Wednesday, February 04, 2015

In defence of liberty

That photo shows guest musicians from the Balkans acknowledging an ovation at the end of Jordi Savall's Bal•kan: Honey and Blood project in Fontfroide Abbey. For many years Jordi Savall has expressed through his music making a belief that an artist must be involved in the defence of liberty and free inquiry, and readers will know it is a belief that I share with him. It was therefore a privilege to be commissioned to write the programme essay for the 2014 Salzburg Summer Festival performance of Bal•kan: Honey and Blood, and writing it was a particular pleasure as I had spent time in the Balkans as a student in the 1960s. The essay is published below, and my two accompanying Salzburg Festival essays, 'Listening with the ear of the heart' and 'Intoxicated by a love for God' are also available On An Overgrown Path.


Bob Shingleton

Bal•kan: Honey and Blood
Jordi Savall
Hesperion XXI
Kollegienkirche, Salzburg: 27 July 2014

There is a great tradition of musicians engaging in the defence of liberty. Pablo Casals, who refused to perform in his native Spain following the victory of Franco’s fascist forces in 1939, asked ‘who, indeed, should be more concerned than the artist about the defence of liberty and free inquiry?’. Mikis Theodorakis, who was imprisoned and then exiled by the Greek military junta in 1970, declared that artists ‘must contribute to the rescue of mankind out of pure self-interest’. Jordi Savall has followed in their footsteps and in 2008, with his late wife Montserrat Figueras, he was appointed a UNESCO Artist for Peace and in the same year became European Union Ambassador for intercultural dialogue.

These appointments recognize Jordi Savall’s belief that artists must be concerned about the defence of liberty and free inquiry. This belief was graphically expressed in his 2004 commission for Arvo Pärt to compose the prayer of peace Da Pacem Domine in commemoration of the Madrid terrorist bombings in which 191 people were killed and 1,800 wounded. Voices of memory also speak through Jordi Savall’s music and provide the underlying theme for other acclaimed concert, book and CD projects. These include his portraits in music of the journey by the co-founder of the Jesuit Order, Francisco Javier, to the Orient in the 16th century and of Joan of Arc’s battles, imprisonment and martyrdom a hundred years earlier. In another concert and recording project, Jordi Savall highlighted the Judaic heritage of the Sephardic diaspora and one of the most notable expressions of his belief in the power of music is the monumental Jerusalem: City of the Two Peaces, which brought together Jewish, Christian and Muslim musicians for a triumphant performance at the 2010 Fez Festival of Sacred Music in Morocco.

Two years ago Jordi Savall and his ensemble Hesperion XXI gave a concert dedicated to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo and the vision for his Bal•kan: Honey and Blood project came from that concert. Sarajevo was besieged by Serbian forces from April 1992 to February 1996 at the cost of 12,000 lives; the siege was the latest chapter in the turbulent history of the Balkans which stretches back to the fifth century when the Byzantine Empire rose from the ashes of the Roman Empire. For more than a thousand years the Balkan Peninsula was part of the Byzantine Empire, with Orthodox Christianity as its established religion. But following the capture of the Byzantine capital Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II’s forces in 1453, the Balkans became part of the Ottoman Empire. Although the victorious Ottomans practised Islam, a tolerant attitude towards the Christian and Jewish communities persisted, with both faiths sharing with Muslims worship of the God of Abraham. It was under Ottoman rule that the region became known as the Balkans; the name is a conflation of the Turkish words for honey and blood in recognition of both the natural fecundity of the region and of the tenacity shown by its indigenous peoples in resisting the Ottoman invaders.

There was a gradual erosion of Ottoman power in the Balkan and neighbouring territories from the 18th century and the second half of the 19th century saw the emergence in the area of the expansionist Austro-Hungarian Empire. But it was not until Bulgaria was created as an autonomous state in 1878 that the Turks relinquished the last of their conquered Balkan territories. Two Balkan Wars between the depleted Ottoman Empire and an alliance of four Balkan States followed in 1912 and 1913. These conflicts were the prelude to the assassination in Sarajevo in June 1914 by Bosnian and Serb secessionists of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This was the first in a chain of events that led to global war. After World War I the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was formed, to be renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929.

During World War II all the Balkan states, with the exception of Greece, were allies of Germany and the region was the scene of heavy fighting. During the ensuing Cold War most of the states embraced communism, but Greece and Turkey remained outside the communist orbit and became members of NATO. The death of President Tito in 1980 and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe sparked the disintegration of Yugoslavia; this in turn led to bitter fighting between the new republics which escalated into mass murder and genocide. Bosnia and Kosovo were most seriously affected and it was during this conflict that the Bosnian city of Sarajevo was besieged for four years. During the Bosnian War the prevarication of the UN mirrored that of the League of Nations at the time of the Munich Crisis in 1938. Following belated NATO and UN intervention the Balkan conflicts finally ended in 1999 and, since then, four more states of the region have joined longstanding member Greece in the European Union.

