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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 6

Jordi Savall - Hespèrion XXI, Restoring Musical Memory

by Dominique Olivier / March 1, 2001

Version française...

Jordi Savall, one of the principal artisans of the twentieth century’s ancient music revival, is an all-round musician — conductor, teacher, scholar, musical philosopher, and viola da gamba player. His ground-breaking work has succeeded in reviving a basic musical heritage and restoring our musical memory — something he holds dear. He and his colleagues have built a bridge from what we were to what we are, and what we may become — and the work goes on tirelessly, undeterred by the passing of the millennium. In Montreal, Savall and his outstanding Hespèrion XXI ensemble (formerly called Hespèrion XX) will be performing a program of Sephardic music inspired by one of his most recent recordings, Diaspora Sefardi — the first CD in a brand new series on the Alia Vox label. We reached Savall at his Barcelona residence, where he spoke to us about the importance of memory.

"The millennium was for us, as for many others, a time for taking stock, a moment to think about the future, to consider our philosophy of music and life, and our contribution to civilization, as well as the impact of our work. I feel our philosophical approach is summed up in the theme of the series that began with Diaspora Sefardi. The theme is ‘Roots and Memory’ (Raices y Memoria) — two words that express the approach we take to our work, whether recording or performing in concert. We realize the need to deepen our cultural roots in order to help keep memory alive and use it to build a future in which people can lead happier, fuller lives. I’m talking not only about the roots of Western culture, but of all the cultures that co-exist with us. This project and our Montreal program are ways of rendering homage to the men and women who have preserved an ancient culture while becoming part of other societies. They have adapted, yet kept their special character, not by excluding others, but by co-existing with them. If history hasn’t allowed such happy co-existence to continue, that’s because man is perhaps one of the only animals to keep repeating the same mistakes and falling into the same traps. Our main problem today is that we forget too fast, and those who were once victims sometimes become oppressors."


The task of preserving human memory is a constant struggle and a heavy responsibility, is it not? "When you have a gift, and the talent, sensitivity, and ability to get things done, you’re responsible for sharing these things, for making them felt and understood by as many people as possible," says Savall. He is aware that his work has a world-wide impact, as demonstrated by his immense recording success and his work in film, especially Tous les matins du monde. "It isn’t exactly combat," Savall adds, "because you’re not fighting against someone. It’s more of a struggle against the fact that society is becoming more and more submerged in a superficial world, in a culture of mediocrity and violence. However, it’s true that sometimes we have to fight to earn even a little space for all of life’s wonders, and sometimes we clash with the systems that prevent us from having the time to make these wonders known to others."

Savall isn’t content just to make his own troops fight to preserve the treasures of civilization. He’s also preparing the next generation. "We don’t live forever, and we must think of ways to continue our work — by establishing a school of ancient music, by teaching the younger generations our philosophy and encouraging them to be sensitive to the music of the past. At the same time, it gives us enormous pleasure to find that more and more people are listening to us, and that there is a loyal, growing public, even though it is still a minority. This will never be music for the masses."

Music is a dialogue

Savall, who in fact is now developing a school of music in Barcelona and has taught for many years at Switzerland’s Schola Cantorum, feels that teaching includes recording and giving concerts. "I believe people learn by coming to our concerts, because we play music that touches very different sections of society. A concert provides an example; it is part of teaching. When you sing or play something, you touch somebody; the performer is in the process of mastering the art, and the listener becomes a kind of pupil who learns according to his or her sensitivity and abilities. The most important thing, which must be continually repeated, is that music is a dialogue. A musician doesn’t exist unless there is someone there with whom he or she is communicating. And the more sensitive this someone is, the more the musician can communicate. A truly living relationship is established between the two."

Savall’s professional life has always been divided between research, teaching, preparing projects, concerts, and recording dates, all of which he considers interrelated. Current projects are many and include, notably, the next phase of another new series, "Royal Music," which opened with a magnificent recording of music from the time of the Hapsburg emperor, Charles V. The second recording in the series, to be released in March, is based on the music of the court of Naples at the time of Alphonse the Magnanimous. Another project, featuring Bach, is to be called "Bach’s Testament." It includes a recording of The Musical Offering, to be twinned with an older, remastered recording of The Art of the Fugue.

As for Diaspora Sefardi, Savall points out that it is the encapsulation of nearly thirty years of work on this type of music. The ensemble recorded some of the pieces in 1975. "We have developed a different vision of this music and that’s why we decided to make a CD of it," he says.

Savall’s philosophy can be summed up by this final note: "A people with no memory has no future."

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

Version française...

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