In Celebration of
A Millennium in 50 Years: The Discovery of Early Music
A lecture by Robert Commanday (1922-2015), celebrated music critic, conductor, and founding editor of the San Francisco Classical Voice, on July 21, 2012, for the Festival and Academy of the American Bach Soloists in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
An obvious advantage of longevity is getting to see how things come out. Which is not always great, I’ll admit. But for me it’s been something of a wonder in the course of my century, less one decade, to wonder at the passage from a crystal radio—not even tubes—to the electronic and internet revolution, from horse-drawn milk and ice-vending wagons to supersonic flight. My godson at Lockheed serves on a team that has developed a vehicle that travels 400 times the speed of sound, and can reach anywhere in the world in one hour. Who can imagine what that will lead to?
This week I read in the New York Times that enough Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA had been accumulated that if anyone were sick, rich, and crazy enough—and there are plenty of those in the one percent—such an ancient being, theoretically, might be cloned. Well then, what about cloning an 18th century musician or patron? Then we would have a really authentic response to a “authentic” performance today and know what we are talking about.
It is fascinating to ponder the “why and how” of the Early Music Revival. It’s a question of viewing consequences, both anticipated and unexpected. Who would have thought that a 1958 performance of a Medieval mystery play at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan’s Washington Heights would launch what we regard as the Early Music Revival in America? Or that a French violinist attending the Paris Conservatoire in 1897 to study with Vieuxtemps would become the Thomas Edison of the Early Music Revival here and abroad? Or that a Polish pianist-turned-harpsichordist would become both trigger, the linchpin, and first American celebrity of a movement that was far-off when Wanda Landowska made her initial impact in Paris in the early 1930s and still distant when she landed in New York, a refugee, on the day that shattered America: December 7, 1941?
Or that a technological—really an industrial—advance, Columbia Records’ perfection and introduction of the Long Play vinyl record, would fundamentally change the listening habits of a nation and begin a revolutionary shift in music repertoire until it embraced all styles and ages, all countries and cultures?
But there were other than salubrious consequences of the growth and flowering of this revival of Early Music in America. There was the antipathy of traditional musicians defending their turf against period instrument performers. Besides that, even within this small, big-city-confined new Early Music world, came the tension between the Puritans and the Romanticists, between the strict constructionists and those guided partly by instinct and more directly received musical experience. Eventually it was the Authenticists against the Historically Informed.
But has this renewal of Early Music all happened in the last fifty years? Not really. Was contact with pre-classical music lost for a century and a half and suddenly rediscovered in a mid-20th century renaissance? Not at all, as we know.
The True Believers’ Revival
Europe and not even the New World had lost complete contact with the heritage of music before the Classical era. There was some continuity in the 19th century before the crescendo of interest in the early decades of the 20th and the beginning of the Revival (or the True Believers’ Revival) that began developing a decade or two after World War II. The how and why of that is fascinating and will concern us today, before we get into the tensions that fired up the Early Musickers and how they grew, and then to the arrival at the mature flowering where we sit today.
In the slightly more than a century between the discovery to Mozart of Bach and Handel by his fellow Freemason Baron van Swieten, there were significant performances and commitments to Early Music. Whether we start with the publishing of Forkel’s Bach biography in 1802, or the founding in 1815 of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, or Mendelssohn’s 1829 St. Matthew Passion performed by 158 singers—in a version that was less than one-third of the complete work and that employed a contemporary, that is modern orchestra and piano, with tempos and dynamics very much revised—there was action in France, Germany, and especially England all along.
The Role of Musicology
Besides the occasional performances of the B Minor Mass and performances of sacred polyphony of the 16th century in some major churches, there was the publication of the Bach Gesellschaft edition between 1850 and 1900. By the time that undertaking was finished, the complete works of Handel, Rameau, Palestrina, Buxtehude, Corelli, Schütz, Purcell, and Sweelinck had been issued. This was the emergence of historical musicology with such leaders as Philipp Spitta, Otto Jahn, and Friedrich Chrysander, whose term Musikwissenschaft (in English, musicology) gave the field its name. It would be tempting to think that those giants of Musikwissenschaft (sounds like the Ring cycle, doesn’t it?) followed by the flood of musicologists escaping Nazi Europe (Nibelungen?) to take up professorships here were importantly if not chiefly responsible for the resurgence.
