Soundscapes in music at the RA

    Who is Zoffany? Well he was an artist who moved to London from Germany in 1760 and quickly acquired patronage for his work which gives unique insight into the court, the theatre, and the bourgeois family in London at that time. There is currently an exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy and I went along a few weeks ago and was totally absorbed by the range and eloquence of his work. However I also noticed a special event linking Zoffany with Handel’s Water Music.

Now classical music is not really my scene, but nevertheless this music with all its associations sounded tempting so off I went to the event with my more musically inclined partner.

After all tonight we can all share the opulence of the RA and hear the music in the settings in which it would have played originally (apparently Handel actually performed some of his music in the room next to the one in which this concert was performed).

  The room in which Handel performed.   

The personable conductor and musicologist Gulliver Ralston brought to life ‘a soundscape of  Zoffany’s paintings’  with works by the young Mozart, Handel, J. C. Smith and Thomas Arne. He pointed out this was the age of The Enlightenment (or the age of reason) when art, music and literature intermingled.  I studied elements of this period for my BA with the Open University in my 30s and it all came flooding back.

Gulliver also gave intriguing insights into the paintings in the exhibition as well as a portrait of Zoffany both as an artist and as a man, bringing gentle humour into his commentary.  Apparently the artist was a bit of a rake, in that he once not only stalked a young girl, who he made pregnant at 15 but quickly insisted on marrying her, apparently the first Mrs Zoffany was not well pleased.

The quintet itself performed brilliantly as one would expect. The group were so engaging and full of energy that their playing drew the audience into the performances. The flautist, a classical beauty, might surely be the kind of model Zoffany would have enjoyed painting in his day. Gulliver himself played the harpsichord throughout and performed a short solo piece.

The climax of the evening was, of course, a performance of Handel’s ‘Water Music’ in a rare version possibly arranged by the composer for the Sharp family’s barge party on the Thames.   If one shut one’s eyes one could almost feel the rocking of the boat.

Note – Being a friend of the RA is my best extravagance. It is so easy to pop up from Brighton to London on an off peak ticket then take a 38 which stops right outside the RA. The annual subscription means I can go as many times as I want to and take a friend! There are educational events and free lunchtime concerts – although  special events such as this one come at a modest extra cost. I will be back soon for another visit to Zoffany, but this time with the soundscapes singing in my ears!

Gold leaf detail  in one of the rooms at the RA

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