Armonia Celeste: The Seventeenth Century Lady Interview

Today I’m very pleased to present you The Seventeenth Century Lady Interview with Baroque ensemble Armonia Celeste! This increasingly popular group is comprised of three singers: sopranos Sarah Abigail Griffiths and Rebecca Choate Beasley, and mezzo-soprano Dianna Grabowski. Lyle Nordstrom accompanies on lute, theorbo, and Baroque guitar, and Paula Fagerberg plays the Baroque triple harp.

AC in Peru

Armonia Celeste in Peru

SCL: What was it about the music of the Barberini Courts that inspired your 2015 album, Udite Amanti?


Sarah: The music on the Udite Amanti album all comes from the courts of the Barberini family, which devoted enormous capital and energy to the arts. There is such a plethora of high-quality music to choose from in creating programs for concerts and recordings!

Rebecca: It is dramatically varied, passionate, and intensely sensual. Really, everything Italian music should be.

Dianna: It was the range of emotions represented in this music that inspired me most— from passion to flirtation, to despair, and much more.

Lyle: The composers who were part of the court, especially Luigi Rossi and Marazzoli. We find their music quite exciting and interesting.

Paula: Another sort of practical thing that greatly inspired us as a group to start concentrating on the music of the Barberinis was my commission (in 2011) of a reproduction of the famous harp owned by this family. My copy was made by a luthier in Italy who had permission to do intensive research on the original instrument, which is in the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome. The harp was famous in its time, and there is a well-known painting from the era that shows it (or one very like it). When my copy was ready, it of course, made us keen to explore the sound-world of the Barberini dynasty. I find that my copy of the Barberini harp greatly informs how I should play this music. Certain things become SO POSSIBLE because of the way that this harp is built, how it plays, how it sounds, that it’s just had an enormous effect on how I approach this repertoire.

Filming for Early Music Television

Filming for Early Music Television

SCL: What a great photo! Thanks for sharing this with us. Baroque music seems to be increasing in popularity. Why do you think this is?

Sarah: First of all, the increased popularity of Baroque music is SO EXCITING! I think Baroque has seen something of a “re-branding” and is now finding new and appreciative performers and audiences—long gone are the days of mandatory “Renaissance” concert dress!

Rebecca: This was a time when singers ruled the roost, so as a vocalist it is incredibly thrilling music. Baroque instruments have a timbre that works with the voice rather than against it. Since the singer doesn’t have to fight to be heard, they can explore a wider range of vocal effects. It allows for more musical freedom than can be found in later eras, so we have the joy of allowing our musical choices to change based on venue acoustic, audience response, and whatever mood we happen to be in! We get to play off of the energy in the room and the energy of the other musicians. I think audiences notice and value that, just as they might sense the same phenomenon in a modern jazz combo. It’s that type of connection that modern audiences are looking for.

Lyle: The goal of Baroque music, especially during the 17th century, was to move the emotions. This music does that well, especially in small contrasting sections, which fits the 21st-century audience well.

train photo

SCL: Although there are many Baroque composers who have been largely forgotten, are there any in particular whom you believe are most unfairly neglected by modern audiences and orchestras?

Sarah: I would say that every composer on our recordings and in our concerts fits this description! This music is all so exciting and audiences have reacted positively to it all— each audience member seems to have a favorite piece or composer at the end of each performance!

Lyle: The orchestra was just getting started in the 17th century so it barely affects us. However, there was a great deal of violin music, especially for 2 violins and continuo [improvised accompaniment], and we have put some of this on our second CD, called “The Rebel Queen,” which is music from the courts and chapels of the renegade Queen Christina of Sweden.

Paula: Yes, Christina was a fascinating character. She cross-dressed, shot cannons at the Medici villa, and shaved her head. The pope described her as “a queen without a realm, a Christian without faith, and a woman without shame”–and nearly excommunicated her. Some modern scholars consider to her to have been possibly a lesbian or maybe even intersex. She’s definitely one of the most interesting figures in history in addition to having been a great patron of the musical arts.  But to return to your question—I think Monteverdi is another composer who is little-known to most modern audiences but was absolutely a giant of his time, and his music is sumptuous. On The Rebel Queen is also an absolutely stunning piece by Marco Marazzoli, who was a harpist by the way. Every piece I have done by him is striking, and different—sometimes puzzlingly so, at first—and drop-dead gorgeous. This guy is not well known even in early music circles, and is certainly VERY underrated!

AC at Cumberland museum

SCL: Every member of your ensemble is superbly talented. The three vocalists, as I mentioned in my recent review, are wonderful to listen to. Is there anything you must keep in mind when singing Baroque works, in terms of technique? How often do you need to practice?

Sarah: One of the things that has always been so special about singing with Dianna and Rebecca is that it is so easy, so seamless, when we sing together. When it comes to singing technique, I am a big advocate for singing with a healthy, supported technique, no matter what music you are singing. Of course, there are many baroque ornaments and stylistic choices that we make in this music, but those also happen in a very improvisatory fashion when we all sing together!

Rebecca: Keeping the voice nimble enough to sing quick, delicate passages and ornaments necessitates a certain element of self-control. You need a hyper-awareness of where you are going in the musical line, and how to get there seamlessly from the previous passage. Adding ornaments to the mix certainly makes things fun, but they must be chosen carefully rather than adding an ornament for an ornament’s sake. For example, vibrato is a beautiful ornament, but should be used judiciously and consciously rather than as a continuous effect. Otherwise, dissonance between voices might become muddy and less striking, and color choices for the singer would become unnecessarily limited.

