Popular culture of the third millennium is steeped in what the rock critic Simon Reynolds called “Retromania.”
Though Reynolds put a name to it, a number of observers throughout the early aughts noted a ubiquitous retro-chic nostalgic turn colouring everything from music and movies to art, fashion, even technology — think hipsters with Kodak Brownies and Sony Walkmans.
Yet unlike other fads that fled from their own self-consciousness, the publication of Reynolds’ definitive book in 2010 seemed only to intensify the residual media zeitgeist. So much so that orchestral scores, for instance, that were conventional in 20th century film and TV soundtracks were exchanged en masse in the 21st for covers of popular songs. It wasn’t just the hits, either — a drive to dig ever deeper into the crates of history became a dominant pop cultural force.
Today, a parallel impulse is present in the contemporary classical music world, where performers — and audiences, too — are fatigued with an onslaught of gimmicks, and eager to discover composers and their works that go way beyond the traditional canon.
Enter the Montreal-based cellist and researcher Elinor Frey, who makes it her life’s mission to reanimate the most beautiful early cello music that no one has ever heard.
“If it has the name Bach or Vivaldi on it, nobody needs convincing to think maybe this is a great piece,” says Frey. “Part of the fun is, I want people to say, how is it possible I’ve never heard of this? I love this.”
Frey’s dedication to showcasing cello and gamba music, particularly from their earliest days as Western musical instruments, is what makes her work so compelling. In 2021, Frey released an album of the Italian cellist and Vivaldi contemporary Antonio Vandini’s complete works, six sonatas and one concerto spanning from 1717 to the mid-1750s, and performed with an unusual underhanded bow technique.
“They have all these sketches and eyewitness accounts of Vandini playing underhanded,” Frey explains. “And yet he was writing music that was very demanding with the left hand, very expressive. And pretty early on. It wasn’t like 500 people had written cello sonatas at that point.” Frey was justly lauded in 2021 with the Quebec Opus Prize for Performer of the Year.
Moving from strength to strength, Frey made another record titled Early Italian Cello Concertos, which won the 2023 Juno Award for Classical Album of the Year. Now she returns with an ensemble called Accademia de’ Dissonanti, and an album for the Passacaille imprint of the French composer Jean Baur’s Chamber Music.
“I try to follow my instincts,” says Frey. “I was teaching a course about French cello music and it just stood out. This is the first time I’ve focussed on a French composer. It happens organically: when something’s interesting, I keep going.”
Frey’s entry point as a young musician is a lesson in the importance of representation. Her aunt was a professional singer of Medieval music, and at age five, Frey had what she describes as an “identity moment” — with a string quartet concert at a summer festival “in a barn, in the boonies.”
Frey recalls: “Only one woman was playing, and the woman was playing the cello. So I didn’t even consider that I could play the violin. I was like, I love that. It looked beautiful while she was playing it. And I really loved the sound. When I was growing up, there was more of a sense of, women do this and men do that. It’s changed, happily. But I just felt like there were girl things and boy things. And there was a woman playing the cello, so I thought, that could be for me.”
Coming of age in Seattle in the 1990s, Frey spent her youth making mixtapes of Top 40 tunes for family and friends. “I wasn’t really into Grunge,” Frey admits, preferring Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and George Michael.
“If you were in the car, you turned on the radio and fought with your mom to have it on the cool station,” Frey remembers. “And when you go to school, you have to know all the recent songs. That’s what people talk about: what they’re listening to. But there was MTV back then. People weren’t talking about pop culture in the same way as today.”
Subsequently, Frey became “totally obsessed” with the history of cello. “I try to acquire almost everything that’s been written for the instrument in the first hundred years,” she tells me. “I’ve been teaching courses about it, and my students try to bring things that I’ve never heard of. So we’re discovering the music together. And when something really moves me and is like, oh I like this, then I listen to that nonstop. This is what happened with Jean Baur.”
Baur was primarily a harpist prior to composing for cello, and two of the pieces on Frey’s latest album have no cello at all. “I did it more about that composer, with a cello feature,” Frey says. “So there’s a harp sonata, because that was his instrument, and also a duo for harp and fortepiano, which shows the breadth and the different colours of that composer’s mind. The new CD has the same core wish, which is to explore the history of cello and underrepresented composers, and to celebrate beautiful music — because it’s all just stunningly beautiful.”
Frey confesses that she gets “giddy with excitement” when some detail sparks a mental image. For Baur, it was the score’s cover page, featuring information about who engraved the sonatas. “They were published in the 1750s and were engraved by a woman,” says Frey. “And I started trying to understand why they were writing her name. Why does it matter?”
Delving into the history of the sheet music’s engraver helped Frey to conceive of how the distribution of cello compositions worked at the time, the network that existed in the 18th century of musicians and artisans with engraving tools, how the cello gradually grew in importance, and why a harpist might become intrigued with this new instrument.
“I could see Baur going to the engraver with his manuscript, talking about it,” Frey muses. “And then when the product was ready, going out to the shops, and maybe people buying them. Maybe going to a salon and hearing one of his pieces played. It puts an image in my head where I see these people. Of course it’s not accurate; it’s just my invented fantasy. But I feel like I know them more. Then when I play, it makes that music less distant, more real.”
Frey doesn’t have much leisure time beyond concentrated research, recording, and performance. “I used to take a German class,” she divulges, “and in the first class, they asked, What are your hobbies? And I wrote, This is it.” For Frey, commitment to the outer reaches of retro, going further back and faster, is its own reward.
“When you finally put it together and the harmonies fit and it’s so beautiful, I just feel so touched,” she says, singing the virtues of maniacal musical discipline.
“It’s exciting for me to imagine that pretty much nobody is doing this and we’re bringing this to the world. Like, I love this, and now other people get to have this. Nobody needs me to listen to a beautiful interpretation of Bach cello suites. I mean, I like to do that too. But this music really needs an advocate.”◼︎
Elinor Frey performs with the Montreal Chamber Music Festival at Salle Bourgie on 12 June 2023.
Jean Baur: Chamber Music is released 30 June 2023 via Passacaille Music.
Cover photo by Laurent Theillet.