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Saturday morning quotes 3.43: Pettifoggers of music

March 8, 2014

Last week’s quote from Richard Taruskin pointed out that recreating music of the past is nothing more than a pretense—we are simply relabeling music of today under a different name.  In a parenthetical aside, he indicated that we dwell on music of the past because we appear to have little use for music of the present.  Luthier Robert Lundberg observed (in print and in personal conversation) that the trend of recreating early music indicated a rejection of current music, which he thought was in a state of crisis.

But from every indication, the music industry, in a relentless quest for market share, seems to have watered down the meaning of the early music revival by imprinting on the phenomenon all the less desirable aspects of today such as mass marketing, multimedia presentation, flash, glitz, pointless novelty, and funny hats.  The quest for music that has meaning is further confounded by conservatories and individual teachers who have forsaken the nuts and bolts of a traditional musical education for a cult of personality, vowing to teach students and amateurs the “correct” way to play, and offering a false sense of legitimacy through mere association.

Does anyone else see the absurdity here?  A quest to gain a better understanding of historical musical aesthetics really demands that we step outside of the comfort zone of today and attempt to recreate the context in which the music was created.

I mean created.  A musician in the 16th century was trained in composition—not in hopes of attaining a successful career on the international stage, but as a matter of course in daily life.  In the words of Thomas Whythorne (1528 – 1595):

“I cannot here leave out or let pass to speak of another sort that do live by music and yet are no musicians at all.  And those be they who, after they have learned a little to sing pricksong, or else have either learned by hand or ear or else by tablature, to play or sound on musical instruments such music as hath been and is made by others, and not by them, by and by they will usurp on music, and account and call themselves musicians.  Of the which pettifoggers of music there be both schoolmasters, singingmen and minstrels.”

The autobiography of Thomas Whythorne, edited by James M. Osborn, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1961). ppg. 205-206 (Modern spelling edition).

Hopefully, the early music revival will continue and have a lasting influence by replenishing with meaning the rather empty vessel of modern musical aesthetics. But those of us who teach can be more effective by conveying a broader context than the simple mechanical placement of fingers on a lute.  Improvisation is a good place to start.

And for the school board types who are relying on ALEC for advice on how to slash your music budget, Whythorne has this to say:

“And if music were not a virtue to be esteemed of, would so many saints and holy men and women and also wise and learned men, have learned and esteemed of it, as is before spoken?  Now judge you what frenzy and madness remaineth in those blockheads and dolts, who will so utterly condemn it.  There is none that do despise it but such as be either delighted to drudge and toil for their livings in servile and filthy trades, or else be ignorant in all sorts of learnings.”

Whythorne, p. 207.

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