Not true. It was not the scholars—the musicologists, who led the way. Quite to the contrary, it was the performers, drawing to be sure, on the learning and discoveries of the musicologists, but not inspired by them. This is surprising, given the presence and strength in the music departments of American universities of the leading musicologists of the age, who fled here. A partial list is imposing: Willi Apel, Manfred Bukofzer, Hans T. David, Alfred Einstein, Otto Gombosi, Paul Henry Lang, Gustave Reese, Curt Sachs, Leo Schrade, Edward Lowinsky, Karl Geiringer, and Hans Tischler. Their publications were seminal and in universal use: Gustav Reese’s Music in the Middle Ages, Manfred Bukofzer’s Music in the Baroque Era, and the Harvard Anthology of Music by Apel and Davidson, Alfred Einstein’s Mozart, and so on. BUT, those musicologists were scholars, not performance activists.
The musicologists’ shortfall of not going beyond gathering the facts has been explained by a slightly younger and British-born American descendant of that group. The late Joseph Kerman described this attitude or point of view as “Positivism.”
Historians (in the 19th century) set to work to ascertain all the facts they could. The result was a vast increase of detailed historical knowledge based to an unprecedented degree on accurate and critical examination of evidence. This was the age which enriched history by the compilation of vast masses of carefully sifted material … But all through this period there was a certain uneasiness about the ultimate purpose of this detailed research. It had been undertaken in obedience to the spirit of positivism according to which the ascertaining of facts was only the first stage of a process whose second stage was the discovery of laws.
Early Music Performance in Academia
Thus the landmarks of musicology produced by the older generation were monuments of information but very light on interpretation or discussion of what this music sounded like and if any of it was artistically better than any of the rest. This carried over into the teaching by musicologists. Universities with academic departments of music taught courses about performance practice not in performance practice. By and large, Early Music ensembles weren’t organized and coached significantly, not the way the ethnomusicologists in today’s academic departments are creating and coaching gamelan and other performance ensembles for various ethnic cultures. Typically, musicologists taught courses about performance practice, about the ornamentation, notation and the like, do with it what you may.
Indeed courses in early music style did equip and stimulate some who became performers with a scholarship that informed their performance. Stanford, for example, had Putnam Aldrich, the eminent harpsichordist teaching there, and George Houle, oboist and recorder player, trained and led early music ensembles. UC Berkeley had courses about performance practice and one professor who became a major player, Alan Curtis, harpsichordist. Significantly, he retired very early from the University to become a distinguished Baroque opera conductor, mostly in Europe. To be fair, there were collaborations between a musicologist and a performer or performing group, the scholar assuming the role something like that of the Dramaturg in theatre and opera companies.
I never heard of an assignment in a performance practice course that would ask students to take a movement or complete work by say, Telemann or Vivaldi, from a microfilm of a manuscript or an edition from the composer’s time and make a studied modern edition, complete with suggested markings for nuances, articulation and tempos, defended in footnotes. That would have made real sense and stimulated the students to get on with it and realize their editions in live performances.
Fortunately, there were some genuine scholar-performers who were stimulated by the early music activity early in the twentieth century, mostly in England. They were the ones who laid a constructive basis and guide not only for those “Performance Practice” courses in the universities, but led the way in their time, for the movement to follow there in England and later in America.
The English Revival
The leading early music activity in the first decades of the twentieth century was in England. Charles Kennedy Scott and Thomas Beecham formed the Oriana Medieval Society in 1904. Edmund Fellowes produced his English Madrigal Series, known to every madrigal singer that ever uttered a fa-la-la since then. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the music of Elizabethan composers was widely sung in Britain.
