Aston Magna: The lirone comes into its own


GREAT BARRINGTON, MASS. — If the instrument is played just right, Erin Headley says, it's as if a ghost has walked into the room, so chilling and haunting is the effect.

It's the lirone, a 14-stringed Italian instrument that went obsolete around 1700 and Headley single-handedly revived. She'll be playing it in Aston Magna's season-opening concert, "Love and Lamentation," Saturday night at 6 in the Daniel Arts Center at Simon's Rock.

Early composers, Headley explains, called on the lirone to accompany laments and tragic narratives in opera and oratorio scenes, but not to serve as part of the orchestra all through a dramatic work. It is possible to bow up to six of its 14 strings together to make a chord, but if you try to play just one string, she once said, it sounds "like a mosquito about to die."

"The lirone," she writes on Aston Magna's website, "was said to raise the soul to heaven and to cause the listener to experience the deep emotions and eventual catharsis of the character being portrayed."

The program, with Headley as guest director, features a baroque ensemble of five instrumentalists with two sopranos in operatic scenes and a cantata by Monteverdi, Marazzoli and Rossi, plus instrumental music by Marini, Monteverdi and Rossi. The vocal selections specifically call for a lirone in the accompaniment.

Aston Magna isn't alone. Baroque chamber music also steps out Saturday night in Williamstown, Mass.

As part of a baroque series at the Clark Art Institute, the Four Nations Ensemble will present a 7:30 p.m. program of instrumental and vocal music keyed to the Clark's summer exhibition of Old Master paintings, "Splendor, Myth and Vision: Nudes from the Prado." Titled "The Nude: Sacred and Erotic," the concert program offers works by Monteverdi, Purcell, Byrd, Biber and others from the period.

(The Four Nations Ensemble takes its name from The College of Four Nations founded by Louis XIV and Mazarin to celebrate the arts of France, Spain, Austria and Savoy.)

The Aston Magna concert is the first of four to be presented on successive Saturday nights in the early music group's 44th season. The later programs, under violinist-director Daniel Stepner, are "The Trio Sonata," "Mozart's Diversions" and "J.S. Bach: Sacred and Secular." The finale features a sextet of singers, along with an enlarged instrumental ensemble.

But back to the lirone. Its disappearance parallels that of the six-stringed arpeggione, which vanished later on, after Schubert wrote his well-known sonata for it. The part is usually played now on a cello.

Headley has played the lirone in the Berkshires in the Boston Early Music Festival's biennial opera productions, but this will be Berkshirites' first chance to hear it up close in a chamber concert setting. The instrument is clasped between the knees like a viola da gamba, which Headley plays in larger ensembles.

Her instrument is a modern reproduction. Only four originals remain extant, all in museums in Europe, she said in a phone interview. They are no longer playable, she said, but along with paintings "they gave us evidence about what we might copy or base something on."

But why did the instrument go obsolete four centuries ago, and how did Headley come to discover it?

"It was a fluke," she said. Then a cellist and viola da gamba player, she was doing research in the Vatican library for her doctoral studies. By chance, she came across the manuscript of Bernardo Pasquini's 1680 oratorio about Cain and Abel. A lirone-accompanied passage about Cain after he has killed his brother was "so extravagant and spiritual and ecstatic" that she was smitten.

She got a fellowship to study in London, where she did more research on the lirone and found an instrument builder who made a lirone for her. She began playing it around 1980 and went on to publicize the music, teach others and make recordings.

"The lirone, consequently," she writes for Aston Magna, "led me down many paths: continuo [accompaniment] playing and the numerous elements that comprise it; 17th-century Italian poetry, which is the foundation of all vocal music of the era; along with iconography, painting, sculpture, Italian culture and spirituality, and numerous fascinating accounts of life in Florence and Rome at the time."

Now, she said, there are about 100 lirone players worldwide. The repertoire, she said, is "stunningly appealing."


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