Stop the world, I want to get off! Musical Reclusivism

One of the movies which inspired so many people, and was a very big influence in my life and those of other musicians, Tous les Matins du Monde (All the Mornings of the World, 1991) is a portrait of the musical recluse – the artistic hermit. I have even known people who have entered the world of music and that of Early Music in particular, because of this unusual story, unusual movie and remarkable musical contributions by the stellar viola da gambist, Jordi Savall.

Set in during the reign of Louis XIV the movie is formed around the fantastic and purely hypothetical memories of one of history’s most important composers for the viola da gamba, a fretted, bowed, string instrument of which the modern double bass is a direct descendant. In our movie, the ageing Marais, played by none other than Gérarde Depardieu, recounts memories of his mentor, the great, but essentially marginally known Monsieur de Saint Colombe. At the time of filming the first name of M. de Saint Colombe’s was not even known to the world! The young Marais, played by Depardieu’s own son, Guillaume, visits and plays for Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe and, as Marais ages, he sneaks into the gardens of his mentor to listen secretly to the great master playing by himself, in private. Our fictional version of Marais, seems beguiled and intimidated by the considerably greater, almost mythical, talent of his mentor.

However, by complete contrast to the public life Maris enjoys in Paris, in the courts and amidst other musicians, Monsieur de Saint Colombe has withdrawn completely from the world. Having taught his daughters to play the viola da gamba also, Saint Colombe lives the life of a recluse, whose inspiration is his late wife and the magic of his astounding talent. It is remarkable to watch the socially removed older musician in his content happiness contrasted with the anguish and envy of the younger Marais, in full swing of his very public and important career at court. And this brings to mind the musicians today whose raison d’être seems to be that of our fictional Marais: of fame, public notoriety, importance and eventual financial comfort, recognition and sometimes even historical immortality.

Apart from M. de Saint Colombe, there have been other notable recluse musicians – people who withdrew from society almost to the extent of hermitage. Perhaps, the most famous to come to mind is Johann Jakob Froberger, who asked his last patron, the dowager Duchess of Montbéliard, Sybilla (1620–1707), to never show others his books of compositions because, he thought, others would not understand them and would misuse and perhaps even deride them. He lived out his last years with her at her residence, Château d’Héricourt, where he taught her to play the harpsichord in isolation from the rest of the music world.

In recent years, more and more of Froberger’s keyboard compositions have come to light again, having been found tucked between other volumes, in obscure corners of libraries or even private collections. It wasn’t uncommon in Froberger’s lifetime to refuse to publish music for fear of it being copied and used without compensation to the composer and this was one of the curious underlying aspects of Froberger – his secrecy, despite his Pan-European travels, his associations and friendships with some of the most notable composers of his day. It seems even possible that he ensconced his compositions in small books carried on his person or close at hand.

Some composers, on the contrary, published books of compositions in order to keep in Royal favour and to maintain or acquire patronages. However, in the case of Froberger, one can quickly see though his music that he might truly have felt his writing was just too private, too intimate and too far-out to be understood or performed properly. Not only does he take advantage of the curious tuning systems in vogue at the time, for the tuning of keyboard instruments and their often exquisite—almost painful—dissonances for moments of emotional anguish (such as a piece in which the death of a beloved patron is lamented) but also for programme music: music with a specific story-line. This was, essentially, unheard of at that time. Furthermore, he wrote a piece in contemplation of his own future death.

Sadly, the majority of musicians I have known to work on his music seem disinterested in this rather curious and private aspect to Froberger. Perhaps most modern musicians just can’t relate to the hermit, the recluse. Today most have quite the opposite driving force: one of pushing forward and upwards, even at the expense of loved ones, colleagues, associates. In all of the history of music and of musicians, we have seen some examples of the deceit and confidence tricking, envy, social climbing, and just outright lies. The 1984 movie Amadeus showed a remarkable, but fictional account of the extents of envy of the than Kapellmeister, Salieri, towards Mozart, along with a Da Vinci Codeesque story-line of intrigue and intellectual property theft.

This is still, very much the norm today: of people elbowing others out of their professional way to heave themselves upwards, pushing down on the heads of others in the process. Others grab onto the shirt tails of high-flyers in, the often vain hope, of being dragged up to the same lofty heights and of shining by the reflection of the light generated by those others’, more substantial, talents. But there are yet others who are the very converse of this: the private, intimate, loner musicians; those recluse musicians, who hide away in the dim corners of their homes, secretly toiling away at their craft unknown to the world at large with only a few, select, perhaps even handpicked, trusted outlets for their creativity.

These are the Sainte-Colombes of today, perhaps. Maybe our modern musical hermits are driven to their hidden lives by the stress, distress and hopelessness of the musical profession, or perhaps through their empathy for an ever more cruel world, which they view from afar and feel helpless to repair. Or perhaps simply an inner pain, the inner pain all musicians perhaps ought to possess, but which—as most freshman music college students quickly discover—few do. It brings them to a more private understanding and private use of music. My own work with Froberger and my harpsichord, in the seclusion of my quiet home, has spawned questions from others if I were perhaps the reincarnation of Froberger, himself, or if his spirit visited me. Of course, that is all simple and idle nonsense, but his music did visit me, and his private, intimate nature did speak to me very profoundly and nurtured in me some of his own recluse nature. There is a lot to be said for humility in music and in musicians, even if becoming a recluse is not the only way to achieve that goal.

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