Those who must be mentioned are: Thurston Dart, at Cambridge, eminent player of harpsichord, clavichord and organ, conductor, and music educator, who wrote The Interpretation of Music, 1954; Robert Donington, author of the seminal Interpretation of Early Music in 1963; Denis Stevens, producer for the BBC Third Programme of the early 1950s, a major influence. Later in 1965 there was David Munrow who blew into the British world with his Early Music Consort, not, as Nicholas Kenyon wrote as “authentic performance,” “but because they made music with such conviction and enthusiasm, because their concerts were skillfully programmed, well-prepared, professionally organized, and animated by Munrow’s unique personal skills.”
Arnold Dolmetsch, Father of the Movement
What we see here is a movement initiated and fired by performers with information and scholarship provided by the musicologists to be sure, but with performers to the fore. To go back, the one person who has to be named Father of the Movement is Arnold Dolmetsch. In 1879, this French violinist, after attending a concert of Renaissance and Baroque instruments at the Paris Conservatoire, went out and bought a viola d’amore, restored it, and began acquiring other historical instruments. That one event was the launching point of the revival, the Big Bang. In 1896, he built a harpsichord and then went on to build clavichords, spinets, lutes, viols, fortepianos, harps, rebecs, baroque violins and vihuelas. And of course, he was famous for his recorders that he began producing in the 1920s.
Whereas most interested in early instruments at the time were antiquarians, collectors, and scholars, Dolmetsch was a performer, and that made the difference. He was taken up by—of all people—William Morris, heart and soul of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris persuaded Dolmetsch to build his first harpsichord for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society show in 1896. George Bernard Shaw wrote that Dolmetsch’s first clavichord might have as much effect in domestic music-making as William Morris’ work was having on furniture and décor. Other admiring purchasers of his instruments included the great actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, poet William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce.
While most of Dolmetsch’s career was in England, in 1903 he came to America, and made his debut with the American Symphony Orchestra, his current wife playing harpsichord and his future wife on gamba. We’re really talking about a man ahead of his time. Remaining in the United States, he signed a contract with Chickering, the piano company, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made 75 harpsichords, virginals, spinets, clavichords, viols, and lutes. Lastingly, and perhaps even more important than his personal achievements which included the first modern book to provide a comprehensive of Baroque performance practice, he was a teacher. As Howard Mayer Brown wrote in 1998, “Even today almost everyone involved in Early Music in England has been touched in some way by Dolmetsch, by his students [who included Robert Donington, by the way], or by his students’ students.” He was a force majeure.
Wanda Landowska, Force of Nature
Wanda Landowska on the other hand, was a force of nature. She was a “showman,” making an entrance like a diva, but withal brought attention to the harpsichord as none before her in modern times. Laurette Goldberg’s description is choice: “Landowska used to pad out on the stage with these flat, black shoes, and this black dress, and her kind of gaunt, very strong-featured face and her hair back in a bun, she looked as if she were praying. She used to say, ‘You play Bach your way, and I’ll play it his way.’”
One heavy-handed account of Landowska’s playing was that it was like a bucket of bolts. A more measured description is that “Landowska’s approach is what pianists do when they play harpsichord, touch heavy, ornaments played without spontaneity, as if printed in bold print in the score, not organic to the piece. It had the didactic exaggeration of someone educating her listeners.”
She had the Pleyel firm build a harpsichord for her that could serve a modern concert hall, a big one with an iron frame. In 1933 in her villa in France, she gave the first harpsichord performance of the Goldberg Variations in modern times. Playing the range of Baroque keyboard repertoire, Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti to Couperin and Rameau, her presence and success launched the debate of the relative merits of performance of that repertoire on piano or on harpsichord. Her instruments were far from historical in design and that mattered to her not at all. She played with major orchestra, toured, recorded, and at the school she established, taught the students who came to her from all over the world. Her students included Alice Ehlers, Ralph Kirkpatrick, and Clifford Curzon. And as a performer, she was a star. She has been called the first Early Music superstar.
Landowska first arrived in the United States in 1923 with four harpsichords. She made her Carnegie Hall debut with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, playing a Handel concerto and, unaccompanied, Bach’s Italian Concerto in one concert. A dozen years later, a generation of American harpsichordists had appeared, the best known of whom were Putnam Aldrich, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Sylvia Marlowe, Alice Ehlers, and Yella Pessl. When she returned to America in 1941 because of the war, she was a huge success.
