A truly strong person does not need the approval of others any more than a lion needs the approval of sheep. Vernon Howard


During recent chat with violinist Stephen, who was wearing a high-tech-looking sports shirt at a rehearsal, I asked him: “Is that one of those modern, high-performance super textiles?”
“Kind of, but it’s actually wool. They invented all those fancy adjectives a few years ago to sell synthetic fibres and then realised that wool does it all better, so now they just use the same adjectives for wool; and put the price up, of course.”

“All we like sheep”, quoth Handel in the Messiah. In many ways, we are (and most of us do). This is not the place to analyse why or how some perhaps-questionable practices emerged in HIP but market forces and naïve graduates, eager to fit in and work in the industry - graduates of teachers, many of whom don’t even realise they might “have gone astray” since their teachers were “right” - have led most of the flock to a complacency of procedure that is rarely questioned.

Rather than simply following the herd, De Swaen’s mission has been to re-ask those sensitive questions and find answers by starting again with the “wool” of raw evidence and an open mind. This has been quite an eventful journey, with a few wrong turns, but worth it! In short, we have delighted audiences without compromising our approach. De Swaen has achieved its aims; and that’s why it’s time to move on.


"..of how the music might have sounded to those that heard it for the first time"

To put our aims in context: It’s a testament to the enduring popularity of High Baroque music that it survives, nay flourishes (and rightly so!), 300 years down the line - from concerts, advertisements, jazz/pop/rock bands and children’s songs to polyphonic ring tones - tolerating almost any treatment yet maintaining those qualities that affect us. Free from institutional inertia, De Swaen has independently gone that bit further than other HIP ensembles in stripping away the conditioning of latter-day treatments - and the tendency to look back through 20th-century aesthetics - and really get back to the essence of how the music might have sounded to those that heard it for the first time. It is important to know this. Before considering the finer details, a logical, feet-on-the-ground place to start is by using instruments and set-ups as similar as possible to the ones that survive from the early 18th-century and/or were documented. Here’s how:

You will know from your Jubilee Books that, 10 years ago, Barokensemble de Vooruit started as a group of friends organising a concert for another friend. After a short while, the name was changed to Barokensemble De Swaen; already the first group, in living memory, to perform cantatas one- voice-per-part (OVPP) in Holland.

The first instrumental change was the string set-up - violins and violas adopted all-unwound gut strings in equal tension, (with a complementary set up on the basses) for which there is a lot of historical evidence, not to mention an inherent logic in having a balanced instrument. Like most changes, it took a bit of getting used to but the benefits in blend and overall sound were clear from the start. This set up also allows the well-documented practice of scordatura - retuning open strings, normally all of them, up or down a semitone or whole tone - without big problems.

A season or so later, Piet mentioned quietly that there is a more historic approach to oboe reeds and staples that he didn’t normally use because the sound didn’t fit so well in other groups. He and Lucas decided to try these out with the new-old De Swaen strings, and everybody in the ensemble was impressed by the positive development in ensemble sound. Piet also taught his instrument-making skills to Lucas, who has played self-made instruments for the last four or five seasons.

(Foto: Jan Kullmann)

To paraphrase David Kjar in 2005: “If you guys are going to all that trouble with strings and reeds, then the trumpets should play without holes”. Easier said than done and chapeau to David, Marcel Mooibroek and Mark Geelen, who got through Bach’s B Minor Mass on 3-hole trumpets with the holes closed. (Because of several differences in design, this is even more difficult than playing a real natural trumpet). Resisting the temptation to pull out the chewing gum and open them must have required incredible willpower!

To be honest, when I first played with De Swaen as a “real trumpet” specialist in 2007, I noticed that it sounded different from - and was significantly easier to play with - than other OVPP ensembles but had no idea why. I soon found out! The interconnectedness between all elements of the music is the core of De Swaen’s approach. Everything affects everything else. After having devoted many years to studying this recently-discovered “lost art”, only to find that HIP in general had developed, in certain directions, so far without it that it didn’t really fit anymore; it was a revelation to me to discover that with De Swaen, where a bit more care is taken, the music simply works naturally and is a pleasure to play.


