhere in the world to concern itself with performing what we now call early music.

Where it gets really interesting is that after the Academy of Ancient Music was disbanded in 1802, its substantial music library, hailed as the finest of its kind in the country, was dispersed.  Some fifty or sixty pieces of music from the library though found their way into the library at Westminster Abbey, where they have only recently come to light. The time is right for a close look at this body of work, which could shed some interesting light on what kind of music-making took place at the original Academy of Ancient Music.  What sort of musicians would regularly take part, and who would go along to listen? What can leafing through the original sheet music tell us about these ancient Academicians? And in what way did their approach to the music of the past shape the kind of concert-going we enjoy today? There’s a juicy piece of research waiting to be done there.

As I said at the start, it’s all a case of how to make the old new once again…