Early Music in the New World
Meanwhile, in the New World—and Early Music-wise it certainly was the new world—there had been a thread of Baroque performances through the 19th century, employing large choral forces and conventional symphonic orchestras. There were the Bach Festivals, from the Bethlehem, founded in 1888, the Baldwin-Wallace in Ohio, founded in 1932, and the Carmel Bach Festival in 1935. There was a whole succession of choral societies, the majority in New York, popular and well-supported. Most of their Bach and Handel performances were Romantically interpreted, using piano for recits and with simplified orchestral parts.
Things changed in the years following World War II, there were two sharply divided approaches in the making of music from before the Classical period. One was the continuance of the traditional 19th century aesthetic, performing according to the spirit or feeling of the music, using instruments of the modern symphony orchestra and the piano and applying interpretive criteria directly inherited from the 19th century. This ranged from leading solo artists like Pablo Casals performing Bach’s solo suites for the cello, and Andres Segovia performing lute repertoire on the guitar, to the major symphonic conductors such as Serge Koussevitzky and Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Bach’s B Minor Mass, or Thomas Beecham conducting Messiah. On the most extreme end stood Stokowski with his Technicolor transcriptions of Bach, and close on his heels, Eugene Ormandy playing Bach with all the richness of tone and depth of expressive nuances the Philadelphia Orchestra could produce.
Anti-Romanticism and the Middle Ground
On the other side was the anti-Romantic reaction which was linked in new music to the Modern style and Neo-Classicism. It was led most importantly by Stravinsky but included Hindemith, Milhaud, and on the performing end, by Toscanini, who famously believed in hewing to the letter of the score, come è scritto, and by others who insisted on objectivity, an impersonal style, utter neutrality. Modern style applied to Early Music performances then has been described as “polite bloodlessness,” trying to use scholarship and to adapt modern instruments and contemporary vocal practice to demands of earlier music. It was a reaction against 19th century sentimentality, against post-romanticism.
Footnote: We use the term “modern” instruments too loosely, for in fact, most of the instruments in common use today have been in use since 1820 or 30, give or take changes in the fingering systems and other alterations that improved tone quality. The Tourte bow used in modern orchestras, came into use from around 1790. While some older orchestras in Mozart’s and Haydn’s day may still have been using Baroque instruments, modern performances of their music with the Tourte bow would not be historically incorrect.
Happily, there was a middle ground between the traditional or Romantic interpreters and the puritan. It was inhabited by conductors like Ernest Ansermet, and especially those who led symphonic instrument chamber orchestras, like Paul Sacher in Basel, Boyd Neel in England, Adolf Busch in America, Raymond Leppard in England, and Sandor Salgo with the Carmel Bach Festival. They inspirited their performances of Early Music with contained and personal expression that was both convincing and respectful of the style and balances.
Impediments and Inertia
Even so, none of that was what we call “historically informed.” It all continued the Romantic tradition. You can’t imagine how narrow the Early Music world was from the end of World War II, 1945 to 1955. Aside from a rare harpsichord recital, there was no performing on period instruments. I was a serious flutist but stymied by the paucity of chamber and solo music available for the flute. Precious little of it was published in performing editions or was even played on the programs of the New York Flute Club. You’ve heard of Sleepless in Seattle? I was clueless in Yonkers.
It was a big problem in 1946 to find the music to perform from. Not much was published, and of that, only the narrowest selection. So the problem boiled down to the simple mechanical one of duplicating the music. It could be found in scholarly editions but was not available in modern, printed performing editions. Photocopying didn’t come in until 1959. The only copying processes available were the mimeograph machine for which cutting a music stencil was one big, laborious painstaking pain or the spirit duplicator (or Ditto Machine) which was not satisfactory. In short, the process of making your own performance parts or scores by copying music out of the monuments was a major deterrent.