"..if De Swaen sounds “wrong” to someone, I see it as an indication of how much they have been misled by other groups!"

In May 2008, the ensemble asked me to supervise rehearsals and then we went a step further by introducing “pure” tuning, in the words of Telemann, on those instruments that can play in tune. After some worthwhile time and experimentation, the ensemble has found a definitive sound. This has polarised some listeners but, if De Swaen sounds “wrong” to someone, I see it as an indication of how much they have been misled by other groups!

We then started to let the audience know a bit more about why we do what we do and revised our policy of engaging extra musicians: It’s fine to have such a specialised ensemble but problems can be encountered finding extra or replacement players because what we do isn’t normally done or even taught in Holland. So, instead of trying to persuade reluctant local players to adapt to our equipment or “have a go”, we sourced other like-minded ones from elsewhere, bringing further expertise to the group and delighting them with the chance to play in the all-too-rare context where everyone else does it “properly” too.

(Foto: Donald Bentvelsen)


...what we do isn’t even taught in Holland.



Last but by no means least: The splendid, large, hand-pumped organ, built by Paul Kobald, was seven years in the making and saw its first performance in February 2010. This followed a decision not to use the electrically-pumped small chamber organ (or “cow”, “vacuum cleaner” etc) usually seen in HIP ensembles because they simply did not exist in the 18th century. In Hilversum there was a church organ from circa 1750 anyway; in Amsterdam a harpsichord, which did exist at the time, was used instead.

What didn’t need to change were the continuo lutes and guitars, already strung with all unwound gut and played by David van Ooijen.

(Foto: Rudi Grevink)

Over the years, De Swaen has performed several 18th-century works for the first time in living memory. To keep things moving, and to work with living composers for a change, new new music has been an important part of De Swaen’s last two seasons. The Premieres season 09/10 saw five new pieces. In 10 JAAR, we’ve managed four more world premieres by three living composers and one dead one: Telemann’s Grossmachtiger Monarch der Britten, in September 2010.

Long-term audience members have had a remarkable story with a happy ending, De Swaen has arrived at an ironically-rare-if-not-unique position in the Early Music field by using all uncompromised instruments for High-Baroque repertoire and the “De Swaen rules” are gradually being adopted by other forward-looking ensembles. Mission accomplished.

What’s next? To quote Spike Milligan, “We haven’t made any plans, so nothing can go wrong”. It’s not yet clear exactly what members will all do after “we have turned every one to his own way” but be sure that new projects will emerge.
Further attention can be paid both to “absolute” performing pitch, & the use of instruments at different pitches playing together at the same time. The application of regional German dialects and accents (particularly Saxonian) for singers is a possible direction, but may be a wild goose chase, since many singers at the time, even those not trained in Italy or by Italians, didn’t come from the region in which they worked. The violone needs more research and clarification, as do bows, patterns and positions of bridges and tailpieces for the strings. Whatever occurs, lessons learned from the ten-year project will be put to good use.

(Foto: Stephen Freeman)

Even before the political regression in Holland last year, funding bodies seemed to take delight in refusing to support De Swaen’s influential work seriously, even though we have supported new music, revived unpublished repertoire, given rare opportunities to inquisitive performing artists and presented truly-historical facets of HIP that are not otherwise available to audiences. One funding institution rejected an application because the ideas were “too old-fashioned”, bless them. In the absence of any decent funding, and the staunch “free entrance” policy - bringing live music to many who can’t afford to go to concerts otherwise - the greatest thanks needs to go the friends and donors of De Swaen. Without you, none of this would have been possible. Your hard-earned money has been well spent. Thank you!

Mike Diprose