Talking to Emma Kirkby

A conversation between Dame Emma Kirkby and Chau-Yee Lo, on the occasion of Dreams Wisdom Innocence, which took place on 21 January 2016 at The Priory Church of St-Bartholomew-the Great in London.

It has been an immense privilege for me to work with Emma. Many of you may know already that her generosity towards colleagues is legendary, as is her dedication to her work and to Early Music. Her sense of fun also makes her a vivacious conversationalist, and here we talk about the music for Dreams Wisdom Innocence.

C: As you know, Emma, I was delighted that you accepted my invitation to take on Stockhausen’s Tierkreis. Still, I think that there is a lot of natural curiosity among us, and maybe even a few raised eyebrows that you're singing a work by Stockhausen in this concert! What attracts you to this music? What's your approach to it?

E: I must be honest and confess that this project was not something I sought out – it found me, as things often do in my life – more precisely, it was you, Chau-Yee, with that spirit of musical enterprise I have admired in you in the past. I had been surprised already a year or two ago by Stockhausen’s immense Donnerstag aus Licht which was performed in Birmingham, again by happenstance, since I knew some of the young singers involved in that; while not managing to take in 6 hours of it I was really engrossed for a long while, by the subtlety, the wit and the seriousness of purpose, which yet avoided the self-absorption that one might have expected from the sheer scale of such a project. 

Tierkreis’s history, in Swiss musical boxes, was another intriguing feature – and the melodies Stockhausen has chosen have a disarming directness which made me feel a bit more confident.  I am enjoying working through the zodiac signs and the two languages; I like the pitches: Stockhausen suggests mezzo – I’ve tended to be used as soprano but enjoy lower ‘speaking’ registers when the accompaniment is light, as here. The texts are quirky and suggestive, another good match I think for something as essentially mysterious as zodiac signs. It will be fun to find the best alchemy for them with you and your harpsichord, since performers of this piece are offered a good deal of freedom, with the composer merely suggesting solutions without imposing them.

C: Singers on the whole seem to be more prepared than instrumentalists to cross musical boundaries between the old and new, and composers respond to this. For example, The Hilliard Ensemble commissioned several composers to write for them. Do you think there's more of a place for new music played on period instruments in the world of historical performance? Why might composers be put off to take advantage of some of the wonderful sounds that these instruments can make?

E: I think today’s composers have a very different upbringing from their colleagues of earlier centuries; in my ‘home’ period of Renaissance, Baroque and even early Classical, most composers began as singing boys, in a rich and demanding polyphonic tradition. Many played instruments as well, so the result was that they knew from their earliest years what musical writing was idiomatic to various instruments, and especially they tended to think vocally, with the all-important text a cherished priority, brought out in consort with others, whether singers or instrumentalists, for what Dowland in a preface called The Consent of speaking Harmony. Of course today’s composers must be free to strike out on new paths, but voices, wind players and indeed those whose instruments are made with wood and gut all need to be used within their natural limits.  Beyond those it makes better sense to use a synthesizer. There are composers of today who understand this, but maybe not all…  

C: In this concert, you're also singing an unaccompanied solo from a recent large-scale work, Karuṇā, by Andrew Wilson-Dickson. Can you tell us a little bit more about The Elephant, and its place in its parent work?

E: It is a delightful story of the medieval mystical poet Rumi, who tells of an elephant in a darkened room; one by one people touched it, each coming to a different conclusion about this creature.  A little light would have resolved their confusions!

It comes towards the end of Andrew’s magnificent oratorio which I was lucky enough to join in a year ago; its title is the Buddhist term for ‘compassion’, and for this ambitious and highly-relevant piece Andrew used a wide range of texts, some well-known, by John Donne, Desmond Tutu; and some strikingly new, for a large orchestra, choir and soloists, singing in various languages. It will be performed again in London this September 24th at St John’s Church, Waterloo, and I urge everyone to go and hear it! Alas, I have a commitment then in Germany and will be very sorry to miss it!

