Along with the souls of a few forlorn and unlucky violin works of the eighteenth century, Henry Eccles’s G Minor Sonata published in 1720 has spent much of its afterlife in the Purgatory of the Suzuki Strings repertoire. The piece was posthumously consigned by the indefatigable, inspirational twentieth-century string pedagogue, the revered Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, to his eighth book. There the sonata commiserates with companions penned by the impetuous Italian virtuoso Francesco Maria Veracini and the learned German, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Across the continents, from living room to teacher’s studio, these pieces get pulled in a million different directions, tortured with stiff bows, suffocated by vibrato, stabbed by painful articulations decided by a Suzuki central committee. These markings often distort the original beyond recognition: the vivid elegance of the works’ mortal lives in the cosmopolitan Baroque is disfigured in millions of agonizing reproductions in the globalized present.
Perhaps it is only fitting that Eccles’s music should suffer such torment. One of a long line of musicians, Eccles’s forbear Solomon was a successful teacher of virginals and viols before he was overtaken by religious fervor in 1660, the year of the Catholic Stuart’s restoration to the English throne. The specter of popish decadence—and perhaps the return of refined French music to the court—sent the Quaker Solomon up Tower Hill with his instruments in tow to burn all of them in a public demonstration of his faith. His screed A Musick-Lector followed seven years later without any decrease in temperature. Giving free rein to an anti-Catholic sentiment filled with hatred for complex, artistic music, Solomon bellowed: “Woe to the Pope and his Cardinals, to the Monks, Friars and Jesuites, Bishops, Lord-Bishops, and all false Prophet and Hirelings, with their Organists and Queristers [Choristers], Musitians and Dancers on Ropes, with their Fidlers and Pipers; Juglers, Cheaters and Gamsters, Hunters and Haukers, Swearers and Lyars, Drunkards and Harlots, for all this is Babylon, her Maskers and Mummers; and against all this is Gods wrath gone forth from the present of the Lamb: Their Plague is begun.” Only the simple music of pure godly devotion was acceptable to this ex-musician turned virtuous anti-virtuoso.
It was perhaps a fitting, if ironic, familial curse that condemned a sonata by Solomon Eccles’s descendant, Henry, to be devoured by would-be violinists the world over, eaten at the table of modern self-improvement millions of times daily. To be spared this fate, Henry Eccles might better have obeyed the fire and brimstone dictates of his ancestor.
By 1713 Henry was in the musical entourage of the Duke d’Aumont, the French ambassador to the English court, returning soon after that with the diplomat to Paris, where Eccles’s published his first book of twelve sonatas for violin and continuo in 1720.
For reasons still obscure, Eccles’s now-famous (or infamous) sonata was well-known already by 1900, as Martin Davids writes in the liner notes of his newly released, masterful album of the complete set of Eccles’s first book on two CDs. The piece was recorded by the great twentieth-century violinist as Joseph Szigeti, and probably thereby brought to the attention of Dr. Suzuki.
In the good old pre-Reformation days, long before an Eccles set about torching his viols, indulgences were sold to forgive sins posthumously. Davids new recordings goes a long way towards remitting Eccles’ Romantic transgressions. His Sonata in G Minor, number eleven of the set of twelve, now strides not in the grim shadows of limbo, but muses in the dappled light of an autumn woodland and then dances in the flickering candlelight of a courtly music room. The piece and its eleven sisters are heard on David’s CD afresh: rediscovered, renewed, not fusty and antiquated, but animated and modern.
It’s not that I dislike the lush, weepy sound of a schmaltzy violin wrapping itself around Eccles’s poised, refined sensibilities. I can savor the rich, lumpy sauce poured over the sonata by Szigeti and his Suzukian epigones with as much delectation as the next guy or gal. But in musical terms of any period, Neolithic to Neoclassical, the Suzukian up-bow that brutally accents the end of the first phrase’s pathetic sigh is a nonsense counter to human speech and emotion. Such an approach does not find art and beauty in old music nor show it to young musicians of today. Thankfully, for those lessons we now have Davids’ beautifully produced and presented recording of Eccles’ entire first book.
