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Saturday morning quotes 4.33: Retrospective

December 27, 2014

As another year grinds to a halt, we stop to reflect on some of the more prominent themes that have emerged in our lives and throughout another year of (at least) weekly publication of this column.  Of course, the business of performing the more refined sort of early music for a 21st-century audience is the major topic, but we always probe beneath the surface for a better understanding of what we are up against—and why.

“We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards…”

– President Barack Obama

We were recently reminded of the above quotation from President Obama in the context of a vitally important op-ed piece by the New York Times editorial board, published Monday December 22, 2014.

As for the need to look backwards, we respectfully disagree with the President.

As participants in a deliberately simpler lifestyle and as polite and cultured individuals, looking backwards is our life’s work.  And looking backwards is an absolute necessity as we research, assimilate, and share with our friends and colleagues magnificent but forgotten gems of historical music.

Looking backwards offers many points of reference for the music itself, and also for its meaning, use and its context.  In our work, we encounter contextual evidence that reveals the significance of historical music as meaningful in many ways, and points to a slower-paced and more thoughtful existence—an existence that allowed time for individuals to stop, observe and contemplate their lives and their roles as members of a larger interdependent community.

Why is our culture so obsessed with looking forward?  We ask ourselves this question as we see important reminders of a cultured civilization fading from our collective memory.   Universal preoccupation with unreal images on tiny plastic screens is not necessarily an explanation, but is a telling symptom.  Attention spans are at an all-time low as people wander into traffic with eyes and thumbs on their phones, forsaking the real for the imaginary.   E.B. White warned us back in 1938, when television began redefining our lives—with the main focus on the commercial break:

“[Television]…will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote.  More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images—distant and concocted.”

– E. B. White, “Removal,” July, 1938, One Man’s Meat, Harper & Row, New York, 1983.

We believe in living a life focused on the primary, and we believe that performing music that matters helps others by providing an enriching rather than a distracting experience.

“Musica est mentis medicina moestae [Music is medicine for a sad mind], a roaring-meg against melancholy, to rear and revive the languishing soul…”

– Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, p. 334)

We take great care to concentrate on the effect of our music, and Mignarda’s performances, live and on our recordings, never simply feature off-the-shelf repertory, but are the result of thorough research and careful preparation, paying particular attention to placing vocals in a range that communicates the text.  Sometimes this involves downward transposition, a refinement which, as revealed through reading the sources, is an absolutely accurate element of historical performance practice.

Regarding the appearance of high clefs in Monteverdi’s Magnificat a7 and the utterly normal convention of downward transposition, Andrew Parrott offered these summary remarks:

“The key to understanding all this is the recognition that the vocal ensemble implied by a work such as the 1610 Magnificat a7 has very little in common with the solo-and-choral set-up we may have come to expect.  Seven expert singers are called for, and no more. And of their four basic categories—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—none can safely be assumed to correlate directly with  those we currently cultivate.  In particular, the lower bass register was exploited more freely than is now common, and the soprano parts conventionally occupied a more middling range, with only rare excursions to the higher registers routinely demanded of today’s female sopranos and boy trebles.”

– Andrew Parrott, “High clefs and down-to-earth transpostion: a brief defence of Monteverdi,” Early Music, Oxford University Press, volume XL, number 1 (February 2012), p. 84.

Old music was always notated where it was most conveniently printed and was never intended to be performed in a range so high as to obscure the meaning of the words. It’s a plain fact that music communicates a text more effectively when voices are pitched where the ear is pleased to receive the sounds.  We take this historical convention of downward transposition seriously, and many of our performing scores are available though our series of Mignarda Editions.

And we acknowledge the close of 2014 and leave our readers with a snippet of poetry.

The New-year’s Gift

Let others look for pearl and gold,
Tissues, or tabbies manifold:
One only lock of that sweet hay
Whereon the blessed Baby lay,
Or one poor swaddling-clout, shall be
The richest New-year’s gift to me.

– Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674)

  1. David Lamb permalink

    Greetings Ron & Donna! Yes, it is important to look back and take note of where you have been. This is something experienced hikers know full well. I love your comment that “… music that matters helps others by providing an enriching rather than a distracting experience.” Too many musicians these days strive to serve up something outlandish rather than some significant content that comes from within. The need for a long perspective is essential for deepening and refining our thoughts and range of expression no matter whether the music is old or new.
    May you have a productive and fulfilling New Year! –David

  2. Christopher Barker permalink

    One who does not look back cannot wisely direct his/her thinking into the future. Your remarks are courteous and polite. So as a Texas redneck sittin’ around and shootin’ holes in the ceiling, just let me say… Some fools are too stupid to learn from the mistakes of history.
    Pax tecum,

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