Tuesday 5 August 2014

On the Fiddle

There are one or two popular sayings about fiddles and violins. Perhaps the most famous is “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”. This saying came to mind first as soon as I thought about writing an article on lgbt violin or fiddle players. I was trying to think of who was the most famous fiddler in history. Being a historian I realised that the fiddle hadn’t been invented in Nero’s time. So before I go into lgbt violinists I’ll clear up the historical confusion around what Nero would actually have played and why the saying isn’t as anachronistic as it appears.

The story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned is a complete myth. For a start he wasn’t even in Rome at the time – he was in Antium (called Anzio today) some 35 miles away. Nero is known to have been a musician, or at least keen on music. According to several ancient writers, on hearing of the conflagration Nero leapt up and sang a song about the destruction of Troy. What is known for sure is that he returned to Rome and oversaw the reconstruction of the city.

The rest of Nero’s life – as creator of gladiatorial festivals, as giver to the poor, as persecutor of Christians, as popular ruler, as lover of both men and women, as a bit of a sexual pervert and one of the most evil men in history – can wait for another time. Let’s get back to the fiddle.

It was some 150 years after the event that reports of Nero playing a musical instrument as he sang were written down. The instrument named was the kithara, a stringed instrument not unlike a lyre. There’s a word in Latin – “fides” – which means “string”. A diminutive of the word, “fidicula”, was used to designate any stringed instrument. As the word evolved through European languages it became “fiddle”. Even later “fiddle” became associated with just the violin and not all stringed instrument in general. And so that’s how we get Nero playing a fiddle.

Moving a bit closer to our own time the next significant lgbt violin player was Arcangelo Corelli. Last month I included Corelli in my glance at Baroque music. Working his way from a supporting violinist in 1675 to leader of music for Queen Kristina of Sweden in 1687 Corelli helped to establish the distinct character of chamber music. Think of it in terms of sport. Chamber music was the cheerleader, an entertaining diversion to the main event. Like cheerleading, chamber music soon took on a life of its own and today we have both international cheerleading contests and permanent chamber orchestras.

Speaking of chamber orchestras, Keith Pascoe, a founder member of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, made headlines late last year. As a member also of the Raidió Teilifís Éireann Vamburgh String Quartet he boycotted the Irish Russian Chamber Music Festival in Moscow in October. This was the period when President Putin pushed through his anti-gay laws and Pascoe was a gay performer who boycotted the festival. The quartet went ahead with their appearance at the event with a substitute violinist.

In spite of this negative karma there has been a little upsurge of violinists in the lgbt community in the past 18 months. Craig Halliday has been performing at several Pride events in the UK with his electronic violin. In the US last month there was Andrew Sords playing solo in the Pride concert in Decatur, Georgia, and Carnegie Hall hosted a Pride concert featuring Tona Brown, the first female transgender African-American to give a solo performance there.  But one violinist who leaves a lasting visual presence is Hahn-Bin from South Korea, who in 2012 adopted the new stage name of Amadeus Leopold. This young gay violinist is often remembered fro his Mohawk haircut and garish make-up rather than his violin playing.

One of the most popular and familiar violinists to appear regularly on British television when I was young was Stephane Grappelli. He played mainly jazz, but I remember him teaming up with Yehudi Menuhin several times. Stephane’s sexuality was not known outside musical circles, and only after his death did colleagues begin talking about his homosexuality.

Mentioning jazz leads me on to the versatility of the violin. It isn’t restricted to classical or chamber music. The violin has been used for centuries in folk and ethnic music. The opening ceremony of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter games had an energetic segment devoted to several folk styles found in Canada. The segment built up to a short performance by openly gay folk-rock fiddler Ashley McIsaac. He also wrote a charity single for a Ghanaian skier who became the first from his country to enter the Winter Olympics that year.

An ethnic musical style developed in Europe which almost disappeared into history is klezmer. This is largely a traditional music of the Ashkenazi Jews. Until the 1970s only societies within the Ashkenazi community played klezmer, most often to be heard at parties and bar/bat mitzvahs. In more recent decades klezmer music has seen a revival and has become known to a wider audience, even getting as far as to winning a Grammy award for a band called The Klezmatics. This group was founded by lesbian klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals who studied classical violin and discovered klezmer music travelling around the Mediterranean in her youth. Since then she has been championing klezmer music.

At the other end of the scale from traditional music is contemporary and experimental music. One of the high profile lgbt violinists in this genre is Owen Pallett. This multi-talented Canadian musician brings indie-pop and experimental electronic rock into his violin playing.

I’ll sign off with this video of a string quartet called Well Strung. This all-gay quartet has pulses racing wherever they perform, and it’s not all because of their music!

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