Andrew set The Elephant for me as an a cappella [unaccompanied] recitative, great for the words, challenging at times in other ways – I had to end, after about six minutes, on the note that began the next movement. In the event it was exactly right, to my amazement and relief! In our programme things may be a little easier, but I’ll aim at that integrity nevertheless.       

C: Your repertoire is considerable and wide-ranging. Yet it seems to me that Purcell is a composer whose music you're particularly drawn to. What's so special about his music?

E: Where can I begin?! Everyone in my field loves Purcell, the way they love Bach and Monteverdi, also Dowland if they get to hear him…

I love the fact that Purcell clearly revered his predecessors in the 17th century, still writing magical instrumental and choral polyphony at times; that when he was following the fashion for French-style dances and overtures, like the ones King Charles II had grown up hearing; he never became trivial; that he used instrumental colour wonderfully in his large-scale pieces; that despite all this he never lost touch with the sung texts, offering singers always rhetorical freedom, yet within a firm and fascinating structure; that his ‘grounds’ – repeated patterns in the bass over which the melody lines soar and swoop into glorious dissonance and sweet resolution – are simply the best that I know; and that several of his pieces can be guaranteed to move me to tears, and make me wish I could have met this most attractive of men, for whom one grieving poet ended his elegy thus:

Touch but thy Lyre - the Stones will come
And dance themselves into a Tomb. 

C: I feel similarly about Couperin! The music he wrote for the harpsichord is a joy to play and listen to, and I wish I could have gone back in time to meet him and hear him play! It’s as if his music brings his personality to life, and makes me curious and want to know more about the man behind the music. I imagine he was serious-minded, yet impish, had a mischievous sense of humour, a twinkle in his eye! Sensitive and astute, a penetrating observer of the people around him both at court and in more ordinary places, and I love the tunefulness and quiet radiance in his music: it is both simple and sophisticated at the same time, and full of finely-tuned nuance; light, delicate, tender, full of feeling, and speaks of the trembling heart. Playing it really well is of course an art, and part of the greatness of this music is that it makes me want to aspire to be an artist.

Emma, you have been very generous in joining me in support of Maytree. Before we stop, I’d like to spend a bit of time to think about the links between music and our sense of being well. At Maytree I have been privileged to spend time with guests in crisis and have heard some of them talk in a very moving way about how being close to music, through listening, playing, singing, meant somehow they found strength to live. There seems to be something very powerful about the human voice too that can reach deep inside, in ways that are rather hard to describe. What do you think might be the special properties of the voice that have healing aspects, especially in song?

E: In the Renaissance period with which I have spent so much of my career, music was consciously used to condition and uplift the soul in daily life, and in death to console the bereaved and to speed the dead person’s spirit heavenward. Whole cycles of songs were written for these events, the beautiful melancholy of their phrases to be savoured even as the mourners collected their tears – which came directly from the soul – in special bottles. They remembered the Greek myth and cult of Orpheus whose music could enchant all creatures, making rocks move and trees walk – and honoured some of their own musicians with the title of ‘Orpheus’. In England, two composers received this accolade – John Dowland and Henry Purcell. Music and medicine were firmly linked in poetry and in the actual practice of some doctors. Whether such a remedy is right for every distressed person today I cannot say; no doubt grief and desperation can take many forms, not all amenable to music or singing. What I can say, though, is that throughout my career I have met people who tell me about one piece or another – for example, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, sequences of Hildegarde of Bingen or Purcell’s An Evening Hymn – that has helped to lift them out of bitter dark places; and some of these pieces I have sung myself at funerals, of dear friends and even my own parents, and been astonished first that I could sing them at all, and then that the actual performance, even, as at times, ‘warts and all,’ had felt right at the time and been used and appreciated by those in most need of support.

From medieval times onwards the music of man, musica humana, was considered a poor reflection of musica mundana, that of the quiring angels – so I think today our singing, though a poor reflection, can still recall the story in the Old Testament, where Elijah sought God and found him not in whirlwind, fire or earthquake, but in a ‘still, small voice’.