Several factors combined to overcome such impediments and inertia. There was the emergence of a large body of musicians representing the two generations who had been bottled up for four years by the war. We were looking for outlets and careers. That released a lot of energy. Another factor was the competition in a music publishing industry needing new products. The music public, wanting a wider and more varied repertory, was particularly attracted to earlier music because of its resistance to modern music, the widespread disaffection with or slow acceptance of new-composed music in modern styles. Talk about conservatism in 1946; as late as that, when I was in Juilliard, I heard complaints about the modernism of Debussy!
Advances in Sound Recording
The fourth and clinching factor to bring on pre-classical music in the 1950s was the appearance of the LP record. The entire record industry adopted it soon after Columbia Records in 1948 introduced the LP or Long Play record now popularly called vinyl records. Compared with five minutes per side for the 78 rpm shellac records, one side of a 12-inch vinyl playing at 331/3 revolutions per minute played for 20 minutes, and after 1952, on Columbia’s extended-play LPs, played for 26 minutes.
That transformed listening, record collecting and repertoire. Columbia Records, directed by Goddard Lieberson (father of the composer Peter Lieberson) was joined by Vanguard and other companies in re-recording their catalogs and venturing into the new Early Music – primarily Baroque. That led to the hi-fi era driven by advances in technology and the manufacturing and marketing of turntables, radio tuners, preamplifiers, power amplifiers and loudspeakers – systems. The word “stereo” replaced the term “hi-fi” when the Westrex single-groove stereophonic record cutterhead took over the field in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Reel-to-reel magnetic tapes were introduced in 1948 and went into wide use. Compact cassettes were introduced by Philips in 1963. Pre-recorded reel-to-reel recordings were important from 1960 to 1984. Towards the end of the 1980s, digital audio tape recording techniques led to the current-day use of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes and CDs, but by then Early Music was pretty well revived.
All during this period, from the 1950s on, FM took over and its radio stations—many of which specialized in playing classical music—were dominant. FM acquired the capacity to be stereo in 1961. In a word, the Hi-Fi Era and the revival of Early Music did not just co-exist. One fed on the other. It was a symbiotic relationship.
New York Pro Musica and the Period Instrument Parade
One other major factor led to the rapid growth of the Early Music movement. Let me ask a question. How many oboists do you imagine graduated from America’s ten leading conservatories and schools of music in any one year in the 1950s or 1960s? Pick a year. And in that year, how many playing jobs would be waiting for those newly minted musicians? Or bassoonists, or hornists, or whatever? From the ranks of these eager, gifted, trained, unemployed, young musicians came leaders who formed performing ensembles including a number of Early Music groups. Many of these musicians turned to period instruments and acquired the requisite specialized skills and art.
At a critical point came the period instrument parade, and that changed a lot. It had been going on for quite a while in England, and there was some individual period instrument activity in America. An event at the Cloisters uptown in Fort Tryon Park, Washington Heights, in Manhattan made a deep and lasting impact. Noah Greenberg, a choral conductor had founded the New York Pro Musica Antiqua in 1952. Among its six singers was one Russell Oberlin, then 29, and a rare bird—almost a curiosity—an American countertenor. Of course, American music lovers who had been paying attention, knew the pioneering countertenor singing of Alfred Deller, from England. But Oberlin was still almost unique. Of Greenberg’s five instrumentalists, one of them was Bernard Krainis whom Greenberg had persuaded to take up the recorder, which he did and pursued masterfully ever after. Greenberg gave a viola da gamba to Seymour Barab, a cellist, and that was another conversion.
On January 2, 1958, the NYPMA performed The Play of Daniel, a musical dramatization of the tale of Daniel and Belshazzar, last performed 700 years earlier in the twelfth century, in Beauvais, France. It wasn’t even close to what later Early Musickers were presumptuous enough to call “authentic.” It was a 1958 historical staging, a reenactment in costume. If the period instruments were appropriate and if the music itself was a reasonably reliable rendering of the manuscript, it was still a modern pageant. The poet W.H. Auden had written the text and narrated it himself. But if only historically-flavored, it was a landmark and made an impact on the musical scene.
