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Saturday morning quotes 4.4: Fact and fiction

June 7, 2014

The realm of early music in general—and early music for voice and lute in particular—appeals to a very select audience.  If the music is presented in a public venue and performed on its own merits with an informed sensitivity to original historical function and context, there is very little a performer or ensemble can do to enhance the appeal of an archaic repertory so that it may suit modern tastes and attention spans.  Very little except costumes, dancing, multimedia displays, clever musical mashup arrangements and orchestrations.  These elements have been used successfully by early-music performers since the 1960s, and still pop up routinely in the concert hall today.

Does fictionalizing historical music by presenting Disney World-type performances do nothing more than obscure the fact that music had—and has—an authentic emotional content that serves a necessary function?

Of course there is the more subdued approach that includes appropriately-themed poetry readings or lecture-presentations that provide historical detail and context for the music. But such presentations only appeal to the susceptible, and today’s general audiences have been trained to react to a flash and dash performance approach that compares favorably with the media-generated artificial reality they experience in every other walk of life.

In a somewhat elderly article that offers a generous heap of food for indigestion, Christopher Page suggested the following:

“…The modern concert situation and the CD recital can draw performers of medieval and Renaissance music into realms of fantasy and gimmickry.”

“…Conspicuous and varied orchestrations of medieval and Renaissance music reflect performers’ failure of confidence in the variety and quality of the music they are performing.”

– Christopher Page, “The English a cappella renaissance,” Early Music, vol. XXI, no.3, August, 1993, p. 460.

Performers who resort to gimmickry perhaps feel insecure as to the depth of content inherent in their chosen material, as well as their ability to convey the emotional depth of the repertory on its own merits.  In performing music for the transparent medium of voice and lute, we are perhaps a bit optimistic in thinking that the music will speak to the audience without gimmickry.  The facts of historical music are revealed by tapping into its emotional content and not the fiction of modern performing conventions.

In concert, we measure our success by whether we manage to move at least one person in the audience to tears.  So far, so good.


  1. Oh come on, guys, I bet you’re dying to crowd surf? 🙂

  2. Erika permalink

    ” musical mashup arrangements and orchestrations” One person here says she loathes them!

    I’m not too sure about the costumes, either. I tend to see the frayed nylon and the machine stitching rather than Renaissance clothing. If someone were to make a costume that would pass muster it would cost as much or more than the lute. Such a costume would still distract from the music, by modern standards Renaissance clothing is what is called “llamativo” in Spanish, i.e. it calls attention to itself.

    Special effects: from what I’ve read, people in the medaeval period and the Renaissance did go in for some fairly over-the-top special effects. (The red wine fountain set up in the ‘Field of Gold’ comes to mind, as indeed does the Field of Gold itself.) However, that would have been the exception rather than the rule and it would not have been the usual context for a lutenist and a singer.

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