Summer 2024 Issue

Inconsolata:
Jordi Savall

Ariana Reines caught a plane to Barcelona earlier this year to see A Sea of Music 1492–1880, a concert conducted by the Spanish viola da gambist Jordi Savall. Here, she meditates on the power of this musical pilgrimage and the humanity of Savall’s work in the dissemination of early music.

<p>Jordi Savall performing at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, New York, 2006. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images</p>

Jordi Savall performing at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, New York, 2006. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Jordi Savall performing at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, New York, 2006. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Because we have not spoken in years, other sounds have come to replace my father’s voice.

I once dated a man whose surrogate fathers—I learned this making a systematic study of his many tattoos—were Charles Manson, David Lynch, and Leonard Cohen. In that order.

Early in our relationship he received a phone call from his actual dad and this unusual event caused him a panic attack. My lover shook, clutching his vape pen, holding the phone away from his ear like it was the severed leg of an animal.

He had described his estranged father to me as a “Harley-riding plumber” and, well, the man had ridden that Harley away from his son. It was, I could plainly see, even more painful to hear the father’s voice than it had been not to have heard it all those years. Which was something I could relate to.

Not that my father ever called.

If you listen to Jordi Savall playing the viola da gamba you will hear the simple sound of a man talking. Which, it turns out, is not a simple thing at all.

Something I have learned about myself is that I will go to great lengths to cry. I flew to Barcelona last January on less than a day’s notice for this express purpose.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t cry at home, or that I had not been crying. It was only that there was something robotic my anguish was somehow a reaction against, or so I remember feeling as October turned into November and blood filled my phone. I felt my soul was in danger. I’d been listening day and night to an album called Les Voix Humaines (1998): human voices. One of the first recordings Jordi Savall released on his own label, Alia Vox, it consists of a perfectly calibrated solo viola da gamba concert, and I had come to depend on its melancholy eloquence for my sanity.

It was the sound of a man. Explaining himself, lamenting his fate, reaching heights of exaltation and despair. There was a humility and a dignity in it that did not seem alien to the destitutions of my world—but somehow capable of answering them in a way nothing else could.

Album cover for Les Voix Humaines by Jordi Savall (Alia Vox, 1998)

It was almost a year since my mother’s suicide. As the wars—real and cultural—dragged on, I felt in a very serious way, impossible to overstate, that I would die if I could not find a frequency to which I could confide my grief in dignity. And somehow, also, privacy.

Jordi Savall i Bernadet was born on August 1, 1941, in Igualada, a town to the west of Barcelona. A Leo, he came into this world in the second year of the Franco dictatorship, near the wild heart of antifascist Catalonia.

Savall’s family was not musical. His father worked in a mattress factory. Savall himself would work eight hours a day in that same factory from ages fourteen to nineteen, singing in the local choir and taking counterpoint lessons after work, until an accidental encounter with Mozart’s Requiem sealed his destiny. Wandering into a small ensemble rehearsal in which the Requiem’s orchestra parts were played by string quartet, Savall found himself completely overwhelmed. Like an inflamed youth in a Federico García Lorca poem, he left the rehearsal with his soul in uproar. He walked all over Igualada, pondering his future path. Music was the most powerful thing in the world, he now knew for certain, and there was no longer any doubt he would devote his life to it. But he was in puberty now—his voice was changing. So he decided to study the cello.

He saved up money for a locally made instrument and began to teach himself to play. On a trip to Barcelona he bought a small stack of scores, including viola da gamba music by Marin Marais arranged for cello, which got him curious about the instrument. When a hand injury kept him out of a series of youth-orchestra performances in Paris, Savall passed an ecstatic week in the Bibliothèque nationale, discovering books of forgotten viola da gamba repertoire by Marais, Couperin, Sainte-Colombe, and others. He began lessons with a viola da gamba teacher who took a relatively hands-off approach. Savall was developing a relationship with the instrument from books and from what the viol somehow showed him it needed.

