Yeoman Gabriella Jones on the joy of historical performance

I was first drawn to historical performance whilst reading music at Cambridge University, a real hub of early music performance and research. Chamber music has always been my passion; having played so much of it at home early on, and dedicating most of my energy to it at school, there was something in the often smaller-sized ensembles and the intensely collaborative performance style of HIP (Historically Informed Performance) that strongly appealed to me. Arriving at the Royal College for my masters degree on modern violin, I quickly got involved with the historical performance faculty, and soon realised that some of the most exciting and fulfilling music-making I was doing, and had done, was in the world of historical performance, and that I needed to dedicate more time exclusively to it, and to find a way to pursue it long term. The artist diploma course, combined with the Constant and Kit Junior Fellowship seemed to be the perfect marriage of my performance and academic interests. During the course of this year I have had the opportunity to explore some really fascinating areas of historical performance, and to share my research with my colleagues and friends at the Royal College.

I decided to dedicate each term to an individual project. In the autumn, I explored Haydn’s Symphony 44, ‘Trauer’, a Sturm und Drang period work rich in experimentation derived from the Mannheim school of Richter and Stamitz and 1760s Italian Opera. As one of his smaller-scale symphonic works, the symphony provided a fascinating opportunity for a period-instrument ensemble to work in a chamber setting, and without the help of a conductor. The work was written during Haydn’s time in the so-called Esterhazy fairyland, a period where he produced some of his most astonishing and original instrumental works. He wrote of his time there:

‘I was entirely removed from the outside world; no one close to me could make me doubt myself… I therefore had to become original.’

The originality of the work, with its truly avant-garde musical features, pushes the limits of what the technology of the day could accommodate, and so performing on historical instruments gave us an insight into the new sounds and colours being created in the isolated wilderness of Esterhazy.

Over the course of three days, we explored these ideas as an ensemble, preparing for the final performance, but also for an open rehearsal, the intention of which was to grant the audience some insight into rehearsal processes and negotiations that normally go on behind closed doors. Rehearsing with my peers, and convincing them of my interpretation of the work proved to be a hugely illuminating experience for me; striking the right balance between colleague and leader was something that developed during the three days of rehearsal, and during the performance itself. The energy and support I felt from the ensemble was fantastic, with multiple voices coming together to produce our final product, which felt intimate, personal and very human. The interest in historical performance that the project generated was also very exciting! What was very moving, however, was the fact that one of Kit Lambert’s friends from his university days at Oxford attended the performance, and at the end told me he thought that Kit would have approved of the concert.

My second project focussed on the creative art form of concert programming, which has radically changed during the last two hundred years. In the late eighteenth century programmes emphasised miscellany, and celebrated the juxtaposition of many different items, such as vocal and instrumental works, sacred and secular extracts and large and small forces to have a deliberate impact on the pacing and general reception of each movement/work, and of the event as a whole. Donated by the Leverhulme Trust in 2002, the college has in its collection a vast quantity of historical concert programmes spanning many years. With the help of Michael Pullen in the RCM library, I was able to study a sample of these programmes, particularly the ‘Concerts of Ancient Music’ which took place in London at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.

Using these as inspiration, ‘The Grand Miscellaneous Concert’ attempted to recreate the experience of these concerts. Incorporating an emotional narrative thread through both halves of the concert was my attempt to take the audience on a journey of various stages of feeling, unlike the homogeneity often strived for in today’s concert programming. Arranged in two ‘Acts’, the concert combined vocal works, both secular and sacred, including arias from Acis and Galatea, Rinaldo and The Messiah, with instrumental concertos and chamber music.

The rehearsal process for this project was fascinating to me; moving rapidly between works, genres and instrumental forces meant the ensemble had to be incredibly adaptable in rehearsal technique to maximise our time, and to keep focus. Working closely with singers, and exploring and celebrating how the language we use as instrumentalists to describe what we want to achieve might not be applicable was a wonderful opportunity. Working with many of the same players as for my first project meant we were able to develop as a group; several non-HIP students also took part in the project, and I hope that this concert has encouraged them to explore this style of performing further. My intention with this project was to really challenge the way we programme our concerts, and allow this feature to be a real point of interest in and of itself.

My final project for the summer term shall be an exploration of the development of the sonata, from the trio sonata models favoured by Corelli, Vivaldi and Telemann, amongst others, to the intensely collaborative due sonata of Beethoven and Brahms. My research will culminate in the performance I will give as my final recital for my artist diploma, for which I have chosen three works to showcase this fascinating trajectory. I really relish the intensely collaborative style of all of these compositions, a feature of music making which has carried through all three of my projects for this year, from the larger-scale symphony to only two players in a duo sonata. At every level, the coming together of musical personalities and ideas is what continues to challenge and inspire me, and why it is, and has always been, my passion.


You can find out more about Gabriella on her profile page

Piece by @suzywillmott