Release date: 27 October 2023
Used, as we are, to the unprecedented speed and ease in travelling which is customary today, we find it difficult to concretely imagine how this was done in the past. Frequently, we may tend to downplay the hardships and risk one had to endure when journeying in the past. At times, our imagination is helped by documents – in the musical field, for instance, by Bach’s Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo, whose first, mournful movements depict the traveler’s departure with such dolent tones that we truly understand the saying “leaving is a bit like dying”.
On the other hand, though, these undeniable challenges did not discourage our ancestors too much: here too our imagination may fail us – or betray us –, leading us to conceive the societies of the past as much more rigid, static and nonmigratory than they actually were.
A consideration of the life and works of a musician such as Francesco Barsanti should give us pause. His biography demonstrates the opportunities that traveling provided to musicians who were ready to grasp them. His works show how the movement of people translated into cross-fertilization of cultures, into encounters of musical worlds, into respectful and creative meetings of traditions which could enrich each other without destroying it in the process.
We know very little about Barsanti’s childhood and early life. Born in Lucca, Tuscany, in 1690, he is known to have been at the prestigious University of Padua for studying law there. This bears witness to his intelligence and culture; however, he left that institution before graduating, wishing to dedicate himself fully to music, and in particular to the study of wind instruments. In the company of his compatriot Francesco Geminiani, in 1714 he crossed the Channel, and he soon found a job as a flute and oboe player at the Italian Opera in London. He was also active as an appreciated teacher who had numerous private pupils: at that time, the flute was the English aristocracy’s favourite instrument, and (wealthy) pupils were not missing.
During his period in London, Barsanti had the first opportunities to see his compositions printed: this, in turn, was part of the intertwining careers of performer, teacher and composer, who was invited to teach thanks to the fame he had obtained as a player, and then provided works for his pupils to play in the form of published music, frequently dedicated to aristocratic patrons such as the Earl of Burlington.
Among his earliest published works is a collection of Trio sonatas, arranged after his friend Geminiani’s Violin Sonatas op. 1; then there was a collection of six original sonatas for the transverse flute, and some cantatas for soprano and continuo.
Barsanti was not yet sure that his life would be spent mostly outside the Continent: we find him again in Italy, and particularly in Bologna, not far from his hometown. Still, evidently he missed the connections and prestige he had built for himself in Britain, and we find him again in the Islands after a brief stay in the Peninsula.
This time, however, he remained but a little time in England, moving soon to Scotland and to its capital city, Edinburgh. Here he found something which conquered him immediately: a new genre of music, with characteristic inflections, moods, rhythms and melodic/harmonic gestures.
Barsanti would be neither the first nor the last foreign musician to be enthralled by Scottish music. Music bespeaks the soul of Scotland; it is pervasive, ubiquitous, inseparable from the culture, life experience and identity of the Scottish people. It also developed in very original and rather unique forms, with sounds and musical gestures which are unmistakably Scottish and are capable of immediately evoking the landscapes, traditions and customs of the Highlands. On the other hand, the multilayered Scottish musical culture is not easily grasped by outsiders; what is distinctively Scottish, and therefore deeply bound to the soul and identity of the country, may be mistaken for an irrelevant feature, or, worse, for an “error” by the standards of mainstream “cultivated” music, and its originality flattened.
This does not happen with Barsanti’s work. Surprisingly and significantly, given the short acquaintance he had with the Scottish tradition, he was able to pinpoint the idiosyncratic features of Scottish songs, and to render them in an efficacious and brilliant fashion. The “Scottishness” of these tunes is not lost, even though Barsanti had to provide harmonizations which could be different from those of the original folk tune, and he arguably imagined them played by instruments from the mainstream classical tradition rather than those of the Scottish heritage.
Barsanti’s A Collection of Old Scots Tunes comprises twenty-eight arrangements after old Scottish tunes, whose origins are lost in the mists of time. They are provided with continuo indications by Barsanti, but the instrumentation is not determined in detail. Barsanti successfully managed to preserve the Scottish features of this music, such as trills, appoggiaturas, and the idiomatic portamenti.
His publication belongs to a series of coeval works which blended the Scottish traditional music heritage with the languages of “cultivated” music and particularly with those coming from the Continent. Scotsman William McGibbon, another flautist, issued a collection of Scottish tunes arranged with an Italianate flavour. Another Scotsman, James Oswald, offered to the public the so-called Caledonian Pocket Companion, which was an encyclopedic collection of Scottish folk music, frequently provided with original variations composed by himself.
This bears witness to a culture of the arrangement and adaptation which was rather common at all levels of musicianship in the eighteenth century – from Bach downwards – but which was particularly alive in folk music, where authorship is always shared and originality consists mainly in arranging and varying. Only by these processes does the truly “new” emerge, and “composition” consists precisely in “composing”, i.e. artistically juxtaposing, fragments and ideas whose real origins are undetermined.
