Herbert Stanley Littlejohn - 17th and 18th Century Works of Funerary Violin (The Guild of Funerary Violinists CD-R)
I try to stay away from the more ridiculous things Aquarius digs up, but the whole Funerary Guild story was too tantalizing to pass up, though I did manage to resist for a while. I didn't look hard but why does it seem like they're the only ones selling these Funerary Violin CD-Rs? Are they in cahoots? How deep does this Guild run? Whatever the case...I picked up what I guess is the newest one, and if you haven't heard the incredible back story, well let me give it to you in severely truncated form: the Funerary Violinist is, as you might have guessed, a person who plays a specific kind of music for solo violin at another person's funeral. The Guild itself was formed in 1586 by one George Babcotte and they were staples are funerals for at least a couple of centuries. So how come you've never heard of it? Well sometime around 1833, for reasons still speculated upon to this day, the first of multiple Great Funerary Purges took place - books containing the histories, writings, and sheet musics of the Guild went missing, paintings of and about Funerary Violinists were altered or destroyed, with the same being said for violins baring the markings of the violinists of the Guild. Essentially, any trace of this 200-year old musical tradition was to be wiped off the face of the earth. It's only as recently as the 1970's that the history of this fascinating and hither-to totally unknown sect of music history has began to come to light, thanks to the work of Rohan Kriwaczek. A violinist himself constantly in search of the "saddest music in the world" to play at his concerts, he was approached by an unnamed member of the Guild (active to the day, however marginalized) with the promise of the world's saddest music. Having earned the trust of the group, Kriwaczek has since began finally making this music and the history of those who made and make it available to the masses in 2002 - not without substantial resistance from those within the Guild, at first. To date he has issued a book about the subject and three CD-Rs - one featuring the recordings of Wilhelm Kleinbach, last of the practising Funerary Violinists (playing the works of arguably the greatest Funerary Violinist of them all, Herr Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss); another compiling recorded works of Babcotte, Charles Sudbury, and Stanley Eaton; and this disc featuring the only known recordings of Herbert Stanley Littlejohn.
In 1954, a musicologist named Daniel Haughton came across a hand-written book of music called Various Works for the Performance of Funerary Violin, dating back to 1726. Haughton was aware of the Funerary Violinists and passed his findings onto Littlejohn, who authenticated the book as being one of the earliest known examples of written Funerary Violin music (much Funerary Violin work was improvised and hence not transcribed, you see). Two years later, Littlejohn set about recording the works - a suite each by Orlando Addleston (1681), Michel Meunier (1693) and Kaspar Ignaz Faustmann (1722), all with three movements apiece. Tragically, Littlejohn was never able to complete the recordings - he tripped over an elderly cat and fell down a flight of stairs, breaking his neck and fracturing his skull, before he was able to lay down the second movement of Addleston's suite and the third of Faustmann's. So what's left is only a fragment of what could have been - you might say a bitterly appropriate microcosm for all of the Funerary Violinists' work to date. All 22 minutes of Littlejohn's recordings are here, all bathed in a thick swamp of crackling dust from the years of abuse and poor preservation the original LP suffered. Littlejohn's violin is suitably morose and scratchy throughout, but on the Addleston pieces he leans into almost ebullient strands of high-pitched tonality - something Kriwaczek alludes to in his liner notes, stating "Littlejohn was renowned for [...] his playing's ceaseless enthusiasm and undeniable volume, both of which are much in evidence in these recordings, though at times perhaps a little inappropriately". The complete Meunier suite is a personal favorite, with Littlejohn's slightly off-tune and ragged strings transcending life and death by often working on mournful repetition and heart-wrenching melodies, though constantly shadowed by the grim spectre of the reaper himself. The two Faustmann movements are slower in pitch and sound considerably more deliberate, with Littlejohn dipping each note into a dull whine akin to the opening and closing of rusted iron gates. The limitations of the original recording devices, the medium, and indeed Littlejohn's own talent, all serve to push these recordings into the realm of the otherworldly, as if they weren't there to begin with. This is shattering, essential stuff that deserves to be heard after countless centuries of obscurity and ignorance.
I bought the book from Amazon (super cheap) to further research this musical phenomenon, but unfortunately I haven't been able to read enough of it to provide a suitable review. It's a beautiful-looking hardcover edition, some 200 pages in length, and contains just about all the fruits of Kriwaczek's hard work to date. A brief history of early Funeral Music is included, as well as a guide to the subtle art of the funeral march - from then, the book goes into depth about George Babcotte and how the Guild came to be, as well as chapters on some of the most prominent Violinist practitioners around - Littlejohn, Gratchenfleiss, Sudbury, Kleinbach, Eaton, and many more. The book details Mozart's rumoured association with the genre, the Great Funerary Purges and the Vatican's response to allegations of their involvement, and a general overview of where the genre, the Guild, and its practitioners are today. Also included are a tremendous amount of photographs, period pictures, sheet musics, paintings, and the like, each one helping to unravel at least somewhat the seemingly interminable mystery behind this age-old musical legacy unknown to all - until now. The only thing harder to believe than this incredible history going ignored and surpressed for several centuries is the fact that it was all made up.
Click here to listen to MP3 samples from the above album