Intimate Keyboard

Eighty-one-year-old Clemencic resurrects Renaissance masters

On The Town | Cynthia Peck | June 2009

The ancient clavichord played by René Clemencic in the Salvatorsaal (Photo: Daniela Klemencik)

The Salvatorsaal, a late-baroque room with frescoed ceiling and windows to a tiny garden, is tucked into a corner of one the buildings attached to the Barnabiten Church on the Mariahilferstraße and its cacophony of shopping, cars and fast food. Amazingly, this small room is a miracle of silence – the perfect site for a "concert in historical places:" the twenty-third of the series "Unknown Masterpieces of the Renaissance," May 6 and 8, with René Clemencic on the clavichord.

The clavichord is "the quietest, most expressive and most delicate of all keyboard instruments." It will take time for our ears to adjust, he warns – just as it takes several minutes for our eyes to adjust and make out any forms when entering a dark room. The first tones will be lost on our ears. "I ask for your patience." Indeed, the audience of 25, seated around the small instrument and the small man, lit with only a standing lamp, leaned forward as he began to play, straining to hear in the silence.

The clavichord is the oldest known keyboard instrument, first mentioned in a text from 1404 although almost certainly older. Its construction is simple: a small box strung with parallel double strings perpendicular to the same number of keys.  These act as levers that move over a fulcrum to hit the pairs of strings. At the raised end of the key is a small metal plate that stays in contact with the strings as long as the key remains pressed down. Thus, although it is extremely quiet, the player has quite a lot of direct influence on the sound being produced – a "finger vibrato" is possible, for example – much more than on later keyboard instruments.

The May concerts offered selections from the "New Artistic Tablature" of Bernhart Schmid, organist at the Strasbourg Cathedral from 1564 to 1592. This "Tablature" is a 1577 collection of motets, madrigals, chansons and dances, the greatest hits of the mid-16th-century German late Renaissance. The great innovation in music of this period, and one of the greatest accomplishments in European culture altogether according to Clemencic, was vocal polyphony, several melodic lines sung simultaneously. To play this music on a keyboard instrument or a guitar, it had to be notated in a "tablature," a graphic rendition of these multiple voices.

A tablature was commentary of sorts on the original piece, a framework that the player could use as a basis for spontaneous improvisation. The notion of copyright was still long in coming, so despite their fame in their time, the names of the composers in this collection have faded into near oblivion. Though most were Franco-Flemish, it is seldom clear exactly where they came from, the borders at the time much more variable than today. Perhaps the most famous, Orlando di Lasso, is still mentioned in music appreciation classes and is a favorite of madrigal singers, but who has heard of Rogier Pathié, Clemens non Papa, or Jacob Arcadelt?

These composers have left behind hundreds of pieces, and René Clemencic has spent his life resurrecting them and bringing them to the ears of the public. His series at the Salvatorsaal is a small bonus to the regular concerts he and his ensemble, the Clemencic Consort, have been presenting for more than fifty years, including over 150 "Musica Antiqua," concerts at the Musikverein. His discography, including both solo recordings and recordings of his ensemble, numbers an astounding 120.

In 2009, what do we really know about life in 1577? (Hollywood does give us an impression, but what a garish and gaudy picture it is! And how brutal the amplification.)

This concert transported us to a time when, within the silence and darkness, the hushed tones of the clavichord must have sounded glorious. When following these unending undulating melodies, the mind could listen as if hearing a story. When time was so slow, that speed was measured in the pace of footsteps. And we discover that, despite our distance, we are still able to recapture some of that time’s essence. Our ears are still acute enough to hear, within a volume that is nearly nothing, differentiations in dynamic range, the sudden accent, the whisper of a true pianississimo. We are still able to be moved by these murmurs of love songs, these spiritual prayers and settings of the Song of Songs, the sudden shift in the rhythm of a dance.

The clavichord played this year at the Salvatorsaal concerts was a 30-year-old copy of one of the oldest extant clavichords, dated to 1535-40 and part of the instrument collection in the Grassi Museum in Leipzig. When Clemencic founded his early music ensemble in 1957, while still a student at the Music Academy in Vienna, copies of historical instruments were not to be had. He was forced to search for actual historical instruments, to buy them, have them restored, and then to convince his colleagues to play them. Thus he was able to lift these old instruments out of the dust of museum reliquaries and turn them into tools for living music.

Clemencic refers repeatedly to the language of music belonging to a higher universal, to the cosmos, to the sacred and mystical. Pythagoras considered music and mathematics connected and was portrayed as music’s patron. The noble request of René Clemencic is that we remember this.

Why listen to musica antiqua? Because we find traces of our origins, the humanness that connects us to generations of people who lived centuries ago. Listening to their music in places or played on instruments that are now as they were then, we are transported to those times, times that were darker, quieter, slower, but nevertheless filled with people with the same sentiments we feel today. And now, as then, the pleasure of listening to music connects us to the quintessence of our being and places us in a realm of harmony.

So knowing all this, it is even sadder to note that René Clemencic, this treasure of tradition, this guru of early music, still going strong at 81, too has fallen victim to this year’s economic pressures. Even the Musikverein, Vienna’s bastion of privately financed music, is experiencing falling ticket and series subscription sales.

So after 43 years, the Clemencic Consort’s "Musica Antiqua" series has provisionally been given only one more concert season to live. This despite the words in 2006 of the Musikverein’s musical director, Thomas Angyan: "The pioneering achievements of the Musikverein would not have been possible if not for the pioneer: René Clemencic ..."

The series, with its extraordinary programming, the excellence of the ever-changing ensemble, the charm and charisma of Clemencic himself, and last but not least, its offering us a living past that allows time for reflection and contemplation about the present, has survived shifting tastes, "early music" fads and two generations of audiences.

Only with a sold-out 2009/2010 season will it be guaranteed a future.


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