This provides full justification to the performing practices adopted here. The tunes collected by Barsanti cannot be simply played as they are written on paper; indeed, Barsanti would probably have frowned upon such a performance, and would have deemed it, to say the least, amateurish. The mark of true musicianship, of a professional attitude to music, was seen precisely in the capability to ornament, adorn, and combine the given tune and harmony, finding the right balance between novelty and tradition. The more a tune was or is known, the better the listener was able to compare it with the embellishments, interludes, variations and diminutions created by the performer/improviser/arranger. The stanza/refrain scheme encourages a skilled musician to find and invent variety, otherwise the process loses the listener’s attention very quickly; and this is particularly true nowadays, when these pieces do no more constitute the musical background to the pleasant chitchat of the aristocracy, or encourage their noble feet to engage themselves in dance. Focused listening, such as that we usually practise with art music, is possible with tunes such as these only if the text is taken as a starting point, rather than as a fixed law requiring total obedience.
This flexible and creative attitude was certainly also Barsanti’s, as is testified by the elasticity with which he passed from the oboe to the flute and vice versa. Not only this, though. True, both instruments are woodwinds, but their technique is very different: so much so, that today very few musicians are virtuosi of both. Even more surprisingly, Barsotti found a job also a viola player, and in this case there is indeed no likeness between the two winds and the bowed string instrument. Later in life, having gone back to London and finding himself in financial straits, Barsanti earned his bread also by singing as an alto in the opera choir.
Another interesting aspect of Barsanti’s musical activity was his interest in “ancient” music, i.e. Renaissance polyphony and later works inspired by Palestrina’s stile antico. He was also involved in editing and arranging, for instance working on pieces by Italian masters and adapting them for other instrumental media. His Concerti grossi, dedicated to James Earl of Wemyss, are stylistically important since they are among the few to employ winds in the concertino part (traditionally reserved for strings). Moreover, Barsanti became very active in the field of vocal music, arranging earlier works and composing new pieces in the stile antico which demonstrate his mastery of the matter.
He died in 1772, on the very same day of the debut of his daughter Jane, who would later become a singer and actress of great renown.
Thus did his adventure come to an end; but his music still speaks to its listeners. It bears witness to a fascinating encounter of civilizations and cultures, tastes and traditions. In Barsanti’s own words, “Having discovered, in several ancient Scots Tunes, an Elegance and Variety of Harmony equal to the Compositions of the most celebrated Masters of those Times, […] I applied myself to do Justic to those ancient Compositions, […] with the strictest regard to the Tune itself”. The beauty of Scottish traditional music meets the skill and intelligence of a great Italian musician; and the result will not fail to conquer the listener.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Ensemble Aqua Felix takes its name from the water that springs in the countryside of Palestrina, channeled by Sisto V in the late 16th century to grace the hills of Rome. Even today, it continues to nourish the historic center's fountains, symbolizing the vital essence of the grand Roman Baroque era. The association comprises esteemed artists, colleagues, and friends, all deeply connected to early music in a harmonious and creative way.
Their performances are not merely authentic due to their fidelity to historical execution practices; rather, they emanate a sentimental attachment, resonating with both the past and the present. This profound connection is nurtured by their intimate acquaintance with the music and musicians of bygone eras, which they have meticulously developed over years of dedicated exploration through time and space.
AQUA FELIX made an impressive debut with two CDs, proudly released by Da Vinci Classics, showcasing the complete XII Solos for a Violin or Flute composed by Francesco Mancini. Their recent participation in prestigious events like the Rome Baroque Festival, Grandezze e Meraviglie in Cagliari, Amici della Musica in Trapani (Syracuse), and Innsbrucker Festwochen Der Alten Musik further solidifies their reputation as eminent performers in the early music scene.
Anna De Martini, Soprano
Maria De Martini, Recorder
Alessandro de Carolis, Transverse Flute
Giorgio Sasso, Baroque Violin
Rebeca Ferri, Baroque Cello
Salvatore Carchiolo, Italian Harpsichord
Loredana Gintoli, Triple-Strung Baroque Harp,
Cesare Mangiocavallo, Drum
(fl Edinburgh, 1732–40). Scottish composer. Hawkins gives his first name as Alexander and states that he was ‘a native of Scotland’. On internal evidence of his Recueil des meilleurs airs ecossois … avec plusieurs divisions et variations (Paris, 1732), he was born about 1700, probably studied at a university on the Continent, was a gifted amateur, was closely in touch with fashionable Edinburgh in the 1720s, and was familiar with Paris, but not resident there to check his printer's proofs. All these things point to his identity with Alexander Monro (1697–1767), professor of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh from 1720.