Early Music in the Bay Area: the Amsterdam Mafia
Gradually but steadily, over the next fifty years, we have seen or rather heard the full range of Early Music—Baroque, Renaissance, Medieval—take its place in our concert halls, the varied subtleties of style in the repertoire, recognized and observed. The turning point came in the 1960s. And somehow it came here to the Bay Area, specifically Berkeley, and began flowering at least as richly as anywhere in the country. The masters came. Laurette Goldberg’s oral history at the Bancroft Library is still the best record of the movement here.
In 1964, Ralph Kirkpatrick came and taught for six weeks. He was ill-tempered. We called him “the ill-tempered cavalier.” He was a very nasty man, a misanthrope, really. He hated women. He would also get into these incredible fights.”
But she described his editions, of the Goldberg Variations in 1934, and later, the Scarlatti sonatas, as the best.
Alan Curtis brought the whole Amsterdam Mafia to this country. He brought Sigiswald, Barthold, and Weiland Kuijken, he brought Gustav Leonhardt to this country, he brought Frans Brueggen and Anner Bylsma to this country, and the Concentus Musicus, which means he brought them to Cal. Alan was the single most important factor in helping me to shape this community.
Alan was from the first generation of the Amsterdam Mafia. People came from all over the world to study with Leonhardt. Everybody worked with Leonhardt, Frans, Anner, and the Kuijkens. Leonhardt was teaching people on their various instruments how to approach the music.
Leonhardt, who died in January of this year [16 January 2012] at the age of 83, was the most influential performer and teacher in Early Music of the past 40 years. There is hardly a major person in the field who was not touched and informed fundamentally by Leonhardt.
San Francisco Early Music Society
The late seventies saw the growth of Early Music in the Bay Area. In 1974, with Laurette at the harpsichord, the Elizabethan Trio began its recitals, where the late great Early Music soprano Judith Nelson’s career started, with Rella Lossy doing dramatic narrative. Participating with them was the late Bruce Haynes of Berkeley, who would become a foremost recorder and early oboe or hautboy player and musicologist. Then came, in 1975, the founding of the San Francisco Early Music Society, which has performed its services of inestimable importance ever since.
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
In 1977, Laurette corralled a faculty of period instrument players for the Cazadero Baroque Music Camp, which grew in one year from 70 to 150 participants. It was there, from that faculty, that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra was born. It didn’t actually happen until three years later, stimulated by a comment to Laurette by Frans Brueggen, here to conduct the San Francisco Symphony. He said, “It’s time for us to take our music out of the salons and put it in concert halls, and the only way it’s going to get there, because the repertoire requires a larger space [is to create a Baroque orchestra].” A board was assembled and orchestra of the performers resident and active right here was assembled. The debut was in 1981, and it performed here and on tour for four years variously with no conductor or under guests, until Nicholas McGegan was appointed music director. The rest, as they say, is history: the Philharmonia Baroque.
Berkeley Festival and Exhibition
Several individuals played leading roles in the growth and flourishing of the Early Music movement in the Bay Area. One was John Phillips, who is still an active leader as president of the San Francisco Early Music Society. A graduate student at Cal, he started building harpsichords under the aegis of Mark Kroll, and became famous as a master builder himself. Another was the late Joseph Spencer, founder of The Musical Offering record shop/café in Berkeley and a pillar of the biennial Berkeley Festival and Exhibition. As you all are aware, we’ve been blessed with the biennial Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, eleven of them since 1990, thanks to UC’s Cal Performances and its director until last year, Bob Cole, and the San Francisco Early Music Society. The festival given in the even-numbered years, alternates with the one in Boston in the odd-numbered years, offering dozens of concerts, lectures, symposia, master classes, period instrument demonstrations and now, a battery of fringe events. But you know all that. It’s additional testimony to the Bay Area’s leadership in the music current known as Early Music.
Ensembles have emerged of every type and combination suited to, tailored for the studied differences between periods in those past eras, and between the composers. Musicians have become not merely proficient but virtuosic in their specialties performing on particular period instruments. To try to trace the Early Music ensembles—instrumental and vocal—that emerged in the next 54 years, or to follow the release of recordings and the torrent of CDs would take us well into next month, and I’ll spare you that. Besides you already are well aware of it or you wouldn’t be here.
