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Saturday morning quotes 4.13: Expressive power

August 9, 2014

As we continue to read and study the surviving words of those who had something to say about historical music when it was still fresh, new, and functional, expressiveness is the theme that emerges. For whatever reason, many early music revivalists favor a more detached approach to interpretation of historical music, seemingly out of fear of possibly getting it wrong.  Anthony Rooley, who has written convincingly about the expressive power of historical performance, writes:

“And then came the Age of Reason, and the Age of Enlightenment, and a fear of any performance that went in too deeply.  Art as confection ruled, and the stories of Orpheus were trivialized in order to amuse.”

– Anthony Rooley, “Orpheus Reviv’d, the remaking of mythology in the 16th century,” Lute News 110, July 2014, p. 37.

The power of expression in sacred music likewise seems to have suffered from the dispassionate and inoffensive approach typical from the late 18th century onward.  While the current movement in some quarters toward restitution of Gregorian chant and sacred poiyphony to the liturgy is to be commended, most of this music heard today has a distant, detached and dispassionate quality that represents more of a 19th-century aesthetic than that of the time in which it was sung as functional music for worship.

“What is true about Spanish polyphony of the siglo de oro is its warmth, its expressive power.  Composers like Morales and Victoria played constantly with tension and relaxation to express not only the actual words of the text but its underlying meaning.  In some ways, their music is so deeply religious that it becomes more than religious, their expression of love, as in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila or the poetry of St. John of the Cross, transcends the spiritual and becomes almost sensual; when you hear Victoria’s Ave Maria, its beauty shakes not only your spirit but your whole body.”

– Jordi Savall, “Performing Spanish Music,” Early Music, Vol. xx, No. 4, November 1992, p. 653

We tend to follow informed instincts in our interpretation historical music, sacred or secular.  But it is essential to do the hard work of fully understanding the technical complexities of any repertory in order to arrive at a performance that communicates the expressive power of the text and the music without the appearance of effort.

“Sometimes, as in Guerrero’s Pater noster, the problem of achieving a successful balance between voices and instruments can only be solved by experimentation.  In this work you have a quadruple canon: four voices with four different themes are echoed a 4th higher at a distance of two bars.”

– Jordi Savall

Our recording of i6th-century Spanish motets, Harmonia Caelestis, can be heard here, and our live performance of Guerrero’s Pater noster can be  heard here.


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