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A Scholar’s “Indiana Jones” Moment

 

Steve Charles—I’m not a fan of opera. I’m not enchanted by Baroque music.

Whenever I hear the term I can’t help thinking of Cogsworth the Clock from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and his line, “This is yet another example of the late neoclassic Baroque period. And, as I always say, ‘If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it!’"

But I won’t miss the February 22nd performance at Wabash College’s Salter Hall of Hypermnestra by the Indiana University Baroque Orchestra.

Even though the title sounds more like a symptom or learning disability.

Even though it’s sung in German. (Don’t worry—there will be English “supertitles.”)

Even though it’s at 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon.

I’ll be there because this piece hasn’t been performed in 268 years. Crawfordsville is hosting its 21st century premiere.

(Note: An interview with Professor Larry Bennett about his rediscovery of Hypermnestra and this week’s historic performance will be broadcast this Saturday at 8 p.m. on WBAA-FM 101.3 and this Sunday at 4 p.m. on WBAA-AM 920.)

I’ll be there because it’s being played on instruments built or restored to the specifications of 17th and 18th century instruments. We’ll get to hear what this music really sounded like when it was first performed in 1741.

But mostly I’ll be there is because this is the climax of a musical adventure that Wabash Professor of Music and longtime Crawfordsville resident Larry Bennett has lived since he re-discovered this piece in 1995 while doing research in Meiningen, Germany. This is Larry’s “Indiana Jones” moment, minus the snakes and poison darts. Events such as this don’t come very often anywhere in musical scholarship, much less to Crawfordsville and Wabash. 

So I’ll be there not only for the performance, but for Larry’s introductory remarks at 2:30.

If you know Larry at all, you know how over-the-top enthusiastic he can get about a beautiful piece of music. A wonderful singer in his own right, he brings that same passion to his scholarship. I’ve interviewed him twice about this piece of music. I’ve never seen him so excited about a performance.

Part of it’s the opera itself. Larry says, “It’s a darned good piece of music with all the goodies you expect in an opera— treachery, jealousy, love—along with awe-inspiring writing for voices."


Part of it’s the backstory. It’s too long to get into here, but let’s just say that the way this music was originally commissioned, then lost, has eerie similarities to themes in the opera.

But it’s also the sheer joy of witnessing a gorgeous piece of music, once discarded like a fine instrument left in a dusty attic for centuries, suddenly springing to life.

"It’s thrilling to hear a piece that you’ve looked at on paper for years," Larry told me not long after attending the IU Baroque Orchestra’s first rehearsals of Hypermnestra earlier this month. “The music sounds glorious!”

Of course, the only reason we’re even able to hear that glorious music today is because Larry found it. Scholarship sometimes gets a bad rap in our culture. We celebrate artists and performers but tend to overlook those who study and help us better appreciate, understand, and preserve that art and those performances. And in the case of Hypermnestra and 89 other works by Handel, Scarlatti, Francesco Conti, and others in the Meiningen Collection, Larry not only rediscovered the music; he helped the city of Meiningen save it for future generations. 

In the late 1990s, the collection was nearly scattered for possible sale at auction. The Meiningen Museum went to court to keep the pieces together. Their crucial piece of evidence was Larry Bennett’s article from a scholarly journal. When museum won the case, its music library curator emailed Larry.

“You have saved the collection for the city of Meiningen,” she said. “Political officials have praised the decision as a day of joy.”

Larry probably won’t mention any of this when he introduces the opera this Sunday. He’ll focus his talk on the opera, on its composer, the instruments and singers that will bring this once-lost music to life.

But as you enjoy all that, think about the months Larry spent poring over card catalogs, notes, manuscripts, and correspondence in that music library in Meiningen, not to mention the years arranging the piece via Finale software on his computer so that it could be performed. Imagine the thrill of discovery as he realized he had found music long-forgotten by the world. That’s the work of the scholar—finding new ways to understand the world, and reminding us of treasures we’ve forgotten.

So I’ll be there on Sunday, in part, to honor those scholars, and especially Larry Bennett, the man whose scholarship, teaching, and talents as a performer have been the foundation for the rebuilding of the Wabash Music Department since he arrived here 13 years ago.

I’m going because Wabash and IU are making history that day.

I’m going for the adventure.

But I’m also going for the music. Hypermnestra is a remarkable example from the late Baroque period. And, as Cogsworth and I always say, "If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it."

In photo: Professor Larry Bennett works with students in the Fine Arts Center’s Fred Enenbach Room. 

 

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