Musician of the Month: Tweedledum, Tweedledee
When and how did the group form?
Asako, Nikolay and Emily used to work together in several baroque ensembles, which meant that over the years the soprano and continuo team formed a strong sense of partnership. Emily and Cathy had sung together in various concerts, and were keen to work on some duets together, having always had the feeling that their voices would match well – so when Asako and Emily were discussing the idea of putting together a concert of Handel and Bononcini, it was clear that Cathy would be the right alto to add to the team. As it happens, Asako and Nikolay are also a married union outside music, so there is a very strong partnership at the heart of the group!
What is the story behind John Byrom’s poem about Handel/Bononcini (known as Tweedledum and Tweedledee) and what inspired the group to perform music based on it?
The Italian composer and cellist Bononcini was in London between 1720 and 1732, where for a time his popularity rivalled George Frideric Handel’s, the latter having arrived in London in 1712. In general the Tories favoured Handel, while the Whigs preferred Bononcini; and the lively competition between them inspired this epigram by John Byrom (1692-1763): “Some say, compar’d to Bononcini That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny Others aver, that he to Handel Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle Strange all this Difference should be ‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!” Byrom suggests that, despite their rivalry, the two composers are in fact more similar than they know, and it is this idea that Lewis Carroll later used to create the identical “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” characters in his book Through the Looking Glass. When we discovered that the Handel House programme this season would focus on rivalry between musicians in eigheenth-century London, we immediately thought of exploring the rivalry between Handel and Bononcini. Following this theme, Asako and Nikolay presented a concert on the 23rd of January 2014, ‘Handel’s Cellists’ in which Bononcini was one of the cellists featured. In researching the repertoire for this programme, Asako also came across some beautiful, rarely performed cantatas by Bononcini, and we are very excited that we now have an opportunity to perform these works in our March concert, alongside some beautiful cantatas by Handel.
How does the group integrate both Handel and Bononcini’s work in a performance? What message do you try to convey?
By presenting the Italian cantatas of Handel and Bononcini side by side, we aim to explore the similarities, as well as the differences, between the composers. Both choose to set relatively slight texts, few of which can be attributable to specific poets – but both use the sun-soaked Arcadian settings and amorous stock characters such as Tirsi and Dorinda as a springboard for very inventive writing, offering great contrasts in character and mood. The beauty and virtuosity of the vocal writing is matched by unusually challenging and interesting continuo parts, so we have all greatly enjoyed exploring this repertoire. In comparison with Handel, Bononcini is much less familiar to modern audiences; we hope that listeners will agree that his fascinating compositions deserve a much wider audience.
It is said that “Bononcini fled London after being charged with plagiarism”. Does this influence the group’s work in any way?
We feel rather sympathetic to Bononcini on this matter! In 1731, during a musical meeting at the Academy of Ancient Music, it was noted that a piece composed by Antonio Lotti was identical to Bononcini’s cantata ‘In una siepe ombrosa’, written three years earlier. The dispute between these two composers unexpectedly ended in Bononcini’s being accused of plagiarism, at which point he left England for good, choosing to move to France. Plagiarism must have been a difficult concept to pin down in a musical culture where it was very common to integrate other composers’ ideas into one’s own work, and in which composers frequently re-used their own musical ideas in later compositions. Bononcini’s cello sonata, which Nikolay and Asako will perform, is in fact only half by Bononcini himself: both the Gavot and the Grazioso are taken from Leclair’s violin sonata, with only a transposition from G major/minor to A minor/major to hide the theft. However, this plagiarism worked in all directions: we suggest that Handel (well known for recycling his own music from one piece to another) probably would not have written his very famous “Ombra mai fu”, had he not encountered Bononcini’s beautiful aria of the same name, which we present in this concert.
Emily and Cathy, can you tell Handel’s music was written for his specific singers? Do you feel like you need to channel your inner baroque diva to perform it?
It is always interesting to know who were the intended singers for Handel’s works, particularly his operas, because this can help us towards an understanding of the psychology and vocal style of each role. In the duet cantatas, there is less sense that each singer represents a fixed character: the two voices generally share the text between them, and even in a heated debate about the merits and dangers of love, such as Bononcini’s ‘Si fugga, si sprezza’, “roles” can be reversed if this is what will suit the composer’s musical ideas. The rivalry between Handel’s opera divas has been much explored and documented, and indeed the virtuosic demands of the vocal writing in these cantatas makes it clear that both composers were writing for skilled singers. However, in this concert we explore the rivalry between composers, rather than divas, so instead of choosing arias where the singers compete to show off, we are featuring beautiful duets where the voices work together in harmony.
Do you think performing at Handel House brings out another dimension of the music?
Absolutely. Our programme consists mostly of Cantate di Camera – literally “chamber music” – so the Handel House is the perfect setting for us. This very special venue creates intimacy not only between the performers but also between audience and performers. And of course, performing in Handel’s music room brings its own unique enchantment.