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Saturday morning quotes 3.42: Rewriting history

March 1, 2014

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste…So forget history. What Early Music has been doing is busily remaking the music of the past in the image of the present (necessary because we unfortunately have so little use for the actual music of the present), only calling the present by some other name.”

– Richard Taruskin,“The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” New York Times, July 29, 1990.

Provocative words that we have referenced before, but timely.  Today, themes of the present are rather maniacally focused on things electronic and therefore insubstantial, and we collectively cling to the remembrance of a past when art was representational and human interaction was real.  But is our vision of the past blurred?  Do we rewrite history for our own ends?

Today, we are overburdened with so much information coming from so many sources that it is nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction.  It is a Herculean task to discern the useful detail from the annoying verbiage, the helpful facts from the deliberately abstruse and misleading, and the heartfelt and sincere from the humorous and ironic.  By extension, there is so much clutter and randomness of detail that the time-honored uphill journey of absorbing information, trying and tempering that knowledge through experience, and finally converting it to wisdom, has truly become a Sisyphean exercise.

Eric Arthur Blair (1903 – 1950), better known as George Orwell, wrote in his prophetic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), that “who controls the present controls the past.”  In the US, we have seen some fairly deliberate examples of also defining the shape of the future by rewriting the past, particularly through politically-motivated infiltration of school boards and rewriting history by those who may be called the more theologically-certain.  But Orwell also wrote, in the introduction to his novel, Animal Farm (1945):

“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas of which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the high-brow periodicals”.

Leaping from the generic dystopian view of Orwell to a lofty topic specific to interpretation of early music, we observe Taruskin’s remarks above that history is frequently adapted and rewritten to serve the sensibilities of our modern minds.  And also to keep the closets of certain academics well-stocked with their favorite tweeds.

As a musician steeped in the improvisatory elements of a broad variety of music, and one with far too many years of practical seat-of-the-pants experience in harmonizing melodies—simple or more complex—on the fly, I (RA) am always amused by conversations in print on the technical aspects of playing continuo in historical music from the late 16th century onwards.  We have some very skilled specialists teaching others how to realize historical continuo playing from figured or unfigured basslines, but invariably drawing upon a vast storehouse of anachronistic theoretical constraints that simply were not considered by the musicians who played the music originally.  Keyboard players were obviously held to a higher standard in later 18th-century music, as evidenced by surviving treatises and anecdotal evidence.  But in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, plucked-string players used the resources of their instruments to serve the music with less concern about what we might think of their choices today.

Evidence? In his preface to Euridice (1600), Giulio Caccini (1551 – 1618) wrote, “I have not avoided the succession of two octaves or two 5ths.” Vincenzo Galilei (c. 1525 – 1591) wrote (c. 1590), “The law of modern contrapuntists that prohibits the use of two octaves or two 5ths is a law truly contrary to every natural law of singing.”  Lodovico Grossi da Viadana (c. 1560 – 1627) in his important collection Centi concerti ecclesiastici (1602), wrote “The organ part is never under any obligation to avoid two 5ths or two octaves.” Agostino Agazzari (1578 – 1640), in his Del Sonare sopra’l basso con tutti li stromenti e dell’ uso loro nel Conserto (1607), wrote that foundation instruments, which includes a variety of plucked strings, “must maintain a solid, sonorous, sustained harmony…consonances and the harmony as a whole are subject and subordinate to the words, not vice versa.”  Agazzari wrote in great detail about the practice of improvising and ornamenting continuo and the finer points of his treatise are outlined so well by Andrew Lawrence King that it is pointless to summarize further here.

The point is that, particularly when improvising a continuo on plucked strings, the rules of good counterpoint always took a back seat to taste and the spirit of the moment.  If we study to death the best possible way to thwart the natural resources of a plucked string instrument in a quest to improve upon historical practice, we are missing the point.  Sure, it is a good idea to apply one’s learning and eliminate sounds we all agree are not in the interest of music, even if we are applying anachronistic standards.

But folks, get over yourselves.  It’s a well known fact that just about any lounge guitarist improvising from a fake book, or just about any guitar player in Nashville will play rings around your perfect voice-leading. If you are paying undue attention to scrubbing away any stray parallel fifths and octaves, you are probably not investing enough emotional energy in listening and performing with the necessary sprezzatura.  Rewriting history by applying Bach’s compositional standards to music of Caccini turns the music into something it was never intended to be.

In this case, Taruskin’s remarks hit home, and the spirit of old music is ground into submission under the heel of our 21st century hi-tech running shoe—a practice that smells just like the odor of defeat.

  1. Ned Mast permalink

    Wonderful and sensible. In reading some of the numerous posted opinions about early music performance practice, I’m sometimes reminded of theological disputations from the past, such as ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’. Once again you’ve cut to the heart of the matter.

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