Claudio Ronco is one of the first cellists with whom I shared my passion for the cello repertoire. We met about twenty years ago when we were both studying Alfredo Piatti. The interview is a good opportunity to take up the thread of the speech …
How and when did you realize that “when you grew up” you wanted to be a cellist, and why you decided to dedicate yourself with so much passion to baroque music (and in particular to the recovery of authors whose names have often been erased from the historical memory)?
Everything was pretty well organized by a chance event: my father, who was a primary school teacher and in his youth had studied violin becoming a good amateur player, prepared my knowledge of music by teaching me for three years the music theory as if it was a discipline foreign to the pleasure of hearing; in short: a sort of pure mathematical abstraction. It was an idea that to my paternal grandmother seemed too bizarre, so that for my tenth birthday she made me the gift of an upright piano, with the invitation (indeed the obligation) to play on it the whole theory that my father taught me. Following this unusual preparation, I was enrolled in middle school at the Conservatory of Turin, with a request to learn piano. However, we were summoned by the director, who told us that the many piano classes were overflowing with students, while the one for cello remained almost empty. He wanted to offer us a variant: let this boy study music so as to make him a cellist. My father looked at me quizzically, and I had to admit that I didn’t know “precisely” what a cello was, but I also added that I wanted to see and hear it anyway. And here the case intervenes: amused by my reaction, the director told us that just that evening, and right in the concert hall of the Conservatory, I could listen to a great cellist and get an idea on whether or not, one day, me too I would have become such. Since the great cellist was already there to prepare for the evening concert rehearsals and at that very moment, the director decided to lead us to him; I was thus confronted by none other than the famous Pierre Fournier.
It was in the mid-60s, and Fournier had come to Turin for his first tournée with the Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and cello; the excellent pianist he was meant to play with was his son. But the situation was problematic: for that occasion Fournier had chosen to play in public for the first time with an instrument of exceptional beauty, for long years desired, but yet in his hands since too little time: a splendid cello made by Jean Baptiste Vuillaume towards the end of the previous century, in such a perfect state of preservation to seem just out of the hands of the builder. That cello, however, had not yet been tamed by his new owner, and him, not even too secretly, was as terrified as much as he was in love with it. Fournier was helped, then, by the unexpected opportunity to distract himself a bit by chatting with a boy in shorts, to whom he should have described the qualities of the cello compared to other musical instruments, in an attempt to persuade him to follow in his footsteps and start the arduous climb to its greatest merits… Without so many preambles, he took the cello and gave it a voice in the incipit of Beethoven’s third Sonata, just half a meter from my wide eyes. At the first touch of the bow, at the first resonance of that marvelous case illuminated by an intense red varnish, luminous like the sound that was already vibrating in the room of all the mysteries of my still childish imagination. I was already conquered: I would have surely become a cellist! Of course, not necessarily a “big” one, but at least I would have become an honest servant of such a miraculous instrument of music.
Meanwhile, Fournier, struck by my lost glance in the spell, remained motionless in a long silence. Then he turned to me in an elegant French with a Parisian accent, wondering if I could read music. My father started to reply, but I was faster (I had learned French from my grandmother, who in addition to the piano also gave me the knowledge of that language) and I replied with pride that I knew how to read the music perfectly. At that point, in the astonishment of everybody in that room, Fournier beckoned to me to follow him: we reached the concert hall, where his son was already at the piano and asked him to make me sit next to him to turn the pages during the concert. So I did, and the test began, ending in success.
That same evening, dressed in my best suit, but still in shorts, I turned with pride page after page of the score for that young pianist during their first Italian concert. In front of us there was a hall full of lovers of music united in a shared ecstasy, so sublime that, after a while, I forgot how and why I should have read and turned those sheets of music, or what was a pentagram or a written musical note: the voice of the cello had entered me, and at that moment it had taken the place of everything else in the world … Nobody blamed me for it: neither the pianist, nor the public, nor my father, who the next day enrolled me in the cello class.
I remember you once told me that what you were playing was not “your” cello, but that you were one of “his” cellists. What effect does it make to live in symbiosis with an instrument that has already been used by others? Does a cellist leave something of himself to his instrument?