(b Lucca, 1690; d London, late 1772). Italian composer. He studied scientific subjects at the University of Padua, and then devoted himself to music. In 1714 he went to London with Francesco Geminiani (also a native of Lucca); there he played the flute and oboe in the orchestra at the Italian opera, and published three sets of solo sonatas. According to Bonaccorsi, he was back in Lucca in 1735, taking part in festivities at S Croce; but that seems unlikely, as by the second half of 1735 he was resident in Edinburgh. He spent eight years in Scotland, where he married a Scots woman, was much patronized by the aristocracy and published his finest compositions, ten concerti grossi (1742) and nine overtures (c1743). He also brought out arrangements of 30 Scots songs with continuo in Edinburgh in 1742 (not 1719, as stated by Bonaccorsi and Praetorius).
In 1743 Barsanti returned to London. By this time he had lost his place in London musical society and was forced to take a job as an orchestral viola player. Six Latin motets (c1750) were rather wistfully dedicated to a member of the Scottish aristocratic Wemyss family ‘in recompense for many obligations’. His daughter Jenny, trained in singing by Charles Burney, later achieved success as a London opera singer and actress.
Barsanti's compositions are accomplished and original. His op.1 recorder sonatas are among the finest in the instrument's repertory. The op.3 concerti grossi have a contrapuntal glitter not unlike those of J.S. Bach; the main movements are constructed in semi-improvised forms, from themes which are stated once and then broken down into smaller imitative units. His Scots-tune arrangements are far more than a foreigner's temporary flirtation with local music-making: Fiske noted Barsanti's sympathetic understanding of Scots-tune structures, and his willingness to end a setting on an ‘unfinished’ dominant chord if the tune demanded it. Italian virtuosity and Scottish sympathy join forces in the op.4 overtures; the main movement of no.9 introduces the jig Babbity Bowster as a fugal countersubject, while the finale of no.2 is a country-dance, suggesting the ringing open strings of Scots fiddling. Much of Barsanti's work still awaits revival.
(b Crail, bap. 21 March 1710; d Knebworth, Herts., 2 Jan 1769). Scottish composer, publisher, arranger and cellist. His father, John Oswald (d Berwick-upon-Tweed, bur. 2 Oct 1758), a skilled musician, was town drummer of Crail and later became leader of the town waits at Berwick-upon-Tweed; his brother Henry (b Crail, 1714) also became a professional musician. By 1734 Oswald was teaching dancing in Dunfermline. A sketchbook (Lord Balfour of Burleigh’s private collection, microfilm in GB-En) shows many features of his compositional style already in place. A set of tunes for scordatura violin (in The Caledonian Pocket Companion, x, c1760), dedicated to patrons in the Fife and Tayside area, was probably written at this time, along with the airs for violin and continuo The braes of Ballendine and Alloa House (in A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes, 1740). In 1735 he moved to Edinburgh, where his Collection of Minuets (1736) launched him as a composer and publisher; he was also kept busy as a cellist and teacher. The summit of his Edinburgh period was his Curious Collection of Scots Tunes (1740), which had an immense subscription list and included the Sonata of Scots Tunes, the fine Masonic partsong Grant me, kind Heaven and some excellent fiddle variations. In an advertisement in the Caledonian Mercury (8 May 1740) he announced that, after this book, he would set out for Italy, but instead he went to London at the end of 1741.
(b Naples; d Colkirk, Norfolk, after 1713). Italian violinist, guitarist and composer. He was resident in England; it seems that he arrived there in about 1670. According to Roger North (on whom we are dependent for details of Matteis’s life) ‘his circumstances were low, and it was say’d that he travelled thro’ Germany on foot with his violin under a full coat at his back’. He must have been living virtually unnoticed in London for some years by the time John Evelyn first heard him play at a private music meeting in November 1674. Evelyn’s reaction was one of amazement:
I heard that stupendious Violin Signor Nicholao (with other rare Musitians) whom certainly never mortal man Exceeded on that instrument: he had a stroak so sweete, & made it speake like the Voice of a man; & when he pleased, like a Consort of severall Instruments: he did wonders upon a Note: was an excellent composer also … nothing approch’d the Violin in Nicholas hand: he seem’d to be spirtato’d & plaied such ravishing things on a ground as astonish’d us all.
(b ?Glasgow, early April 1696; d Edinburgh, 3 Oct 1756). Scottish composer and violinist. He was long believed to have been born in Edinburgh, the son of the oboist Malcolm McGibbon (d Edinburgh, 29/30 December 1722; see Tytler), but it is more likely that Malcolm was his uncle and that his parents were the violinist Duncan McGibbon and his wife Sarah Muir, which would place his birth in Glasgow. Tytler states that he ‘was sent early to London … and studied many years under [William] Corbet[t]’, while Campbell records that he studied and worked in Italy. (Campbell gives c1745 as the date for this; assuming a confusion between the two Jacobite rebellions, the correct date would be c1715.) Thus it appears that he studied in London from about 1709, accompanied Corbett on his Italian travels from 1711 and settled in Edinburgh in the early 1720s.