He has a reputation not just as a passionate fan of early music, but as an intelligent programmer of repertoire and a man whose politics are at the heart of both his life and career. For example, he has tackled the immense and very difficult subject of the European slave trade in a recording and concert series called The Routes of Slavery, covering musical traditions from medieval Europe, Mali and the Americas through to negro spirituals.
Another recent work has been inspired by the life of Joan of Arc, whom Savall describes as ‘an early example of a political prisoner’.
And in his personal life he has spoken out in support of Catalan independence, saying: ‘I love Spain… but we need people from the Spanish government to respect Catalans’, and that it was a matter of ‘having control of our culture, of our dignity’. There was also his decision in 2014 to refuse Spain’s National Music Award, which comes with a €30,000 prize, in protest at the government’s ‘dramatic indifference and gross incompetence in the defense and promotion of art and its creators’.
His views on arts funding don’t come from some ivory tower – at the age of 14 Savall had left school and was working in a factory. It wasn’t until he was 16 that he started cello lessons and he didn’t start playing the instrument he is famous for – viola da gamba – until he was in his 20s.
This September you can hear him and his ensemble Hespèrion XXI in a concert called Wars of the Three Kingdoms – the name given to a series of conflicts which took place between 1639 and 1651 including the Bishops’ Wars between Scotland and England, the Irish Confederate Wars and the English Civil War.
All the composers whose music is featured lived in the run-up to, during or immediately after the Wars – a period incorporating the religious tumult of Elizabeth I’s reign and the end of the Tudor era, the Stuart succession to the English throne, the arrival of Charles I and subsequent Civil War; and the Restoration.
What’s fascinating about the programme is just how central the composers were to contemporary politics.
Alfonso Ferrabosco, for example, is a composer born in Greenwich around 1575 and noted for writing music for the viol, a small string instrument that is played upright rather than under the chin. But he also collaborated extensively with the politically controversial playwright Ben Jonson and Ferrabosco’s father, also a musician, is rumoured to have been a spy for Queen Elizabeth.
Another featured composer, Anthony Holborne, had close connections with the court of Queen Elizabeth, including the immensely powerful political figure Sir Robert Cecil. Cecil was spymaster for Elizabeth I and is famous as the exposer (or possibly agitator) of the Gunpowder Plot. He helped negotiate the transition of the monarchy from the Tudors to the Stuarts after Elizabeth’s death.
Also in the programme are pieces by William Lawes, a composer for Charles I who was shot dead during the English Civil War by a Parliamentarian. Another of Charles I’s court composers, John Jenkins, wrote the piece Newark Siege, about the Civil War battle which dragged on from November 1645 until May 1646.
The concert concludes with music by Henry Purcell, born the year before King Charles II was restored to the English throne. Historians have argued that although his famous English anthems, like Hear my Prayer, O Lord, used sacred texts from Psalms they could also be considered as royalist propaganda – an important tool in securing the monarchy’s future after it came so close to being destroyed forever.
If you’ve never given early music a try, this is going to be a terrific place to start. Savall is, not to be too hyperbolic, a truly inspirational figure and it will give you the chance to see this music through new eyes – passionate, relevant music written by composers who lived through some of England’s most tumultuous times.
Wars of the Three Kingdoms takes place on Tuesday 25 September. Tickets are now on sale.