Sure! It is natural that this is so, because each new owner, or rather every new “custodian” of the object, personalizes it in more or less important acts of adaptation and symbiosis: the skillful luthier who built it certainly imagined its sound projected towards a certain ideal voice; therefore he corrected a thickness on what he had done, or a proportion of weights and tensions, or even the color tone of a varnish, always following the “vision of the sound” that started from the very first choice of the piece of wood, or even the tree to offer in sacrifice to the art. Then, the first musician to make it as his own instrument, starts from what he sees and listens, in order to proceed with the investigation that will lead him to find “his own voice”, interpreting the suggestions left by the builder; the new owner will have the bridge carved differently, he will choose different strings, he will chase the voices that will be manifested with each change, until the instrument becomes one with the voice of his desire and soul. But, as you know, those carved woods will live much longer than him, so the part of his life and his musical experience with that instrument will be offered to others, and among those others there will always be someone who will realize, suddenly, that he recognizes a part of previous owner and a part of himself in that particular instrument, as it happens with the memory of a deceased master, when of that inheritance we make a treasure in order to proceed with it in our luggage for our artistical adventure. Thus, in an uninterrupted and infinite spiral of investigations and experiences, the noblest part of each instrument and each instrumentalist proceeds to sublimate, constantly becoming a new link between the other links of a chain, neither more nor less than what happens between masters and pupils in a good workshop or in the best school of every art.
Antique cello, gut strings, no end-pin, baroque bow … and then? Is this enough to be able to say to be a “baroque cellist”?
Far from it! Nor is it sufficient as a starting point. In fact, you can very well start without all those things, if only you have the unique truly indispensable element: the curiosity that guides the apprentice towards the true and profound listening of the lesson that the chain of masters has arranged for the world to come throughout the life centuries of a single art.
Only if and when that curiosity is alive, active, authentic and well cultivated, it will be possible to grasp the lessons that are inscribed also in the mere objects of the art: gut strings, the ancient cello restored to its original conditions, the vintage bow, the most appropriate techniques for the use of such instruments, etc. Doing the reverse path, claiming that the mere introduction into our lives of those “baroque-looking objects” can make us suitable for the encounter with the thought and sensitivity of our ancient masters, is not only silly, but above all ineffective and therefore useless, when it does not even become misleading, as has often happened. Just think of the idea that had spread among Conservatory teachers and students during the years of the first commercial successes of the Baroque repertoire with “original period instruments”: in that time those instruments were rendered and considered recognizable as such on the base of on a weak sonority, inexpressive and monotonous, or even “historically” out of tune! … Yet they had an enormous commercial success, clearly satisfying the listening parameters of a vast audience. All that “narration” of the ancient sound, was in fact distorted by a remarkable series of wrong notions that unfortunately, thanks to the music market, had become popular and appreciated to the point of making them essential features to make the user convinced to appreciate the “obvious difference and distance from modern and academic practice”.
Following this, it took a long time and goodwill to get out of that impasse, and the occurrence of authentic and profound respect for the masters of the past. Every single detail of the different disciplines related to musical art has been investigated and studied, from the art to produce navy ropes in order to get notions for the preparation of the artisans intended for the correct manufacture of harmonic strings, from academic luthiery, immobilized for more than a century in a standardization of the industrial instruments, to see new perspectives from the enormous variety of technical solutions adopted by the artisans of past centuries, and so on passing through music writing and publishing, that is the many different ways of indicating their interpretative intention on the part of composers or publishers of music. In this way, little by little, detail after detail has been reached a fundamental goal that, while being obvious and unavoidable, often seems to have been deliberately ignored, but which anyway remains the real starting point for the study and practice of any ancient instrument. And that starting point is simply this: we should not be interested in the absurd idea of “reproducing” the sound of the past as if we could really believe that we became time machines capable of returning voices beyond time limits, like a mere sound recorder. Quite differently, we must discover and accept its potential to project them towards their constant actualization, the only condition that can add to the lesson of ancient masters a path towards our intelligence and sensitivity of people living in another and different historical time.
Do you think Baroque music can be defined as music “easy to listen”? Or does it require a selected and competent audience?
