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Academy of Ancient Music: ’Tis Nature’s Voice | Scherzi musicali

  • May 1, 2023
  • 4 min read
Academy of Ancient Music: ’Tis Nature’s Voice | Scherzi musicali

Milton Court Concert Hall, London

Can classical music ever really be funny? The canon has its well-known ‘jokes’ – the false endings of Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat; the ‘wrong key’ entries of Mozart’s Divertimento K.522 – which work by playing around with generic conventions, and, much like a joke in the modern-day sense, establishing a set of expectations and then subverting them. Today, the audience tends to emit a smattering of chuckles when such a prank is played, but I always like to imagine an 18th-century audience, presumably literate in and sensitive to the music of Haydn and Mozart in slightly different ways to how we are today, laughing as enthusiastically as a modern-day audience might to a stand-up routine.

The Academy of Ancient Music’s Scherzi Musicali (which translates as musical jokes) brought together a selection of short Baroque pieces, all of which were united by humour and playfulness. The comedy, in this instance, came from the musical mimicry of the sounds of the natural world – we heard hens crowing and cats meowing – as well as a kind of juxtapositional absurdity born of wildly exuberant shifts in tone, mood and tempo. Pieces sped up, slowed down, changed key dramatically, and at one point, seemed to end mid-phrase, like a ball stopping mid bounce.

A pre-concert discussion with the players revealed an intention to encourage the audience to understand the music through the concept of theatrum mundi, the Baroque’s sense of the whole world as a stage. And a sensitivity to the dramatic pervaded the concert throughout. For a start, the players were arranged on the stage with the compositional elegance of a Renaissance painting, illuminated by the soft yellow glow of their music stand lights. I was struck initially, and continued to be at various points throughout the performance, by the lute, whose neck was a comical two metres long and protruded at an odd angle from the focal point at the middle of the ensemble. A Google revealed that this was a Theorbo, a double-necked lute, invented in the 17th century in order to address the need for a fuller sound. It looked so fabulous and weird and I was utterly captivated by it.

Lead violinist Bojan Čičić guided the players through the music’s various sonic allusions – sometimes I was reminded of a jangling fairground, at other times the sea. But my focus kept returning to the lute. It played such a curious part in the proceedings: barely audible while the whole ensemble was playing, but then it would be granted a sublime solo, usually taking the form of a coda at the end of a movement, which seemed to act as a kind of commentary on the drama that had taken place. It invited you to wonder if the music that came before was a product of the instrument’s imagination, such was the gravity and composure of its voice. It had the presence of a storyteller, an omniscient mind. 

I was glad to be introduced to some lesser known composers – the likes of Farina, Walther and Westhoff – and was surprised that their music seemed at once from a very long time ago and also curiously modern. At one point in Farina’s Capriccio Stravagante, the parts dissolved into the dissonant sighing strings more commonly associated with the likes of 20th century giant Penderecki, and at another, I briefly thought that the composer was quoting the stabbing chords of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho soundtrack, before remembering that the former predates the latter by more than 300 years.

Čičić led us through this most capricious of programmes with great confidence, crucially leaning into rather than shying away from its strangeness. He saved his greatest directorial flourish until the final piece – Biber’s Battaglia à 10 – when the players stood up and began to move through ever-shifting formations, sort of like a starling murmuration but much slower and with only a few starlings. It’s a rare thing to see this kind of commitment to movement in a classical concert, but it made total sense here given the intensely gestural music of the period and the pageantry for which it was written The musicians moved around, crossing parts and paths, marching on the spot, and, eventually, lying down, continuing to play, as they brought the concert to an end. It was remarkable that none of this galavanting compromised their playing in the slightest. 

I enjoyed this willfully unusual, unapologetically dramatic approach to concert-giving so much, and while I didn’t exactly laugh out loud, I left feeling light and joyful, reminded that classical concerts need not be sombre or serious affairs.

Image: Ben Ealovega

About Author

Lucy Thraves

Lucy works for the musicians’ charity Help Musicians. She previously wrote for and edited the magazines Classical Music and Music Week, and continues to write in a freelance capacity today. She lives in London.

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