Suggested Listening: “Symphonia a 3 supra Ciaconna” by Nicolaus à Kempis

Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC is brought to you by my fabulous sister.

Me, my sister, and Sam-I-Am, circa 2011.

A hipster if there ever was one, my sister is dark-minded, whip-smart, and a wildly talented photographer.  She was a reluctant bassoonist in the seventh and eighth grades, before realizing that her artistic soul had a shutter and a lens, not a reed and a bocal.  Her attitude toward classical music — my music — is tolerant at best.  Which is why I was surprised to receive the following Facebook message from her last week:

so i have to write a 12 page research paper on a topic in baroque flemish art and i wanted to do some sort of comparison thing between painting and music. can you give me some sort of starting point?

I was SO.  FREAKIN’.  EXCITED. when I got her message.  I love helping my sister!  That’s what big sisters are for!  Plus, it had to do with Baroque music, AKA the best, most awesome music ever.

But Flemish Baroque music?

I drew a total blank.

The musical powerhouses of the Baroque (musicologically, 1600-1750) were Italy, Germany, and France — you’ve got Vivaldi and Corelli, Telemann and Bach, Couperin and Lully.  There were some big names like Purcell across the pond, and even a respectable output from musically-inclined missionaries in the New World (one of whom I profiled here), but the brunt of it is this: search “italian baroque composers,” and Google spits out a seemingly endless list — but Googling “flemish baroque composers” gets you squat.

This seemed especially odd to me, considering that Flemish Renaissance composers — guys like Josquin and Dufay — were among the most important in the history of Western music.  What made Flanders go from a star-studded hub in the Renaissance to a musical desert as it transitioned into the Baroque era?

My sister inadvertently sent me on a quest to find out the answer, and one of the gems I uncovered along the way was this delightful symphonia by Nicolaus à Kempis, performed below by Ensemble Clematis (BE).

About the Composer:

Nicolaus à Kempis (1600?-1676) was a composer and organist with a mysterious past.  Though his career was built in Brussels and Antwerp, some historians speculate that he was actually born in Florence, since one of his claims to fame was the first documented use of Italian viol techniques in the Low Countries of Flanders.

Let’s back up for a second.  Low Countries?  Flanders?  What even is Flanders?

Map of Flanders, c. 1609 (source)

Though today existing in the northern part of Belgium, historical Flanders comprised much of Belgium, the Netherlands, and parts of France.  The Low Countries refers to a subset of old Flanders: the Belgian and Dutch coastal regions along the North Sea and English Channel.  “Low” describes the area’s below-sea-level elevation — the name Netherlands literally translates to “Low Country.”

Lion Hunt (1621) by Peter Paul Rubens (source)

During à Kempis’ lifetime, Flanders was host to an extraordinary artistic outpouring.  In fact, the city of Antwerp — where much of à Kempis’ music was published — was also home to a Very Famous Artist, the one and only Peter Paul Rubens.  Amidst this golden age of Flemish creativity, à Kempis worked as an organist in a Brussels cathedral, composed over a hundred instrumental and vocal works, and established himself as a great contributor to the astounding Flemish artistic scene of the Baroque era.

About the Piece:

This Symphonia a 3 supra Ciaconna is one of 106 symphoniae by à Kempis published in Antwerp between 1644-1649.  If 106 pieces composed and published within five years isn’t impressive enough for you, consider this: the printing press was still basically a new thing, with the first movable-type music publishing house in Flanders opening its doors only 100 years earlier.  À Kempis’ four published volumes contained instrumental sonatas and vocal motets for small ensembles, intended to be performed in private as home entertainment.  That was the magic of the printing press: no longer was printed music reserved for the clergy and the nobility who could afford to produce and purchase manuscripts.  Now, it was inexpensive to mass-produce and distribute to private homes — music for everyone.

From 1581-1741, the Flemish Low Countries were under Spanish rule.   And here we have a completely incredible intersection of music and geopolitics: listen to that guitar!  That tambourine!  Rocking out with Iberian pizzazz, the instruments join the continuo timbres of harpsichord and cello.  A ciaconna — anglicized, “chaconne” — is a type of composition that features a short bass line repeated over and over with a varying melody unfolding above it.  Listening, you’ll hear the guitar, harpsichord, and cello take turns iterating a cyclic chord progression, with the two violins producing ornate, playful melodies that sound almost improvised, the way jazz players invent new tunes on top of familiar bass lines.  The percussion instruments add even more Iberian flavor.  It’s easy to imagine attending a Flemish dinner party, dancing and socializing while musicians jam to some rockin’ à Kempis.

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