Certainly, the music of the Baroque is much more open to the different levels of listening than what later was understood as “cultured”. In one example: I played the fourth Sarabanda from Bach’s Suites for cello at my father’s funeral; when my first son was born, instinctively and while the mother was breastfeeding him, I played the same piece; the notes, the phrases, the rhythms were the same, but the sense had turned upside down: from the contemplation of the mystery of death to that of life, when a soul is born and expands in the visible world. Such an experience is very difficult to live it when interpreting a musical composition of the following centuries, where every idea is fixed and closed in a precise sense and meaning. Moreover, both in the past and nowadays, a Sonata or a Solemn Mass composed in ancient times and in particular in the Baroque period, allows itself to the simplest pleasure of listening, or to the understanding capacity of the “simples”, as to the deeper investigation in the mysteries of harmonic sounds. I am convinced that, in all the arts, “opening of the sense” is the index and presence of very great value, of a lesson that has never been and will never become obsolete. I like to think, for example, that an abstract painting today has only a few messages to deliver to a person of low culture, while, on the contrary, when Raffaello or any painter of his time gave the world a painting depicting the Madonna and Child, his work appealed to the humble, moving the mothers who recognized themselves in that woman with his child, and at the same time to the philosopher who could read, in ex., the mystical vision of the “alchemical egg” in which every life, spiritual as well as material, is formed; readings that are extremely far from each other, but synergistic among a humanity that could enjoy the same works of art thanks to the different levels in which the work is able to express meaning.
And again, we must not underestimate the fact that a Corelli Sonata could be performed by any good amateur, and meanwhile the virtuoso could elevate it to transcendence, but both cases presented themselves with equal cultural dignity, neither denying nor the one nor the other the manifestation of the complexity of the work, since such complexity it is inscribed not in the technical difficulties, but in the poetics. We cannot do the same with a Liszt transcendental study, such as “Mazeppa”, which requires a very long, solid and constant preparation of the interpreter, and also, in some way, of the listener, without which I cannot imagine any dignity in the execution and enjoyment of works of such difficult conquest and appropriation … Thus a group of amateur instrumentalists can gather in an orchestra and perform a baroque symphony with dignity; it will be enough for them to have the scores on the music stands and play, simply listening to each other, diligently performing their part; perhaps the following concert will not be exciting for the public, but certainly it will be satisfying for the performers. On the contrary, it will not be possible to properly perform a great nineteenth-century Symphony, if not with solid professionals well prepared by a capable conductor. In conclusion: with baroque or ancient music in general, it is possible not only to experience the listening but also the performing practice as a dialectical praxis, without necessarily having to consecrate to the most onerous sacrifices of the musician profession.
What effect does it have on you, when you play, the audience that you are in front of and the environment in general?
Here is a question to which ancient music responds with the best of answers: we should always adapt our musical performance to the environment in which we offer the music, meaning with “environment” the whole complex of physical and mental place. Composers such as Vivaldi or Haendel, like all their contemporaries, have left us a large number of examples of how to use the exact same melody in radically different contexts, without significant differences being noted on paper. In some examples: the theme that the cello performs at the beginning of the Agnus Dei of the magnificent Gloria in D minor by Vivaldi, we find it again as it is in the third Sonata in D minor of his second work of sonatas for violin and Bass; more: the famous and solemn Messiah’s choir “For us us a child is born” returns in Haendel’s pen as a jovial Chamber Duet, whose text reads “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi, cieco Amor, crudel beltà (No, I do not want to trust you, blind Amor, cruel beauty)”. As you see, those melodies do not have a unique “meaning”, but needs to be related to a text, or a context, to become things, thoughts, images, different feelings in the hands of the performers. It would be very different to try to change significance or emotional suggestions to a music piece composed in the following centuries …
It remains, however, that in the art and technique of a performer, the experience of theatrical and acting arts is indispensable; therefore, although around you there is nothing but a stage and a silent audience, playing in the shadows you can certainly imagine yourself on top of a sacred mountain, or in the vast space of a cathedral, or even in a humble and narrow hut, and so to convince the public, immersed in your sound, to see you in that place.
