Jordi Savall: What did music really sound like in 1500?

Jordi Savall knows, and he can play the instruments to prove it. By Christopher Wood

There was a time when early music (work written before about 1750) seemed to attract the same types that George Orwell saw flocking towards socialism: "... every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England".

But thanks to the likes of Catalan musician Jordi Savall, who plays the viola da gamba, or viol, an instrument in use in the 15th to 18th centuries, and who brings his group Hespèrion XXI to Britain this summer, all that has changed.

Savall, now in his sixties, himself became as near to a household name as an early music practitioner can be when he recorded the soundtrack to the film Tous les matins du monde. "In the first four months of 1992 it was in the Top 10 with Queen and Madonna," he says.

But when Savall's career got under way in the mid-1960s, a great deal of music more than a few hundred years old was unknown. "I am like an explorer looking for treasure," he says. " I was interested in playing new music – new music in the sense that nobody has played it."

The "new music" was old music, particularly that of the Iberian peninsula in the 15th and 16th centuries during that period in the Renaissance when "art" music and popular, traditional songs fruitfully cross-fertilised.

Savall got his musical grounding as a boy chorister near Barcelona before taking up the cello. He emerged from two years' study at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland playing the viola da gamba and baroque cello. "For the first few concerts," he remembers, "I played the viol without frets, like a cello. Frets disturbed me."

The viola da gamba has seven frets – strips of gut placed across the fingerboard which enable strings to be "stopped" at a certain pitch. Instruments of various registers are played the same way, between the legs, so a player tends to be adept on several different-sized instruments. Savall plays treble and alto, but his main instrument is the bass. "With the violin family," he says, "the violin has the most important solo repertory. But in the viol family, it's the bass which has the principal solo repertory. Because the bass has six or seven strings, it can go as high as a treble."

Over the years Savall has accumulated 12 original viols; one dates back to 1500. "There's a relationship between the original instrument and musician that is very special. It's a relation of love and fidelity. An instrument needs to be played every day. It is something alive."

Savall formed Hespèrion to focus on the music of Spain and Italy. "It's very important, the relation between voice and language," he claims. "Language is already music, and the language you talk has a certain colour. To do Spanish or Catalan music you are a better instrument if your mother language is Latin-based." French vocal music thus creeps in, but northern Europe is off limits.

"You can't do music as musicology or archaeology. We respect the sources and old techniques, but play with the sensibility of now."

Thus, Savall has changed the group's name from Hespèrion XX – "20th century" – to Hespèrion XXI. Other groups have sprung up along the way: La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations are choral and instrumental groups that Savall directs in pieces too big for Hespèrion XXI. And there is even a record label, Alia Vox, that solely serves the burgeoning Savall empire.

It is the original ground-breaking chamber group, however, that comes to London to play music by Byrd, Dowland, Purcell and others. Listeners should expect a musical treat, and sandals need not be worn.

Jordi Savall and soloists, St John's, Smith Square, London (020 7222 1061), 20 June; Hespèrion XXI, St John's, Smith Square (as above), 22 June; York Minster, York (01904 658338), 5 July (returns only)