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Keeping It Alive 

Some thoughts on the viola da gamba as a musical ambassador *

The classical music scene in the beginning of the 21st century is truly fascinating and complex: as in most other areas of life and art, in today’s global village and with the help of means such as internet, print, recordings and so on, we can easily obtain information about all recent developments, as well as about everything we have been able to document and to preserve until now. And more to the point, musicians nowadays are free to choose which music they wish to perform from the large selection of western music repertoire available to us, spreading back, roughly, over one thousand years. However, as performers, many of us mostly tend to classify ourselves with one of the periods or genres of classical music repertoire. Thus, professional performers who identify themselves as being loyal to the historically informed performance-practice approach normally avoid performing early repertoire on a ‘modern’ instrument, and to the most they are rarely involved in performing contemporary repertoire as well. Nevertheless, the field of new music composed for historical instruments is slowly becoming accepted, and even trendy. 

In 2007 I was invited by a colleague to make a video presentation, which would be screened at the first Pan-Pacific Viola da Gamba Gathering in Honolulu, in which I would play two Israeli pieces for viola da gamba, and speak about the subject of new music for viols as well as the development of viol playing in Israel. This article is born out of the failure of that presentation. Briefly, back in 2007 I was unable to find a proper (inspiring, if you will) venue for this video performance, and, along with the lack of budget, I had great difficulties producing this presentation by myself to a good-enough standard of quality. But strangely enough, these obstacles might have been forgotten had I been happier about my own playing. As I was trying to communicate the music to the video camera in front of me, I was not surprised to discover yet again how important the presence of an audience could really be. A few days later, playing the same music for real people in a recital, things looked and felt much better. 

In a thesis I wrote in 2005 - Concerts & Recordings Vis-à-Vis: Comparing and Contrasting Performing and Listening Experiences Through Early Music Practice, I discussed the importance of the special connection between performers and audiences. The unique exchange of energies and feedback during a concert makes it an exciting, unpredictable thing. When performers and listeners share these special moments, they also help in maintaining the nowadays-fragile existence of a dynamic, living classical music scene. 

As I mentioned above, today’s music market, with the help of documentation technology, is unique because it allows both music makers and consumers to enjoy much of the previously unreachable musical achievements and knowledge. Therefore, by composing and performing new music for historical instruments, we can establish a connection between the old and the new. We can try to build bridges between early music, which we love so much and will continue to perform, and the broad cultural aesthetics of today, and we can promote a more active relationship between composers, performers and the public. This, in my opinion, is important because if we can link historical instruments with current methods and tendencies in composition we ultimately might be able to preserve, bring forward and make relevant some traditions, which are gradually becoming a thing of the past, such as attending concerts and keeping the market of classical music alive. 

As it happens I was the first viol student and player of my generation in Israel. I met the viol for the first time during one of the international Early Music Workshops, held in Jerusalem. But at a certain point, probably in 1991-1992 as I heard this instrument being tuned inside a church, I fell in love with it completely. After having played the recorder for quite some time and being familiarized with Baroque musical aesthetics, the correct way of playing trills and so on, I had enough of the short time I had spent with the modern cello. The film Tous Les Matins Du Monde had just been released, and fortunately, Brazilian viola da gamba player Myrna Herzog just came to live in Israel. My first viol lessons took place in a tiny room at the absorption centre for newcomers. 

Over the years the viol has slowly but surely become recognised by early music fans in Israel. But compared with instruments such as the recorder or the harpsichord, which have been taught at an excellent level in Israel - institutionalised viol tuition has yet to mature. Personally I found myself mostly having to manage with the autodidactic approach until my studies at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis took place. Thus as far as professional viol players go, ones who are interested in and capable of performing solo repertoire for viol, there are still very few in Israel. Most young musicians who wish to become professional players on any historical instrument still find that the best way to do that is to spend a few years in one of Europe’s early music schools. This way, they not only develop their professional techniques, but they can also familiarise themselves with new methods and approaches to performance practice and become acquainted with different people and cultures. Nevertheless, recent efforts toward strengthening the few existing early music departments in Israel and forming new ones in music academies and conservatoires might result in the viol, as well as other historical instruments, gaining a more respectable, official place in the near future. 

Israel has always enjoyed a very dynamic, vibrant music scene. Although under constant threat of budget cuts in favour of security, Israeli culture in general and music in particular is always on the rise. With some of Israel’s most talented and gifted young performers back from their studies abroad, and with the already established musicians continuing to fight for support and recognition, new projects, ensembles and ideas are forming. The small Israeli market tends to be very competitive, and many of Israel’s ambitious musicians are constantly driven to meet goals, to remain active and to be part of this challenging industry.

