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Saturday morning quote #26: Michael Morrow on ‘authenticity’

November 19, 2011

Musica ReservataLast night, while one of us was quibbling in print with Bruce Haynes over transparency in performance, the other of us was distracting him by reading out bits of a 1978 edition of Early Music, which included a delicious translation of Conrad von Zabern’s 1474 polemic De modo bene cantandi (to be quoted in this space very soon), a fascinating dialog on scholarship and performance between Bruno Turner and Peter Phillips, and of course an advertisement for a course of singing with Nella Anfuso.

This issue also included the surprisingly forward-looking musings of Michael Morrow (1929-1994), in which this passionate pioneer looked around the increasingly rule-bound world of early music in the late 1970’s, and bravely shared his perception that the emperor was perhaps not as well-dressed as he might have been:

Performing old music as I do, I continually find myself questioning my motives.  They are certainly difficult to justify, but I think the reasons, for what they are worth, are twofold.  First, my concern with the music is so obsessive that when I am working I can believe that it really is possible to produce a performance that will have all the excitement of the real thing — a conviction that can sometimes even persist throughout the course of a concert.  It is so easy to hear the ideal in one’s head rather than the disappointing actuality in the concert hall.  But reflection leads inevitably to disillusionment and, consequently, I’m afraid I rarely listen to gramophone records of old music, my own or anyone else’s.  For me recordings that give pleasure are those of musicians performing with confidence in a style they were born to.

…we must never forget that in any age the artist is addressing himself to his contemporaries, and his language is composed of a system of familiar conventions — musical, visual or literary.  If we don’t or can’t learn these languages, the conventions will be as meaningless to us as the hand gestures of an Indian dancer are to the average western audience.

We must attempt to approach the arts of the past from the inside or at least from a sense of familiarity, difficult to achieve in 20th-century Europe.  This is, alas, the age of the found object, rather than the created object — an attitude towards art uneasily transplanted from ancient Japanese tradition into the world of Madison Avenue, where it takes its place in a neat and profitable package that uneasily combines Zen-without-tears with health food guaranteed to make you thin, pale, weak but spiritual.  I suspect that we are living in an age of cultural parasites, an age that includes early music bores such as myself.

And us, too.

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