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Saturday morning quotes 4.35: Antiquarianism

January 10, 2015

Antiquarianism

Antiquary, A curious Critick in old Coins, Stones and Inscriptions, in Worm-eaten Records and ancient Manuscripts; also one that affects and blindly doats, on Relicks, Ruins, old Customs, Phrases and Fashions.

– B.E. Gent [gentleman], A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699)

In a sense, those of us who are seriously involved in performing early music are antiquarians, poring over worm-eaten scores—or modern facsimiles—and blindly doting on relics and fragments from which spring speculative theories pointing toward old ways of stringing, holding, and playing the lute.  Or inventing modern means to describe the old ways of singing domestic music; originally music meant to be heard in small rooms by persons with nice ears who dwelt in a sound world that existed prior to the age of the ubiquitous produced vocal sounds.  Or in the face of scant information, inventing what we think were the old ways.

[Antiquary:] a man strangely thrifty of Time past, and an enemy indeed to this maw, whence he fetches out many things when they are now all rotten and stinking. Hee is one that hath that unnaturall disease to bee enamour’d of old age and wrinckles, and loves all things (as Dutchmen doe Cheese) the better for being mouldy and worme-eaten.

– John Earle, Micro-Cosmographie: or A Peece of the World Discovered (1660)

William Mahrt, in his book, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy (Church Music Association of America, Richmond, 2012), uses the term antiquarianism to describe an approach to studying the evolution of the liturgy that presumes to have isolated the earliest and therefore purest form, and strives to embrace that form of the liturgy in a way that bypasses all that may have intervened along the way from then until now.

[Antiquarianism] sees the larger part of tradition as an undesirable development, and romantically points to sometime in the distant past when an ideal state had been reached; it proposes to junk late accretions, and restore primitive practices. Characteristically, its ideal time is a time very early in history for which there is little concrete information; what data there are allow for great freedom in restoring the ancient practice. When the origin of a rite is known, the rite is to be reduced to its original form, or excised.

– William Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, p. 6

For those of us immersed in discovering and reviving honest and convincing ways to interpret early music, Mahrt’s descriptive words hit rather close to home.  In fact, the antiquarian argument seems like a direct parallel to the musicological justifications used to advance what became known as the “a cappella heresy,” an approach to early music sparked mainly by modern commercial interests (CD sales, research grants, publications, concert series).  The approach presumed that most music prior to 1500 was performed with voices alone, despite the lack of explicit evidence.  With a modern vocal disposition.  And despite ample evidence to the contrary indicating that lutes and harps were frequent participants in music-making of all sorts.

The “a cappella heresy” has been effectively put to rest, and even Christopher Page now writes that it was impossible to attain the sounds of the past his modern mind was imagining.

“For myself, I can say it was so difficult to obtain good clean performances of Du Fay songs with voices only, to say nothing of tuning problems, that I turned with relief to harps, lutes and voices during some later recording sessions.  I can well understand why many have done so since, and I am sure they will continue to perform them that way.”

– Christopher Page, introductory remarks to Essays on Renaissance Music in Honour of David Fallows: Bon jour, bon mois et bonne estrenne, Edited by Fabrice Fitch and Jacobijn Kiel, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2011 (ppg. 7-8).

The “a cappella heresy” now represents its own quaint bit of the history of how commercial interests defined performance of early music in the late 20th century.  Except here in the colonies among those who succumbed to the marketing blitz that characterized the new order of early music, from which we still occasionally hear anti-instrumental rumblings and grumblings.

Grumbletonians, Malecontents, out of Humour with the Government, for want of a Place, or having lost one.

– B.E. Gent, 1699

Historical music necessarily must  be viewed through a lens that cannot be wiped clean, and that acknowledges the the tint and taint of all that has occurred between then and now.  What truly matters today is having a convincing grasp of the emotional content and a willingness to embrace that content and make it live and breathe.

We leave you with another quotation appropriated from Mahrt’s discussion of historical precedents in the liturgy and applied to early music scholarship in general.

Certain elements of the present reform have been influenced by such antiquarianism. The result of this misuse of history has been to remove history from consideration, since those who were only a while ago calling for changes on the basis of “historical precedents” have succeeded in seriously breaking the tradition, and now feel free to discard the whole notion of historical precedent to create something relevant only to the present.  The “antiquarianism” of such a position is clearly a ruse.

– William Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, p. 6-7

One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on Marius Cruceru and commented:
    Dicționar – [ANTIQUARISM] sees the larger part of tradition as an undesirable development, and romantically points to sometime in the distant past when an ideal state had been reached; it proposes to junk late accretions, and restore primitive practices. Characteristically, its ideal time is a time very early in history for which there is little concrete information; what data there are allow for great freedom in restoring the ancient practice. When the origin of a rite is known, the rite is to be reduced to its original form, or excised.

    – William Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, p. 6

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