Jordi Savall: Celtic folk tunes of a Catalan

The discovery of a manuscript of folk tunes for the viol enabled the composer to tackle music he had heard in Ireland decades previously

There's something of a forensic science lurking within the music of Jordi Savall. The viol, a six-stringed instrument beloved of the baroque period, lay silent for more than two centuries until this Catalan composer and musician revived it in the late 1970s. It was Savall who breathed intimate life into the 1991 Alain Corneau film, Tous les Matins du Monde, invigorating the neglected music of 17th-century composer Marin Marais and his teacher, Sainte-Colombe.

His spare style finds echoes in the fiddle lines of east Co Clare's Martin Hayes. And it is thanks to Hayes that Savall is making his first visit here in more than 20 years. Invited by the National Concert Hall to curate a concert, Hayes trained his sights on Savall, a musician he had admired ever since hearing his music on that seminal Corneau soundtrack.

“I’ve been listening to Jordi Savall for a very long time,” says Hayes, “and I remember being stunned by the level of sensitivity in his playing, in his bowing. I also had that feeling of hearing this much older music brought to life in a way I’d never experienced before. The truth is that I felt encouraged by what I heard in Jordi’s playing to pay attention to the finer details of my own music too.”

Savall founded Hespèrion XXI, Le Concert de Nations and La Capella Reial de Catalunya ensembles. Two albums, Celtic Viol I and II, in 2009 and 2010, may have come as a surprise to his fans here who associated him with his pioneering work with European early music. But having discovered a manuscript of folk tunes for the viol in the British Library, Savall seized the opportunity to tackle tunes he had previously heard played in street and pub sessions when he visited Ireland more than four decades ago. Some of what he had assumed was purely an oral tradition had firm roots in written music – and for the viol at that.


And so the music of a range of composers, including Turlough O’Carolan, long associated with the harp, found a kindred spirit in this parallel world conjured by Savall. His strings were limited to six, yet the deeper, more mournful tenor of the instrument inhabited the tunes in ways previously unimaginable.

Savall’s musical journey so far has been as picaresque as it is adventurous, with more than 170 albums to his name.

“The viol has had no constant transmission through the generations,” Savall explains, “so those of us who play it had to start without a living tradition. So you have to be like an explorer moving through time, reading every source you can find in order to discover how to play the music. On the other hand, Celtic music has been passed on from teacher to student, but I never felt I could be part of that – until I found these manuscripts for the viol. It’s been very exciting for me, discovering how to present this music in an honest way – not trying to imitate how players interpret it today. Much of this music was written to be played by one instrument, and when you play alone, you cannot hide behind another instrument.”

Savall has never been readily tethered to a particular style, period or geographical border.

He has sought ways to explore the common ground that links religious traditions (Christian, Jewish and Muslim), as well as those that meld past and present, while at the same time embracing all that improvisation can bring to the classical tradition.

“I was very conscious that I came from a part of Spain with a rich mix of Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions,” he says. His long collaboration with his late wife, soprano Montserrat Figueras, found a natural fit in this world of musical exploration. “We wanted to use our musical experience to create a real dialogue between these cultures.”

Savall’s earliest pursuit of music that came not only from court and church, but from oral traditions, has established his reputation as a meticulous interpreter as well as a composer with a capacity for catching the zeitgeist. To Savall, Arab, Israeli, Turkish and Moroccan music have much in common. “We are all connected, and audiences everywhere are fascinated by this.”

Martin Hayes Invites . . . Jordi Savall’s Celtic Viol and Triúr (featuring Peadar Ó Riada, Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh) play at the National Concert Hall on Sunday. tickets from