Singing is like any other sport! It requires constant training and muscular maintenance if you are going to stay on the top of your game. Daily practice, voracious listening, and pouring over scores are all part of our lives as singers.

Dianna: Singing Baroque music definitely takes a solid vocal technique…you need great flexibility in vocal color as well as agility and control. For me, the most fun thing to play with is contrasts in dynamics, affect, etc. Italian seventeenth-century music is full of these contrasts: sudden large leaps, register shifts, changes in emotion or mood. The singers from this period were masters of their craft, so I feel like I can never practice too much!

Painting by Giovanni Lanfranco

Painting by Giovanni Lanfranco

SCL: Can you share what has been your best feedback from a listener?

Sarah: We have had several native Italian speakers provide feedback on our diction!

Rebecca: I love to hear someone who has never enjoyed classical music say that they were moved by my performance. Music at its core is about the human connection. When I pour my heart out to the audience, all I can hope is that someone’s heart answers back.

Paula: My favorite thing is when an audience member, who perhaps expects to be bored stiff by these “museum pieces” of music, actually has an epiphany and gets terribly excited about the genre. The music that Armonia Celeste plays can be very jazzy and boppy, with foreshadowings of 20th-century music (blue notes, Andrews Sisters kinds of harmonies, dance-y rhythms) that are much more familiar to modern ears than many people expect. It is interesting too to see them connect with the texts of the music we perform, as they realize that people who lived 350 years ago were just as intelligent, lustful, corrupt, and loving as we are today, and struggling with many of the same issues that we do. That connection across time and through the remove of culture can be very powerful, and is a joy to see and experience. For me personally, that is the point of making our music, and of all art overall—to connect us with our common humanity, to see ourselves as fundamentally the same as one another despite our surface differences, and to realize that we are part of something much greater and more timeless than ourselves.

SCL: I see you currently have a kickstarter for The Rebel Queen, which features music from Virgilio Mazzocchi. What can you tell us about this composer?

Lyle: He was “Maestro di Capella” to Francesco Barberini and the papal court. He was also known as an opera composer (some collaboration with Marazzoli, also on our album) and as a fine teacher to the boys.

Paula: I’m happy to report that the Kickstarter campaign met—well, actually, exceeded—its goal, and we are able to move forward with the post-production of the CD. If you like Mazzocchi, you can watch a video of a live performance of us doing his beautiful “Surge, amica mea”:

The text is from The Song of Solomon. This is a little sneak peek of a track that will be on the new album!

Dianna has also written a blog post about our experience recording The Rebel Queen, including some reflections on the music, which you can read here.

SCL: That’s fabulous! I am really looking forward to more! I asked fans of The Seventeenth Century Lady to send in any questions they had for Armonia Celeste and this is what they’ve asked:

Q: How much access did the average citizen have to music in early 17th century? Only the wealthy or access only through churches?

Sarah: It was performed mainly in the Church and in the courts, limiting the exposure to the general public…

Lyle: Very little unless they showed talent as a child when they were put into church choir schools. The rising middle class did access music more and more, especially the music for the lute.

Question from Diane M Denton: Do you play any of Alessandro Stradella’s music?

Sarah: Stradella! I love singing Stradella! He did compose for Queen Christina, so there is definitely reason to include him on some upcoming concerts!

Lyle: Not yet, though we have looked at some. He has not quite fit into our basic programming thrusts so far.

SCL: After The Rebel Queen, can you share with us what your next album might be about?

Sarah: Our recordings tend to develop from our concert programs. Upcoming programs include an exciting program called “Cantate Amorosi: Virtuosic Italian Expressions of Love.”

Lyle: We love the music of Luigi Rossi, and there is so much good music. We have toyed with the idea of doing a complete CD of him. However, our current concert touring program is about the varied aspects of love.

SCL: How exciting! We have some lute-specific questions from Patricia Staes. Q: How do his fingers feel when he plays?

Lyle: Touching the strings with the right hand is very delicate, and the aim and speed are crucial. Being able to feel the strings is important.

Q: Does you have callouses on the tips of your fingers?

Lyle: Only on the left hand. Most lute players take extra care to keep the skin on the right hand soft and pliable, which gives the best sound.

Q: How does your back feel when you play?

Lyle: One of the problems in playing the lute—there is not a great position, and it varies with age. The design of the instrument was not made for playing ease, but for tonal and historical reasons. The back pays.

Q: How do you tune the instrument?

Lyle: Close to a guitar, in 4ths and a 3rd. The notes are: g d A F C G’ (extra strings depend on the period and key).

Q: Is the rose hole made of wood?

Lyle: It is carved into the spruce belly by the maker.

Q: Does the lute go out of tune rapidly?

Lyle: Not if the temperature and humidity are constant. Moving from place to place does demand more tuning. I generally try to get to a concert at least three hours ahead to allow time for the instrument to acclimate.

Q: Does he need to sit to play? Does he need his knee up to play?

Lyle: The changes from person to person and instrument to instrument. Lutes come in a variety of sizes, much like human beings. These days, I generally sit with my knee up. Many use a strap to avoid that.

SCL: Wow, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedules to stop by with us today!

For more information about Armonia Celeste, their performance calendar, and more please go to their website  You can follow them on Twitter, and like their page on Facebook.

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