Sadly, there has been much blood spilt in the long history of the Balkans. But the rich ethnic diversity of the region also means that there is a counterbalancing abundance of cultural honey. For 400 years the Balkans were part of the Ottoman Empire, which left the region isolated from many of the cultural and social developments of the Renaissance and Enlightenment that transformed Western Europe. The impact of this extended period of Ottoman rule remains today: more than 6,000,000 Muslims live in the region and the Ottoman influence is still found in its music, architecture and regional cuisine and in loan words found in the Slavic and Albanian languages. There is also a less visible Ottoman legacy that links to a sub-theme of this year’s Ouverture spirituelle: Sufism, the esoteric branch of Islam has been practised in the Balkans since the 16th century and still has a significant presence, with the Bektashi Sufi brotherhood claiming 3,000,000 members across the region.

Although Sufism endures and indeed flourishes in the Balkans, another tradition with a tangential connection to tonight’s performance is extinct. In the 10th century the Bogomil religion spread from Bulgaria to the rest of the region. It became the state religion in Bosnia where it persisted until the Ottoman occupation, when its followers converted to Islam and became the core of the area’s Muslim community. The Bogomils were Christian Gnostics who opposed the practices of the Catholic Church; they held the heretical belief that the world was not created by the Abrahamic God, but by an evil demiurge (creator). In the 12th century Bogomil missionaries travelled north-west and one theory proposes that they introduced Gnosticism into Languedoc in south-west France, where it became the Cathar Heresy. In the early years of the 13th century Pope Innocent IV instigated the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, when 20,000 innocent citizens of Béziers were massacred and the Crusade ended with the extermination of the Cathars and their culture. This tragedy has been remembered by Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras in concerts and in their acclaimed CD and book, released in 2010, entitled The Forgotten Kingdom.

One of the many fruitful cultural exchanges in the Balkans has been between the Roma and Sufi communities. Most of the Roma in the region are Muslims and many belong to Sufi brotherhoods. It is thought that the Roma originated from India and they first arrived in the Balkans at the time of the Ottoman conquest. It is estimated that almost 50% of Europe’s Gypsies now live in the region, making this the densest concentration of Roma on the globe. The world music boom has created a large market for genres such as ‘Bulgarian’ and ‘Serbian’ music, but there has been little recognition of the fact that these are effectively variants of Roma music. Western art music is notated, but in contrast, Gypsy music depends on expressive freedom and improvisation. Despite this, Gypsy music has influenced, with and without attribution, the notated works of Western composers ranging from Haydn and Beethoven to Bartók and Ligeti.

Roma music is just one part of the mosaic that Jordi Savall assembles in Bal•kan: Honey and Blood. This celebration of the region’s shared culture and history extends beyond the stereotypical ‘Balkan music’ to embrace repertoire that, to quote Savall, ‘doesn’t fit into the mental schemes of Western audiences’. Key sources for the programme include scores from the Sephardic and Ottoman repertoires found in archives in Balkan cities. But voices of memory in the form of threatened oral traditions are also important and some of the music is contributed by the musicians from Bosnia, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Syria and beyond who perform in tonight’s concert. These richly diverse cultural influences are reflected in the range of instruments used in Bal•kan: Honey and Blood, including the kaval, gûdulka, tambura, lira, kamancheh, kanun, oud, tambur, ney, santur, saz, violin, double bass, frula, cymbalum, accordeon, organ and guitar. Although Bal•kan: Honey and Blood is being performed as part of the Ouverture Spirituelle, the music transcends all the conventional categories of sacred, classical, folk and world music to create what Jordi Savall describes as a ‘musical mosaic’.

In 2013 Jordi Savall released his Orient-Occident II: Homage to the Syrian People in response to the humanitarian tragedy in Syria. In his introductory essay to that recording he explains that ‘we can, through the power of music, rebuild the mental and spiritual bridges destroyed by so many centuries of tragedy, injustice and fanaticism’. However in his introductory notes to the CD release of Bal•kan: Honey and Blood he acknowledges that the consolidation of peace on the Balkan Peninsula is an enterprise still beset with difficulties. In recent years ethnic conflict has erupted again in Macedonia and the recent dispute between Russia and the Ukraine has shown how fragile the peace in the region really is. But, as Jordi Savall goes on to say in his introduction, ‘understanding and integration between the different people of the Balkans can only come about through genuine reconciliation’. Tonight’s performance, which opens with a Kabbalistic text and closes with a conflation of Hebrew, Ottoman, Greek, Sephardic and Serbian melodies, provides a musical template for just such a reconciliation.

After graduating, Bob Shingleton worked for the BBC and EMI Records. During the 1970s he was professionally involved with the Salzburg Festival where his responsibilities included ensuring that photos of Herbert von Karajan were displayed prominently throughout the city. Since retiring Bob has pursued his interest in the more esoteric aspects of music and he writes the arts and music blog On An Overgrown Path.

Text (c) Bob Shingleton 2015. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", forcritical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).Also on Facebook and Twitter.

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