The Listening Gallery Part 4: Music for the harpsichord

By Stuart Frost 

The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will open to the public on Wednesday 2nd December 2009. As you might expect installation of the objects and displays is dominating the work of the project team at the moment and will continue to do so over the short period of time that remains.

For those of you who are keen to get an impression of what is going on behind the scenes I have posted some photographs on the Medieval & Renaissance Flickr site. I’ll add further photographs on a weekly basis. The easiest way to reach the Flickr site is by clicking on the image below.

Harpsichord by Giovanni Baffo, 1574, Venice. Museum no. 6007-1859From my own point of view most of my time over the last couple of weeks has been focussed on the final scripting and recording of over forty audio tracks. These will integrated with the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries via fourteen audio-points, small touch-screen computers with headphones located at fixed points throughout the displays. Most of the tracks will also be available online via the V&A’s website. The recording and post-production of over eighty-four pages of script is now complete which I have to say is something of a relief. I’ll focus on just one audio track here.

The richly decorated instrument that illustrates this blog entry is a harpsichord made in Venice in 1574 for a member of the wealthy Florentine Strozzi family. The keyboard will be part of Palace and Home, a display that focuses on the elite Renaissance interior and the activities that took place there. The decision to provide recordings alongside the harpsichord to give visitors a sense of what the instrument sounded like was one of the more straightforward ones.

The V&A’s harpsichord, made by Giovanni Baffo, is no longer in playable condition. The instrument was acquired by the V&A primarily because of the superlative quality of its wonderfully rich and elaborate decoration. However there is an early harpsichord in the Museum at the Royal College of Music that is in playable condition. Thanks to our collaboration with the Royal College we were able to obtain a number of recordings of tracks that were performed on this instrument by Giulia Nuti.

The piece of music that visitors to Gallery 62 will be able to listen to is called Passemezzo di nome antico and was written by Marco Facoli. Facoli was born in Venice where he flourished as a composer in the late 16th century. The musical notation for this piece of music, contemporary with the Baffo harpsichord, is preserved in a manuscript in the library of the Royal College of Music. It is exceptional for the period for such a long and complex piece of solo music written out at length in a manuscript to have survived.

There are several advantages to obtaining recordings of previously unrecorded tracks like Passemezzo. One of the most significant benefits is that the pieces of music can be matched very closely to the objects which they are being used to interpret. New recordings can also be made more widely and freely available via the V&A’s website without getting involved in complex and sometimes expensive licensing issues.

To find out more about the harpsichord made by Giovanni Baffo from curators James Yorke and Kirstin Kennedy, and to watch footage of the recording of Passemezzo at the Royal College of Music, click on the link to the short film provided below. If you have any questions or comments please do post them below and I’ll respond to them as soon as I can.

Click here to see the film about the Baffo harpsichord on Vimeo.

Click here to find out more about the Listening Gallery project.

The Listening Gallery project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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