René Clemencic and his Consort celebrate half a century of early music concerts at the Musikverein

What do we know about European music in 1492, the year Columbus was busy voyaging – he thought – toward Asia? We might have a Hollywood impression. But how garish it is, and how brutal the amplification. At that time the world was a nearly silent place. Time was so slow, speed was measured in the pace of footsteps. Rooms were very dark and often cold. Within that darkness and chill silence, the hushed tones of a clavichord must have sounded glorious.

There are heavy gates between ancient music and modern ears. But a major force in opening those gates has been René Clemencic, for lovers of early music a name well known for decades.

In 1966 the Musikverein inaugurated an early-music concert series with Clemencic. At the time it was a “bold gamble” writes Thomas Angyan, the concert hall’s general director. But in the intervening half century, the Clemencic Consort series has proven that “historically informed” concerts and the vigor and enthusiasm of this early-music pioneer can inspire generations of both audiences and performers.

When Clemencic founded his ensemble in 1957, while a student at the Vienna Music Academy, no one had an ancient instrument. “I had to buy them,” he relates, “have them repaired and restored. And then convince musicians to play them. It was very, very difficult.”

But Clemencic wanted to hear the original sound, for instance of 1492, although he was aware that “authenticity” is a relative concept. He explains: “We will never know how the composer thought it should sound. And anyway, how it was sung or played wasn’t so important then. The point was the perfection of the counterpoint.”

There is no fixed repertoire. In fact, fans say he has never repeated a piece in the hundreds of concerts he has performed. Never? “Seldom.” When planning a program, “the feeling that something important hasn’t been played yet” is often his guide, as well as raw curiosity. “There’s a huge amount of old music; it’s an infinitely large realm. New things are continually discovered. It’s not something you can master in a single lifetime.”

Indeed, Clemencic has spent a lifetime resurrecting music of the past. A week before his 88th birthday at the end of this month he is performing at the Musikverein yet again: secular music by the “forgotten late Gothic great master” Alexander Agricola (ca. 1450–1506). With three singers, a harp, some vielles (ancient fiddles) and flutes, his Consort will perform pieces bearing evocative titles such as Fortuna desperata and Comme femme, music about love, fortune and desire.

Clemencic has a particular affection for the clavichord, “the quietest, most expressive and most delicate of all keyboard instruments.” He has a tiny, original historic instrument in his study. He chuckles: “The great 16th-century Spanish composer Cabezón travelled with King Philipp II all over Europe, playing the clavichord for the king every day. Imagine a politician listening to the clavichord every day. Incredible!”

Clemencic Consort
February 17, 2016, 19:30,
Musikverein, Brahms-Saal, 1., Musikvereinspl. 1