Davids begins not with the first sonata, whose opening movement is an exercise in noble striving and simplicity, but with the third. Rather than the collection’s introductory Largo Davids lets his violin—a clear and but warmly resonant instrument from 1750 by the Milanese maker Ferdinando Alberti—charge out of the gate Vivace, galloping across the movement’s rambunctious leaps, sometimes even taking solo breaks unaccompanied by the supporting continuo pair made up of the incisive and lively Craig Trompeter on cello (or viola da gamba) and the ceaselessly inventive but never intrusive David Schrader at the harpsichord. In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit here that I have also made a recording with Davids: the ever-popular All Your Cares Beguile, which includes music by several composers active at various times in London, and figures that Eccles certainly knew. On that earlier Musica Omnia release I shared with the violinist, as on his latest offering devoted to Eccles, Davids never seems to seek the flashy for its own sake. Even the steeplechase heroics of the opening Eccles’s sonata just cited are done not only with disarming nonchalance (one that demands a powerful technique), but also with a remarkable talent for making even the quickest, most serpentine figures sparkle with wit and grace. Davids’ ability to discover whole worlds of nuance in a single note puts the lie to the notion that early music cannot by Romantic in the sense of being infinitely expressively.
From here the trio—archly calling itself the Callipygian Players even though the publicity photo on the booklet shows the three men from the front rather than visually verifying the collective moniker’s posterior boast of “shapely buttocks”—moves sequentially through the sonatas, returning at the end of the first CD to numbers one and two and their graceful and affecting French court dances, a style that Eccles had perhaps refined during his time in Paris. At least one might have surmised as much if not for the fact that he lifted all five moments of the first sonata from a collection by the Italian Giuseppe Valentini published in 1714. Perhaps this blatant appropriation also explains why Davids chose not to open his album with stolen goods, instead offering up original Eccles to start things off. In total, Eccles took eighteen movements from Valentini as well as a single number from another Italian, Francesco Bonporti. It’s unknown if either composer complained; in any case, the practice euphemistically referred to as “borrowing” was almost as rampant then as illegal downloading is now.
Never mind, for these pieces published by Eccles under his own name and indeed mostly composed by him are not examples of unique genius, but instead a vehicle for captivating performance, by turns reflective, buoyant, charming, humorous, piquant and often challenging, even if, as Davids points, the works are not as technically demanding as the music of some of Eccles’ Italian-trained violin-playing peers, Locatelli, Leclair, and Tartini.
Eccles’s far-ranging musical tour of the European styles of the day leads near the end of Davids’s second disc to that overplayed eleventh sonata in G minor. Rather than the plodding piano accompaniment of the far-too-familiar rendition of the piece, the yearning dissonances of Eccles’s French harmonies are released elegiacally into the air with Schrader’s rich, rolled chords underpinned by Trompeter’s pulsing bass line. Above this, the long-held violin notes swell, sometimes ardent sometimes whispered. The pathetic sighs strike a pose of melancholy—not real sorrow but a kind of painterly representation of it. Davids fills the repeats with fantastical outpourings of ornamentation in the tradition of Corelli and his students. The abundance and precision of his improvising imagination alternates between pushing the temporal space to its limit and holding back those very same long notes as if futilely attempting to halt the flow of time. The sprinting dance—a corrente—that follows is pirated from Bonporti, but in it Davids violin snarls and snaps, spurred onward by harpsichord and cello.
The ensuing Adagio allows yet more opportunities for Martins to coax hauntingly plaintive tones from his instrument; but he also finds space for fantastical, improvised asides. The closing Presto scurries towards the finish line of the sonata, racing away from the courtly melancholy of the first and third movements as if trying to make them distant memories as quickly as possible.
The surplus of ideas; the endlessly fascinating oscillation between excess and restraint; the refinement of taste and technique: all of this and more will have the Suzukians shaking their heads in amazement, but also, one hopes, cocking an ear and taking in the panorama of creativity, spontaneity, and elegance that Davids’s Eccles opens up before the listener. This Callipygian Eccles is lighter and more vivid than he’s been in nearly three hundred years, redeemed and released from his pedagogical purgatory and into the world of the living.
David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.