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Saturday morning quotes #39: more John Ward

February 17, 2012

Musicologist John Milton Ward (July 6, 1917 – December 12, 2011) specialized in tracing the tenuous points of convergence between folk and art music.  In the hands of a lesser scholar, this may have resulted in a soul-deadening presentation of facts, confined to listing sources, concordances and variants.  It’s no wonder scholars frequently indulge in fanciful speculation, inventing correspondences and relationships among sources where they merely wish them to be.  But Ward always succeeded in conveying his appreciation for the music while sticking to an exemplary standard of scholarship in the presentation of his results.

Of course, he was subject to slipping in the occasional wry reality check.  To a musician intimately familiar with the intricacies of the best art music, it must have been a challenge to withhold judgmental evaluation of simple dance tunes that were transmitted through ‘folk’ traditions.  But Ward gave us the clear message, with supporting evidence, that a great deal of the historical music we know and love absolutely needs to be imbued with the freedom and sense of spontaneous invention characteristic of our best ‘folk’ performers.

The quotes below, drawn from several miscellaneous sources, elucidate this all-important aspect of performance practice.

Popular tunes like the Hunt’s Up, ‘Packington’s Pound’, ‘Fortune my Foe’ and all the other ‘hits’ of the Elizabethan years come down to us like figures out of fog: anonymous, multiform, chance survivors of an enormous amount of unrecorded music-making based on an orally transmitted repertory. They must be deduced from variants. Often variant forms achieved identities of their own, acquired their own names, were themselves multiform. Folksong collectors are accustomed to dealing with such miscellaneous fragments of a performance practice; many historians of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century music are not; they search for the definitive form of a melody in the same way they search for the definitive text of a piece by Byrd or Dowland, and are not aware that orally transmitted music is a process, not a literature, each popular tune a collection of possibilities, not a completed form.

– From “The Hunt’s up” John M. Ward, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 106 (1979 – 1980), p. 2.

Popular music, more than fine-art music, is made – I am tempted to say created – in performance.  One has but to compare the piano/vocal score of a song by Lennon and McCartney with a recording of the same by the members of their group for an example from our time.

– From [Correspondence: ‘Sprightly and Cheerful Musick’] John M. Ward, Early Music, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Feb., 1985), p. 154

Ward delved into the repertory associated with dance from the 16th century, presumably since so much instrumental dance music was published and copied into manuscripts.  Of course the organizational forms, rhythms, and the musical phasing were all closely tied to the choreography of a given dance, but there was a point at which functional dance music evolved into art music:

Still one must ask: is this music to dance to, or is it music for listening? I have long assumed, as have others, that music for the dance was composed, ‘not… for but in performance’; that the minstrels took their themes from the public domain…and created, with patterns ‘regularly employed under the same metrical conditions’, music for the dance, their task being ‘that of fitting [musical] thought to rhythmic pattern’. (I am adapting for dance music the Parry-Lord formula for the singing of epic poetry because, in my opinion, the ways of dance musicians have much in common with those of the traditional singer of tales.)

– From “The Maner of Dauncying” John M. Ward, Early Music, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Apr., 1976), p. 135

Today, there is a healthy revival of social dancing in the tradition of the 16th and 17th centuries.  Ward’s article on the origins of the traditional tunes helps dispel a few misconceptions as to just how old, and just how ‘country’ these traditions may be.

Aside from the traditional morris tune, the “Bacca Pipes,” and “The Buffoon,” the rest of the morris repertoire dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most if not all of it taken from the popular music of the city, especially the country dance, which, despite its name, was an urban product.

– From “The Morris Tune” John M. Ward, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), p. 320

Concerning ornamentation in 16th century music, Ward cited important sources that caution us against over-indulging:

In the preface to his vihuela tablature, Valderrabano expressed the belief that the music he had ciphered was quite sufficient to engage the skill of the performer and would not tolerate much added ornament.

Beyond the consideration of technical difficulty is that of I6th-century taste. Outspoken critics of the glosa, such as Bermudo, felt that the irresponsible ornamenting of composed music was an affront to the composer and a sign of barbarism in the player. Similar sentiments, expressed with as much spirit, are found in Zarlino’s Istituzioni armoniche. From the vigor of the criticism, promiscuous ornamenting of composed music must have been wide spread in the performance practice of the century.

However, it seems also to have been a skill less often associated with the musician than with the virtuoso. Fuenllana, for example, eschewed the glosa because it obscured “the truth of the composition,” and other performers demonstrably shared his opinion.

– From “The Use of Borrowed Material in 16th-Century Instrumental Music” John Ward,  Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1952), pp. 92-93

Those of us interested in bringing the sound and spirit of old music to life owe John M. Ward an enormous debt of gratitude.  He not only set the standard for scholarship but consistently pointed out the living, breathing qualities of the music.

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