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Love is in the air thanks to Cupid’s Harp by Chatham Baroque

Mark Kanny
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Chatham Baroque
Chatham BaroqueBaroque harpist Christa Patton
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Chatham Baroque
Chatham Baroque

Cupid, the Roman child god of love, is older than Valentine’s Day. He’s a renamed and modified version of a Greek god – Eros. His mother was Venus and his father was either Mercury or Mars (the god of war) according to different accounts.

Although we think of Cupid’s arrows as igniting attraction and passion, he was said to have two kinds of arrows in his quiver: the gold-tipped ones we think of and the lead-tipped ones that we forget that kill love.

Illustrations of Cupid often show him with bow and arrow, but in other artwork he’s holding a plucked string instrument for accompanying singing. Bow, lyre or harp, any taut string can in principle fire an arrow.

Chatham Baroque will perform its program “Cupid’s Harp” Feb. 15-17 in three different neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. The ensemble will be joined by two guest artists: Grammy award winning tenor Aaron Sheehan and baroque harpist Christa Patton.

The sainthood of a Roman martyr named Valentine, who was killed on Feb. 14, was combined in the fifth century by the pope with an earlier and nasty erotic Roman festival called Lupercalia, which was celebrated from Feb. 13-15.

Chatham Baroque’s celebration of Valentine’s Day will present 17th-century
vocal and instrumental music. By this time Lupercalia was out of the picture.

“People were recognizing Valentine’s Day in a similar way to the way we do today,” says Chatham Baroque’s viola da gamba player Patricia Halverson. “By the end of the 18th-century Valentine’s Day cards were being exchanged.”

Although the Italian and English repertoire on the program were composed with somewhat different technique, they shared a commitment to “clear and expressive” presentation of the words, according to Halverson. Both also used dissonance to color notes and phrases for emotional impact.

The concert will open with a perhaps surprising attitude with “I care not for these ladies,” by Thomas Campion, comparing a country maid with ladies of the court. But then songs about love have had more “nuance” for more than half a millennium than Hallmark cards.

Baroque harpist Christa Patton will play throughout the concert, lending the distinctive sounds of her instrument to the accompaniment. Her solo will be a Harp Consort by William Lawes. Patton will start the piece and be joined by the other players who provide embellishment.

Patton says her 16th century harp has a range of about four octaves, a little more than half the range of the modern harp. It also lacks the chromatic flexibility provided by a system of pedals added to harps centuries later.

“It’s a more intimate harp,” she adds. “The strings have lower tension and it has a bigger resonator to help with projection.”

The tuning is also different, more in line with the ancient notion of the harmony of the spheres.

“The idea was for everything to be balanced,” says Patton, “to provide healing, create health and provide an alignment of sensibility.”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.