Friday, June 7, 2013

Funerary Music

June 6 marks the anniversary of the founding (in Britain, 1586) of the Guild of Funerary Violinists. How do I know this and why should you care? Well, I know this because I read it in an obscure book I purchased last year called, An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin (Overlook Press, 2006), by Rohan Kriwaczek. Show of hands - how many of you have read it?

And to the point of why you should care -  funeral music is obviously a major component of the mourning arts, yet not one which is given much consideration. Other than “Taps", Chopin’s Funeral March, or the occasional dirge, can you think of any piece of funerary music?

Contemporary accounts from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome indicate that musicians were an integral part of funerary processions. The instrument usually played was a flute-like device, to create plaintive melodically-based music to express grief and mortality. Due to its association (by Christians) to pagan ritual, all funerary music (played on instruments) was banned by the Vatican throughout Europe from about the third century A.D. through the next thousand years.

This all changed with the Reformation (sixteenth century) and the arrival of the Violin in England. Led almost singularly by George Babcotte (1542 - 1607), the first of the funerary violinists, the age of the funerary violin flourished for the next 150 years, i.e., until the Great funerary Purges of the 1830s and 1840s.

From the book, An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin
The great WHAT, you say? Kriwaczek (who happens to be the current Acting President of the [British] Guild of Funerary Violinists) tells us in his book:

“The Great funerary Purges of the 1830s and 1840s [by agents of the Vatican] were to spell the wholesale destruction of this venerable practice and drive the few remaining artists underground, but not before a last grand flourish of creativity had fixed the form of the seven-movement Funerary suite and, within that suite, had defined the morbidly ambiguous and secretly symbolic funeral march once and for all.”

The Vatican in about 1830 began to condemn Funerary Violin as the music of the Devil, slowly wiping out all trace of it throughout Europe. The extent of the purge was devastatingly efficient – almost no trace of the art’s 300-year history (up to the 1830s) exists today.

In consideration of what we have lost, then, this synopsis of Kriwaczek's book (from the website) describes the matter quite well:

Rohan Kriwaczek's book, available
"During the Protestant revolution in Europe, a new kind of music emerged, one that ultimately sought to recognize the deceased and to individuate the sense of loss and grief. But the tradition was virtually wiped out by the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and 40s. Kriwaczek tells the fascinating story of this beautiful music, condemned by the Catholic Church for political as much as theological reasons, and of the mysterious Guild of Funerary Violinists that, yes, defends its secrets in our time. This is unquestionably one of the strangest books any publisher has ever risked publishing. Discussing the evolution of European culture, musical forms and society's changing attitudes to mortality and the emotional effects of music upon the soul, this is a dark and magical history."

So the idea of the violin in funerary music has a long and checkered past, from its origin in 1580 to 1915, when it totally died out. Though the work of better known composers of music in the form of the classical funerary march have survived (Chopin, Beethoven, and Mahler), that of the shunned progenitors of funerary violin have not (Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss and Charles Sudbury, for example).

The Theramin

Image from Divine Hand website
Why I bring this all up now is partly because of my neighbor from across the street, Robin. She stopped me outside my house last week and (knowing my penchant for cemeteries), asked if I saw the Internet-advertisement for the musical concert to be held at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery on June 22 (2013). She thought I would find it interesting. So I checked the web and sure enough, a musical ensemble called “The Divine Hand” is playing a concert at Laurel Hill: "Their music can only be described as ethereal, eloquent and mezmerizing.” Instruments consist of the violin, harpsicord, guitar, harp, and theramin. Now, if you’ve never heard a theramin before, you’re in for a weird treat. Invented by Leon Theramin in 1912, this electric instrument is the precursor to electronic synthesizers, such as those made famous by Robert Moog. If there is a creepier sound to be heard in a cemetery, I cannot imagine what it might be.

The theramin is actually played by holding your hand NEAR it (see photo above), kind of like the EBow from the 1970s that was used to make an electric guitar sound like an ethereal violin (you wouldn't actually touch the strings with the device). What does a theramin sound like?  Playing the saw, is the best I can come up with. Or that weird sound throughout the Beach Boys' song Good Vibrations. But give this video a play - it shows Russian inventor Leon Theramin himself coaxing eerie sounds out of this marvelous instrument (which he patented in 1928).

I think you’ll agree that a night concert of funerary music in a cemetery might be quite riveting, if not downright frightening. Add to that a master practitioner of the theramin, and you have a truly unique experience, not to mention a history lesson in a widely-neglected aspect of the funerary arts.

The Divine Hand Ensemble
Leon Theramin with his invention (ref)
Laurel Hill’s website describes a previous concert played in the cemetery (fall, 2012) by The Divine Hand Ensemble as the “musical event of a lifetime. Their performance comprised the first time in 250 years that a program of funerary music was performed publicly and the first time ever in America.” It goes on: “Witness Mano Divina, leader of the Ensemble, harness electricity with his fingertips and draw music out of the air as master of the Theremin, an early electronic musical instrument controlled without discernible physical contact from the player. In addition to this rare instrument, the Ensemble includes a string quartet, classical guitar, two harps, a glockenspiel, a soprano and a tenor, together rendering an unforgettable listening experience.

The Divine Hand has its own website, which is truly entertaining in its own right. You can watch video clips of performances and hear the wonderful music. Some quotes from their site:

“Breathless entertainment that leaves you hanging on every note and gesture as Divina hypnotizes electricity to release the voices of angels from the air with this finger tips”

"Classical music does not change very often, but we're always in for a shock when it does. The Divine Hand Ensemble has done exactly this through the works of Mano Divina and a few radical Americans. The extremely talented group from Philadelphia, The Divine Hand Ensemble, consists of a Thereminist, string quartet, classical guitarist, two harpists, a soprano, and a tenor. These musicians give a flawless performance; their fine musicianship and incredible talent is ever apparent throughout the entire concert. For music lovers of all ages, The Divine Hand Ensemble is a must see experience that will leave a remarkable impression for a lifetime." - International review board

I conclude this article on funerary music with this interesting accolade, directed to the Divine Hand Ensemble:
"Congratulations to your fine violinist, for a sensitive and expressive portrayal of our fine Art"
-The Guild of Funerary Violinists

References and Further Reading:

A General Introduction to the Art and History of Funerary Violin
The Divine Hand Ensemble website
What's a Theramin?
You Tube video of Leon Theramin playing the instrument he invented
Read on Laurel Hill Cemetery's website, "MUSIC for the HEARING EYE: CONCERT ATOP the CRYPTS presented by THE DIVINE HAND ENSEMBLE."