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Saturday morning quotes 5.24: The Truth

October 31, 2015

I do account it a folly to flatter, gloze or lie, the which needeth a glorious and painted speech, whereas the truth needeth but a plain and simple utterance…It is a slave-like and servile trade to be a flatterer…

– Thomas Whythorne (1528 – 1595)

As we have seen, early music as we know it today is linked to the past by a frayed and tenuous thread, and performances have much more to do with the aesthetics of 2000 than with 1600.  So many aspects of original performance practice—readily gleaned from historical sources at the expense of a little focused research—are set aside in favor of attention-grabbing visual displays of questionable taste.  Baroque bands believe they convey vitality and authority if they perform while standing, but the spasmodic jerking of heads and unwieldy flapping of elbows only robs the music of its elegance and immediacy.  Vocalists routinely reject a flexible production that suits the music in favor of physical antics and volume that will fill a hall, singing their voices rather than conveying the emotional content of the text.

A fact of twenty-first century life is that nearly every cultural fad we experience and appreciate is somehow a thing excised from the past, stripped of its nascent freshness, given a dose of irony and repackaged as “retro”.  The missing component is the truth of the original context.  When removed from its context, any art form is distorted and subject to being re-formed and reinterpreted according to influences of its new environment.  When that art form is early music and the new environment is the modern concert hall, the music becomes secondary as performers concentrate on the visual aspects of presentation.

When it comes down to it, all approaches to performance of early music represent a point of view.  Some choose to skip lightly over the content and depend upon a bag of tricks to put the music over to an easily distracted audience, many of whom sit restlessly with thumbs twitching, waiting anxiously until the intermission allows them a safe opportunity to pull out the phone and get back to the business of tweeting or twitting or whatever it is they do.

Other performers choose to get at the heart and soul of the music and text and give committed performances that place trust in the audience and their receptivity to the power and depth of the music, even the quietest, most intricate repertory.  This path is not for the faint of heart because performing with a single voice and lute there is absolutely no place to hide.  But trusting in our audiences and giving them a powerful experience without power of volume is one of the most satisfying aspects of our work.

And that’s the truth.

  1. Nice post! I’m also very annoyed by the excess of body movement in Baroque performances nowadays. It doesn’t add anything to the music and certainly doesn’t make it better in any way. Where did it come from? Is there any historical reason or fact that could justify its use?

    • Thanks for your comment. As far as I can tell, standing while performing, excessive body movement, the flapping of wings and the pulling of faces are all distractions performers indulge in because they aren’t confident that their music will move the audience. There is no real foundation in this nonsense in the realm of historical performance practice. Sure, Corelli was known to roll his eyes while improvising an ornamented Largo, and CPE Bach was known to pull faces and break a sweat while Sturming und Dranging at the keyboard. But they were both virtuoso soloists. Historically speaking, if every fiddler in the band were shucking and jiving and doing the Chicken Wing while playing their silly little filler parts, they would be out on the street in a heartbeat. Modern baroque players seem to have forsaken the concepts of grace and elegance and the power of subtlety in the music because they are afraid of appearing boring or old fashioned. Little do they know that all they need in order to grab the audience’s attention is to play with understanding and commitment.

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