With a slightly higher note range than the cello and six strings instead of four, a fretted fingerboard, sloping shoulders, and a bow that is held from underneath, with the hand turned outward, the viola da gamba’s sound is much more intimate and conversational than the cello, making the latter sound lacquered and even melodramatic in comparison. One could almost compare what the viol is capable of expressing to what a lyric poem can do that the epic mode cannot: it expresses extraordinary nuance and personality. It does not need to shout. It invites you to come closer; it sounds like intimacy. You almost feel you are in the presence of a whole person, in all their glory and frailty. And the music composed in this mode and for this instrument therefore emanates a different kind of ethics, too: you feel from the sound that there is a world of being, and of creation, in which the individual heart actually matters. That the many things a soul can feel are worth expressing.

Jordi Savall performing at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, New York, 2006. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

All music is alive if it is being played, as Savall often says, and by its grace, I thought, I can face my own demons.

Ariana Reines

Like the Catalan/Puerto Rican cellist Pau Casals, made famous in the United States when he played at the White House for John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, Savall would gain renown not only through the vindication of an instrument theretofore considered minor but through a chance encounter with forgotten repertory. (You would never know it now, because the Bach cello suites have become totally canonical, but when a teenage Casals bought a secondhand copy of the score and played it religiously, its musical value wasn’t generally held to go beyond a nifty way to tune the instrument.)

A palpable strain of flamboyant, fun-loving anticlassicism and antifascism runs through late-twentieth-century approaches to the Baroque. When I was depressed and low on confidence I used to watch a YouTube video of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in which Savall strides onstage in a billowing cape, storming the podium like a king, but also like a Monty Python parody of a king. I remember finding it virile and cheerful in a way that I needed when I was first investigating Savall’s artistry for a sculpture project in 2015.

It has turned out—you can’t plan these things—that it has always been the most extreme anguish that drives me to his music. Partly, I suppose, it’s that it reminds me I’m not the first human being to struggle for clarity of expression in times of inner—and cultural—chaos. But it’s also that Savall’s ethos as a historian and philosopher has proven again and again that music transcends every boundary and has the power to repair the wounds of history. This is his theorem, for which he has provided thousands upon thousands of proofs.

When you see Savall onstage with Le Concert des Nations, his Baroque and world-music ensemble—and the same goes for his British counterpart, William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants, founded in 1979—the first thing you’ll notice is that all the performers, not only the soloists, seem to be wearing whatever they want. They look relaxed, laughing and radiating pleasure. The emphasis is on people, not empires or gods, as the makers of music. You feel that a dramaturgical decision has been made to have a good time onstage and show it. I haven’t read this in any book but it occurs to me that the Baroque revivalists of the late ’70s were, perhaps, among the more scholarly and even mystical branches of punk.

Jordi Savall performing at Bab Al Makina as part of the Fez Festival of World Music, Fez, Morocco, 2010. Photo: Jordi Vidal/Redferns/Getty Images


I got to Barcelona just in time for a sold-out performance of Un mar de músicas 1492–1880 (A Sea of Music 1492-1880) at L’Auditori, a simple wooden hall packed with regular people in puffer coats and blue jeans. I was overdressed, jetlagged, and slightly embarrassed by my own impetuosity—but as soon as the music started I knew I’d done right. I burst into tears.

Un mar de músicas draws on the same repertoire—and on many of the same dazzling performers, singing in at least ten languages and playing an assortment of Baroque and traditional instruments—as Savall’s double album The Routes of Slavery 1444–1888 (2017), which I’d listened to daily during the pandemic, several tracks especially, for their curative power. That record, a four-century-spanning exploration of the sounds and cultural dynamics of enslaved people and their oppressors—like Savall’s musical chronicles of the travels of Ibn Battuta from 2019, of Erasmus’s notions of madness and folly from 2013, or his reconciliation of Islamic and Sephardic musics, both expelled from Spain in successive Inquisitions, from 2007—was immensely, even insanely ambitious. Just the idea of it was healing.

All music is alive, Savall has said in interviews, by which I think he means: he is not a historian or an antiquarian. All music is alive if it is being played, as Savall often says, and by its grace, I thought, I can face my own demons.