The Question of Authenticity
More interesting are the issues and tensions that developed among the performers, their attitudes, or if you will, performing philosophies. A major dust-up turns on the term “authentic” or the claim of “authenticity.” Several, including Richard Taruskin and Joseph Kerman dismiss it as a marketing term comparable to the label “organic” slapped on produce. Taruskin goes all out in his Text and Act: Essays on Music Performance, quoting Lionel Trilling from his book, Sincerity and Authenticity, “Authenticity is a word of ominous import … part of the moral slang of our day [which] points to the peculiar nature of our fallen condition, our anxiety over the credibility of existence and of individual existences.”
For me, first and foremost it boils down to context. Obviously, both the performers and listeners in whatever period is under consideration, were very different creatures from us, not immersed from childhood in music from at least five centuries, not having it in their ears for much of their waking lives. Their minds worked differently, unprocessed and untrained by electronic media. Their very sense of time, not to say what they perceived as expressive, was worlds different. The musicians, say of the Baroque era, reached a level of virtuosity both of technique and creative improvisational capacity that might well have challenged the best we can offer. We have no reason to doubt that. So it is impossible to time-travel back in a performance authentically.
In a book of six essays, a 1988 symposium edited by Nicholas Kenyon entitled Authenticity and Early Music, the matter is brilliantly discussed. One strong conclusion was that whatever scholarly authority and historical study informed the Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording of the B Minor Mass in 1968 with his Concentus Musicus of Vienna, boys’ voices, period instruments, etc., which had a huge controversial impact, and whatever the unmatched influence of Gustav Leonhardt’s harpsichord playing or Frans Brueggen’s recorder playing, it was their being “convincing on their own terms,” as Kenyon puts it. “It was the strong sense of personal conviction that carries the listener, not the historical import, whatever that might be.” And Leonhardt is quoted, “If one strives only to be authentic, it will never be convincing. If one is convincing, what is offered will leave an authentic impression.” Authority is probably a more authentic description of the desired quality of performance.
There is no question that the use of period instruments creates a great measure of the historically appropriate (perhaps a better term than “authentic”) sound of an Early Music performance. The last word in the Symposium chosen by Nicholas Kenyon is Philip Brett’s, “When a strong intuitive feeling for the music can again be reflected without self-consciousness, then the Early Music movement will have achieved maturity, and authenticity will no longer be an issue.”
In his stimulating book filled with brilliant insights and copious audio samples, The End of Early Music, the eminent recorder and hautboy player, the late Bruce Haynes discusses the different versions of period style that developed during the twentieth century. He describes the effect of anti-Romanticism and the “austere, explicitly anti-sentimental style pursued by Toscanini, Szell, Scherchen, Reiner, Schnabel, Serkin, Gould, Szigeti, and Heifetz,” the Modern Style that became the mode of the 1930s in reaction to Romanticism. Described as the prudish equivalent of “political correctness,” “it incorporated unyielding tempo, literalness in dotting and with other rhythmic detail, dissonances left unstressed, the opposite of the Romantic in being light, impersonal, mechanical, literal, correct, deliberate, consistent, metronomic, and regular.” Whew! Quite a negative catalogue.
Taruskin, in his writings, takes on this “straight style” or “authentistic performance” and its emotional detachment, the predictability resulting from performers’ compliance to rules on tempos and phrasings taken “off the rack.” He attacks “text fetishism,” writing that “obsession with correct texts seems directly connected to the Romantic cult of genius personality,” and of course is linked to the musicologists’ positivism.
