I’m very excited about Tafelmusik’s Tales of Two Cities program, which will be presented twice in the Denver-Boulder area next week as part of the Canadian Baroque orchestra’s national tour. Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House is a multi-media exploration of the rich musical tradition and innovation of 18th -century coffee houses in Germany and Syria. The program was conceived  by Tafelmusik double bassist Alison Mackay, who also designed previous multimedia presentations for the ensemble. I had the opportunity to ask Alison some questions via email to find out more about this extraordinary program.

How did the concept of Tales of Two Cities come to be?
I had been preparing an earlier project on the subject of J.S. Bach and his material world — it was a celebration of the artisans, performers and community members whose labour made it possible for Bach to realize his musical inspiration in actual performances.  One topic was the family who for five years had supplied the paper on which Bach wrote out some of his most beloved works.  The paper is identifiable from its watermarks, the trademark designs made in thin wire which were placed in the molds which shaped each sheet of paper at the time.

In doing research about eighteenth-century watermarks I came across some fascinating work being done at the library of the University of Leipzig about European papers which had been used in the Refaiya Collection, a body of manuscripts, most of them from the 17th and 18th centuries, from a private home in Damascus.  The collection, which contains poetry, travel literature, love letters, and scientific, legal and religious texts came to Leipzig University, because of its department of Arabic studies which dated from  the time of Bach.

One of the treasures in the collection was a set of performance books owned by a storyteller who performed tales from the Arabian Nights in the coffee-houses of Damascus in the eighteenth century.  Because of the importance of coffeehouse culture in Bach’s tenure in Leipzig, and because, as I learned along the way,  both Damascus and Leipzig were importance centres of scholarship, commerce and music in the 18th century, I thought the two cities could make a fascinating setting for an evening of classical music from Europe and the Arabic world.

How does this project differ from your previous multimedia programs?
This project is blessed with the participation Trio Arabica,  a wonderful ensemble of players of Arabic classical music who have worked with me to establish points at which we could juxtapose pieces linked by theme or by rhythmic structure, or points where we could actually play together.  The playing of our guests gives the concert a unique character and is an invigorating source of musical inspiration for us in the orchestra.  Also, some small sections of the narrated script are spoken in Arabic.

What is the significance of the “coffee house,”  in terms of music, history and culture?
Both Damascus and Leipzig had lively coffeehouse cultures in the eighteenth century. The coffee plant, coffea arabica, is native to Ethiopia but is first known to have been cultivated as a crop in Yemen, where it was consumed in Sufi worship.  Coffee gradually traveled north from Yemen to Syria, to Istanbul and then to Europe through the city of Venice.

The earliest coffeehouses in Damascus became places of refreshment, story-telling and musical entertainment. Quite a bit is known about the actual stories that were told and the instruments that were played in the coffeehouses in Syria in the mid eighteenth century when our concert is set.

The first coffeehouses were opened in Leipzig around 1700, just after public street lighting was introduced into the city.  For the first time, ordinary people who didn’t have servants or carriages to protect them  could walk in safety in the streets after their working day and enjoy the new exotic products of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.  By 1740 there were eight of these establishments in Leipzig and several of them became associated with performances of music.  For a number of years Bach directed concerts in Zimmermann’s café on Friday evenings from 8 until 10.

Have there been surprises as your vision of the program became a reality?
I had wanted to choose a story for our actor to tell in the course of the concert from the collection of stories which had been owned by the real eighteenth-century storyteller from Damascus.  I had chosen a story about a refugee; the original tale had appeared in the writings of a 12th century scholar and mystic named Al-Ghazali (it’s a story that by the eighteenth century had been absorbed into the loose collection of tales told by Scheherezade which became known as the Arabian Nights.)

At the same time, I was working with a scholar from the Dresden State Museums who was supervising the restoration of an exquisite reception room with decorated wooden wall panels from an eighteenth-century house in Damascus. This room had come into the possession of the museum in Dresden and had been recently restored by Dr. Anke Scarrahs.  She and the museum became partners in the project and provided the beautiful high-resolution images of the historical room which were used in the design of our theatrical set-piece with its projection screen.

One of the features of Damascus reception rooms was the painting of beautiful panels of calligraphy high up on the walls.   There were important Muslim and Christian and Jewish communities in Damascus in the eighteenth century.    In the houses of members of each of these faiths, the calligraphy would always be in Arabic but the texts in Muslim homes would usually be from the Koran or from devotional poetry; in Jewish homes they would be from the Torah and in Christian homes they would usually be from the Psalms or the New Testament.  It turned out by a complete coincidence that the calligraphy in “our” room depicted poetry by that same 12th c. scholar and mystic, Al-Ghazali, who had written the story about the refugee.

So there we were, on our modern stage in Toronto, portraying by a fluke,  two works of an 800-year-old writer in narrated storytelling and in visual art.   It wasn’t until Anke Scharrahs came to Toronto and attended some rehearsals that she realized that the coffeehouse story and the poetry in the calligraphy came from the same author.

Tafelmusik

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