Based on your experience as a teacher and student, how much can a cellist learn from another cellist, and how much can he only learn by himself, experimenting? Do you learn more with your eyes (looking at what a master does) or with your ears (listening to his words or listening to him play)?
Allow me to respond with an anecdote: when Paganini, already a brilliant violinist, wanted to learn to compose music, he was entrusted to a master of counterpoint who imposed him three years of exercise “with the pen”, which is the condition when the only sound will be the silence of a nib flowing on the paper. But it is beyond any doubt that from those signs he immediately began to hear a sound penetrating his soul and, according to the wisdom of those masters, that abstract and inaudible sound would have needed to feed itself just like the newborn goes to the breast milk of the mother, through that innate intelligence that we call instinct. Everything else is the exteriority, which starts from the learning of a style and proceeds with the observation of the effect of that style on the users.
So, finally, you learn with everything: your eyes, ears, flair, instinct, and reason. But since what we have learned from a master will really become ours only when we will be able to transfer it to new students, we can be sure that only when teaching has consolidated itself projecting outside of our individuality, such teaching can be said to really come into the light of life. And as it is for the chrysalis waiting to change into a butterfly, that maturing before the transformation can, therefore, take place only within us, in the silence and deep introspection, where we are and remain the only architects of our destiny.
Is playing with others easier or more difficult than playing alone? And does it give more or less satisfaction? Do the difficulties come more from the character or from a different way of interpreting?
There can be no music that can be imagined and played while being truly alone with yourself: music is always, inevitably, an energy that moves from a source to what is put in a condition to collect what flows from it. Therefore, even imagining ourselves on the top of a mountain, in absolute solitude, singing or whistling a melody, we will discover that we are not alone: there will be our singing in front of our intellect that listens to it and welcomes its meaning. No music invented by man is anything other than a collective act: the act of listening to each other. So making music is first and foremost doing something together with a community, big or small, and that community can be as much of an audience gathered to hear a concert, like that of a group of musicians who came together to perform a musical composition.
Nothing changes if, for example, we take a simple cane flute to drive away from the fear in a night of solitude: it will bring us the voices of the community, and with them the voice of consolation. If we go down a few steps lower, in that level where we are still diligently exercising mind and hands to perform the notes of a piece of music that we intend to learn and then perform it in front of an audience, nothing will be of better help than mentally chasing all the “Presences” implicit in those notes that have become harmonic sounds: the other voices in counterpoint (no matter how not revealed, as in a flute solo performance!), the responsiveness of those other voices to the impulses of ours, the attention of that part of ourselves that acts as a listener while we play or sing, all these things will be presences around and within us, and we will be no longer “alone”. Only when all these facts become clear to the conscience of the musician, the rest ceases to pose difficulties: the different character of the companion becomes dialectical diversity, the different interpretative thought becomes a stimulating variety of ideas.
What are your upcoming musical projects and which ones are still in your dreams?
Now I would first like to answer the second part of your first question, namely the one I had left out: “Because you decided to dedicate yourself with so much passion to Baroque music (and in particular to the recovery of authors whose time has often erased the memory )?”
The main reason is contained in my basic wish: to actualize the music of our ancestors. But there is another, much more important to me, and it is this: I do not believe, nor have I ever believed, that the music we call “great” is really something born “ex nihilo”, from nothing. I speak, in short, of that music that we obsessively reproduce as much as we obsessively repeat the names of the relative composers. In this way we have systematically attributed superior qualities to certain selected compositions and certain selected composers, to the point to define them far more than simply “classical” (that means “eternal, immortal”), but unrepeatable phenomena immobilized in an idea, indeed “an image” of history that we could consequently “imagine” like sequences of hermetically closed boxes, in which only reflexes and reflections are allowed. Therefore, believing history to be something quite different from a series of “figures” like those closed and immutable boxes, I cannot think of any work of art and intelligence simply spread out of the brain of a single extraordinary individual, all at most with the help, or the contribution of one or more masters whose “genius”, complete or incomplete, ends up ennobling itself only by converging in what will be judged and claimed the “supreme and final genius” of a historical period.
