A mind for music
Rosalind Halton's passion is unearthing and reinventing great works of the past.
Associate Professor Rosalind Halton has acquired many skills in the course of a 30-year career but perhaps her most important ability as a music researcher is her instinct for recognizing a brilliant work from an historical manuscript.
"There is nothing as exhilarating as getting fine musicians to perform a work that you have imagined in your mind from the time you first saw it," the performance and musicology academic says. "That process of finding a great work, seeing its potential, editing it and being able to turn it into sound - that is where my life's excitement lies."
Halton specialises in bringing to performance little-known and often previously unheard works from the vast catalogue of cantatas and serenatas by Italian Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti. As a researcher she must first find, then trace back these works, which have sometimes been written in the hands of several copyists, to come up with an edited edition that is as close as possible to the conjectural text of the composer. It is a process of discovery that she finds highly stimulating.
"A lot of music goes underground due to changes in musical fashion and is not brought back into the repertoire until someone like myself uncovers and edits it," she explains. "It is not just a matter of pulling an old manuscript out of an archive. You have to follow the paper trail to find clues as to how close the manuscript was to the composer, and to what extent it reflects his or her ideas."
Halton's work in recovering buried manuscripts of Scarlatti is recognised internationally, and she estimates she has been responsible for bringing back into the recorded repertoire up to 20 per cent of the composer's rediscovered pieces.
Halton is an accomplished harpsichord player and a foundation member of the baroque ensemble Chacona. Her recorded works include several releases through ABC Classics, including her seminal CD of Scarlatti cantatas and serenatas, recorded in part at the University of Newcastle. She has performed with many leading ensembles, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Halton worked for many years as a performance artist in Europe, after completing her PhD at Oxford University. Her interest in historical music
was stimulated by her studies and friendships at Oxford and it was there that the piano- and violin-trained musician began to explore the harpsichord.
The New Zealand-born academic credits influential music teachers at the University of Otago, and at Oxford, with venturing beyond rigid concepts of harmony training and developing her creativity through improvisation, a principle that continues to guide her work and teaching.
"Improvisation played an essential role in baroque music at all levels of
solo performance and chord accompaniment. So it is equally important today that
performers are skilled improvisers in rediscovering music that hasn't been heard
before in a contemporary setting," she says.
Halton took an appointment to the University of Newcastle in 1999, attracted by the combined focus on performance and research within the School of Drama, Fine Art and Music. She often works with student musicians to perform new compositions she has edited and says it is enormously rewarding to witness their excitement at reviving historical works, sometimes for the first time.
"Performance has always been the most important part of the process for me," she says. "Bringing music to a new audience is the ultimate goal."