When Jordi Savall graduated from the Barcelona Conservatory of Music in 1965, performances of music predating Mozart or Haydn were few and far between. After mastering the all-but-forgotten viola da gamba, the Catalan-Spanish musician-conductor went on to become a pillar of the period-instrument movement and helped spur the rediscovery of dozens of lost composers from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Now 78 and still revered in the world of early music, Savall will bring two of his longtime ensembles to Orchestra Hall as part of a Symphony Center Presents Special Concert on Feb. 9. Featured will be Hespèrion XXI, a period-instrument ensemble that Savall founded in 1974 with his late wife, soprano Montserrat Figueras, and two other musicians, and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, a vocal ensemble established by Savall in 1987 to focus on music before the 19th century. In all, the program will include four singers and seven instrumentalists, performing on such instruments as the viola da gamba, harp and guitar.
The program is titled “Splendor of the Iberian Baroque” and will focus on Spanish songs and instrumental works from about 1580 to 1750. “You have remember how beautiful and rich the art is during this time in Spain, with painters like El Greco and Velasquez and [great] writers,” he said. “This is a real golden age of Spanish culture, and I think the music is little less known. In certain ways, the music of Europe was developed mostly in central Europe — Germany, France and Italy — and Spain is a little behind in the rediscovery of its musical heritage.”
Featured will be works of this era by composers Juan Blas de Castro, Pedro Guerrero, Juan Hidalgo, Mateo Romero and Juan Garcia de Zéspedes, as well as a few who remain anonymous. “This is really a very exuberant period with beautiful combination of text and music,” Savall said.
When Savall began studying cello in his teens, he described himself as something of an auto-didact. While browsing music shops in Barcelona, he would often buy scores by composers such as Marin Marais (1656-1728) of works that were originally composed for the viola da gamba and then would play them on the cello.
But it was not until he finished his conventional music studies at the Barcelona Conservatory that he “discovered” the viola da gamba. He became excited about learning to play this once-prominent stringed instrument, which emerged in Spain in the mid- to late 15th century. From 1968 through 1970, he studied with August Wenzinger, a viola da gamba master and early pioneer of historically informed performances, at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland.
“It’s a mix of guitar and cello with six or seven strings and frets like the guitar,” Savall said of the viola da gamba. “It sounds like a harp sometimes. If you play pizzicato, it sounds like a bowed instrument. This for me was discovering something really very exciting.”
He had to become something of a scientist, learning the distinctive technique for this instrument, which includes an underhand bowing technique. (For his Chicago concert, he will perform on the treble viol, a more or less violin-sized viola da gamba that is played cello-like between the legs.) In addition, he had to serve as a historian, uncovering the musical style and ornamentation of the Baroque era as well as understanding what else was happening in the world at the same time. “That makes your life very rich when have to learn so many new things,” he said.
During his research, he found that institutions like the British Museum in England and the Bibliotheque Nationale in France held hundreds of scores by once-celebrated composers like Jean de Sainte-Colombe and John Dowland that were languishing in near-obscurity. “The most important thing was to discover that there was so much music sleeping in the libraries,” he said. “Nobody was playing this.”
Savall became part of a movement in the 1960s and ’70s to perform early music in a manner as it would have been heard at the time it was composed. That typically meant smaller, more intimate ensembles, different tuning norms and of course, a move to historically appropriate instruments like the viola da gamba. “Most of the discoveries of ancient masterworks are made by period orchestras,” he said. “This capacity that we have with period instruments to reproduce the sound, the precise sound from each moment in music history, it’s very important.”
The world of early music has come a long way since those days, and today most larger cities in the United States have a Baroque chamber orchestra or some other early-instrument ensemble that performs in a historically informed way. But Savall said that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of work to be done in the field, because many of these groups continue to receive less support than their modern counterparts. “There is not one early-music orchestra which is financed like a modern orchestra in the world,” he said. “We have to see that the situation today is not correct, because period orchestras are playing two centuries of music — the whole 17th century, the whole 18th century and some part of the 19th century also. And the modern orchestras play only music from 1850 until our time.”
While much early music has been brought to the fore in recent decades, much remains to be uncovered. One area still ripe for rediscovery is Latin America, which had a rich musical life during the Spanish Colonial era. At the same time, Savall said, there are “beautiful aspects” of music by more recent composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert that can be unveiled by playing those works on instruments that they would have known and returning to original performance practices.
“This is what is fascinating at this moment, to recover the original sound of modern music,” he said. “We discover how this music was really beautiful, with the real colors, when the wood instruments are really wood, when the horns and trumpets are natural with brilliant sounds but not too strong and when the articulation is flexible with gut strings. For me, this is a very beautiful experience.”