Changes in Interpretive Attitude
Major changes have evolved in interpretive attitude over the course of the past half-century. Initially, Haynes and others argue, the Modern style dominant in the performance of symphonic and traditional or post-classical music, dominated Early Music interpretation. In 2001, Dorottya Fabian, writing on “The Meaning of Authenticity and the Early Music Movement,” described the effect of recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos made in the 1950s and 1960s as:
to strive for a sustained line with hardly any caesuras, breathing, or lifting of the bow. Intense tone production, dynamically shaped long phrases, strict metre and rhythm, lack of pulse (meaning the beat hierarchy). Playing all notes with equal importance and slurring them together in a continuous legato characterize most of the versions [of the Brandenburg Concerto recordings]. (Haynes, 51)
The continuous legato mentioned would seem not to be something of the Modern Style but a carry-over from Romantic performing. Haynes comments that the “Difference between Period and Romantic is the amount of legato. The standard Baroque instruments, using much less pressure in embouchure, breath, touch or bow can be sopped and started more easily.” This of course affects phrasing. The issue of vibrato is raised, which, in both the Romantic and Period styles is used selectively while in Modern Style, it is constant. Attributes of Period style are summarized: phrasing by gesture, dynamic nuance, inflection (individual note shaping), tempo rubato, agogic accents and note placing, pauses and beat hierarchy.
In sum, at this point of maturity in the Early Music movement (it can no longer be called a revival), interpretation has returned to the performer the license of his musical instinct, freedom from the strictures of the text and literal reading and from the bloodless mechanism of the Modern. We can embrace the statement of our old friend Johann Joachim Quantz who in 1752 wrote,
The Vortrag [delivery] is poor when everything is sung without warmth or played at the same level without alternation of Piano and Forte…one contradicts the Passions that should be expressed, or executes everything in general without sensitivity, without Passion, without being moved one’s self, so the impression is given that the musician is singing or playing as an agent for someone else. (Haynes, 62).
This is in 1752. In the words of Carl Dahlhaus, “Music of the past belongs to the present as music, not as documentary evidence.”
I believe we have arrived at a point where, without self-consciousness, a large proportion of our Early Music performances is given today with a natural expressiveness that realizes the aesthetic and intent of the music. Recently I heard that made manifest by our host, the American Bach Soloists, performing Bach’s great Singet dem Herrn and Fürchte dich nicht in the Berkeley Festival over a month ago. Please believe me that I am not speaking to flatter our hosts but to recognize a single performance as representative of the mature or high point we have reached.
American Bach Soloists
The creation or formation of the American Bach Soloists, somewhat like that of Philharmonia Baroque, happened in a process like spontaneous combustion, or like a chemical reaction that occurs when the required ingredients reach a certain point in amount and in the right proportion to each other. Basically, the necessary number of performers was ready, able, and willing. One or two led the way, the leaders, the catalysts, and it happened.
With the American Bach Soloists, Jeffrey Thomas and the organist Jonathan Dimmock, finding themselves in working association regularly with the same group of performers, thought, in Jeffrey’s words, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we did this ourselves?” From the beginning, the focus was on the Bach cantatas, beginning with a couple of concerts in 1989. It was almost completely based in Belvedere at St. Stephen’s Church, where Dimmock served as organist. Jonathan built the founding board from that church’s membership, save for one. Jeffrey pulled the musicians together, some of whom are still with ABS. Two years later, ABS performed the B Minor Mass. Concerts were added in Berkeley, then San Francisco, and after 2000, in Davis. It never looked back.
The Maturity of the Early Music Revival
The moral of the Philharmonia Baroque and American Bach Soloists’ story is that their formation and continuing success demonstrates the maturity of the Early Music Revival. A critical mass of musicians trained and skilled in the particular specialties had been reached in the Bay Area. They had arrived at common language about the repertory, the different styles specific to the repertory, and a single desire to pursue what from the vantage point of ten or twenty years earlier, would have been considered a new profession. Today, those Early Musickers, vocalists, instrumentalists, together with the instrument makers, specialized teachers and assorted specialists, are making their livings at it full-time.
Of course this has been happening in musical centers all over the country and world wide. Period instrument orchestras, period-focused vocal ensembles and special support activities and structures have formed to an extent that a small encyclopedia would be required to list them.
This phenomenon is the proof positive that we’ve seen a major step in the history of music. The Early Music Revival is completed. Early Music is now an independent and major current with its own institutions, alongside Symphony, Chamber Music, Opera, and all we consider as part of Classical Music. The Revival is over.
Edited by Bruce Lamott