Among the performers in the Un mar de músicas concert, I was particularly struck by Lixsania Fernández, who not only played the viola da gamba but sang and also danced in at least half a dozen languages and styles. Beaming at Savall under her shock of purple-black curls, in a puffed-sleeve bare-midriff and maxi-skirt ensemble, she looked like the love of life incarnate, and it made me feel better just looking at her.

Savall was seated to the far left of the stage, conducting with his bow and playing what looked like a Celtic viol, which resembles a modern viola but is balanced on the knees. There were at least thirty performers onstage, all dressed differently, and everyone not only played their instruments in totally divergent styles but sang in multiple languages—Catalan and Castilian, Portuguese and Haitian Kreyòl, Nahuatl and Mande, English and French—and some also danced.

The concert told the story of a human horror actually coming to an end. Yet my curdled American heart went somewhat cynical when “Amazing Grace” was sung, in English—maybe this was a ’90s multicultural fantasy, I thought. But Barcelona faces the Mediterranean, and the deep time of Savall’s exploration of how music itself moves across time and space adds credence to the currents of liberty.

It is impossible to distill for you the ambition and sweep of Savall’s accomplishment, the spiritual ambition of his project, except to say that when his large ensemble concertizing pushes against the limits of my own idealism, I find him totally sober and unpretentious at his core. It is not fatuous to say that music heals. Or that it transcends boundaries. These are mere words—but all you have to do is feel it, and you know. If this weren’t the case, one of the most dazzling and popular careers in twentieth- and twenty-first-century classical music, the near single-handed resurrection not only of the Baroque but of a host of other sounds and tones I’ve built my life around, which I’d never have heard if not for him—well, it wouldn’t be real. But it is.

All music is alive if it is beautiful (reprise). The sounds Savall makes have always been on the Earth. Some of them made by the wretched, some of them made by the cruel.

Detail from the facade of Antoni Gaudí’s Basilica of the Sagrada Família. Photo: Patrick
Landmann/Getty Images


I walked around the Basilica of the Sagrada Família for the next two days, with The Routes of Slavery in my ears. On one facade of Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece I saw the raised fists of Jesus Christ, with a book for a face. I watched a stricken French woman call a friend from a tea shop near the cathedral, repeating over and over that what she had seen inside “was overwhelming. It was completely overwhelming.” I worried for her, remembering the violence of the sublime. I ate Pata Negra ham and read Lorca and flew to Granada in the rain. The air smelled of oranges. At night at the Alhambra I wondered over the violent imagery of poets—the poets of inner torment—when measured against the carnage of this world. Would we ever be worthy of metaphor again?

I didn’t know. Years ago, in a little town in Picardy, France, I had met a Spanish woman who told me that my family name came from Granada. Absolutely. Granada and no other place. It occurred to me as I moved through the gardens of the Alhambra that Barcelona was a place about people. And that the many dimensions of people, playing music in perfect harmony and perfect time, but presenting themselves as individuals, was something Savall meant to emphasize, just as Gaudí’s Jesus looks like not only a laborer in protest but the living embodiment of a prophetic tradition. This was why I had to see Savall onstage in his home city—even though he’d be at Carnegie Hall in a few months. I needed to see the lion in winter, I thought, and at home.

I remembered how miserable Lorca had been in New York, and how right he was about us, and I remembered his murder. His poems were great, but they made me sick. I will die without beauty, I thought. I remembered Mahmoud Darwish’s “Eleven Stars over Andalusia” (1992) and Savall’s effort to repair not only the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain but the Albigensian Crusade (The Forgotten Kingdom, 2010), the Armenian genocide (Armenian Spirit, 2012), even the voice of Joan of Arc (Joan of Arc: Battles and Prisons, 2012), who is still in flames somehow and still always leading her army to victory, beyond the limits of the human imagination—and yet real.

It’s consoling to know a man can do all this. Your heart floods. It all starts with a mellow, eloquent, and solitary sound. An almost forgotten sound. A counterexample to the totalitarian harangue. The sound of an honest man.

Black-and-white portrait of Ariana Reines

Ariana Reines is a poet, Obie-winning playwright, and performing artist. Her last book, A Sand Book, won the 2020 Kingsley Tufts Prize. Since 2020 she has run Invisible College, a platform for the study of sacred texts and poetry.

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