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Tafelmusik anyone?

March 10, 2012

Galileo (Courtesy: tonynetone, using CC-BY 2.0, via flickr)

Tafelmusik = table (or banquet) music, and has been used since the mid-16th century for music played at feasts and banquets.


Tafelmusik = a Canadian Baroque orchestra specialising in early music, performed on period instruments.


197856 Tafelmusik = an asteroid discovered in 2004 and named for the orchestra.

You learn something new every day, don’t you? But why am I sharing this particular learning of mine? Well, because this week we attended our first Musica Viva subscription concert of the year and it happened to be The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, created and performed by Tafelmusik. It’s been some time since I wrote about a music concert. As I’ve said before, I love music but am no expert. This concert, though, was one-of-a-kind and I can’t resist sharing it with you, Whispering Gums style.

Baroque music was my first “classical*” music love – and so I was predisposed to enjoy this concert but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it quite as much as I did. The concert was a musical performance something like we’ve seen before with groups like The Song Company (and their Venetian Carnival). The Galileo Project was performed by 17 musicians and an actor. It incorporated music (of course), visual images, narration and movement. And, unusually for ensembles, the whole program was performed from memory. If there were any hiccoughs I didn’t hear them.

So, why Galileo? Through the program and post-concert Q&A, we learnt that The Galileo Project was Tafelmusik’s contribution to the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, which was the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the astronomical telescope. We were told that Canadian astronomers had a goal for 2009: that every Canadian would get to look at the stars through a telescope! I don’t think they quite achieved that, but it never hurts to aim high.

Anyhow, the program. It was divided into sections:

  • The Harmony of the Spheres I (Vivaldi)
  • Music from Phaeton (Lully)
  • Music from the Time of Galileo (Monteverdi, Merula, Galilei, Marini)
  • Henry Purcell
  • The Dresden Festival of the Planets (Rameau, Handel, Telemann, Zelenka, Lully, Weiss)
  • The Harmony of the Spheres II (Bach)

The music was linked by a narration drawn from contemporary writings (by Shakespeare, astronomers/scientists – who also included Newton and Kepler – and musicians) exploring the relationship between science, mathematics and music. Galileo’s father, Vicenzo Galilei, was a lutenist. One of his interests was testing lute strings to find “the mathematical formulas that express the relationships among length, tension and musical pitch” (program notes). Galileo, himself, was also a lute player, as well as a mathematics teacher and astronomer.

The concert program contains extensive notes on how astronomy and music intersected during the period, including:

  • the 1719 Festival of the Planets, which was a month-long event comprising operas, balls, outdoor events and special concerts designed to commemorate each of the known planets of the time – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn**. Handel, Telemann and other musicians were involved in the Festival.
  • Johannes Kepler‘s Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the World) in which he outlined his theory regarding harmonies (musical intervals and short melodies) that can be derived from planetary motion using mathematical formulae. The orchestra played some of these tunes from the planets.

All this was fascinating, but if you want to know more, here is a link to a Teacher Resource Guide which will give you more info than I ever could.

Meanwhile, I’ll just dot point my highlights of the concert:

  • the engaging rapport between the members of the ensemble. They clearly know each other well and enjoy playing together. That, or they are good actors!
  • the gorgeous sound. Llewellyn Hall should have good acoustics but I have never noticed quite how beautiful the sound is until this concert. It was warm and lush but also oh-so clear.
  • perfection that wasn’t cold and technical. They played from memory, they “orbited” or otherwise moved around the stage – and the hall – as they played their violins and oboes (which was impressive in itself but also enhanced our experience of the sound), and they made it feel spontaneous.
  • the sensitive incorporation into the narration of an indigenous Australian story about tracking Venus, from the Yolngu people.
  • beautiful, varied pieces of music played on authentic instruments.

We were told last year that if we only came to one Musica Viva concert in 2012, this should be it. We have, as usual, subscribed for the year, and we plan to attend them all, but this was a concert to remember. We hope Tafelmusik comes back.

