New music for an ancient instrument

This tympanum crowns the restored west front of the Romanesque abbey church of Vézelay in Burgundy, France, which we visited in September. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Vézelay was an important monastic and pilgrimage centre, and today it is still one of the four starting points for the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route. The Abbey is one of the great architectural achievements of the Romanesqe period, although a major fire in 1120 and other disasters forced extensive renovation in the nineteenth century.

The nave, seen above, dates from the third decade of the twelth century. Although it is Romaneque at its most glorious there are some other interesting influences. See my article on the Rüstem Pasa Camii in Istanbul to understand how the alternating patterns in the stones of the arches echo Islamic architecture, an influence that probably found its way to Burgundy from Muslim Spain to the south-west. The view below is from the apse looking back through the choir to the nave. The apse and choir are Gothic additions dating from the end of the twelth century, and the change of styles is clearly evident at the transept.

The abbey of Vézelay is a wonderful performing space, and you can hear a unique recording made there in my Future Radio programme this Sunday, November 11 at 5.00pm UK time. Takafumi Harada studied in Tokyo and Rome, and was professor of musicology at the University of Kochi in Japan. He has composed for radio, television, the cinema and rock bands. In 1993 he took monastic vows and joined les Fraternités Monastiques de Jérusalem based in Vézelay, and became Brother Damien. He has applied his musical talents to the celebration of the liturgy at Vézelay, and in particular he has worked to rehabilitate the kithara into liturgical music.

The kithara (cithare in French) was an ancient Greek member of the zither family, and in modern Greek a kithara is a guitar. It was used to accompany worship in Biblical times, but subsequently fell out of use. Brother Damien's revival of the instrument is not a dry musicological exercise. He has composed contemporary works for the kithara and monastic choir, and I will be playing some of these on my radio programme from recordings made in the abbey church at Vézelay. His compositions use Japanese and Buddhist themes as well as setting the Psalms, and his work has been supported by L'Association des Amis de la Cithare japonais who have sponsored a CD of his compositions Eveille-toi, cithre! (Arise, kithara!). It can be bought from the website of les Fraternités Monastiques de Jérusalem, where short audio samples are also available.

Takafumi Harada's compositions for the kithara will be coupled with an apposite work, Toru Takemitsu's From me flows what you call Time. This concerto for five piece percussion group and orchestra is built around a five note theme, and its preoccupation with the number five reflects the numbers symbolism in Tibetan Buddhism. This will be a fascinating programme, and I am almost certain that the four pieces for kithara that I am playing are broadcast premieres. Do join me at 5.00pm UK time on Sunday November 11 if you can.

Now read about columns of plainsong soaring upwards.
* Listen via the audio stream on Sunday Nov 11 at 5.00pm UK time. Convert Overgrown Path radio on-air times to your local time zone using this link. Windows Media Player doesn't like the audio stream very much and takes ages to buffer. WinAmp or iTunes handle it best. Unfortunately the royalty license doesn't permit on-demand replay, so you have to listen in real time. If you are in the Norwich, UK area tune to 96.9FM. All photographs (c) On An Overgrown Path 2007. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


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