The Italian tenor Marco Beasley opened the new season of the Festival of Early Music on 15 October in Maastricht, with his programme Le strade del cuore (The ways of the heart). Together with Stefano Rocco (arch lute and baroque guitar) and Fabio Accurso (lute) he presents a selection of frottole and tarantelle from Renaissance Italy.
The frottola was developed at the court of Isabella D’Este in Mantua by composers such as Marco Cara and Bartolomeo Tromboncino, the tarantella is a folk dance from the South of Italy. Beasley and his musicians mix courtly and folk traditions without much ado and to great effect. The audience love their lively interpretations in which they effortlessly blur the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.
Courtly and folk traditions mix
I had the honour to conduct a pre-concert talk with Beasley on Tuesday 18 October in TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht. ‘The difference between court and folk music is not as big as is often supposed’, he says. ‘Composers employed by the courts were in contact with people from the lower classes and were inspired by their music.’
Asked about the main difference between a frottola and a tarantella, he replied surprisingly that ‘the frottola is not a musical genre, it’s poetry set to music. The text is all important and deals with love in all its appearances, it is therefore necessary to make each word clearly understood. The score often just contains a bass and a melody line, the rest is left to the interpretation of the musicians.’
The tarantella puts more emphasis on the rhythm: ‘It was a wild dance that lasted up to 24 hours. Officially it served to undo the effects of the poisonous sting of a tarantula spider, that was thought to be lethal. Yet there’s another, rather tragic side to this tradition, which is mainly associated with young girls.’
‘You must know women had a very tough life. They had to work from morning till night, were held in low esteem, and were often married off at a very young age to a man they didn’t love. The only chance for them to vent their suppressed sexual feelings was when they were able to toss & shake wildly to the exciting sounds of the tarantella.’
Writing by hand to concentrate
Beasley also carried a little notebook, which he showed to the audience. ‘In this I write all the poems of the programmes I bring. Nowadays we are so preoccupied with our smartphones, social media etcetera, that we forget to take the time to contemplate. By forcing myself to write down the texts by hand, I come closer to their intention. I write with a fountain pen, the titles in red, the rest in black ink.’
During the performance Beasley introduced each song with a lively story about a man cheated by his wife, a young girl pining away for a boy, or two lovers meeting in secret. ‘Don’t worry about mama finding out’, Beasley stressed with a sardonic grin, ‘she was young, too, and did the same thing.’
Beasley is a marvellous performer, who breathes life into even the simplest stories. He makes us reflect about our own longings and sufferings, and perhaps even change our attitude towards people we may despise. His timing is smooth and slighly jazzy, his face shows a panoply of expressions, his body moves lithely to the swinging sounds of his two accompanists. That his voice has known better days is amply compensated by his personality.
He introduces his fellow musicians with great flair and to loud cheering: ‘We are like a rock band!’ Fabio Accurso encourages the audience to cheer even louder, Stefano Rocco acknowledges the applause with a coy smile, one leg put forward. Together they hold the stage in some purely instrumental intermezzi.
All three radiate such warmth and pleasure that is takes four encores before the audience lets them go. After the concert there is a run on the cd that has just been released. It contains the entire programme and Beasley willingly signs all the discs – though not with a fountain pen, but a simple ball-point. He’s had enough contemplation for one night.
Beasley and his musicians will tour the Netherlands until Sunday 23 October.