* Using “classical” in its generic, not specific, meaning.
** Did you know that Uranus was discovered in 1781 by Sir William Herschel who was an oboist, organist, composer and amateur astronomer?

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2012 03:33

    I adore Baroque music and this sounds like a marvellous performance. Monteverdi! I am still studying Bach on the piano after all these years and if I behave my maestro plays my pieces on his harpsichord after the lesson, which kills me.

    Also there is bar on the way to town here and on the plaque on the villa opposite it says that Galileo stayed there. Amazing!

    • March 11, 2012 10:00

      That’s what happens I guess when you live in Europe, doesn’t it Catherine – you are surrounded by all that history we grew up with.

      My daughter likes to play Bach … Though the piano is at our place so she doesn’t get to play much these days. And I love the harpsichord too. The ANU School of Music one is decorated with Aus landscape. It’s beautiful.

  2. March 11, 2012 03:48

    I saw Tafelmusik years ago when I lived in Ontario and loved them then. (Baroque is also MY first classical love.)

    This show sounds more-than-fantastic. I wonder if they will tour it – maybe to Nova Scotia?

    • March 11, 2012 09:54

      That have been touring it on and off since 2009 Debbie … Canada, US, Mexico and here. Apparently they’ve done it 30 or so times … With other things in between. I guess your best bet is to check their website. Anyhow, you know how good they are, don’t you!

  3. March 11, 2012 04:56

    I ve not heard of this music ,not a big classical fan but always willing to try new genres ,all the best stu

    • March 11, 2012 09:55

      Thanks Stu … This sort of concert is perfect for people not particularly attuned to classical music because it’s so multidisciplinary.

  4. Meg permalink
    March 11, 2012 09:15

    I have never heard of Tafelmusik, but your event sounds wonderful. Thanks for the lesson, I must look out for a performance in Melbourne.


    • March 11, 2012 09:57

      Unfortunately Meg you’ve missed them …. They were in Melbourne twice before they came to Canberra. They are now working on a fine art themed program. We hope it might come here but I guess that will be some time away.

  5. Meg permalink
    March 11, 2012 13:27

    There they go!

  6. March 11, 2012 15:21

    Oh, I love, love when you can see genuine rapport between musicians (or actors) on stage/in the orchestra pit! It makes me so, so much more happy to be watching when I know the people performing like not only the music but each other 🙂

    • March 11, 2012 17:50

      Me too … It’s such a collaborative activity you want to think they’re enjoying themselves.

    • March 13, 2012 04:24

      That’s one of the wonderful things about live music — seeing the way the musicians glance over at one another, register the presences of the other people, give a slight grin when something goes right, give a nod to ready themselves just before the other’s turn ends and their turn comes up again — a reminder that music is a three-dimensional activity, it doesn’t take place only in the single dimension of sound. And watching someone, up there on a stage, in front of staring eyes, cope when a string breaks or a microphone stand falls over, is an education in aplomb.

      • March 13, 2012 07:56

        Absolutely, DKS … I’m fascinated by the personal aspect to it … It can be so wonderful, but can be the other too if the personalities don’t mix.

  7. March 14, 2012 02:45

    This sounds like a wonderful experience. What was the reason behind having the music memorized? Did the musicians themselves actually move around? If so, then I suppose it would be rather awkward to take your music with you. I hope all the other concerts you will be attending are just as wonderful.

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      March 14, 2012 09:32

      It sure was Stefanie. The group has been going since about 1978/9. The music director, Jeanne Lamon, has been with them since 1981. Their main programming person, though, is the double bass player, Alison Mackay, who has been with them from 1979. Apparently she had been wanting for a long time to do a program where they play from memory, perhaps because she wanted to include movement, though I don’t think the notes gave any reason. The challenge is reworking the movement for each hall. The stage stuff would be pretty easy as they move within a rough circle/orbit. but a few times the musicians with portable instruments moved out into the hall and of course halls vary greatly re no. and placement of aisles, steps, access to the stage etc. It was impressive.

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