Even so, in light of the ever changing political scene inside and out, which ultimately results in financial difficulties, it is not an easy reality: in order to maintain this work, a lot of effort, hope and optimism are required, and for independent or freelance performers - any project that comes to life on stage is a true achievement. And yet (and maybe because of that) there is an ongoing thirst for new opportunities for creativity and collaboration, and each new edition of instrumentalists may result in new possibilities for performance or composition. 

This may be reflected in the growing curiosity I felt along the years among Israeli composers, as I have been trying to create interest in writing new music for viola da gamba. My first successful attempt resulted in the Recitative & Dance for solo viola da gamba, composed for me by Daniel Akiva in 2004**. In his music Daniel Akiva often refers to old Sephardic tunes. This is a notable aspect, because of the tight connection between viols and the Golden Age of Spain. This period of time, around the 14th and the 15th centuries, marked the development of the viol. As people from the three prominent religions resided closely together in the Iberian Peninsula, parts of Spain and Morocco, they could absorb different cultural influences, share their traditions and enrich one another. Thus the three cousins - the viol, the guitar, and the lute, evolved from the rebab, the vihuela and the oud. For Israeli musicians, the exploration of such relations between instruments, peoples and cultures is therefore a creative and fascinating way of research into our roots, and more importantly, for expanding our culture, creating a dialogue and looking for the common grounds we share with our Arab neighbours. 

The piece by Daniel Akiva, which I have played extensively in my concerts, has proved to be very communicative with the audience. Before it was written I had held a thorough discussion with the composer, in order to communicate some of the unique characteristics of the viol. I find it very important and advisable to have such discussions, in addition to playing for the composer (or recommending suitable recordings) and pointing out to some informative repertoire, to allow composers to become acquainted with the viol, its sound, the ways that music that was previously composed for it looked and sounded, and so on. This is imperative since many still see the viol as an exotic, primitive relative of the cello, and when they treat it as such in composition, it may result in music which is not at all idiomatic for the viol, as the composer had a different idea altogether in mind. Some composers may then decide to let the instrument (and the performer) lead them in a way, but this does not at all mean that by doing so they would surrender into composing their piece in a Neo Baroque or any other historic style; quite the opposite: composing in a way that agrees with the instrument, while using its true abilities and characteristics in a contemporary way, can and should produce wonderful, enjoyable and innovative results. Some may also wander to non-classical styles such as jazz, Indian ragas, and so on. 

As for myself, I have always enjoyed including new musical arrangements in my concerts. One of my favourite aspects of early music is the inclination to make something new - play extempore, compose diminutions, etc - of already familiar tunes. According to the conventions of the 17th century, one is almost expected not to be satisfied with existing musical material, but to add, to embellish, or to arrange a given piece for given circumstances. A few years ago I decided to arrange The Hyacinth Tune – a well-known Israeli lullaby composed by Rivka Gvili to lyrics by Lea Goldberg, for the viol. In this case I had a bit of Christopher Simpson in mind and a bit of Tobias Hume when I composed five variations for solo viol upon this tune**. Having played this piece in concerts in several countries I found that even people who had never heard the original tune before, and who had not been particularly interested in Israeli music, suddenly became intrigued, and that Israelies who had never heard a viol before, and who normally wouldn’t even consider attending a classical music concert, were warming up to this possibility. 

Through the viol, I have found yet another way of examining the important, crucial relationship between music makers (performers and composers) and music consumers (all types of listeners) – the delicate classical music market is based upon them. The viol is truly a special instrument: its richness of sound, its wide range and its ability to carry both melodies and harmonies among other aspects, have all made it attractive for professional performers and amateurs alike during several centuries of music-making. Viol players today may not only benefit from the vast early repertoire that was composed for this instrument, but also from its recent revival. By introducing both historical and contemporary repertoire to the audience, we can maintain the vitality of this intriguing instrument, and play an active, positive role in today’s musical scene. New music for the viol, as well as for other historical instruments, can support and contribute to the diversity of this scene. I believe that this diversity, not only in composition, but also in other choices of concert-repertoire and in performance practice approaches, should be encouraged, because variety in art is always preferable to fixation and narrow mindedness. While we enjoy all that technology has to offer, live concerts can still give us a good reason to meet and to maintain our cultural and social relationships and contacts. Therefore, by welcoming a dialogue with contemporary composers, by joining the arts - merging new music with theatre, dance, film etc, and by not allowing the discontinuation of our need to experience things, such as concerts, mutually as a group – We may be able to keep the music scene alive. 

Tal Arbel 

London, July 2007 

* Published in The Viol - magazine of the viola da gamba society in Uk, 2008.

Revised 2011, 2020.

** Both pieces - Recitative & Dance by Daniel Akiva and The Hyacinth Tune & 5 Variations for solo viola da gamba were recorded on Tal Arbel’s solo CD Gambit.

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