Music as ritual through the ages

The annual Festival 20.21 kicked off last Monday in Leuven (Belgium) with a tribute to the way Johann Sebastian Bach developed the musical idiom. In the opening concert BACHC®AB, his Musikalisches Opfer was the thread along which the interweaving of past and present was spun.

The name of the concert is a play on words with the composer’s name and a reference to the so-called crabcanon, a compositional technique in which two musical lines can be played both front to back (forward) and back to front (retrograde). The crab is known to be able to move forward, backward and sideways, hence the reference.

The musicians of Zefiro Torna and Ensemble Variances deliberately chose to inspire their programme on Bach. Ein Musikalisches Opfer is sometimes regarded as a musical self-portrait in which Bach serves as the one and only yardstick of counterpoint, the master of the fugue and the ultimate virtuoso pianist. The first of five Bach canons already made it clear that this special mode of composition goes far beyond mere technical ingenuity. In this canon, the first voice plays from the beginning and at the same time the second voice starts at the end and plays towards the beginning. The result is a manipulation of time and space, an assumption of infinity in which the listener struggles to distinguish head and tail.

From the world of canon, it is small step to related forms of infinity.  The concert programme has therefore also made room for compositions that refer to circles, labyrinths, palindromes, wave movements and improvisations. All this often leads to hushed and mysterious effects.

The eternal fascination with the labyrinth is addressed in the anonymous ballad En la Maison Dedalus. In this three-part piece, the labyrinth serves as a metaphor for the unattainability of a lover. The two lower voices chase each other but nowhere coincide. Soprano Annelies Van Gramberen delivered a sober but effective performance, with a minimum of vibrato and modest gestures.

Circles and labyrinths

The symbolism of the circle also adds to the sense that beginnings and endings are not always discernible. Danse en cercle , a solo for timpani, is a tribal dance of North American Indians by Thierry Pécou, the inspirer of Ensemble Variances. The timpani derive their power not only from the pulses but also from unexpected timbres. Timpanist Elisa Humanes pulled out all the stops. With stirring rhythms, a tight touch, alternating with nuanced interval jumps and glissandi, she gave her instrument fragrance and colour.

Past and present also come together in the bars where composers take inspiration from other artistic expressions, for instance poetry. Ancient Voices of Children by American composer Henry Crumb is based on poems by Federico Garcia Lorca about life, death, love and nature. In De dónde vienes, the soprano’s vocalise consists of phonetic sounds. Van Gramberen was convincing in technique and eloquence.

Swiss composer and oboist Heinz Holliger was present in this programme with his 1971 Studie über Mehrklänge. This piece experiments with the technical possibilities of the oboe, such as harmony on an instrument that is basically unison and playing extremely long sustained motifs. Kristien Ceuppens was not only able to hold a theme for a long time via circular breathing, but could also play hyper-fast passages. Sometimes she even expanded from a diphthong to a triad. She showed how a virtuoso can indulge on this instrument, which is known to be difficult to master. 

Kristien Ceuppens (photo Kathleen Michiels)


The palindrome (a turn word as in ‘madam’ or ‘racecar’) surfaced in Miraris Mundum by Thierry Pécrou. Indeed, the subtitle of the piece reads: Esope reste ici et se repose. The play is completely mirrored on many levels. On the use of the palindrome in music, Pécrou said in an interview, “The structuring game rules of the palindrome are interesting as long as they are not an end in themselves but maintain a poetic scope and dimension”. Again, Van Gramberen played the leading role in a dreamy and richly upholstered interpretation.

Annelies Van Gramberen (photo Kathleen Michiels)

Dutch composer Louis Andriessen was present with two pieces: Langzame Verjaardag (Slow Birthday) (2007) and Inanna’s Descent (2000). Langzame Verjaardag is a canon in unison with open instrumentation where the musicians decide when to attack. Soprano Van Gramberen provided a balanced vocalise that via a lightly dosed vibrato culminated here and there in a lamento. Thanks to the beautifully stylised video footage that Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven had made of the composer, it also unintentionally looked like a tribute.

Ascent and descent

A journey in downward and upward motion is the subject of Inanna’s Descent. The piece, for female voice and small ensemble, deals with the passage of the sky goddess Inanna to the underworld during which she is humiliated and murdered. After her father is able to bring her body back into the upper world, she comes back to life. The story symbolises nature’s cycles of chaos, order, life and death.  Andriessen achieves this through beautiful contrasts such as the innocent beginning of the piccolo to a dialogue between bongas and tom-toms. Annelies Van Gramberen’s singing here was expressive, her recitation at times imploring, raising the question of whether the composer might have had a different voice type in mind.

(photo Helena Gaudeus)

Throughout the programme, six variations of the “royal theme” from Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer could be heard, 5 canons and the Ricercar 6. The canon series started traditionally with the lute and clavicymbalum but expanded from the second canon onwards to include a marimba, two violins, cello, clarinet and that in increasing complexity. The icing on the cake was the final Ricercar a 6 where the main theme was revisited but with six voices including marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, several reed instruments and a short bumping final cadenza by the bass clarinet.  The latter, short and powerful, proved to be the apotheosis of a concert in which metaphors and rituals presented themselves refreshed and well-trained.

– WHAT:          BACHC®AB

– WHO:            Zefiro Torna, Ensemble Variances, Annelies Van Gramberen (soprano), Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven (video), Jurgen De bruyn (concept), Katelijne Schiltz (research)

PHOTOS:     Kathleen Michiels, Helena Gaudeus             

SEEN:            Festival 20.21, Leuven, 26 September 2022

TICKETS AND INFO: (through 30 October)

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