To explain myself with an example: I learned from the teaching of my professors in the Conservatory that without the wisdom of Haydn the genius of Beethoven would not have been born, and without Beethoven we would not have had the genius of Brahms, a belief that is indisputably true. Further, for some of us, one was more welcome than the other (a question of “tastes”, they would have said) but we were forced to think and believe that they were still the “supporting pillars” of a building destined for eternal life, when not the true essence and matter of the building itself, being established by the all the “academic authorities” faithfully at the service of the music market, that every musical genius selected and acclaimed after their accurate analysis and definition, must necessarily be the quintessence of all the music of the past and the future, and cultural filter to establish what has to be preserved and what we need to forget.
So (forgive me this somewhat ironic tone …) that handful of genes, understood as “genetic genesis of the universal genius” ‒ that is a sort of very distinct DNA and, although unrepeatable, well catalogued as a result of adequate formal analysis‒, we would have had to worship them forever as simulacra of divinity, even if we loved them less than other musical expressions of different times or cultures. Thus, like immortal gods locked up like their own marble representations displayed in the relative temple, immovable entities in their intrinsic, absolute, unchanging perfection, they ended up being worshiped by us, faithfully according to their precise functions and divine attributes: we adored Bach on one side, and Mozart on the other; that is, Bach, the severe master of the inner and mystic discipline, and Mozart the bloody rascal eternally in love and melancholy. This had to be enough, or it should have been enough for all of us students, to complete a picture in which to “see the music” properly and enjoy it in eternal and sufficient satisfaction.
Well, I must say that for the different experiences to which life (and my indomitable “eternally” adolescent curiosity) led me, I am convinced of something else, namely that music, like any noble art, is always the result of a complex and infinitely “open genesis” where everything, absolutely everything and without any limit or distinction, converges and contributes. Finally, every art is always something “beyond the veil”, much beyond the confines of the object that represents it, be it a painting or a statue, or a dance gesture, or a melody and its aura of harmonies. In this way every artist approaches nothing more than a fragment of the Art, a splinter, a reflection, and draws and composes the object in which he articulates his thoughts and his life, that is his “Opus”, ready to have a title, a number, hopefully, a mention in the library. But the Art always remains “beyond” everything: object and subject together, alien to time and space, eternally present, eternally elusive, eternally unfinished. In a more precise word: ineffable, as is the idea, or the essence itself, of the supreme creative energy of the worlds and of the life.
As for current projects, in addition to simply living where is reflected at every sunrise and sunset the ancient Latin motto “sine musica, nulla vita” (without music, no life), and to continue making music honestly with my hands and soul until the end of my days, I dream of living in an ideal world in which the vital energy that is always present in music will be regularly taught, learned and practiced everywhere.
However, in the meantime and as long as I have hands, arms and nerves to play, I continue my research on the French cello music in the eighteenth century, the school that started from the lesson of the Neapolitan virtuosos, proceeding in joining and adding the experience of the French masters of viola da gamba, so to open new doors to the narrative qualities of music. To date, I have recorded more than a hundred French and Italian sonatas, so that they could be made available to everybody in the free ocean of youtube; my next task will, therefore, be to put my written observations alongside the listeners, making them available on the website I titled “Lo Sguardo della Musica” (The Gaze of Music), but which is still a work-in-progress at the first steps.
Moving backward to the heart of this research, in August 2018, in France, and in this occasion only with my wife Emanuela Vozza as the accompanist at the second cello, I again recorded all the published and handwritten sonatas by Salvatore Lanzetti, certainly the most important Neapolitan cellist of the eighteenth century. With the collaboration of my dear friend the producer Alessandro Nava, with whom I published in 1991 the first worldwide recording of music by this Neapolitan author, now, in June 2019, we have published our first double CD for the Italian label Urania Records of Noemi Manzoni, with the “12 Sonatas op. I by Salvatore Lanzetti, Napolitano” printed in Amsterdam, 1736. This event means, for me, a finally all-Italian collaboration that fills me with great joy and renewed confidence in our artistic future.
Thank you so much for your availability and for your answers, mirroring the depth and richness of your musical soul. I share with you the hope and joy of seeing a “possible” musical future, especially for our young people, even here in Italy!