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the gittern

Track 31 of the CD "Les fantaisies de Josquin" presents as a bonus track the world premiere recording of the composition Sei gelobt, du Baum ("Be praised, o tree") for baritone voice, violin, gittern, and double bass by Arvo Pärt (2007). The following paragraphs briefly summarise how this unusual orchestration, the song text, and the involvement of Ensemble Leones came about. It all started with an ancient piece of wood... a really ancient piece of wood:


About the the wood

In 1962, a piece of silver fir (albies alba) was unearthed on the vineyard estate "Tschäpperli" of the Blarer family in Aesch (Switzerland). They discovered the log at a depth of two to three metres by chance while digging a well. It was stored and forgotten until 2001, when it was "rediscovered" by Margareta von Blarer, a carpenter, who found the segment of a stem in the family's estate's cellar. As a musician with training as an organ builder, she realised that this piece of wood might be suitable for making instruments because it was free of knots, grown straight, and featured narrow standing annual rings. Margareta's brother Dieter von Blarer and his wife Steffi Wirth decided to pay for the construction of a Baroque violin made from this wood, and donated another piece to the "collection of musical instruments" in Willisau (Switzerland), who commissioned the making of the top of a medieval gittern. A dendrochronological analysis made possible by Bruno Kaufmann (Aesch, Switzerland), and a C14 analysis by ETH Zurich finally shed light on the true age of the wood: the fir tree, then already 200 years old, was felled in the summer of 317 BC. It was probably covered with clay by a landslide and thus conserved.

The Baroque violin was made by Ruedi Isler (Zurich and Ennenda, Switzerland). He used the ancient fir wood for the top of the instrument and maple for the sides and back.

The gittern was made by Richard Earle (Basel, Switzerland), who is also the maker of most of the bowed strings played by Ensemble Leones. For the top he used the donated fir wood, and for the monoxylic body, he chose a piece of 200-year-old cherry tree from the same region around Basel, carving the body, neck and pegbox out of the same single piece. The top made of the ancient fir wood features a very particular and haunting tinge of green as a result of its long underground storage.


How the construction and employment of the gittern and a meeting with Arvo Pärt came about

Adrian Steger, the director of the Willisau collection of musical instruments, had at first planned to use the wood to commission a lute for the collection. Maker Richard Earle, however, raised  doubts about the suitability of the wood for a glued-on bridge, as is required for lutes, since the precise qualities and properteries of such ancient wood were unknown. A glued-on bridge  might possibly not withhold the tractive forces of the strings. He therefore suggested making an historical plucked instrument which features a bridge that is only pressed onto the top by the strings attached to the end of the instrument: a gittern. For the parameters and details of the instrument (shape, number of courses, string materials, tuning, string length, etc) the advice of a practicioner was needed - one who actually plays gitterns. Earle recommended Marc Lewon, Steger got in touch, and the collaboration had begun. Marc Lewon made suggestions about the aforementioned parameters, which were then applied to the instrument. He accompanied the process of the gittern's construction and finally stringed the instrument and played it in for several months. Before finally handing it over to the instrument collection, he also played the premiere concert on this gittern in the Willisau concert hall.

The Estonian poet Viivi Luik spent a one-year sabbatical at the Willisau instrument collection and had witnessed the development of the instrument, learning at the same time about the history of the ancient piece of fir wood. She told Arvo Pärt about this unique project and he spontaneously announced that he would compose a piece for these special instruments. Luik wrote the song-text for the composition "Sei gelobt, du Baum", which refers to the story of this piece of wood and to the instruments made from it.

When it became clear that Arvo Pärt would compose for these two instruments, violin and gittern, he required an introduction to the latter, having not yet come across this historical instrument. Steger invited Lewon to a meeting with the composer in Bern (Switzerland) in 2007 to explain the function, characteristics, and possible applications of the gittern to Arvo Pärt, personally.

After the composition had been completed and premiered in Willisau, an opportunity arose to undertake the world premiere recording of this song with Ensemble Leones; the composition Sei gelobt, du Baum ("Be praised, o tree") is included as a bonus track on the CD at hand. Incidentally the sound technician of this recording, Charles Suter, was also the engineer who made the live recording of the premiere in Willisau.

Arvo Pärt's use of sounds integrates well into the soundscape of the Josquin recording, and the use of the same singer and instruments in the rest of the CD creates an intimate connection between the two styles and the chance to discover a close link between Josquin's time and our world. We plan to maintain this concept of juxtaposing old and new for future recordings as well: The next CD dedicated to the instrumental music of Alexander Agricola will also feature a modern composition for ancient instruments specially composed for Ensemble Leones by Fabrice Fitch (England).


Arvo Pärt about his composition

"The inspiration for "Sei gelobt, du Baum" had three roots. The first was the unbelievable, even almost impossible story about an ancient piece of wood. Then I came across a beautiful poem by the distinguished Estonian poet Viivi Luik. And finally the keen enthusiasm and eagerness of Adrian Steger, who transformed this legendary piece of wood into a musical instrument." (Arvo Pärt, February 2009, translated from German)


"It all sounds very beautiful!" (Arvo Pärt about the probational recordings of Sei gelobt, du Baum with Ensemble Leones, February 2010)


"Dear Mr Marc Lewon, it is a wonderful production!!! Cordial thanks to all the musicians. Arvo Pärt" (Mr Pärt's reaction to the finished CD in June 2011)


Link to the Willisau collection of musical instruments.