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Saturday morning quotes 3.40: Change thy mind

February 14, 2014

Change thy minde since she doth change,
Let not Fancy still abuse thee:
Thy vntruth cannot seeme strange,
When her falshood doth excuse thee…

- The Right Honourable Robert Earle of Essex: Earle Marshall of England.

The poem “Change thy minde” was given a simple musical setting by Richard Martin, and was published as the second song in Robert Dowland’s A Musicall Banquet (1610).  The first verse, printed above, suggests a theme of reevaluation, acceptance and adjustment, a theme that unfolds as we continue to browse through a rather enormous and unwieldy stack of old copies of Early Music, dating back as far as 1973.  Looking at slightly earlier repertory, the theme gathers even more interest as we read more up-to-date retrospective comments from musicologists who were involved early on.

“Much of what we do in performing medieval music is based on hypothesis; and without these hypotheses nothing would be possible. The only important issue is that people should be aware of where the areas of hypothesis lie.”

- David Fallows, quoted in The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. (p. 145).

From the beginning of its publication, contributors to Early Music like David Fallows conveyed the excitement of discovery and indulged in a spirit of sharing interpretive ideas and the results of research.  But somewhere along the way, there emerged a certain elitism among a cadre of contributing writers, an attitude transmitted through recording reviews as the clear message that “if you are not doing it our way, you’re doing it wrong.”

“…Another more serious problem concerns their use of instruments.  Like most early music groups the Medieval Ensemble is based on a nucleus of instrumental performers, and consequently it is not surprising that when performing songs they should wish to use instruments for at least the untexted lower parts…But as Christopher Page has pointed out, ‘it has yet to be demonstrated that instruments participated in the performance of any music during the Middle Ages, other than dances and intabulations’.”

- Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, in a review of Matteo da Perugia: Secular Works, Medieval Ensemble of London, Florilegium DSLO 577, Early Music, vol. 9, no. 2, April 1981, p. 271.

We’ve all seen this phenomenon, particularly prevalent in the academic world among a competitive sort of individual lacking the necessary imagination required to initiate original research, making their way in the world mainly by criticizing the work of others.  The attitude is sneered into the airspace through curled lips, atomized like a nasty virus, replicating itself via whispering campaigns and ultimately infecting all those who come in touch with the topic.

The topic that comes closest to our home in the woods is the interpretation of music from the 15th – through the early 17th centuries, a topic that has been our major focus and continues to occupy our time and energy.  Frustratingly, from an historian’s point of view, performance of music from this span of time was often described in floridly aesthetic terms of the music’s reception, rather than plainly written details clearly describing the nuts and bolts of how the sounds were produced.  One can see how the dearth of practical guidelines might frustrate the historian who, for whatever reason, may be unable to experiment with producing the sounds in their proper context.  Because context is everything.

“…Every musician must constantly measure his instincts against the available facts.  This is difficult.  Often the musician (like the historian) will find a fact or a body of information which clearly contradicts his assumptions, common sense and musical instincts.  That will not be the moment for an impulsive about-turn—something which is difficult enough for the historian but so much more so for the performer.  The information must be stored—in the back of the mind perhaps, or in red letters on some handy cork-board.  But it must not be forgotten merely because it is for the moment ignored.  That, it seems to me, is where musicology fits into the musician’s life.”

- David Fallows, in a review of the book Musicology: A Practical Guide, Denis Stevens, MacDonald, London, 1980,  Early Music, vol. 9, no. 2, April 1981, p. 244.

It is a given that anyone who truly cares about old music should thoroughly familiarize him or herself with any and all surviving descriptive information regarding the theoretical concepts and mechanical practices of making music from a particular historical time and place.  But the musician who complements careful research with taste, judgement, an intuitive musical sense, and a creative pragmatism will always create a more convincing interpretation.

Musicologists and performers will at times stubbornly advance a particular point of view that deliberately challenges both historical evidence and musical results.  For instance, if you require your choir to sing that odd-sounding, extra-modal natural in a plainchant (that may have been a mistake in the first place), then apply the same raised interval to a related polyphonic motet (where it really doesn’t belong) just to prove a point, the oddness does not convince.  Or if you lack the creative courage to sensitively compose measures of music mistakenly omitted from the original score of a set of instrumental variations on a ground, it still sounds like you’re just playing a mistake.  In either event, the performer only demonstrates his lack of training, taste and musicianship by reproducing and featuring theoretical anomalies or scribal errors, not to mention creating for his audience odd sounds that were just as likely never meant to be heard.

But, it’s better to be mistaken about an interpretive detail and deliver an informed result that serves the music, than to doggedly defend a baseless supposition that does not pass the cheese test.  And, as in the lyric by Essex quoted above, one is always allowed to change one’s mind.  The mark of a true scholar is demonstrated through his willingness to admit to a misguided hypothesis and revise his ideas.  Even when the hypothesis was advanced as much for commercial reasons as for scholarly pursuit.

“For myself, I can say it was so difficult to obtain good clean performances of Du Fay songs with voices only, to say nothing of tuning problems, that I turned with relief to harps, lutes and voices during some later recording sessions.  I can well understand why many have done so since, and I am sure they will continue to perform them that way.”

- Christopher Page, introductory remarks to Essays on Renaissance Music in Honour of David Fallows: Bon jour, bon mois et bonne estrenne, Edited by Fabrice Fitch and Jacobijn Kiel, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2011 (ppg. 7-8).

Too bad about the casualties of the experiment, including The Medieval Ensemble of London.  And it turns out that the famous choir schools churned out some very good vocal technicians whose singing can be heard on quite a sizable stack of recordings made during the early 1980s on; recordings that were exported by the boatload and sold to Americans who believed that this must be how it goes.  But recordings no longer sell and a retrospective reevaluation of the a cappella hypothesis now admits that a convincing interpretation of quite a bit of repertory requires more—the sort of intuitive musicianship and sprezzatura required to take the music beyond a mere accurate rendering of the notes.  And in order to touch the heavens as though they were a lyre, the lyre is an essential component if one is to create a celestial harmony.

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2 Comments
  1. Erika permalink

    A thought-provoking post. From as far back as I can remember I have liked things to be real or authentic – but reality and authenticity are not as black-and-white as they appeared to be when I was 4 or 5!

    In the case of early music there is a barrier to a modern audience being able to hear the music “exactly as it was” and that is the listeners themselves. When I listen to early music, I do so with ears and a brain that have also heard Back & Mozart :-) and hip-hop and muzak :-(( not to mention road drills, dentists’ drills, electronic equipment squeaking at me, Australian birds, traffic and a multiplicity of sounds the original audiences would never have heard. In addition to that, there are sounds the original listeners would have heard, which I haven’t. The sounds that I have in common with a 16th C listener may well have quite different psychological associations. So even if you were able to put someone in a time machine and drop them down in a 16th C performance, that person would still not be hearing exactly the same thing as the other people present.

    In addition to that, early music comes with several built-in uncertainties. There are aspects of performance that people may simply not have written down at the time. Then only some of what was written survived.

  2. Yes, indeed, and thanks for your thoughtful comments, Erika. We think the best way we can serve the music is to learn as much about it as we can by reading the surviving evidence from those who *were* there when it was new, and then to immerse ourselves in it and make it live again for new audiences. No, it won’t be exactly the same, but better we should perform it with heart than relegate it to the realm of books and brain.

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