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Saturday morning quotes 5.35: Perspective

January 16, 2016

After reading publicity materials from yet another young baroque band, proudly trumpeting their flamboyant and extrovert performances—employing baroque music as a medium for social change—we pause briefly to reset the badly sprung taste meter. Pity poor baroque music, thrust into an unflattering and entirely unsuitable role. It was never meant to act as an agent for social change. Baroque music originally served a function: a diversion and a welcome relief from the war, disease, pain, misery, bad teeth, worse smells and general lack of youtube videos that characterized the 17th -18th centuries. Or, as in the case of Johann Sebastian Bach, music was primarily for liturgical use and the lion’s share of his instrumental music was composed for didactic purposes and dedicated to Soli Deo gloria.

Let’s step back a moment and attempt to gain a tiny bit of perspective.  Now take one step further and carefully consider your motivation for playing historical music.  And finally, let’s remember just how far out of context we can take historical music before it utterly fails the HIP test and becomes yet another tawdry spectacle of contemporary popular entertainment.

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste…So forget history. What Early Music has been doing is busily remaking the music of the past in the image of the present (necessary because we unfortunately have so little use for the actual music of the present), only calling the present by some other name.”

Richard Taruskin,“The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” New York Times, July 29, 1990

“…I think most historians would doubt that medieval Europe was in the thrall of a half-dozen professional touring ensembles, each consisting of a handful of attractive, literate and well-nourished men and women in their 30’s and 40’s, with all their teeth intact.”

– Benjamin Bagby, “What is the Sound of Medieval Song?

“…The particular skill of the British early-music singer can prevent a full appreciation of the demands of the music and inhibit forms of expression yet to be explored. I suggest too that modern a cappella performance may tell us more about modern cultural conditions than about the original performance.”

Donald Greig, “Sight-Readings: Notes on “A cappella” Performance Practice,” Early Music, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 124-148

“For performances of historical music to be convincing in the present – for them to create an aura of authenticity, historical or otherwise, for both performers and audiences – the sounds and styles used must be perceived as timeless.”

– Elizabeth Upton, “Concepts of Authenticity in Early Music and Popular Music Communities”, Ethnomusicology Review, Volume 17 (2012)

“…Few audiences share the emotional or theological associations that period audiences felt toward specific texts, chorales, or plainchant melodies. This is an example of another broad argument for impossibility, involving reception, which says that composers wrote for audiences whose experiences not only of music but also of much that music refers to differed from those of our time.”

“One [motive for performing historical music] is competition for attention and status in a field that is increasingly crowded. If great performers have already fully explored the mainstream style and repertory, one way to make one’s mark is to stake out new and unconquered musical territory either in repertory or in performance style.”

“Some of today’s most distinguished historical performers agree that their own work will someday appear to reflect the tastes of our time rather than of the historical eras being reconstructed.”

– Bernard D. Sherman, “Authenticity in Musical Performance

A theme emerges from the observations quoted above: Performance of early music today has very little to do with recreating historical sounds and embracing them on their own merits, and everything to do with adapting the music to suit a modern performing mode that meets modern audience expectations. But to extend the discussion a bit further, throughout this commentary we read about performing medieval and baroque music for modern audiences—and absolutely nothing about performing music of the 16th century.

Music of the 16th century is something of an ignored “middle child” relative to that of the more easily re-invented Medieval period, or the more straightforward, elaborate and extrovert Baroque period. When the uninformed listener thinks of the Renaissance, images of tights and ruffs, Queens-a-leaping, bells, whistles and things that go buzz in the night, all spring to mind. This sad state of affairs is entirely due to fanciful imagery projected by Hollywood, but it is also reinforced by the “Renaissance Fayre” events and their adherents who mingle costumes, dancing, and modern world-music styles together to form a commercially viable hybrid experience. Sadly, this media image overshadows and obscures the quiet dignity and the depth and subtlety of music composed by such figures as Josquin des Prez, Francisco Guererro, and Francesco Canova da Milano.

The plain truth is that the best 16th-century music is both intimate and intricate and does not particularly lend itself to extrovert modes of performance that one sees in modern theatrical staging of medieval and baroque music. Performers simply cannot aim for the lowest common denominator when attracting an appreciative audience to a nuanced repertory that possesses depth and substance. Instead, performers must develop a strength and sureness of presentation that invites the willing listener into a quiet sound world where subtlety and detail reign—and where there are no exaggerated gestures or loud crashbang antics for the performer to hide behind, and not

“…where the nature of everie word is precisely exprest in the Note, like the old exploided action in Comedies, when if they did pronounce Memini [I remember], they would point to the hinder part of their heads, if Video [I see], put their finger in their eye. But such childish observing of words is altogether ridiculous…”

Thomas Campion, “To the Reader”,  A Book of Ayres, Philip Rosseter / Thomas Campion, 1601.

The other plain truth is that today’s audiences desperately need to be immersed in a rare moment of quiet beauty.  And they desire honest performances as a respite from the daily bombardment of flashing images, news-noise and more noise some call music, and from indulging in this ubiquitous mind-numbing, thumb-straining smart-aleck phone addiction.  And if you want to be all arty about it, giving them more noisy quasi-baroque hip-hop performances is nothing more than pandering to conventional popular taste.  While you’re at it, take a look at the sort of hype-laden advertising language you employ to promote your shows: the same sort of over-the-top adspeak that convinced us we needed radium watch dials, that smoking was good for you, that DDT is great for controlling head lice, to supersize your fast food from McDonalds, and that greed is good.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we dropped the hype and simply described the music we play as “our”music, which we love and happen to perform really well. If it’s convincing, people will notice, because as Taruskin said, we have “little use for the actual music of the present” and it’s no wonder.  So why should we bother adapting our performances of historical music to suit modern tastes?


  1. Hi! First, thanks for all the articles, they are very interesting. I am interested in baroque music. I made my Masters project about Silvius Leopols Weiss but I´n not an expert in Baroque. Just read Quantz, some lutenist articles and some Doctoral thesis about galant music.
    In this article, if I understand correctly, you say basically that we can´t know the way music was played in those times. But before in firsts pharagraps you say that this music “wasn´t ment to…”. How do you know that? If you don´t know how it was supposed to be played, (and we do have lots of resources to find out) how can you know what was it ment for?
    And second, isn´t it entertainment to forget the pain, war and may be also corruption in those times a way to change society? Isn´t it also sacred music absolutely related to society, specially back then? Isn´t it actually what art is made for also nowadays? Kind o a social relieve? Thanks again for your articles. Kind regards.

    • Thanks for your comments and questions. While it’s impossible to prove a negative, we can certainly say that historical music was not meant to have relevance to social issues of today. For better or for worse, most of the music we enjoy was composed and performed for the sort of people who eventually lost their heads in France circa 1790, and was not “music of the people”. As one who is keenly aware of issues of class and social justice, I find this troublesome. But that doesn’t mean we should abscond historical music and fit it into an unhistorical role. We have to suppose so much information just in order to understand how the music sounds: Better to say that it is beautiful historical music we are taking out of context than to invent an unsuitable role for the music.

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