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Saturday morning quote #34: Inventing history

January 14, 2012

“Nothing endures but change.”

– Heraclitus of Ephesus (c.535 BC – 475 BC), from Lives of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius (fl. c. 3rd century AD).

Embracing and interpreting music that was commonly known, heard on a daily basis, and used functionally some 500 – 600 years ago seems a silly enterprise for so many reasons.  First off, by employing standard scholarly methods of historical research, we naturally dehumanize the music, removing it entirely from its context so it can be studied under a microscope, as it were, organizing the evidence and creating an artificial framework for the purpose of understanding the elements.  We then attempt to reconstitute this once living thing, something akin to re-hydrating a dessicated fig.  But merely adding water will not produce the flavor and texture of the genuine article.

That we know anything at all about historical music is entirely due to the dedication and hard work of musicologists of the past few centuries; those who saw something odd or unique in the remnants of written evidence and at least made an attempt to understand the music.  Sometimes, they got it wrong.

The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson is an insightful themed collection of essays that traces a good sampling of earlier scholarship, and draws something of a ‘family tree’ of musicology, mostly from the 19th century forward.   Leech-Wilkinson names several men who bothered to research scraps of music surviving from what we call the medieval period – and he even has something to say about the notable discrepancy in the gender of our scholars of the past.  But like any scholar who delves into a specialized discipline, he has opinions.

Today, we begin an in-depth commentary on The Modern Invention of Medieval Music (MIMM), probing the contents of the book as a prime example of how opinionated and prolific critics will tend to define the nature of the argument – and how history is written by the conquerors.

Since this discussion will require a bit of column space, I will begin this week by sharing a few quotes from the book.  Regular readers of this blog may deduce the direction of our commentary based on the selection of quotes.

“…We owe no duty to the past to tell it like it was, our only duties are to be useful to the present and to leave a thinking environment to the future.” [MIMM, p.256]

It may be useful to contrast the above with a quote by Leech-Wilkinson  from an earlier source, where he describes our duty to posterity

“…if we are to get the best out of a piece, for us to perform it in a manner as close as possible to that intended by the composer. A reasonable approximation to his intentions can be achieved as a growing number of early music groups (notably in Britain) has shown; but it requires an enormous amount of research and patient experimentation.” [Early Music, Vol. 9, No. 1, Plucked-String Issue 1 (Jan., 1981), p. 141]

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?  Leech-Wilkinson seems to have relaxed a bit over the years, as indicated in his introductory remarks to MIMM:

“…an accurate recovery of the distant past is a matter of interest rather than a matter of duty.  Similarly, it would be fascination (sic) to know how medieval musicians thought about their music, and that in itself is a good enough reason to try to find out, but there is no ethical imperative we must obey that requires us to share their view.  Thus the aim of historical musicology as current[ly] understood – to recover and experience the past as it was – is not more worthy than the aim of any other kind of musical study, for example the interpretation or adaptation of medieval music to suit the present.” [MIMM, p. 7]

A substantial portion of MIMM is dedicated to something of a history of the interesting and well-funded experiments by Gothic Voices, through a series of recordings dedicated to a cappella performance of medieval music.  Leech-Wilkinson reminisces over his substantial contribution to the promotion of this ensemble by reviewing their recordings for Early Music.  Here is where our fingers are mildly abraded by turning the Page, so to speak.

“We wanted to influence the performers, the record-buying public and through them the record companies, and (with the notable exception of Fallows) we spared none of the instrument-based groups whose records came our way  The tone may be scornful or patronisingly sorrowful, lofty or irritated, but the message was unmistakable: buy Gothic Voices, the Taverner Consort, the Hilliard Ensemble, and leave the rest.” [MIMM, p. 138]

In closing our introductory comments for this week, we point out that, in the quote above, Leech-Wilkinson has basically undermined the legitimacy of recording reviews by admitting a philosophical and commercial bias.

  1. I remember that period as being particularly difficult as far as getting recording companies interested in projects, now I know a key ingredient of the backstory.

  2. I have known that there is a dissonance in the HIP movement (and parallel endeavors) for decades: do we attempt to be faithful to an original we can only guess at, or do we only seek to please the audience. I always thought the latter, as valuable as it is as an approach, to be a bit mercenary. Leech-Wilkenson comes off as a reader of Soldier of Fortune mag!

    I have to admit to having found out early on that critics are to be ignored in all cases but one: where your study is criticism. Otherwise, for daily informing-one’s-self-to-make-decisions, you’re better off asking your cat.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 2.6: 15th century music « Unquiet Thoughts
  2. Saturday morning quotes 2.17: Hyperreality « Unquiet Thoughts
  3. Saturday morning quotes 2.20: Harping on the lute « Unquiet Thoughts

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